Thursday, March 29, 2018

How to Be Miserable in Your Christian Life: Non-Institutional Church Options

(Please note: the following is not entirely serious--it is written in the style of a satirical self-help book, somewhat in the tradition of C. S. Lewis' Screwtape Letters, that offers insight and encouragement in the life of Christian holiness by having my fictional narrator, who wants to adhere to the most popular form of Christian practice, advise the opposite.)

How to Be Miserable in Your Christian Life

Chapter Three: Avoid the Institutional Church
(Section Five: Non-Institutional Options)

         So if you’re avoiding the institutional church, what are your options? Well, you could always go solo. That’s the easiest way of staying in your comfort zone: just avoid all other Christians altogether. It’s easy enough nowadays to be a Christian without church—you just pretend like you are your own “Body of Christ” (in the hope, of course, that among the members of the Body you happen to be a torso rather than an ankle, and thus can keep some measure of a self-sustaining existence apart from the other members). You can join an imaginary church by watching one on TV or on the Internet. It’s the easiest way to pretend you’re part of the church without actually being part of it, and you will rarely, if ever, have to interact with anyone who pushes you out of your comfort zone.
            If you’re truly daring, you can join one of the new movements of other Christians who are also disaffected with the institutional church. There’s usually a motley band of this sort around somewhere, if you know where to look, and they usually don’t mind a few extra tagalongs (so long as you’re willing to submit to their institutional model). If you go this route, though, there are a few things to keep in mind: movements of this type have a tendency to become normal local churches after awhile. (I suspect this is because of the insidious nature of institutionalism over against the derring-do of revolutionary authenticity, but an alternative explanation could be the work of the Holy Spirit.) So as soon as your nontraditional Christian movement starts to look suspiciously like an institution, be ready to jump ship. Thankfully, this will not happen to all such movements, because some will descend into personality cults (which are often very effective sources of long-term misery), and will disintegrate into nothingness as soon as the founding leader gets bored.
            If you are part of a nontraditional Christian movement instead of a local church, there are some effective things you can do to make sure that it never becomes a boring old institution. One of the easiest ways to do this is to never pay your pastor. Paid pastors are institutional stooges. They may, it is true, accomplish far more ministry in the name of the church, often behind the scenes, that their own congregations are even unaware of—unheralded labors in pastoral care, compassion for the poor, deep study of the Scriptures, and persevering, dedicated prayer—but the institutional factor of having salaried clergy just isn’t worth the risk. If you stick to unpaid leaders for your movement, pseudo-monastic order, or house church, you’ll guarantee that your leaders don’t have the time or freedom to deepen their ministries or their personal Christian walks to the point of becoming thoroughly institutionalized.
            Also, it’s a good idea to choose just a single dimension of the full-orbed biblical model of the church, and to focus all your attention on that one angle. Specialization, as we know, leads to excellence. So never mind the fact that institutional churches have always been devoted to three equal branches of ministry: the worship of God (the upward ministry), the work of discipleship (the inward ministry), and the missional outreach to the world (the outward ministry). Just choose one of the three, and devote yourselves to that. It’s helpful if you can do this in contrast to an institutional church in your neighborhood, so that it looks like their missional efforts pale in comparison to your own (but don’t mention, of course, that they are quite probably better at the other two aspects of Christian growth than you are, because that would negate your selling-point).
            If you’re not willing to go solo or to risk joining a nontraditional Christian group that might possibly turn into a dreaded institution, then there’s still another avenue open for you. You can become one of the perpetually disaffected adventurers journeying through our Christian landscape, always visiting different churches until they find the perfect one. This is a good recipe for preserving your misery, because it allows you to maintain your narrowness and your comfort zone while still being a part of local churches. You can even, at times, stay for weeks or months at any given church, but ultimately you’ll find that you’ll have to move on, because someone or something within the church will finally make it clear to you that it is simply not the right place for you. So you’ll go on, out to another one, looking for the perfect church.
This is a great strategy for a miserable Christian life, because, as you might have guessed, there is no perfect church. Or, at least, not one that’s perfect for your current comfort zone. Oh, some churches out there might claim that they are perfect in at least one respect: they are the handiwork of God and the beloved Bride of Christ (a point we may be forced to concede); but in the sense of perfectly conforming to my personal tastes, there are no churches that have ever reached, nor will ever reach, that high standard. Usually, this is because churches are composed of people who are not me, and that irritates me out of my habituated comfort after awhile. Thus, the quest for the perfect church goes on! And as long as I’m not committing to be a long-term part of a local church, then I’m not in danger of being stretched, broadened, and forced into those deeper disciplines that might eradicate my long-sought-for misery.
            Bottom line: stay away from the institutional church if you want any hope for being miserable. It’s certainly possible that you can find misery even while part of a church, but it’s almost guaranteed apart from it.