December 5, 2005

Survival Guide for Religious Refugees

This is a message for those brave or discontented souls who have come to the point in their spiritual journey where they know they have to 'walk.' That is, they have to walk out the door and leave whatever church they happen to be worshipping in presently. It's never an easy move; besides external pressures to just keep the status quo, there are a myriad of questions about the next step. My hope is that this essay will help you on the journey. I know whereof I write... I've been there.

Personal Background Note

For anyone wondering why I feel motivated or qualified to expound on this subject, here is a brief autobiographical sketch on my journey.

I was born and raised in a Roman Catholic home by parents who were similarly born and raised. At a later stage, they became quite serious about their faith, and I too, after a period of 'seeking,' returned to the RC fold in my mid-20s. After reading scripture for myself for the first time (in my thirties!) I had enough doubts about the RC Church that I led my wife and daughter into another, ostensibly 'Biblical' church. We went 'whole hog' in that cult for almost a decade, until again, my initial doubting points could not be supported a moment longer. We withdrew our membership and struck out into the wild blue yonder. For a while we fellowshipped at a local, congenial, evangelical church. But in a little while, even this felt quite hollow, and we now get together with a few, like-minded friends in our homes, and have very informal study, prayer and share sessions, as and when the Spirit moves us.

We have recognized a growing need for some kind of support for those believers in Christ who leave this or that denomination, and feel quite disoriented, and are looking for a beacon in the darkness.

The Scenario

There can be any number of reasons to prompt a sincere Christian to consider leaving his/her church. This article assumes that the reason is not related to 'personality issues' or conflicts due to superficial matters; what we want to deal with is a genuine prompting of the Spirit that tells you to 'get out of her, my people.' This inner urge is recognized by the believer as a need to 'seek' greater spiritual growth, which is generally not possible within the context of the church situation. You know it's time to move on--the first question is: to where? Other questions will arise; for example, what do I really believe about... (insert the conundrum that the Holy Spirit used to trouble your heart).

First Things First

The first thing you must understand is that your experience is perfectly normal. Indeed, I would say it is necessary and expected of a true follower of Christ, at least in this present age. Why? The battle lines are being drawn between the false and the genuine, especially in the sphere of religion. There are so many false shepherds pretending to be Christian while promoting utterly un-Christian beliefs and practices. So many nominal Christian bench-warmers simply attend a church for merely social and cultural reasons. Perhaps you too were a 'routine Christian' going for your weekly spiritual fix without ever giving a lot of deep thought to what it's all about. But then, something triggered a 'cognitive dissonance' in the spiritual region of your mind. And now your once-peaceful world is in chaos. Dear God, I've got to actually think about what I believe... and I don't know where to begin! Get over it; you're not the first or only believer to face the problem. And I expect that there'll be hordes more in the next few years.

Quite likely, the matter that provoked you to start questioning this whole religion thing had (has) to do with a doctrinal issue. What does my church teach about 'whatever' (substitute your issue: abortion, homosexuality, church authority are some of the current 'hot topics). Your pastor quotes you all kinds of Bible verses, many of them dating back to 3500 years ago, and says 'See--God says so!' Other people, equally zealous, tell you there's another side of the story (maybe several sides) and they can provide all kinds of verses and logic to back their claims. Your 'spiritual gut' is telling you something is wrong here, and you may disagree with your church's official position. You may even come to a point where you start to doubt this whole 'Christianity' business.

My advice is this: don't make a commitment to any position until you've taken time to study and pray and seek God's guidance.

The Big Question

For most individuals in the situation I've described, the question they wrestle with is 'where do I go now?' In other words, to which of the gazillion 'Christian' churches should I now attach my allegiance?

The first advice I'd give is STOP, and start thinking about what you're asking. Why are you even thinking you have to 'go to a church?' We Christians have been so brain-washed for many centuries about the necessity of congregating with fellow worshippers in a building called a church, that we no longer think of it as a paradigm to question. Who says you have to 'go' to a building or attach yourself to an organization? Well, the clergy of your local, friendly, religion outlet, that's who. And who benefits if you do join a church? It's the franchise owners, the pastor of the local establishment (in terms of precious membership, the measure of his success), and the denomination, in terms of weekly revenue from collections.

When Jesus was alone at a well in Samaria one time, a woman came to him and asked a similar question. In an implied query, she said: Our fathers worshipped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.' So there-this woman presented the Master with the big question about where should we go. What did Jesus reply? He stated '(Yet) a time is coming and has now come when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshippers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshippers must worship in spirit and in truth.' (See John 4). You see; it's not about a place, it's about a direct relationship with the Father, who is a Spirit and must be approached in spirit.

So, am I saying stop going to church? Let's leave that thorny problem for a while. Meanwhile, notice that Jesus emphasized that true believers 'must worship God in spirit and in truth.' Isn't that what goes on in church? Well... I'll let you seekers answer that one. But I'll ask another impertinent question: How can you worship God in spirit and truth when you sit zombie-like in a church pew listening to someone else tell you what you should believe and what is truth? It can't happen until you get involved and 'seek and knock and ask'. I know from personal experience that the moment you take Jesus seriously and start to seek and ask, you are going to incur the displeasure of the pastors, disturb the slumber of your fellow members, and soon find yourself on the margins of church life. If you think it's just me, a grumbler, then I challenge you to try it for yourself. More likely, you readers who get this far are ones who've already taken the challenge and you know full well that this is what happens!

Perhaps you got emotionally hurt in the scenario I've outlined; but I'm telling you not to take it personally. You are not battling just flesh, but the powers of the air who pull the strings of the church clergy and members... and they don't like it one bit when a person starts to think about his faith. Don't walk out the door with hard feelings; this is just how a fallen world operates. Go joyfully, knowing the Spirit has propelled you in a new direction. Keep seeking, knocking, asking!

That's it--don't continue this journey under the unnecessary burden of belief that you must belong to a church, either to be saved or to live a Christian life. It may be that the Spirit will lead you to another church of some kind, for some period of time. Don't get too comfortable in that pew! Keep your spiritual ears open for that small, still voice that leads you forward, often into uncharted waters. What most pastors won't tell you is that the true church of Christ is an invisible, global, 'virtual church' as we'd call it today, made up of sincere believers who want to do more than sit and listen once a week.

Okay, you're prepared to forego the familiar church paradigm; now what? I think it's still important to fellowship with Christ-seeking believers, but keep an open mind about where to find them. It might be a 'prayer and share group' that meets every week or second week at someone's house. Today, you might well find them on the Internet; there are all kinds of on-line ministries that cater to various niche groups. My advice is to 'stay generic'--don't get roped into another denominational web. I can assure you UNEQUIVOCALLY that there is NO church in existence that is doctrinally 'pure' and has 'the truth.' Some churches have more truth than others. Some believers have less truth but live a Christ-centered, love-based life. I think I'd trade off doctrinal purity if I could find genuine, loving believers, wouldn't you? Oh--you're one of those sticklers for doctrine who wants to walk in the assurance that your church has all the answers? Well, you'll have to bang your head on church walls a long time before you finally get it, then.

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