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Have You Ever Tried to Change It?

I get the email all the time from people who are just discovering greater freedom in Christ and want their congregation to embrace it to. Whether as a pastor or parishioner, have you ever tried to reform the institution? Did it work? Why or why not?

I’m actually on the other side of being this person. After experiencing a new level of freedom, I was so excited to share it with church family and friends because why wouldn’t people want to experience the same thing? I was surprisingly wrong and naive about that assumption. It turned out that most people saw it as a challenge and even a put down of the way things were being run – as if it were an indictment against the current system.

Rather than being able to introduce another way of seeing things/doing things, I felt more like a squeaky wheel and a grumbler. I walked away from that experience feeling like the institutional part of church is like a perfect teflon bubble that will not be penetrated for fear it would corrupt what is perceived as the essential core.

I have yet to be a part of a community that allows an authentic level of freedom without putting some serious boundaries around it or questions why you are pursuing “that dangerous stuff” anyway.


I came out of the institution in 1991, detoxed for 8 years, and then got into small groups.
It takes a special leader, annointed and appointed to keep any small group from either exploding or imploding. Mainly we all bring our “stuff”,so it’s only a matter of time before
it starts to show. Of course it’s not all bad, but the negative can dominate if unresloved.

“I have yet to be a part of a community that allows an authentic level of freedom without putting some serious boundaries around it or questions why you are pursuing “that dangerous stuff” anyway”, is a serious and well thought out slant of this issue.


I’ve been involved in trying reform institutions - both as the pastor of a traditional church and as a church planter within an established denomination (the United Methodist Church). In both cases, I found that the institution (which has a spiritual gravity all of its own) effortlessly took my best intentions and transformed them into something that better fit its own priorities.

In my traditional congregational, I increasingly tied my self-worth to how many people were in worship, whether we were on pace with our budget, and how many folks were coming to our small groups and outreach ministries (all of which have 100% to do with institutional viability and 0% to do with the kingdom of God.)

Even in our out-of-the-box, we-don’t-have-a-building-or-weekly-worship church plant; I found that I started to evaluate the success of each house gathering by how many people attended, I paid attention to our giving to see when I could draw a salary, and approached every new person I met - at a coffee shop, in the gym, etc. I as a potential prospect and not first as a human being. (Much of this was driven by grant-given benchmarks (that I developed and recommended!), which made me feel like there was a financial axe that was poised to fall on my family if I didn’t keep up.)

I ended that season of my life angry, empty, and completely burnt out - and I can now recognize how much of that was due to my own lack of positive spiritual identity in Christ. While there are people who are very much able to step into spirit-led lives while being part of traditional congregations, I’ve discovered that I am simply not one of those people.

As I enter a post-institutional church phase of my spiritual life, I find myself increasingly worried that that my search for spiritual community will again lead me back into the death-dealing spiritual slavery, despite my best intentions.

Wayne - I found your writing on how to seek out those people who’s spirit has not been captured by the institution to be particularly helpful. I am left with a couple questions (and I’d love to hear people’s wisdom on both of them!)

  1. When you look for new forms of spiritual community, what are the guideposts that help you make sure that you’re on the right track and not simply re-incarnating a new version of spiritual empire?

  2. In the transitional period, between leaving the institution and finding new forms of community, what did you find most helpful in keeping spiritually connected to Christ and Christ’s body?

I left the traditional church 8 years ago and during that time away the Lord began to unveil to me about the exchanged life - that He came to be my life, not for me to be His partner - part me and part Him. “For me to live is Christ.” I’m finding that many who have been burned out by man made church are still trying in their own effort to make a new version happen. Christ builds His church. I’ve found that when we relax and let God, trusting Him, He brings together the people He wants in our lives - whether it’s two, three or a hundred and whether it’s a small group, spontaneous gathering or casual meeting. I was led last year to return to that “church” I left with a new attitude/life. Whereas when “I” left I was confused and angry, I’ve gone back with the mission to be real and authentic in Him, not looking for their approval. For now, that’s where He has me to be; to be His presence there with no other expectation than to let His light shine. I’ve been completely honest with them that I do not support the direction they are going in a man’s effort mentality, and I’m sharing with them “Christ in You the hope of glory”. I know the Lord has me to be there for now - perhaps partly to grow in keeping my eyes on Him and not on others and circumstances. I’m learning how He can care about His people through me and show tough authentic love at the same time. This fellowship is slowly dying, Perhaps when the final curtain falls, some may begin to see His light. In the meantime, there are two ladies from that congregation that are coming to understand the Christ life and are part of a weekly group in my home. The Lord has also blessed us with a weekly Christ centered (exchanged life) bible study by Ed Miller in a local diner. I have a Facebook page, “Jesus - Anchored to Our Soul” - in which I upload his messages. It’s exciting to live this way, resting and trusting Him to be in me as His body/temple in the world. It’s an ongoing adventure to watch Him put it together. The Lord changes individual hearts. Institutions don’t have hearts. He HAS promised to build His church.

1.) I find that I am trying to evaluate people’s motivations for wanting to meet with me/join in community. If a sales pitch happens (either “try my product I’m selling,” or “try my church…it’s different, you’ll like it,” “try this book/bible study…it worked for me”), then I know that’s not a relationship/community I want to invest in and I know doesn’t really want to invest in me. They want to leverage me and I’m not doing that anymore. If it feels authentic and organic and a “let’s see where this goes” from the both of us…that is usually a promising/good sign.

2.) I know that I intentionally made plans to keep/cultivate relationships that I treasured within my old faith community that I knew were authentic or could go to this new place with me. Most did. Not all though. I also looked around at those who were maybe on the fringes of my everyday life but who were intriguing to me and I had thought, “I’d really like to get to know her better someday,” and became intentional about making it “someday.” Doing both has brought a lot of unexpected joy, transparency, growth without shaming/conditions and opened a lot more voices into my life rather than just one stream of thought.

Yes to this!! So good.

As to (1), I don’t look for forms of community anymore, I just look for healthy, growing relationships. And by healthy I don’t mean perfect, I mean genuine, gracious, and focused on Jesus. If that’s in a form, fine. But I’m not looking for the form anymore. I have come to value relationships that inspire his life in each other and celebrates God’s ability to transform rather than manipulating or pressing each other to meet a set of expectations. That to me mostly happens around meals in conversation that is compelling.

(2) I didn’t realize I was in a transition, when I was. I had simply been kicked out of one thing by some power-hungry people. I went on with some of the incredible relationships I had with others who were pushed out as well as people I knew from the area and around the world. Those conversations expanded my heart and kept me connected with his work beyond just me. I’m also an extensive reader, so I kept up that way with various streams of faith, hoping to be able to eat the chicken and toss the bones. I guess I’m still in that transition, because I haven’t found a form to inhabit. Instead of I have a host of friendships in which we celebrate God and his goodness…

MosaicMomma - thanks for this. I’m in a unique place; as the church I left was an hour and boat ride away (I live on an island, of all places!), which meant that I didn’t have many relationships to carry with me. The idea of deepening friendships with those who intrigue me is a particularly fruitful idea, for while my island has exactly one church (a sleepy community church that my wife pastors, in fact), it has many interesting people!

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Wayne - hearing you talk so exclusively about relationships is very, very helpful - and made me realize that it’s far too easy for me to focus on the forms before I focus on the people!

I hunger for those relationships where deep calls out to deep. Finding other Christ-centered folks has been challenging, because we only recently moved to our new community (a small island in very post-Christian New England with one sleepy church (which my wife pastors)); which has left me without a strong network of existing relationships to draw upon.

I find myself wondering what I should be looking for as I search for spiritual community. I meet both committed, but thoroughly church-people-ized Christians who have difficulty understanding where I’m at without feeling threatened or those who’s spirituality is not completely identified with a religious institution but do not have a deep grounding in Christianity.

I wonder whether your emphasis on relationship over form cuts through some of these quandaries, but I find myself longing for just a couple people who I feel like could walk side by side with me, rather than folks I feel like I might have to bring along, before we are able to partner together in growing in our faith. (My wife and I have been partners for each other in this for years, but my experience is that two does not a church make for me!)

I’d be interested to hear: when you feel a connection to someone, what are the questions you ask or behaviors you look for that suggest this person might be able to fellow traveller with you?

(And thanks again for your wisdom - it’s wonderful to talk to people who are farther along on this path than I am!)

Benjamin, think relationships grow a bit more naturally than this. I look to befriend people God puts around my life. Many people don’t have the time or inclination for a friendship, so I don’t worry too much about those. Others who do, I just let the relationship grow a bit and it will tell me all I need to know. I don’t have a set of questions to ask them, other than “Tell me your story!” And I don’t have some qualification I’m looking for. But as I get to know them and see if there’s some “chemistry” to a growing friendship, then some compatibility spiritually. And I’m always listening for the Spirit when I talk to people. Some of the best counsel I’ve been given have come from atheist that had no idea God has put his words in their mouth.

I think I just look to love people, Those that I can share a deeper journey with can come naturally, without trying to find “that person.” But in your limited space on an island, I’d look for people around the periphery of a congregation. Those that attend sporadically and I bet among them you’d find a genuinely hungry heart that isn’t into the “church” of it all, but simply wanting to share the life of Jesus with someone. They are out there. Even on a small island. Let Jesus show you how to connect. And let God speak through the friendship, regardless of the depth of their spirituality. You don’t have to sit around and discuss the Bible, for God’s word to be in the friendship.


As I thought about what you look for, I realize that I can easily name half a dozen people here who I could look to deepen my friendships with. (Islands collect beautiful, fascinating people!)

Thank you for your wisdom and your encouragement. I’m realizing that this post-institutional church comes with both fear and freedom, especially for someone who has spent his entire life within the bounds of a religious institution. Hearing words like yours makes it easier for me to step out and trust God.

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I"m not hearing much of it here. which may speak to a real trend. Ten to fifteen years ago I would hear a constant set of stories of people who tried to change the congregation they were in, thinking that God had revealed to them a better way to be his church in the world. Some were pastors and tried to get the parishioners to see it, some where elders, hoping the pastor or other elders would, and some were participants who hoped the leadership would take a different tack. Almost invariably those stories ended in disaster.

When people are pitted against each other, both believing they see something from God the other doesn’t see, the result is often, angry arguments, hurt feelings, and broken relationships. I’m surprised we haven’t seen more of those stories here and it got me thinking. I haven’t heard a lot of them recently either.

Has something shifted here? In times past people saw their church as an expression of The Church and thought it their mission to right the wrongs, and press for renewal of heart and activity that would give Jesus better access to the life of the congregation. I wonder if people more inclined to leave these days and less inclined to fix? And if so, is that due to learning better that institutions don’t change, or because they don’t have the same history with a group to want them to see it to, or something else? I find it interesting.

A few years ago I attended a contemporary church that had this type of belief in God’s love and turning away from self-effort in their foundational documents and books, and after they saw it massively improve my life, the leadership turned against those beliefs and verbally assaulted me on a few occasions. I tried to show them where it clearly stated these things in their own books, but they refused to look, and only said that it didn’t really say what I said it meant. I offered to show them the exact parts in the books, but they refused to accept anything that I said… I think that those leaders might have thought that I was challenging them or their beliefs and practices, or they got jealous (or chagrined) when a lot of people looked to me for kind words about God’s love, instead of looking to those leaders.

The more I look through history, it seems like the system can’t be changed from the inside… It seems like it simply needs to be abandoned.

Bailey NC (USA)

I think part of it is recognizing (maybe unconsciously even) that the IC today is even more of a machine and when you put it next to other “machines” and corporations and understand what an uphill battle it is to take on “group think” or deeply ingrained beliefs/actions, I think it is more of a realism check in knowing what is worth the effort for the outcome.

To me, church community seems to be breaking back down to an organic level where people interact with people in their daily lives and not just “in the temple.” So it makes sense that we would seek to bring about change/revolution/revelation one-on-one rather than trying to shout down the voices on the stage/platform.

It’s too overwhelming, and the leaders are very strong and persuasive. I just try to do my small part and to grow in my relationships with those God has clearly placed in my life and continues to place in my life. I like to think I keep my eyes open to those who may be looking for ‘something more’, but this discussion has made me wonder if I often wear blinders.