In the movie The Shawshank Redemption, there is a poignant sub-plot involving the character known as “Brooks”. After 50 years in prison, he suddenly finds himself a free man desperately trying to adjust to his new life on the “outside”. Sadly, after spending so many years living within the unchanging regiment and routine of prison, he simply cannot cope with the dramatic variations and pace of life in what has now become an entirely foreign environment. Unable to function, he contemplates committing another crime in the hopes of returning to the only place that feels normal to him, but ultimately he opts to take his own life instead. He writes a letter to his friends who are still on the inside describing his plight. After reading it aloud “Red”, Morgan Freeman’s character, explains to the other inmates that Brooks had been “institutionalized”. “These prison walls are funny.” He says, “First you hate ‘em, then you get used to ‘em. Enough time passes, gets so you depend on them. That’s institutionalized.”
In the last couple years, I’ve began to realize that many believers are struggling with a similar predicament. We know that there is more for us to do and be outside the four walls of the local church, but because so much of our Christian experience has taken place within these narrow parameters, we no longer know how to think or live like free men and women. For many of us, “going to church” and “doing our church thing” has become the central activity of our faith. Week after week, year after year of faithful attendance has conditioned us to think that institutional life is all that there is for us. So much so, that any attempts to go beyond these well defined boundaries has often been deemed too dangerous, or even forbidden. It’s almost like we’ve learned to fear what might happen to us if we dare to venture out and traverse this land so fraught with evil and temptation. The evidence of this mind-set is found in our church-speak. For example, “The world” has become the term we use to describe that place we don’t want to be influenced by and those people whose behavior we just can’t tolerate. We’d like to think outside of the church box, but somehow we’ve been convinced that the box is not only a good thing, it is there for our protection and should never be tampered with lest we mess it up.
Lately we’ve been asking people this question: If you could do anything you wanted in ministry for the Lord, what would you do? The responses have been so consistent it’s frightening. Almost without exception, they will get the “deer in the headlights” look and then say, “Well… I guess I’m not sure.” With all due respect to those who have propagated this mentality, myself included, it is time to set ourselves and the people we care for free. Free to do all manner of things that have nothing to do with our regularly scheduled meetings. Our programs, our structures, and our Sunday morning routines can, in fact, become a form of bondage if we’re not careful. In principle, we all agree that we’re to be the light of the world and the salt of the earth. But if we’re honest about how we’ve spent our time and energy, it’s obvious that we’ve focused the vast majority of our ministry efforts in those places already well lit and sufficiently seasoned. When I look at how Jesus did what he did, I see him out there mixing it up with real people in the real world… meeting each individual at the point of their specific need, loving them, listening to them, treating them with respect, and bestowing on them the kind of value that we all secretly long for.
Whether we’re conscious of it or not, over time we’ve began to believe that we must find our place within an organization before we can “do our ministry.” When in reality, most of us our called to serve outside the well guarded confines of what we now call “the church.” Although some gifts and callings are primarily for equipping and caring for other believers, many more are bent toward impacting those we come into contact with on a more regular basis. This is why Jesus elevated the idea of “loving our neighbor” to a place of primary importance on every believer’s to-do list. The apostle Paul was dealing with a similar problem in the church of Galatia. Many Christians had been persuaded to believe that they must come back under the law and its practices in order to be truly justified. Paul had worked so hard to enlighten these young believers to the principles of freedom, grace, and justification through faith, only to have them drug by their feet back into religious bondage by the self appointed “church wardens” of the day.
“You were running a good race. Who cut in on you and kept you from obeying the truth? That kind of persuasion does not come from the one who calls you. It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” (Gal 5: 1-8)
Please understand what I’m trying to convey here. I am not saying that going to church means that we are submitting ourselves to bondage, nor am I suggesting that we should rebel against that which we might flippantly deem “the institutionalized church.” The point is that most of us were pretty good at living in the real world before we got saved. What happened to us? We cut our hair, got our uniform, and started walking in formation. We were institutionalized, that’s what happened. We took on the yokes of others and in the process lost touch with the uniqueness of our personal callings and passions for ministry. Come in, sit down, stand up, sing a song, pass the plate, listen to a sermon, sing another song, pray, go home. Call me crazy, but after doing the same things the same way for so long, I think maybe its time to step back and evaluate how well what we’re doing is working. In many respects, our institutions no longer serve us, but it is we who now serve them.
In the next reformation, we must stop trying to get people to our meetings and instead make it our goal to get them to Jesus. We must each seek the Lord for what he has for us to do… AND THEN DO IT! It’s almost like we’ve forgotten how to follow the inner leadings of the Lord for ourselves. If we’re waiting around for our pastor, or some other church leader to bestow upon us the privilege to minister, then we’ve adopted the wrong mode of operation. Maybe we’ll muck it up a little… so what? Jesus sent his disciples out there knowing full well that they weren’t prepared for everything they would encounter. That’s how we learn the fastest. “Oops… I won’t do that again.” The time has come to encourage one another to go out and do what our heart longs to do for the Lord. And if that means we lose our best nursery worker, or our most faithful usher, than so be it. The world needs the church a lot more than the church needs itself. If like me, you can’t stand the thought of living out the rest of your life on the inside, maybe it’s time to start chipping away at the wall of our cell. We might have to take a long crawl through a whole lotta nastiness, but at least we’ll get free. Now’s the time to “get busy livin or get busy dyin.”
In 1803 Thomas Jefferson purchased a huge portion of North America for $2,500. Interestingly enough, no one really knew what he had actually bought because, at the time, the Louisiana Purchase was largely uncharted territory. In 1804 Lewis and Clark, along with the little team they named “the corps of discovery”, were given the task of exploring and documenting basically all things West of St. Louis. Their journals reveal that they were repeatedly shocked and amazed by their discovery of landscapes, species, and peoples previously unknown to the culture from which they had come.
In much the same way, there seems to be a growing sense among many Christians that there is a lot more “out there” than we’ve had the opportunity to experience as of yet. We know the land has been bought and that we really need to explore and enjoy all that this new frontier holds for us. And yet, each time we step out on our journey into the unknown, we encounter certain difficulty and resistance at nearly every turn. Somehow, we have to stop being surprised and shocked when this happens. This is the lifestyle of a pioneer. The next reformation is calling.
For the most part, the way we “do church” has not deviated from the model set forth several hundred years ago. Though hymns may give way to choruses, pews might be replaced with chairs, and the altar is now called “the stage”, the basic Sunday morning format has really not changed in any significant way in all that time. As a result, there seems to be an attitude growing among the faithful church going masses of “been there, done that, bought the T-shirt… big yawn”. At least from my perspective, it seems painfully obvious that it’s time to go farther up the river and see what else there is to see. Though many pine for the restoration of the early church depicted in the New Testament, I would propose that going backward is not God’s desire for us. True, for the most part the first century church was clearly at a better place than we are currently, and we can certainly learn from our history. But the scriptures indicate that there’s much more territory available to us than that which we’ve previously experienced or even read about. Because His Spirit lives in us, there is literally unlimited potential in every Christian, and so there is no place that’s unreachable or goal unattainable for us.
Why is it then that we’re apparently afraid to move past the three songs, three points, and a poem mode that we’ve been stuck in for so long? Is it because we just can’t seem to come up with anything better? Are we afraid that we might disturb or disrupt something truly sacred? Granted, the lifestyle of a pioneering explorer may not be for everyone, but the restless discontent that many of us are feeling may actually be there by design and thus may also prove more compelling than we first thought. It’s time for the typical local church paradigm to change. We are no less in need of a reformation than the church was when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses on the church door in Wittenberg. Uncontested boredom has grown into apathy, and as a result we have somehow accepted our sorry state as being normative. The church has been lulled to sleep and thus has become fundamentally immobilized. God help us, the next reformation is calling.
For some of us, the discontent may run even deeper. When I was a teenager, I decided to take the course required to get a scuba diving license. Shortly after being certified, I went on a ten day diving trip to the Cayman Islands. It’s hard to explain if you’ve never experienced it, but these islands provide some of the best scuba diving on the planet. The water is so clear that you can swim on the surface and see everything a hundred feet below you as if you were flying. Hour after hour I was able to explore countless coral reefs, an unlimited variety of vibrantly painted sea life, and even some fascinating ship wrecks. This was truly a dream come true for a novice diver like myself. Sadly, for the next twenty some years, the only scuba diving I was able to do was in the muck ridden, muddy watered lakes of the mid-west. Here, everything is brown and green and the only hope of any excitement is seeing an unusually large bass or maybe a sunken pick up truck or something. Even when I got back to the relatively clear water of the Florida Keys, I found myself having to come up with ways to amuse myself. I tried floating upside down, chasing big barracudas to see if they’d turn on me… I even grabbed the tail of an eight foot shark just to see what would happen. It was like enough just wasn’t enough anymore. This is exactly the way many believers currently feel about their local church experience. At some point they’ve tasted of the Lord’s awesome nature and they want more of it. Just one powerful encounter will leave us hungry and unfulfilled by anything less than the spectacular. It only takes a tiny taste of His supernatural love and acceptance, power or authority, and we’re ruined for life… spoiled by that which can only be found in a personal, first hand experience with God himself. There’s just simply nothing comparable.
Lewis and Clark spent well over a year gathering supplies, recruiting, and training before their boat even hit the river. The members of the corps of discovery were hand picked for their particular expertise and trained for the specific task required of their expedition. These men were not just along for the ride. They were in the boat with a well defined purpose and intent. In much the same way, our focus as church leaders may need to shift from, “let’s see how many people we can get in the boat” to “let’s really get to know each other so we can utilize that which each of us has to contribute to the effort”. The spectator mentality has run its course. We weren’t created to sit on the sidelines and watch the professionals do their thing. It’s no wonder so many of us have bounced around from church to church. It’s like we’re channel surfing in hopes of finding a program that will hold our interest. Now… there’s a lot more than “57 channels”, but it seems like there’s still “nothin on”.
By the grace of God, we’ve been able to be a part of several local church plants (start ups) over the years. Somehow, we’re still driven by the belief that there’s much more out there than what we’ve been able to fully explore or experience thus far. We’ve also become increasingly aware that we will not get very far, let alone survive the journey, without having the right crew along with us. Exploring the untapped potential of the local church requires a ridiculous amount of intestinal fortitude and a unique brand of internal resolve. In other words, “you gotta want it” cause the river will be treacherous and the opposition fierce. But the dissatisfaction level among believers seems to be increasing exponentially as the years go by and the law of supply and demand will eventually take effect. People are looking for a new place to live. A place that will provide them with opportunities to explore who they really are and encourage them to utilize the specific abilities they possess for the sake of the expedition. Most of us want to know and be known in a community marked by the genuineness and transparency of its people. We long for a place where we can pursue deep, sustained relationship with God and others… a functioning local church that is identified by the uncharacteristic affection that its members have for one another. We’re searching for something. New wineskins that will be able to stretch enough to contain and dispense whatever the Lord wants to pour out on us…. Alas, I wax poetic.
In short, I think most of us are tired of all the hype and event oriented nonsense we’ve come to accept as normal church life. Haven’t we been to enough rock concerts, lectures, and musical theater performances by now? God knows I’ve been responsible for promoting and facilitating my fair share of them. But these days you’re not going to rock me hard enough or amuse me sufficiently to get my juices flowing. I’m searching for more. The local church can be more. The time has come to man up and head into the wilderness with each other… to start doing real life together. St. Louis has become blasé. Let’s go find our L.A.! The next reformation is calling.