I tried to explain to a friend recently why I have little interest in “fellowship” or any kind of church involvement. That got me thinking about churches.
I love solitude. I enjoy being “alone.” Most of the stuff that goes on in face-to-face interactions revolves around making sure that everybody is OK, having a good time, and doesn’t get their feelings hurt. I’m already all those things without outside input and often in spite of it. I don’t know of anywhere in the Bible that claims those things are virtues, unless that’s our poor idea of “love.” Instead, I want to learn, exchange ideas, and expose myself to new ways of thinking, and I’d like to return the favor. But that’s not what churches are for.
I do miss the warmth and support of being with people who love Jesus. One of my boys played piano for a church that ministers to street addicts. I went there for several weeks earlier this year. Their worship, the immediacy of Jesus’ presence, and the sense of God’s power really took me back to my early days in home fellowships. The first time I went to hear my son play, I couldn’t do anything. I stood in the back, literally trembling, with tears streaming down my face. Here were people who loved Jesus. I was afraid that if I tried to sing along with them, I’d break down completely, so I just stood there, quivering, trying to maintain. The Spirit and the people were great, and their sincerity and excitement were genuine. I enjoyed the meetings I went to in the weeks following, too, but couldn’t see a place for me there.
I’m sure there are plenty of churches where people love Jesus, but I’m faced with a conflict when I’m with them, as I was at the street addict church. The good things that I find in churches are contained, constrained, and corrupted by their containers. That’s what churches are for and that’s what they do. My job is to change that. It doesn’t make me a popular guy with churches and many Christians.
I rejected Christianity as we know it–not Jesus, God, the scriptures, the people, or any other real parts–but all of the rest. There are reasons why Christians experience so pitifully little of God’s power, leaving them to make big deals out of the tiny bits they do experience. There are reasons why the vast majority of Christians live without more than little bits of God’s power and seem OK with that. Some want “revival,” which means experiencing just some of the power that the early church experienced, and that only for a little while. Everyone knows that “revivals” don’t “last,” but they hope that things afterwards will be better than they were before the “revival” came, if one ever comes. Instead, after they do come and inevitably go, things eventually get back to much the same as they were before–or even worse, as people engage in the hypocrisy of trying to make revivals “last” by instituting rules, rituals, and other outward approximations of real life and power. After centuries of that kind of hypocrisy, we have a disintegrated hodge-podge of church properties, cathedrals, convoluted management hierarchies, impossibly complex and obscure doctrinal and theological systems, bizarre artwork, weird rituals whose power must be magical if it isn’t bogus, and strange costumes and gestures that “holy” people use to make sure that we don’t mistake them for something else. If that’s the power of God, then give me a Coke, popcorn, and a good movie; I’ll get more reality out of Hollywood than that.
In 40 years, I never met Christians–and that includes me–so distressed by their spiritual poverty that they REFUSED TO GO ON unless they experienced not just some, not just more, but all that God wants to give us. Three years ago, I put that lukewarmness behind me. The church should have started living as the book of Acts describes, then developed, grown, and advanced from there. Instead, it was shanghaied by psychopaths who gave us the wonders of “heresy” and “orthodoxy,” Constantine’s councils, the Biblical canon, “apostolic authority,” the Dark Ages, a thousand years or more of evil, bloody politics and despotism in both church and state, the Crusades, inquisitions, a string of profane and “holy” European wars with nary a break, waves of worldwide imperialism, colonialism, and slavery, not to mention Puritan and Victorian repression, ethnic bigotry, and the bloodiest and most atrocity-filled century in history, (so far,) thanks to “Christian” nations who sank the “civilized” world into war twice, and then, since none of that was bad enough, moved on to global domination and exploitation, threatening every species with nuclear and environmental holocaust in the process.
Such is the wisdom and power of the “God” of the Christian church. When I confront Christians about their track record, they excuse it, blame it on those long dead, or they just shrug–anything but abandon it. They put themselves in the same position as the hypocrites that Jesus condemned: as they adorned the tombs of the prophets, they identified themselves as descendants of their fathers who killed the prophets. With a psychopathic legacy glaring them in the face, Christians still call themselves Christians and claim their right to pronounce God’s word and will, thereby condemning other Christians along with the rest of the world and consigning the whole lot to hell, by tracing their authority along unbroken chains of succession that go back through the heart of a tradition that only the Devil and his minions would refuse to renounce.
That’s just the dark side. The bright side isn’t much better. I never met a Christian–including me until recently–who hoped for more than merely getting back to how things were at the beginning of the church. Believing that we can experience just some of that initial power and divine immanence seems “radical” to most of them, if they don’t call it ridiculous or “heretical.” We don’t even know how to imagine life as it could be beyond a “Book of Acts” experience. Why is that? Why did things go that way, and why does everyone seem OK with it? We aren’t happy about it, of course. Yet we go on in spite of it, anyway. No wonder revivals are rare, especially real ones that don’t serve as cover for leadership power grabs, like the so-called “revival” a couple of decades ago in Smith’s Friends. It isn’t “God or bust” for Christians. It’s “God, if He decides to show up… ahem… er… if it’s His will.” But no worries, they already made contingency arrangements. That’s what churches are for.
Who, Me? Here? Now?
As soon as I start talking about things this way, Christian defenses go up and they scramble to point out the virtues of their “faiths” and their churches: all the good things about their doctrines and all their good works done by good people in the name of God. That’s not just the wrong answer; it answers the wrong question. That’s as good as it gets? That’s the extent of their experience of God’s power? Smiles on Sunday, neighborliness, religious duties performed, and charitable deeds? Jesus told the hypocrites that they should have done the outward gestures without neglecting the important things, which were all inward matters.
So what of the Christian “inner life?” When it comes to the Christian psyche, do we see a noticeable–let alone a demonstrable–difference from other mentalities? Most Christians aren’t noticeably happier than those “outside the faith,” and many are much less happier. Every Christian conversion begins with sin, and every Christian life involves struggling to deny sin or struggling with guilt for giving in to sin. Guilt and self-denial do not a happy heart make, so maybe we shouldn’t expect a lot of happiness from them. Their marriages fail about as often as anyone else’s. They get sick and live on antidepressants, drink away their pain, get therapy, and when all else fails, abuse each other just like everyone else does. That’s the reality, in spite of the advertising. Their outlooks on life are no different than any other kind of good person, except for an additional, miraculous ingredient: God.
The promises of God–His power, rewards, blessing, etc.–give Christian outlooks a boost, except for an annoying problem that “by faith” they are quite adept at disregarding: evidence of His miraculous power always seems to be somewhere else or maybe coming soon, to a revival near you. What about God’s power here and now? Maybe only their confessors know for sure, but I suspect that they and everybody else know it’s not here and certainly not now. It’s always somewhere else, especially in the past. So, in effect, it’s nowhere, ever; at least not on this side of death and heaven. Even Muslims have that much, and the ones I know seem more genuinely happy, loving, and virtuous than a lot of Christians I know. But then, I’ve never known an Islamic terrorist. Maybe they aren’t as happy and virtuous. I wonder if they are remarkably different than a Catholic terrorist or a Protestant or a Jewish one? Maybe Christian terrorists have more fun.
As you can imagine, Christians and I consistently don’t get along. That makes warm, mutually supportive fellowship a challenge, at best. I gave several kinds of Christianity a really, really good try. Home fellowships, L’Abri, Assemblies of God, Disciples of Christ, Congregational, Baptist, Roman Catholic, Methodist, Presbyterian, Ukrainian Catholic (my Dad’s family), several little non-denominational groups, and Smith’s Friends. I got a lot out of them, and then I got the hell out of them, because they didn’t demonstrate the reality of what they promised, but hypocritically explained that lack away with doctrine and fanciful theories. Besides, look! They have such entertaining services! Or at least some of them do. All that time I was dying for the reality of God in my life, but got told six ways from Sunday why it’s OK that it doesn’t materialize. Besides, I was told, it’s a “spiritual” reality. I guess that means something that you never experience. I got involved with Smith’s Friends in the first place because they claimed that there really is more of God to be had. After they expelled me, I decided to stop listening to people’s claims and opinions and started looking at evidenced experience, both mine and anyone else’s. Claims that go beyond evidence are advertising at best or, more likely, chicanery. And if it isn’t real, it’s just Churchianity.
So, I took churches out of the loop and started relying on what God taught me directly, something I never had the courage to do before except in small ways. I always needed a safety net of support from others. Nets are nice to have, but we can end up relying on them in unhealthy, counterproductive ways. We can even get tangled and smothered by them. One reliable sign that an aid has become an addiction is that we can’t imagine doing without it. Notice that I didn’t say we can’t manage to do without it, but that we can’t imagine doing without; or more accurately, we wouldn’t want to try. It’s the addict’s favorite claim: I’m not addicted; I can stop; I just don’t want to. Not stopping doesn’t make us addicts, nor does being unable to stop. Not wanting to stop is the addiction; at least not wanting it enough to actually stop.
My observation? All of us, and Christians are no exception, are social addicts. We haven’t learned to experience the fruits of the Spirit on our own. “Self-soothing” is just a surface scratch. There’s way more. But, instead of learning how to manage independently, we rely on social contact like a terminally chronic crutch. Christians just call it “fellowship” because religion is involved.
If you don’t believe me, ask around. How many people do you know who have ever, in an entire lifetime, spent a single 24-hour period without human interaction? Have you? How about just a 12-hour period? How many months or years ago was that? No human presence or conversation, no entertainment, no human forms in sight or sounds in earshot, just alone with God, maybe out in a field or in a forest or on a deserted beach. Ever? Most have never, not even once, let alone regularly. It’s not such an alien idea, really. Sailors and explorers and solo climbers know all about it, God or no God. Seriously, ask people and watch the kinds of reactions you get when you ask. Most have never considered doing it, ever. What’s worse, most people think it’s a weird or even an unhealthy thing to contemplate doing, especially as an ongoing practice.
“Spend time alone because you like it? What are you, anyway, a misanthrope or a sociopath? Enjoy being alone? You mean you actually like hanging out with you?”
How in God’s name do Christians expect to learn how to “walk in the Spirit” and “know Jesus” if they never spend time with them? Who do you know that hangs out with the Father because He enjoys their company? What the hell do we think a “relationship” is, anyway? Psychopaths think that human interactions are nothing more than getting and taking. They acknowledge giving, to be fair. With all their taking, someone has to give; they just make sure that someone else does it. Hanging out and enjoying company is secondary, done for the sake of an agenda, if not simply a foreign concept. Similarly, Christians interact with God when they need something, or if they are really pious, when someone else needs something. They “pray.” And they read the Bible, or some of them do. What does the Bible tell us? Every man and woman of God spent plenty of time alone with Him. Enoch walked with God and was taken up. David sat with Him during the night watches. Abraham wandered the sands with Him under the stars of the desert night. When God told him to sacrifice Isaac, he didn’t consult with his “fellowship” or his “leaders” or look in a book to see if it would be alright.
When it comes to God, Christianity is transactional: all about what gets given and gotten in either direction, just like a business. Hanging out and enjoying each other seems to be for humans only. For our ongoing well-being and sanity, we prefer social interaction over divine contact. In fact, for many Christians, divine contact is suspicious, if not patently insane. Try telling some that God spoke to you or gave you a revelation and see what kind of reactions you get. (Of course, you would have had to let it happen first! 😉 ) I’m not advocating wild, ecstatic visions, (although once in a while they are fantastic!) or desert wandering with wild locust and honey consumption, nor am I saying that we should swear off humans. I don’t think prohibition works in any aspect of life. We need to learn responsibility with our socializing, just like with other addictive substances like tobacco, alcohol, drugs, TV, etc. But responsibility isn’t enough, because we have real needs that we’re compensating for with social addiction. Those needs must be addressed, or we’ll never get healthy.
The Good Shit
We need to start ingesting the “food” that Jesus told the disciples they didn’t know about. We need to get to know God and let Him get to know us. Most Christians have no clue about that second part and think that following doctrinal prescriptions, participating in rituals and ceremonies, and daily “prayer” takes care of the first part. The idea of a real, loving, intimate, communicative, bidirectional relationship with God seems alien to them, because it is: they were conditioned to believe otherwise. That’s what churches are for, and that is what they have done.
Who has real rivers of living water flowing from their innermost beings, and where do they come from? Anyone who has them can answer those questions. Who actually experiences “joy inexpressible and full of glory?” Peter didn’t imply that such joy comes just once or twice in a lifetime, and I don’t think he’d been smoking crack or popping ecstasy. Inexpressible! We can’t experience that or any of the other New Testament promises through other people. We need to interact directly with God. Only that interaction can be, and must be, the table that’s our source and authority for everything else.
Encouraging that kind of connection with “the head, even Christ” like Paul wrote about, a relationship with God that eliminates people as middlemen or chaperones or lawgivers or mediators, is not what churches are for. Their purpose is exactly the opposite. If they agree on nothing else, churches all share at least one fundamental conviction. They all believe that they need to stay in business and keep expanding. For Christians, add “preferably at the expense of their rivals” to that. They need sheep to fleece, not independent, empowered people who behave like the kings and priests the Bible claims we are.
That wasn’t written to dead people in heaven. They were very much alive on this side of the pearly gates, imperfect, and trying to figure life out. Nary an angel in the lot of them, but all were saints. Peter described present realities, not potential ones, and not future ones. Powerful, independent people, here and now.
As social addicts, we can’t love others, because our addiction is all about getting what we need from them. That’s what churches are for. The only way to be a giver is to have something to give. If we only get it from the very ones we’re supposed to give it to, we’re stuck in a closed, unsustainable system. That’s what churches are, and that is why they must continually expand, like financial systems obsessed with “growth,” like Ponzi schemes and cancers: the system creates no genuine net value. The only way to keep going without producing valuable product is get bigger and consume. Having something to offer that wasn’t first taken from the people we’re supposed to give it to would require an outside source, which is why almost all the responsibility for “spiritual food” in a church falls on the shoulders of the “clergy.” They are supposed to have a connection to the source. Our connection, if any, depends on them, assuming they have one at all. That’s what churches are for. You’d think that God was radioactive, a noxious pest, or virulent germ, to be handled only by properly trained staff wearing appropriate protective garb using specialized equipment. Hmmm… Sounds like Mass! 😉
If we maintain our addiction to social contact, calling it “fellowship,” and implicitly defer to spiritual “leaders” and ecclesiastical authority in lieu of God’s own authority in our personal relationships with Him, we are hypocrites to claim that God is our source and that we worship Him. Sure, He might be our eventual source, and we might worship Him to some degree, but our primary devotion goes to our immediate suppliers, with God behind them somewhere up the supply chain. We attach ourselves to those we love, and our attachments are plain for all to see. Ceremony, ritual, gesture, and rote lip-service mean no more to God than they would to us coming from a lover or a friend. Would we want those we care about to bow, genuflect, cross themselves, or give us any other inane gesture or expect the same from us? Why think that God is less sane than we are? It’s different for the psychopaths among us. They love that shit. But God is not a psychopath.
Support from others is a wonderful safety net, but if we let it eclipse or overrule what God shows us directly, it’s not a safety net anymore, it’s a snare that eventually becomes a deathtrap. If we refuse to let the net be removed, we’ll never learn to walk the wire the way we need to learn it. It’s a different walk without a net below, relying on the Spirit’s leading, trusting Jesus even when he takes us where no one else will go, even if everyone turns against us or deserts us, just like they did The Master. I have yet to meet Christians who want to follow Jesus that way, although I’ve met people who follow Jesus but don’t make a point of calling themselves Christians. I’m not implying that such Christians don’t exist. They must be out there, somewhere. I just haven’t traveled in the right circles yet. Regardless, encouraging that kind of “walk” is not what churches are for. Churches want exactly the opposite.
Do we need churches? Do we need social contact? Of course we do; but not as they are now, and not the way we indulge in them now.
What are our alternatives? I’m exploring them, and you can, too. There are plenty of fields, forests, deserts, and deserted beaches nearby. God is in all of them, waiting to hang out. Spend some time with Him, and ask Him what He thinks. Then let’s compare notes. You know where to find me. And where we are, He’ll be there too.