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Religionless Christianity: Finding God Outside the Institutional Church

Recently a friend of mine shared concern over the fact that her children, who are in their forties, love Christ and live by Christian principals but have little interest in being a part of the institutional church.

I read this quote this week over at Emerging Mummy which speaks to why some Christians have left the church,

As we all know, this is the world 2.0, meaning that it is interactive and we are the people formerly known as the audience, viewing our individual voices and stories as equal and valuable.  Also, as Bill Kinnon said, we are also the people formerly known as the congregation:

“We are The People formerly known as The Congregation. We have not stopped loving the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Nor do we avoid “the assembling of the saints.” We just don’t assemble under your supposed leadership. We meet in coffee shops, around dinner tables, in the parks and on the streets. We connect virtually across space and time – engaged in generative conversations – teaching and being taught.

We live amongst our neighbors, in their homes and they in ours. We laugh and cry and really live – without the need to have you teach us how. – by reading your ridiculous books or listening to your supercilious CDs or podcasts.”

My friend attended my first book signing a few weeks ago which turned into a spiritual experience when each of my urban friends shared a portion of their testimony.  She commented that in that experience she saw a new and very different kind of Christian Community.  She stated “What you are doing reminded me of Bonhoeffer’s vision of a Religionless Christianity.”  She went on to say that she felt what many Christians were seeking was an intimate place where they could discover themselves, share their lives with others, and  find Christ in and through one another.

This concept of finding Christ outside the church walls and in ordinary people is a very strong thread in my book From the Sanctuary to the Streets and I also found this same thread in a book I read last week titled Divine Nobodies: Shedding Religion to Find God by Jim Palmer.  Palmer writes;

“In my disillusionment with institutional church, I contemplated chucking Christianity but I discovered that these were two separate and not nearly equal things…sometimes it is not a professor or a preacher leading you to divine truth but the commonplace people God sticks right in front of your face…Isn’t it people God indwells, not buildings?  When two or three believers are together encouraging one another in their journey with God, isn’t Christ present in their community whether the geographical location is First Baptist, St. Peter’s, or Starbucks?  Maybe my greatest need isn’t another sermon about Christian living, morality, and do’s and don’ts.  If the life of Christ is configured within me, isn’t spiritual growth a matter of grasping the reality of that and being transformed through my intimate, personal, individual relationship with Jesus?  And if the risen Christ lives inside all believers, doesn’t it stand to reason that significant relationships with one another are another dimension of experiencing Christ’s nourishing and renewing presence?… Perhaps God never intended people to relate to him through services, programs, and meetings.  Maybe “church” had devolved into a man-made bureaucracy seeking to control and manage God…Despite all the denominational distinctions I’ve come across along the way, for the life of me, I cannot find any other litmus test Jesus insisted upon to authenticate his followers except love.”

I think many believers, myself included, feel much the way Palmer does.  Some of us have experienced Christ more powerfully outside the church walls than by sitting in the church pews.  For Palmer, it is through encounters with individuals in his community and for me it has been through relationships with homeless and impoverished residents of our city.

My friend asked me what advice I had for helping her children connect to “the church.”  I think that depends on how you define “church.” What if we created spaces where ordinary people are encouraged to see Christ in one another and in the ordinary stuff of life?  What if through these ordinary encounters we helped people see God and grow in faith?  Are we willing to let go of curriculum, sermons, and bible studies and instead look deep within our own souls and hear Christ spirit that dwells within each of us?  Are we willing to see such spaces and encounters as a new expression of Christ’ s church? Are there individuals who have been rooted in the Christian faith who are willing to open up their homes, create such spaces, and point to God in the ordinary? Are we willing to trust the Holy Spirit to guide and lead us in our encounters?

I am not proposing that we do not need the institutional church nor am I suggesting that there is no need for theological foundations and training.  The institutional church is the spiritual home for millions of American’s and I also know that I would never have found faith in Christ without the institutional church. I am also a seminary trained theologian who believes that solid theology is essential for healthy spirituality.  However, our society hungers for a level of intimacy that is currently missing both in society and in many institutional churches and we have so busied those with a call to ministry with “church activities” that there are few who are willing to be guide those outside the church on their spiritual journey.

If it is intimacy that the 2.0 generation is seeking are we willing to release theologically grounded Christians out into the world to guide them on their quest?  Or will we allow them to wonder in the wilderness like sheep without shepherds?

My prayer is that those who have not found a home in the institutional church, or who like myself have been called out of the institutional church will create these kinds of spaces: spaces where we experience intimacy with one another and through each other experience Christ. Intimacy will not be found through the internet or social media, but it is present when two or three of us gather, seek to see Christ, and learn to love one another deeply and authentically.  That is the true church, no matter what you want to call it.