The Naked Church – Chapter 1 – The Day the Journey Started Podcast
If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. —Matthew 16:24
I can’t say I was totally unsuspecting when the moment finally came. It had stalked me for months, like a patient lion. But that was clearer by hindsight, since at the time I kept suppressing the doubts I had about the effectiveness of present day Christianity.
I chased the thoughts away, avoiding the conclusions and the actions they would compel me to make. I threw myself headlong into the busyness and pressing concerns of professional ministry. That’s why I was still surprised when the final assault was launched. It happened at mid-morning while I was distracted by a pile of paperwork. Thoughts I had ignored individually over the past few months now marched across my mind in rank. I whirled my padded chair away from the cluttered desk, leaned back, and sighed. Through my full-length window I gazed on a fluorescent purple azalea in the courtyard. It was in full bloom, regal in the spring sunlight—a promise, I hoped, of a favorable outcome to this moment of conflict.
Why do we try so hard to avoid the inevitable? Maybe we think that nothing really is inevitable, or that if it is we can at least postpone it. Either way, our attitude only makes life harder on us and on the people around us. When the moment came that April morning, it was far less emotional than I had imagined. I remember looking at the azalea and chuckling. It was such a simple conclusion, one made without blinding light or overwhelming guilt.
My experience with church ministry matched neither the hunger that churned so deep within me nor what I perceived to be the challenge of scripture. In one moment all my excuses were swept away by a mass of evidence I could no longer ignore. When I looked for whys I kept coming to the same conclusion: Our application of present-day Christianity was deficient. I knew it wasn’t the people; those I worked with loved the lord deeply. I knew it wasn’t a disregard for scripture; we believed it wholeheartedly.
I knew it wasn’t a lack of knowledge; I already knew far more than I was living out at the time. But when I looked at how church ministry operated, I saw how high a priority it places on safety and routine. At the cost of distracting people from personal intimacy with Jesus, it clings to the status quo. It placates the lukewarm and cools the zealous. Not only has it failed to lead us to the fullness of relationship with Jesus, it has more often lured us away from it.
“That’s it!” I said out loud. “I’m going to find a Christianity as powerful as the one I have read about in acts, no matter what!” that may have sounded gallant, but it wasn’t. The status quo had become so distasteful to me that if I were wrong and this really was all there could be to church life, then I did not want to spend the rest of my life in pastoral ministry.
Whenever I share this moment with people, they in variably ask what was wrong with that church. Nothing! It was (and still is) one of the finest I know, and I can’t recommend a better church anywhere. It is a spiritually vital congregation in central California with statistics that would make any church growth expert drool with delight. Nor was I frustrated with my part in it. I served a pastor whose spiritual life I admired, and still do. We share the same theological orientation and hunger to see people touched with the life of Jesus. Only four years out of college, I taught classes regularly numbering in the hundreds, administered a budget in excess of a half million dollars, and could rarely walk into a store without being recognized. I owned a home and two cars and drew a significant salary in a traditionally underpaid occupation. I was just beginning to break into print with my freelance writing, and I was in the middle of the charismatic evangelical groundswell of the late 1970’s.
I loved it all. At least I thought I did until certain scriptures started nagging at me. Yes, I fought back, rationalizing when I could and getting help from others when I couldn’t. It seems few people really believe that the church in acts is a pragmatic model for us today, and everyone has reasons as to why. But my “whys” were wearing thin. I began to see my spiritual life in unmitigated comparison to the Word, and I felt naked.
I’m not sure what finally did it. That final week had not been particularly distinctive. It might have been the nine year old girl who fought asthma for every breath she took in spite of our fervent prayers for healing. Maybe it was the young woman trapped in emotional bondage because of abuse in her childhood, desperately wanting to be free and finding no one who could take the time to make the Christianity we spoke of real for her. Or it might have been the two believers I was trying to reconcile who could not even speak to each other. And then again it could have been that one more request stacked on my desk from someone who needed a “word from Wayne” to get through the day.
Most likely it wasn’t any one of these, but rather the weight of them all and countless other situations like them. But these four circumstances illustrate the concerns that nagged me most.
I couldn’t reconcile God’s promises of healing with the hit and miss results I witnessed. The early church was alive with a power I had witnessed early in the charismatic renewal but had seen diminish as its churches grew larger and its message more palatable to the culture. I couldn’t reconcile the love of God with hurting people who slipped through the cracks of our program or neatly formulated creed. The young woman trapped in emotional bondage had been in many churches over a seven year period but was not finding freedom. Psychiatry had been unable to help, telling her to function as best she could until she needed to be institutionalized. The strong can shoulder their way in anywhere, but who was defending the weak and seeking out the strays?
I couldn’t reconcile our challenge to self-sacrificing love with the pettiness, gossip, and manipulation that characterized so many church relationships. And I couldn’t reconcile Jesus’ words for leaders to be the servants of all when I basked in the notoriety and physical comfort that pastoral ministry had brought me. Far from being a living example of what it means to be a disciple, I had merely become the figment of people’s imagination. The “Wayne” they visualized was different from the one I lived with, not because I harbored secret sins, but because no one knew the real me. I was Wayne the “gifted teacher” or “wise counselor,” and not simply a believer with hurts and joys like everyone else. And what scared me most was that I liked it that way! If I were convinced that these examples are only a few chinks in an otherwise productive system, I would not be so deeply troubled. But they are not. They result from a system that puts more credibility in its own efforts than on the power of God, and its toll is taken in personal lives. It is time for someone to stand up and say something even if it would be more fun to stay in the stands and cheer with everyone else. But when you realize that it is no game, that lives are being devoured in lion sized bites, how can you go on cheering? This doesn’t mean that our present system has never helped anyone, nor should these comments be construed as a sweeping condemnation of all people involved in such structures. I know many people in the system who enjoy a very deep relationship with the lord. Though I am grateful for them, they are the exceptions. Many more people—those not so fortunate or so strong— have been alienated from God by the very structure that should convey his love. I turned back from the azalea and scanned the piles of papers on my desk and my open bible perched on the front left corner. The battle was over: my days in the system were numbered. That day eventually cost me my staff position, though not because I was asked to resign nor because I did so as a martyr. I had no desire to be divisive. My pastor proved to be my friend, and cared deeply about my struggles, even though we both knew that our obedience lay down different paths. I stayed there another year before God provided a new fellowship that shared my hunger to discover what he wanted to do in his church without the rigors of tradition or the bondages of institutional structure.
But I soon discovered that geography was not the only thing God wanted to change in my life. Eight months after I had assumed my new pastorate I came to another fork in the road in an encounter far more emotional than the one described above.
In my journal I titled it “the end of comfortable Christianity.” church structures were only the branches and leaves of the problems I struggled with; now I saw the roots—the appetites within. My idealism was tested by a challenge to personal change. My obedience lay not in changing other people but in my own surrender to the will of God.
No longer could I appease my flesh in the name of spirituality. No longer could I compete for the affection and affirmation of people. I had to give up the trappings to which I had become accustomed and instead clothe myself in Christ Jesus in a far more painful way than I had imagined. Only then did I truly understand the cost of the decision I had made that morning as the azalea looked on. Yet I have never regretted it. I have discovered how real Jesus is and have come to treasure him more than life itself even at life’s most painful moments.
Fifteen years later I found myself standing in yet another major fork in the road. This one caught me completely by surprise. The first time, I left the system. This time the system expelled me.
We had begun as a small group of hungry believers who were determined to put relationship with God above everything else. We learned what it meant to walk with him and treat each other with compassion. We tasted a depth of friendship and unity in Christ that I’d always dreamed about. We grew as people came to discover that same life with us, and we had open doors to share throughout the world what God had done among us. Somewhere in the process, however, our life together had been side tracked by the needs of the institution that had grown up around us. Without realizing it, our life together had simply spawned another system. Reliance on it rather than on the ongoing presence of God had undone us. It degenerated to the point where some of our leaders demanded that others silently conform to their desires or endure endless accusations that had become fodder for gossip. Having only the choice either to fight on their terms or walk away, some of us chose to leave.
Nothing I’ve ever done has proved more difficult, not only because of the relational brokenness with people we deeply loved, but also in the recognition that our experiment in relational Christianity was as flawed as other forms. We, too, had allowed relationship to take a back seat to personal agendas. We, too, had abandoned Jesus’ way of doing things in deference to our common sense and more comfortable if not dated mechanisms of church ministry.
The pain of those days has only strengthened my resolve about the themes of this book. These are the lessons I’ve learned on the journey. They are the words of a traveler, for I have not arrived at my destination. Growing in intimacy is a lifelong process, and there are still promises ahead that I have not reached. But I’m closer now than when I began. My prayer is that this book can both encourage other travelers on the road, and challenge yet others to begin. Those who come to this book looking for institutional answers will be disappointed. My aim here is not to fix the system, but rather to challenge believers to discover the depths of intimacy with God. To undertake the journey, however, we must love Jesus more than anything else in this world and be willing to reject whatever keeps us at arm’s length from the glory of his presence. On that April morning I began a search for a vital Christian experience, a Christianity that is real for every person who wants it. Without such an experience the church is naked, no matter how extensive its programs or how ornate its buildings. I know the words might be challenging, but this is no diatribe; it is a confessional. Regarding the abuses and excesses I address, I have been a victim of all and a perpetrator of most. These are not words of rebellion; they are a call for repentance and reformation.
Not long ago I heard of a pastor caught in the very act of adultery. As I passed on that choice morsel of gossip to a college friend of mine, I expected him to break out with the same righteous indignation that churned in me. Instead he began to cry and pray, “My God, forgive us for offending your son.” that’s an attitude we all need. Instead of finger-pointing at others or rising to our own defense, we need to take stock and turn to God. Have we forced Christianity into a religious system unbefitting a personal relationship with Jesus? And if we have, can we leave it for something far more real, even though it costs us greatly? I commend the journey to you, not because it is easy, but because it fulfills the deepest call of Scripture for us to know the living God and be known by him. Nothing compares to walking every day reconciled with a loving Father and his incredible son.
Recorded with permission from Wayne Jacobsen.