Moving on from the institutional church.

April 27, 2007 at 12:25 pm 18 comments

George Barna, a noted reviewer of contemporary religion, published a book called Revolution in 2005.  I recently read the book, which is more of a predictive snapshot of the church in America, then it is a statistical analysis, though it is statistically sound.  Having been hanging around the church for 50+ years, I found the book exciting at the same time as I found it chilling. 

Here is a brief synopsis: 30% of committed believers are no longer attached to a traditional congregation. (a traditional congregation is one that meets in a large group setting, is led by a pastor/board, promotes and leads programs by committee and funds their institution by the gifts of those who attend) 

If the same demographic continues, Barna says, in 20 years, 70% of committed believers will no longer be attached to the traditional church.  Please understand what Barna is saying here.  People are not leaving the traditional church because they have lost their faith, they are leaving to protect their faith.

Committed believers are leaving because the institutional church didn’t fulfill their spiritual hunger and wasted too much of their time and energy on programs and activities that did little or nothing to promote a deeper dependence on Jesus or healthy relationships with other believers.

What Barna said created quite a firestorm of criticism from the establishment, as you can imagine.  What institution wants to spend the next 20 years vainly hanging on to their committee driven vision, while year after year the most committed among them opt out for something no committee or elder board can ever provide, an authentic encounter with the living God and a deep and fulfilling relationship with His people.

Last week, in 3 separate conversations with passionate and committed believers, I heard the cry that seems to be building in the Family; “where can I go to find people who love Jesus, love each other and want to spend their time helping people find hope and healing, rather than sitting in committees trying to fire a vision for the same old thing?” 

These were not negative, critical people but highly involved, motivated and Spirit filled lovers of the Father, yet they were as disillusioned with their church as they have ever been.

Here are some of the things I am hearing from committed believers these days:

  • We are bored.  Sitting through the same old rituals and listening to the same tired voice week after week has dulled our spiritual passion.
  • We feel disconnected. Sitting in rooms full of people we hardly know, watching the same people perform on the stage, isn’t building the kind of relationships we long for.
  • We are tired of seeing people blasted with guilt and religious obligation.  Guilt is a great motivator but it hardly leaves us feeling wanted and needed.
  • We are sick of the political games, played behind the scenes, to serve someone’s ego and preserve the institutional priorities over the priorities of Jesus.
  • We are frustrated with asking questions and being pushed away and not listened to by leaders who don’t like the questions we are raising.
  • We found the performance based gospel being preached by the institution was causing us to spend ourselves serving the institution rather than the Savior. 
  • We found we were being forced into pretense and hiding rather than led into authenticity and openness in order to create the illusion that all was well in the Family.
  • We felt like the institutional church had so abandoned the truth of Jesus for some safe program of happy truth that we no longer could experience the reality of God in our lives.

No doubt this sounds negative and foreboding to some, especially if you are part of trying to keep your institutional church afloat.  But I find this consternation and frustration hopeful.  If these kinds of concerns lead to real change in the church, many of us still want to love, then that will be a good thing.

If you no longer attend an institutional church I would like to hear why you left.  If you have found what you were looking for, please share that with us.  Comments on this subject would be extremely helpful for all of us.

Next post I want to write about why I think some committed believers continue to attend and serve in churches where they see the kinds of things I listed.  How do they continue to support an institution George Barna and others say will be empty in 10 years?


Entry filed under: Christianity, Church, Culture, Faith, Jesus, Revelation, The Father, Thoughts.

If we are supposed to actually be like Jesus… Staying on in the institutional church.

18 Comments Add your own

  • 1. John  |  July 20, 2009 at 7:26 am

    Years ago while living in what my wife and I refer to as an “intentional community” I started to understand a little of what Paul wrote about the church, in Ephesians.I saw the church as this group of people whom Jesus had saved and had brought together. I saw how they worshiped and allowed the Spirit of God lead them in their meetings and how the Spirit of God displayed his “power” among the people of God, to heal the sick, raise the dead and bring people to salvation. I have often asked, “where is the power”? I don’t see it on display in any institutional church. Rather, I see babies sitting each Sunday with mouths wide open, and a minister, the shepherd, orating from his pulpit or stage. I see programs and preachers striving to get people involved in this or that program. I see the waste of financial resources to support an empty building and property and all the overhead that goes with it.

    Yet, the Bible states that His (Christ’s) church is blameless and spotless and without blemish. I wonder what it all means? I don’t see that reality, spoken of in the Bible as actual fact right now, somewhere in the future yes, but not now.

    I want to be part of a organic, living, breathing organism, not a ritual filled, lifeless, boring Sunday after Sunday scene. That’s why my wife and I don’t attend an institutional organization any more. We can’t play that game and won’t, anymore.

  • 2. William Cody Bateman  |  January 6, 2009 at 9:14 am

    A follower of Jesus Christ for more than three decades has led both my wife, I and our 12 young people to establish a genuine, Holy Spirit led, home church fellowship – just as described in Acts and the epistles.

    My struggle has always been in the form of a question; “What did church fellowship look like prior to the reformation?”

    It was simply men of maturity (elders) who were gifted in adminstration, shepherding and teaching… as servants! It was also plural in leadership – not led by a single individual who called all the shots, preached all the sermons and scheduled all the duties.

    The gift were in operation; men and women taught and preached according to their giftings and all served one another in love and unity – bound by sound doctrine and with Jesus Christ as the head.

    If the Gospel can go forth during those dark ages leading up to the reformation – and survive, then, we can have the confidence in knowing God Himself ordains the church, His instructions to it (all believers) and His Gospel going forth too.

    Look up! Our redemption drawers nearer by the day!

  • 3. markrcollings  |  September 5, 2008 at 5:37 am

    I left the intitutional church spiritually some time ago. My kids and wife still attend. I cannot support the infrastructure goals of the church, I have been a memeber of many different denominations and they are, at there core, all the same. I think when professionals get involved in the church, objectives for the church are shaped by the concepts of the professionals. Our Lord reserved His harshest criticism for the same people in His day. Having a concept of God and His will is very different than preceiving the same God for who He is. I struggle with my own concepts daily. But the church has become self indulgent and inwardly focused. Anyone who has been caught up in church programs knowes this first hand. As a result, we miss out in doing real service to the lost and needy in our communitiy. To serve does not take much. Just consideration, a bit of time to know our neighbours and their needs and serve them accordingly. But there are few alternatives available to Christians for fellowship and community with believers. I am praying and looking for people in my community to start a home church.

  • 4. Mike Ege  |  July 13, 2008 at 4:14 am

    Way cool man. You are so right on. It is funny to see how ignored Barna’s book has been by the same church that used to spout Barna from the pulpit.
    I have been out of the institution for about 2 years. I guess I was tired of the empty list of things to do as a christian, and hoping that there really was life in Christ. I have found it outside the cage of religion. It took a long time to admit to myself that christianity had really become a religion. I wanted to believe it was about relationship, but when I added up the list of activities expected of a normal Christian, it looked a lot more like an action list than a relationship.

  • 5. Donald Wilson  |  October 1, 2007 at 6:09 am

    Hi, we argue about this and we argue about that. Most out of church christians desire fellowship. So all of a sudden pastors beleive that the problem cant be with their church. So lets look at pastor. Where does the word come from? . Has it got a Origional word before it was translated.? . Moving on … Just suppose it is a made up word and just suppose the real meaning has been lost. moving on… Just suppose There is no biblical model for a instituitional building type church. … moving on Just suppose Father always intended something much more organic ….Moving on Just suppose Father has a better way?. …. What would that be?…. Oh for a Pastor to think outside the square would mean he wont get paid…….

  • 6. hiutopor  |  September 17, 2007 at 4:26 am

    Hi all!

    Very interesting information! Thanks!


  • 7. Estee  |  June 18, 2007 at 1:08 am

    I’m still a bit shocked at finding this site. I come from and live in a West African country. I though i was the only one (+ one friend) who was going through this stuff. You don’t want to know what i’ve been through in the past few months, trying to tear away from the ‘great’ church i was very committed to. I’m amazed that several things i’ve read here (particularly this article) describe my experience. I hope to put my experience in writing soon enough.

  • 8. sumijoti  |  May 27, 2007 at 6:56 am

    OK…had my not-quite 8 hour’s worth.

    I still had some thoughts on the subject. 🙂

    If you read the scripture about the s-fold ministry in Eph 4:11 it becoems apparent that the 5-fold ministry will eventually work itself out of its job.

    How many churches do you see where the pastor’s aim is to eventually fade into obscurity because his flock has reached a level of maturity where he is no longer needed? When Solomon dedicated the temple and the glory of God came down, the priests could not stand to minister to the people. It wasn’t necessary, the people were in direct communion with God. There will come a time when the body will all be united together in adoration for Jesus and there will be no distinction between the ‘priests’ and the regular people, everyone will be on their faces before God!

    One last point about leaders. There is a spiritual principle of ‘eunuchs’ in the bible. Eunuchs are men who have lain down their lives in consecration to the King, and who refuse to reproduce anything after their own flesh. What the church really needs is leaders who will bring people to the feet of Jesus so that they may become more like Him.

    In the final analysis, it all comes down to relationship. It is about intimate, passionate, abandonment to Jesus first, and relationship with our brothers and sisters secondly. You won’t have an adequate, spirit-led church that is capable of bringing the life of God to the hearts of people, without the former.

  • 9. sumijoti  |  May 26, 2007 at 11:43 pm

    I’m jumping in a bit late here. 🙂

    This is a very interesting topic that got me thinking about our church, and why I consider myself so blessed to be there.

    First off, I think that to stop meeting together with other believers is akin to
    throwing the baby out with the bathwater. The book of Hebrews admonishes us not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together. (Not that I think this is what you are calling for at all, Greg)

    I am not crazy about the idea of meeting together in home cell groups exclusively and calling that church. Even the early church had some form of structure, with apostles, prophets, evangelists, teachers, pastors all doing their much-needed work. The bible does say that these offices will be only for a certain time, until we all come into unity in our faith and the knowledge of God but I don’t see that happening anytime soon.

    In the context of family, that you have been talking about Greg, there are fathers and sons, and the sons benefit so much from what they receive from their fathers. Elisha’s ministry was a double-portion ministry, he took what was imparted to him through his mentor, Elijah, and took it a step further. Moses took the Israelites as far as the promised land, but Joshua led them in to possess it. I believe in a church where each disciple takes what has been passed on to him through anointed leaders and takes it a notch higher. You won’t get that in a situation where people shun church and especially leadership in their lives.

    I do believe that there is a place for proper authority in our lives. Too many christians run around half-cocked, thinking more highly of themselves than they ought to because they have a measure of revelation and anointing in the things of God but they have never learned to submit themselves to God-ordained leadership. They are like the proverbial teenagers in a family, equipped with knowledge and zeal and lots of energy, but lacking in the life experience to make wise decisions. The ability to submit to Godly leadership and guidance from those who have been around longer than you is a valuable one.

    Having said all that, only a certain kind of leadership will do. What the church needs so desperately is leaders who are passionate about Jesus, whose first priority is to minister to God’s heart before they try to minister to the people. Leaders who are humble servants, not building a kingdom for themselves, but seeking to glorify God only. Real men and women of God who live their lives in such a transparent way that others can see how they also should live, and be provoked to press into the things of God for themselves.

    I do think that big churches miss out on a lot. You cannot really have the transparency that I just talked about in an oversized church.

    Our pastor himself says that our church is not without flaws. Yet, it is a place where people really are becoming something. We do not have any ‘programs’. We do not own a building, nor do we want to. The worship team doesn’t meet for practice, we simply ‘warm up’ 30 minutes before each service. We worship as long as we need to until we feel that the heart of God is satisfied. People are given the liberty to operate in the gifts of the Spirit, so that they can learn discernment. Our pastor knows each person in the church by name and has a relationship with them. We do not ‘play church’, we believe that God is equipping us to go out into the nations and make disciples.

    It is way past my bedtime and my brain is getting reaaallllllly fuzzy. I wanted to say more, or at least say what I am saying more eloquently, but I’ll have to stop for now. I hope this post made sense.

  • 10. .justin  |  May 20, 2007 at 5:31 pm

    shalisa’s last sentence strikes a note in me.

    ryan and shalisa are great people, whom my wife and i feel a part of “church” with. but we’re both still trying to figure out life in the “semi-post-institutional-church” area…

    i imagine my situation is a little bit different!

  • 11. Lisa of Longbourn  |  May 11, 2007 at 11:51 pm

    My question is this: What if you see these problems, see what Church should be, but care a lot about the people attending your institutional church? Are you supposed to abandon them, or try to share what you’ve learned to effect change? I guess it’s personal, and I just have to go where God wants me. Staying is hard; I get discouraged, too, because just when it seems like I’m communicating and others in my church are “getting it,” they decide to leave. Am I being naive in staying? Blame isn’t on me for teaching them truths that motivate them to leave, is it? I mean, I’m not encouraging dissention? Is there any hope for changing the churches that exist?
    To God be all glory,
    Lisa of Longbourn

  • 12. renversgirl  |  May 2, 2007 at 2:16 pm

    well i am glad to see you have gotten around to what is becoming in my mind a pandemic in the U.S. chuch. It seems as though church here is more rote and political than loving and life changing. i haven’t completely left the church yet as some of you know but have felt adrift for a while, i discussed this with you a time or two and while initially i thought i had too high of expectations, Greg’s leaving and the fallout from that showed me that the church i had in Canada was a rarity. i have been searching for something like here and haven’t found it yet. i don’t want to give up on the institutional church because it is “the only boat afloat” so to speak, but it is hard not to be disillusioned with the lack of closenes and familiarity with the people within the church. i have had people say that it might just be the size or everybody is ready to go home after service. Well size wise the church i was involved in before was much larger than fbc, and maybe there is an underlying reason for people to want to go home, maybe they are frustrated too.

  • 13. Shalisa Smith  |  April 30, 2007 at 4:15 pm

    I used to think that the institutional church was the only option for a Christian. I was brought up that Sundays were “go to church” days. (Along with nap in the car day and yard work day). But recently (the past several years) I have questioned why it has to be this way, I’ve felt this is my only option, being involved in an institutional church. I’ve had experiences however that have made me angry. I don’t agree with how churches I’ve encountered are run, and I don’t see where God tells me that Sunday is “go to church day”. Though I do see him tell me to gather with like believers, I don’t see that it’s set up exactly how we have it here today. I’ve become frustrated at times. I’m questioning. But what is my alternative? I fear that if I were to step out on my own I would fail to serve God. But then again, what exactly am I doing now? Institutional churches are an easy route I suppose to FEEL like you are serving God…

  • 14. Cynthia Zachry  |  April 29, 2007 at 1:49 pm

    Personally, I’m not ready to give up on the “institutional church”. However, some day I may have to join my christian friends who no longer attend structured church but still keep the faith. The underground church is growing for a reason.

    Within the last year, I have had the opportunity to visit several different denominational bodies. Some were great, others were not so great. The not so great ones, weather it was due to faulty doctrine, a hollow emptiness due to the lack of God’s presence or His love – I had no desire to ever return.

    My personal Christian walk has been in the same state as these churches at times. So who does this really reflect?

    Recently, I went on a mission to find a church for a very dear friend of mine who has to work Sundays and needed a Saturday service. Found one,went to it and WOW. What a find. So funny thing, this mission ended up being a blessing for both of us.

  • 15. johnzwart  |  April 29, 2007 at 10:32 am

    I agree with you that much of what we look for in our church experience has to do with relationship. Our mutual desire is for a deeper connection with God, with Jesus Christ, with His Holy Spirit, with each other. The question becomes: how do we garner and foster that relational experience?
    There are three points I would offer in response to that question, particularly as it relates to life within a church congregation.
    First, when churches push for involvement in committees, programs, activities, etc., what they are really trying to do (I believe) is galavanize people around a common goal or direction. This is healthy. Common purpose helps foster unity within the church. What’s not healthy is the fact that often the goals are fuzzy, and the commitments on the part of those involved is somewhat lacking. When institutions (churches included) work well it is because the leaders have somehow gotten everyone to buy into the goal, and focus on it with zeal. When they don’t work well, its often because there is an disproportionate focus on the problems or obstacles that stand in the way of the common goal, as opposed to the goal itself.
    Second, the positive emotions that are part and parcel of a healthy relationship – whether that relationship be with your spouse, children, friends, or God, are often the residual benefit of a deep commitment to that relationship. The operative word here is COMMITMENT. Commitment takes work. Commitment takes a long range view of the situation. Commitment takes a heart that is ‘other’ish, instead of ‘self’ish. All of which is to say, if you’re feeling disconnected from those in the pew around you try making a committed effort to connect with them. Don’t just wait for the church leadership to institute a program to overcome the relational malaise. Become the leader you are expecting others to be.
    Third, recognize that all of us (including the institutions of which we are a part) are in one of three modes of being at any given time. We are in growth mode, or in maintenance mode, or in blame mode. Growth mode is where we should always strive to be. Maintenance mode is where many of us find ourselves (unfortunately) much of the time. And if we stay there too long, blame mode is the mode to which we will eventually default. If you are in blame mode, all I can say is “Get out. Get out as fast as you can. And stay out. The danger here is that if you stay too long, it will become entrenched in your psyche, and you’ll become irrevocably trapped by it. ‘Blame’ is a certain road to personal disaster.” If you are in maintenance mode make a commitment to yourself and those around you to jump back into growth mode. And if you’re not sure how to do that, pray about it. Pray with an ernest desire to be growing again and to be used by God through that growth. Rest assured that growth mode is where He wants you to be. And if you’re growing, you will be blessed even as you are a blessing to those around you. He will not disappoint.
    Greg, I very much appreciate your thoughts and insights in this blog. Blessings to you and your family as you continue your journey of faith and service.

  • 16. Ron Marrs  |  April 29, 2007 at 6:39 am

    When I started the article I was getting ready to express my lack of confidence in George Barna’s use of polls and statstics and my disagreement with different conclusions he reaches in his book Revolution. I still hold those opinions and feel that Barna goes beyond drawing implications from limited research to being a prophet and expressing his own beliefs/opinions. I was more impacted by the expressions by real people about their discontent with the church. I’m guessing they represent a broad age spectrum and Christian maturity. I’m glad they are concerned about a form of Christianity that does not take obedience to Christ seriously. I’m hoping that believers will be guided to see the need to proclaim the Gospel, live the Gospel, love people and love God. I’m hoping that leaders in churches will repent if they are not obedient or if they are hurting the flock. I also know that “the thief comes to steal, kill and destroy” and that Satan must be really enjoying the demise of church bodies.

    So I say:

    Because Christ loves His Church,
    Because Christ died for His Church,
    Because Christ is coming back to receive His bride,
    Because the NT clearly speaks of leaders in his church (Hebrews 13:17),


    anyone who is a follower of Christ must figure out how to unite with other believers to do God’s work as a Body. (Check out Ephesians 4). Take on the challenge of building a new body if the one you have been part of is not relentlessly doing God’s work. At some point a serious follower of Christ will have to take on the difficult task of being an active participant in a body of believers who tries to do the Mission of God. It is not easy. It takes time and energy. It will involve healing brought on by wounds from disappointing church experiences.

    I’m sorry if what I have written sounds like a rant, because I have that tendency. I love Christ and am called to be a pastor/teacher in the body of Christ. I’m sad for hurt and angry brothers and sisters in the Body of Christ. I write because I believe our Lord and Savior requires us to keep our eyes on Him. I believe that leaders of His flock need to love the sheep (1 Peter 5), and that there is work to do together.

    Ron Marrs

  • 17. harryagaylord  |  April 27, 2007 at 3:14 pm

    Your list is very much on point. Institutional churches have gotten caught up in glorifying man instead of God. The pastors, bishops, elders, and deacons have become lords over the flock instead of Christ. As long as they keep their chokehold on their power and are blinded by their pride, things will continue to go down.

  • 18. jonfeatherstone  |  April 27, 2007 at 3:00 pm

    Awesome! When I read that list I could identify with every single point! Yikes!
    I finally gave up and started a discussion group. 8 or so of us meet fortnightly. We all identify ourselves as ‘christians who don’t go to church’

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