Updated: Aug 20, 2019
How long have you been a Christian? Can you describe how you came to know Jesus?
I’ve been a Christian for 23 years (wow, I’m old). I was raised in a Christian family (protestant, non-denominational) that given the era was at the church building 3 times a week. Youth group activities were the norm as were youth events. I knew I believed in who Jesus was at 13 years old and felt a deep conviction to solidify that belief in baptism at a youth event. By the time I was 18, asking a lot of spiritual questions, I realized I had a very limited idea of the depth and scope of God when I was baptized at 13. I’d say my spiritual journey really began around 18; wrestled with God through 22, reconciled some things around 30 and really accepted my lordship issues the last 6 years as I try to know and follow Jesus.
What has been your experience in traditional church or churches? Can you describe what part of that traditional church experience that blessed you?
Too much to write here, for sure. In summary to the first question: my experience in traditional church has been extremely varied. As previously mentioned, my childhood experience was very much centered around behavior (i.e. this behavior is what God desires, not that one etc.). My early adulthood experience with church coincided with the rise of the megachurch model (i.e. not so much about behavior modification but more about the endeavoring effort of the church to grow in attendance, leveraging any and all business models to this end, especially funding more and more extravagant church gathering experiences).
Parts of the traditional church experience that blessed me:
- From my childhood, I experienced and hold on to the blessing of community. Smaller church settings, even overly dogmatic traditions, still lend a great deal to deep community. I have very fond memories of church family being the go-to place for any and all needs as well as common fellowship.
- From the megachurch world, I was blessed by seeing SOME gifts being used in the body like they never were before; even suppressed before this time period. Particularly noteworthy were gifted teachers who were not of the lecturing variety in style were given space to breath, grow and encouraged to live into their unique style of teaching. Similarly, seemingly any and all creative types were finally given the same freedom. The megachurch experience also gave me all kinds of opportunities to serve others and to lead and it was from these experiences that God led me to some of the deepest convictions I hold today. Simply put, I would not know God and His Church the way that I do if not for these experiences – “good” and “bad;” in the end they are blessings.
When did you decide to leave your church? Can you describe the situation and what you were missing from the traditional church experience?
We left our church a couple weeks before Easter 2018.I could easily fill a small book detailing all the circumstances and experiences surrounding what led to this. I’d say it was less about what was missing from an experience, per se, and more about the direction we felt our church was headed and, by extension, the broader modern western church model. Our discovery was that our church (and thousands of others) was designed and run like a CEO-led business in which the lead pastor (“CEO”) made unilateral decisions and the board of elders acted as a board of trustees, largely self-appointed by the “CEO,” to insulate the single leader (lead pastor) and support their singular vision for the church. This was an actual experience, not speculation, as I discovered all of this in first-hand experiences as an elder.This model played itself out in many ways that we viewed and still view as antithetical and actively working against the priesthood of all believers.
A few examples that were deeply bothersome:
- Staff hired and fired at will, without cause or accountability
- Plagiarizing sermons
- Self-declared, “God-appointed,” singular leadership that widened the clergy-laity divide
- The highest priority of mission to get people to attend a church service instead of equipping the body for mission outside the building
- A huge emphasis on money as the central mode by which mission occurs
Central to all elder board meetings were a few basic, repeated themes:
- The amount of money that was raised the month prior and impact on the budget
- Attendance trends
- Lead pastor’s ideas and strategies for increasing each of the 2 aforementioned items, including capital campaigns and private funding to build new buildings in areas that attract more middle class people (what I call “customers” or “end-users”)
-Who was hired and who was fired or about to be fired
After trying to address these issues from the most direct place (the elder board), we discovered that no one shared our conviction and simply doubled-down on this way of being the church. In the end, we found this model to be incompatible with our understanding of Jesus’ intent for His Church.
Try to think about that leaving experience again, how did it make you feel? What made it difficult or easy?
It was extremely difficult to leave. We felt very much called to speak truth in love and to solicit the help of those around us to co-labor in discovering what God really wants from the church. The discovery that God was moving us out of this church through the tunnel of rejection was extremely difficult. It exposed my own sense of outcome oriented thinking as well as making me face the reality that it is not my church to save; I over valued my role and influence and the process of being humbled through experiences with people you care about is damaging.
I felt angry at a lot of people. I felt hurt by a lot of people. I felt indignant toward the pride of human enterprise in the church and the apathy toward spirituality as well as the perpetuation of both. I felt deep resentment for rich white people. I felt insecure when we left because we had no backup plan. I felt embarrassed as a father who’s kids only know upper class, expensive children’s and youth programming at church and now have no place for this and little explanation for why. I still feel conflicted and confused as to how best to interact with my friends who are in leadership positions at similar churches around the country and buying into the hype of their role, the spotlight of popularity and the illusion that they possess a rare combination of gifts that qualifies them for such notoriety and celebrity.
How did leaving the church affect your faith and your relationship with Jesus? How was he included in your decision?
At first, leaving felt 3 parts liberating to 1 part scary because it felt like we were really following Jesus but still had remnant, human feelings about the implications of the decision. I would say that my wife and I have had parallel experiences throughout the process regarding our faith and relationship with Jesus. Since we haphazardly found UG immediately afterwards, we felt like we discovered GOLD. We didn’t know anyone whatsoever yet felt a deep, kindred connection to the culture. UG gave us language for some of the feelings we were experiencing with permission to explore and so this was a faith bolstering time. We’ve never regretted leaving but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been disorienting at different times as well.
We’ve had only a couple of experiences with the traditional church since we left and those moments, along with other experiences with people from our past church, have left us feeling extremely isolated; like we’re really on an island. Isolation is definitely an uncomfortable feeling, yet we feel a much deeper conviction about what Jesus has shown us and continues to show us on this journey.
Jesus has always been at the center of this discussion for us. As we’ve sought to explore more and more the nature of the Church and its purpose, we’ve realized how everything points to Jesus and His life, His ministry and the trajectory He set for His first disciples. What we experienced in modern church was so glaringly void of this fabric, all we could do is pursue a better understanding of what The King of The Kingdom has established and is establishing in this era.
Although difficult at several moments, I wouldn’t trade what we have now for the previous expression of church and it isn’t even close.
When you left, what plans did you have for going to a new church? Or were you considering something else?
We had so many conversations that went something like this in the end: “If we leave, where are we going to go? XYZ Church is exactly the same…”So, in short, we had no backup plan. We just knew we could not persist in something that was so disagreeable to the convictions we felt.
Is there anything else you’d like to add about this experience?
I’m really grateful for it. These experiences are in some ways like living in various countries learning different languages. One of the qualities about God that I find most supernatural is the quality as the ultimate Redeemer. He can redeem anything and intends to. So, experiences that we feel are bad or negative are the same experiences God intends to redeem for greater Kingdom purposes if we adopt His view on redemption. So, my family is “multi-lingual” you might say with various church expressions. I can speak fluent mega-church and fluent small-town church in any situation that is called upon. Along the way we’ve picked up other church traditions and influences beyond those so the sum of all these parts is a story God is writing and redeeming. For that, we can only be thankful for all that we’ve seen, felt and experienced.
What’s one thing you would say to someone who’s considering leaving their church space? What advice would you give them for next steps if they’re feeling lost?
Find people you can trust, who have no agenda but to discern with you. Read your Bible and Pray specifically for clarity.
Our experience has been that most people in the traditional church are deeply, deeply steeped in something compromising. There are few people who are willing to lay down what they hold dear and willingly discuss the possibility that something could be really, really wrong.
A couple examples:
- Paid pastors are not immediately trustworthy in this discussion (generally speaking) because they will always default to justifying their existence. I don’t entirely blame them; this is their livelihood whether I agree with that or not and it is compromising to critically think about anything that calls their vocation into question.
- Other friends in the church who are deeply involved. Similar to pastors, friends who are volunteers or who have kids deeply involved in programming are unlikely to be honest with you or themselves about a discussion like this. They too, are invested to a point that they’d be unwilling to compromise what is valuable to them.
So, one must find a way to step outside the echo chamber of their church tradition/culture and pursue the most objective reflection of what Jesus is trying to show. UG is a great place to start. ___________
Each contributor to this blog series is expressing their personal story of their own unique church experience. They have since been connected to the St. Pete Underground, a deconstructed church model that expresses themselves through small missional communities, or microchurches and home church spaces.
To learn more about our microchurches or to see church reimagined, feel free to come to our open showcase event happening Saturday, August 24th, 2019 in St. Pete, FL. You're invited to come as you are.
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