January 24, 2021

Mondays with Michael Spencer: March 14, 2016

Church Ruin

How God Ruined Church for Me
An edited version of a 2007 post by Michael Spencer

You see, it’s supposed to work like this: The world of churches is like a big mall, and there are many different kinds of stores. You choose one store–ONE–and you go there for everything you need. You are LOYAL to that store. You BELIEVE in that store and what it’s all about; in the way it does things. You persuade others that your store is the one and only store real shoppers patronize. You buy name brand merchandise at every opportunity. It’s your store. Yes, there is a mall, but you only need one store.

Remember when your dad said he was a “Chevy” man? And you mom said we buy all our groceries at the Blue Bell market? Remember when you decided your school, this college, that team were all “yours?” And you were ready to argue the point of your loyalty? Churches are like that. You choose, and you stay with your choice.

Here’s something I’ve noticed: It felt good to know what you were. It felt good to have a team, a brand, a store, a school and a church. You knew who you were and what you were all about. Things were simpler. Lots of decisions already made; lots of questions already answered.

I know many people who still live in this world. They are shopkeepers in the mall. They are employees and customers of their chosen store. Presbyterianism. Roman Catholicism. Southern Baptist fundamentalism. TBN Pentecostalism.

When you come in to shop, they are very happy. But when you say you are leaving and going to another store, or several other stores, they are unhappy. They want to persuade, convince and bribe. They may be nice or angry. They may insist that it’s wrong to go to another store, that you’re making a terrible mistake and wasting your money and time. They can make you feel very guilty and uncomfortable, like you are doing something wrong.

They believe, you see, that Jesus came to found their particular chain of stores. Jesus was the founder of their store. It’s right there in the Bible as they read it, and they can prove it to you if you’ll just stop and listen to their favorite teacher. There are people I know who have bought into this in one store, and another and then another. They are on their third or fourth final choice of a store to patronize. Why shouldn’t you do the same? Don’t you want to be right?

And then there are those of us who, because God has ruined our shopping trip by showing us the good and the not so good in all these stores, are trying to shop in the whole mall and get back home. When God ruined everything for us by showing us the value and the limitations of all the stores, he didn’t give us the gift of feeling great about never really having a “home” of our own.

Church Ruin IIDo you know that feeling? Denise and I were tearfully talking about it today. It’s grown and grown over our lives. We’ve been Baptist and we are Baptist, but we can’t go all the way with Baptists. We’ve been Calvinists and Presbyterian, but we can’t go all the way. We love the Anglican and Episcopal churches, with their wonderful worship and liturgy. We find ourselves in Catholic churches a couple of times a year, and we’re deeply drawn by what we see, hear and experience, but we can’t go all the way and buy into it. Not with any of them.

The more these various groups contend that Jesus is the exclusive sponsor of their stores, the less I want to do more than visit them. I love the whole mall. I feel I belong, in some way, to all of these traditions, but not wholly to any one of them.

It is particularly hard for those of us who have been raised deeply rooted in the local church. We never feel entirely right if we are not part of a church. We’ve grown up on preaching that presented and defended church membership as identical with discipleship. (If you are a Southern Baptist of my generation, you know what church activity you should be at most every day of the week.) Even with a more honest reading of the New Testament’s view of the church as an outpost of the Kingdom and not a franchise of a denomination, it is uncomfortable to feel exiled and away from a local church.

One side is the possibility of being part of any local church and receiving what Jesus provides through his people. On the other is the demand to accede to a particular church’s agenda, theology, program, schedule and need for resources. It is hard to be “part” and yet say “No” to so much of what makes up a church.

Yet I am encouraged and press on, because, as I said, it is God who ruined church for me.

Abraham met one man in his lifetime who worshiped the God he was following. God works in his own time, and those of us who find ourselves unable to buy into denominationalism are seeing God do a great thing in his church. We need to nurture it in ourselves and pass it on to our children. And yes, blame God, for he is the author and finisher of our faith and of our journey in the post-evangelical wilderness.


  1. First? By the way, I don’t even shop at the mall.

  2. At the moment I’m a frequenter of a community centre run by an international church in Paris. There’s a really great atmosphere there; you feel welcomed. And most of the other people are expatriates, so everyone’s in the same boat, language and community wise.

    I don’t think I’ll be going to the Sunday Morning services though. The worship and teaching doesn’t interest me, and the format doesn’t provide the same community-fee that the community centre does, admirably.

  3. >>Abraham met one man in his lifetime who worshiped the God he was following.

    Perhaps the most mysterious part of the whole Bible story. If brick and mortar churches are the mall, this place is like Amazon.

  4. Michael had a way of saying it so well. Amen!

  5. We’re way too good at ruining the church experience for each other. We don’t even let God get a shot at it anymore.

    This weirdly inspired me…

  6. So thankful that God blessed us with Michael Spencer. So thankful that Michael’s words remain behind as a reminder of what’s important and what’s not, what’s healthy and what’s not.

  7. I attended Sunday school yesterday for the first time in several weeks. The concepts they were talking about have grown, not foreign exactly, but different, almost as if we were speaking separate languages. Sin, wrath, holiness, righteousness, justification, obedience, etc. all have changed for me as seen through the lens of Jesus Christ. The one time I ventured to speak up, I was looked at like the none too bright student in the back of the class, “Poor child. He just doesn’t get it anymore. Pity, he used to be so bright. Now, where was I?”

    I feel so alone.

    • I feel for ya. I’m fortunate to have a few people in my circle who are out-of-the-box right now. It’s good.

      There are others out there. Try to find them.

    • And, if you’ve been away for some time, you start losing some pertinent jargon, code words or phrases, that lets everyone know you’re a bit outside the camp. Lonely feeling when you just want to share some insights that have become very meaningful.

    • Scott, the local churches I have available feel like it is 1976. This isn’t uncomfortable for the people who attend because the whole community feels like it is 1976, which is not necessarily a bad thing unless you are looking for kindred souls such as found here. The pastor of the church I was attending was the only person who understood my perceptions and he was sent on his way. I’m guessing I could find a congregation living in 1986 if I drove 25 miles to a larger town and maybe even 1996 if I drove the 80 miles to Grand Rapids. This all raises the question of why should I go to church at all, which I haven’t been for some months now. What’s the point? The usual answers to that may be rooted in the last millennium as well. I think it deserves serious consideration, and for a start I consider answers from those potentially making their living from my attendance to need particular scrutiny.

      • Wherever you are, Charles, the Church is too. Perhaps many of us in our time are called to a vocation of exile, either internal or external or both, from the institutional Church, as the Desert Fathers were called into the desert wilderness. I don’t doubt it. God knows and loves you where you are; but you already know that, don’t you.

        • Purple hyacinth,
          yellow daffodil, defy
          the chilly, wet night.

        • >>Wherever you are, Charles, the Church is too.

          Well, Robert, yes and no. Not to nitpick but I think that the statement of Jesus about where two or more are gathered in his name is probably definitive as to the so called Church. That doesn’t mean that I can’t interact with and embody God by myself, but I need you to do Church, whatever that might be at this point.

          At the same time, I truly believe that this place, the Monastery, is a Church in every sense of the word as used by Jesus. In the local church which I recently left just before it disintegrated, my view of it was that most folks attending, as had their grandparents before them, did not understand the difference between the Church and a church building. They did not appreciate hearing this. I would guess this problem is widespread and perhaps is in process of solution with the Nones and the Dones spearheading.

          Nice haiku!

          • Of course I’m aware of that New Testament saying. But I notice that it doesn’t say that Jesus stops being with us when we are not with other Christians, or that we stop being part of the Church when we are not gathered with other member of the Church.

            I go along with what you say about iMonk; I think that’s true. In addition, I adhere to the conviction I acquired when I spent time among Buddhists that each of us is interdependent and interpenetrated and inter-existent with others; that none of us is alone even when we’re alone; and that wherever we are present, others are present with us in our very being, and pervade our being. You say we are not our egos; I say we are not discrete beings at all, but share every aspect of our being with others. Let’s call it the Communion of Saints.

          • I rather like that haiku too.

          • “each of us is interdependent and interpenetrated and inter-existent with others; that none of us is alone even when we’re alone; and that wherever we are present, others are present with us in our very being, and pervade our being.”

            This is very interesting to me. Could you say more about it? How can we be not alone, even when we are alone?

            I want a copy of the first haiku collection.

          • Ben — The energy/matter core that compose one’s individual existence, body/soul, is not separated from other such centers in our world by impenetrable, rigid boundaries; rather, the lines are fuzzy and porous, allowing movement back and forth in a much freer way than we tend to think. We are not sealed up in ourselves, physically or spiritually (these two are actually different facets of the same thing); if we were suddenly sealed up in ourselves at some point, we would instantly cease to exist, since we do not possess the resources necessary to continued, isolated existence within ourselves. It may be that death is actually such a sealing up, when as the result of natural processes we become unable to give or take the back-and-forth of energy/matter-spirit/body necessary for continued individual existence.

            Also, we exist now as individuals as the result of energy and influences and characteristics that existed before we were born, and will exist after we die. Nothing in our spirit/body is new or unique or came into existence at our genesis, except its patterning, its configuration into our individual existence, which depends for its viability on the porous nature of the boundaries I mentioned earlier.

            So, our individuality depends on the contributions made by the whole field of existence around us, including other beings, human too. As Christians, we believe that God has also incorporated us into a special community of being beside the natural one; this we call the Communion of Saints.

            So we cannot be alone, even when we feel alone. And our continued existence depends on the continuous contributions of individual existences. How the life after death and resurrection of the body relates to this is another discussion, but I think you can begin to see how it might work.

          • Ben — It is the patterning, the configuration, within the total field of existence that constitutes the unique aspect of our identity; the energy/matter components are not unique at all: they are part of the total community of being. I think this patterning is related to what science is discovering about our individual, unique DNA.

            And I think theological apprehensions about how the Trinity may be both one and three may help us to think about this.

          • Hey Charles,
            There is an Episcopal church in Big Rapids and Cadillac.that might suit you

          • Ben — I also think that when we refer to the body, we are actually referring to this patterning, rather than the energy/matter components that it configures, and that this pattern is both body and spirit.


    • Thank you all for your words of encouragement. It does help knowing that many of us here are in similar straits. And, strangely enough, during this time “in the wildeness”, I’ve felt my faith grow firmer as I look to Jesus and the sacraments for comfort, not relying on others or even myself for support but on Jesus. Oh, and you as well! 🙂

  8. Wow. I needed to read this today. I don’t feel as if I fit in anywhere anymore and I only feel truly ‘at home’ in ecumenical gatherings. It’s very uncomfortable on a day to day basis – not least because I’m a minister and I don’t feel that I belong in my denomination at all but I suspect I’d feel the same anywhere.
    Thanks for posting. It does help to know I’m not alone in feeling like this.

  9. Insightful post. I think not being able to belong completely to almost anything has probably always been the human condition; it’s just that, in our times and in our lives, that has become more apparent, and more difficult to evade or deny.

  10. I am a minister. I know my shop isn’t perfect. It is flawed and beset by all sorts of sins, tomfoolery, and sectarian party spirit…not unlike the people who populate it….not unlike me. I have come to accept the fact of the inevitable imperfections. I see it as a sinful reality in a broken world.

    I, however, find comforting the creedal confession which speaks of one holy Christian and apostolic church. It’s all whom Jesus knows as his own whenever and wherever they are found. It transcends denominational and sectarian doctrinal distinctions, practices, and traditions. I know I won’t experience that oneness this side of heaven. So, one yearns for the time one will.

    In the meantime, I’m wanting to give more thanks to what unites the whole Christian church on earth,at least, in heart and spirit. I acknowledge that unification isn’t an empirical, tangible reality I will see with my own eyes.

    It’s with that in mind that I can do what little work I can around my little shop, knowing that one day a far, far grander unity will be finally be uncovered.

  11. Me, I’m lookin’ for one these here churches with a foul mouthed lesbian goth as a preacher or one of those hip young ministers who don’t believe in God but believe that Jesus was his son. But no matter hard I look I can’t find them anywhere.

    “Then it came burning hot in my mind, whatever he said, and however he flattered, when he got me home to his house, he would sell me for a slave.”
    – John Bunyan. Pilgrim’s Progress

  12. ” You see, it’s supposed to work like this: The world of churches is like abig mall,and there are many different kinds of stores. You choose one store”…

    This is the 1st problem of preception & how the “stuff up” begins. Jesus prays thag we be one as He is one with the Father.
    Paul says there is one Lord, one faith, one baptism. The goal of salvation is that we become unified with God, which I would take as one heart & mind with God. To be unified is more than a statement it is a state of being. To be a disciple, irrespective of what denomination we come from, we should be unified on ” one Lord, one faith, one baptism”. A lot of people are too interested being “shopkeepers” to discover there is no mall but 1 vineyard, 1 door, 1 baptism, 1 faith, that originated well before the 1500s.

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