10 Reasons Why I Left the Institutional Church & Sought the Ekklesia

It’s funny. We still live in a celebrity culture. Even Christians have chewed hard on it.

Whenever a celebrity Christian author or blogger talks about “leaving church,” all of a sudden masses of Christians think a “new conversation” has suddenly began and people left and right start firing off opinions.

[Cough.]

A few words about “leaving church.”

Virtually every time I catch wind of the phrase — “leaving church” — almost always, the person using the phrase never explains what he/she means by “church.”

This is how I put it in Christianity in Crisis:

On the title “Forget the Church,” what “church” are we talking about?

Is the author saying . . .

Forget the Roman Catholic Church?

Forget the Anglican Church?

Forget the Church of Latter Day Saints?

Forget assembling with other Christians in any way, shape, or form?

Forget all other Christians in the world?

Forget the Evangelicals, their movement, and the churches that contain them?

Forget the body of Christ?

Point: If you ever write on “the church,” be sure to define what you mean first. If not, many of your readers will ascribe their own meaning to what you say.

I wrote those words in April 2012, and well, some people didn’t get the memo. So the next time you see someone use the term “the church” without defining what in the cat hair they’re talking about, you have my full permission to link to this post and ask them to define the term.

On that point, there are four other things that deserve attention:

1. The “local church” is NOT a synonym for the “institutional church.” So can we please stop assuming they are the same. Countless people all over North America leave the institutional church every day. (According to Gallop, over 1 million adult Christians in the USA leave it each year.) But many of those Christians are now gathering with local ekklesias that are not institutional. They are not “church-less.”

2. Most people who leave the “institutional church” are NOT “postchurch” or “anti-church” Christians. Postchurch is the belief that “church just happens” anywhere, anytime, and with anyone – even extra local people. There’s no commitment or devotion or regularity involved.

I strongly critiqued the postchurch perspective here. The fact is, most people who leave the institutional church do so because they are looking for Christ-centered, face-to-face community, where every-member participates and JESUS CHRIST is being deeply known, loved, and expressed.

They aren’t navel gazers who want to be isolated. They want real community. In their experience at least, the typical institutional church didn’t provide this.

3. Most Christians who leave the institutional church do so because they LOVE Jesus and they adore His beloved Bride. That is, they love the Head and the Body. And they feel that the institutional church hampers how both should be expressed. See my post Why I Love the Church: In Praise of God’s Eternal Purpose. If any of this confuses you, that post makes the point crystal clear.

In this regard, Reggie McNeal famously said, “A growing number of people are leaving the institutional church for a new reason. They are not leaving because they have lost faith. They are leaving the church to preserve their faith.”

4. Christians never “leave the Church.” They only leave a certain kind of church. If you are a Christian, you are part of “the Church, which is His Body” (Eph. 1:22-23). That never changes whether you join a specific local assembly or your bones end up bleaching in the wilderness.

Now what’s an institutional church? Here’s how I defined the institutional church in my book Reimagining Church,

By “institutional church,” I am referring to those churches that operate primarily as institutions that exist above, beyond, and independent of the members that populate them. These churches are constructed on programs and rituals more than relationships. They are highly structured, typically building-centered organizations regulated by set-apart professionals (“ministers” and “clergy”) who are aided by volunteers (laity). They require staff, building, salaries, and administration. In the institutional church, congregants watch a religious performance once or twice a week led principally by one person (the pastor or minister), and then retreat home to live their individual Christian lives. 

That said, I’m not “anti-institutional church” nor am I “anti-pastor.” Nor am I “anti-leader.” In fact, I’m a strong advocate of Christian leadership. I just happen to believe that all Christians are leaders (in their own ministries), all are priests, ministers, and functioning parts of the Body of Christ. See The Myth of Christian Leadership for details.

I’ve repeatedly said that God uses the institutional form of church. I was saved and baptized in it. To wit, God’s people are there, and God uses pastors and all kinds of clergy — even Catholic priests and Anglican bishops. But that doesn’t mean that these things . . . in their present form at least . . . are God’s full thought or ideal.

What God blesses and uses doesn’t indicate His best, highest, or desired will.

Now that’s all groundwork.

In this post, I’m simply sharing my journey — which is reflected by the experience of millions of Christians throughout the world.

And remember: this is a blog post . . . so it’s a short summary . . . if you want detail and documentation, look here.

Your mileage may vary from what I’m about to write, and that’s fine. I embrace all Christians as my kin, no matter what form of church to which they belong. So I hope you will receive me — someone who stands outside the institutional from of church like my forefathers the Anabaptists did — without casting aspersions, ascribing evil motives, or “reading into” my statements.

10 reasons why I left the institutional church.

1. I wasn’t able to share what the Lord gave me with my brothers and sisters. Even in the supplemental “home groups” attached to some institutional churches, it was still the “longer leash” with very little freedom to give Christ to others.

2. I wasn’t able to receive from the other members of the Body, hearing and receiving their portion of Christ. Only the pastor and/or staff were given the sacred right to minister to me and my sisters and brothers.

3. I discovered that the institutional form of church wasn’t biblical — meaning, it wasn’t rooted and grounded in Scripture. Rather, most of its practices were developed (or heavily influenced) by non-Christian sources after the death of the apostles. And many of them run contrary to the teachings of Jesus and the apostles. (If you’re looking for a source for that statement, look here.)

4. The priesthood of all believers wasn’t being fleshed out in the institutional churches I attended. It was merely a bloodless doctrine.

5. The institutional churches I had attended weren’t caring properly for the poor. The “Benevolent Fund” of  the last one I attended was run by one man and the people in the poor in the church weren’t being helped. (I have vivid memories of sitting in the dark with a family of 5 — members of this affluent church — because their electric bill had been turned off. No one in that church helped them, and many didn’t even know about their plight.)

6. The churches I attended weren’t equipped to deal a demon-possessed man I was trying to help. (My friends and I called all the Pentecostal and Charismatic churches in town and told them about our situation. They all responded the same way: “Is he a member of our church? If not, we can’t help him. Sorry.”

7. I grew tired of the spiritual shallowness I was finding in every institutional church I attended. No one was preaching the riches of Jesus Christ and God’s Eternal Purpose in Him. None of them gave practical handles on how to live by the indwelling life of Christ.

8. I was bored with the church service (which is virtually identical in every institutional church, with some minor tweaks depending on the brand). Jesus Christ isn’t boring and neither is His ekklesia. She may have dry spells — which always have an end — but she finds her Lord in them. Boredom with a predictable ritual and a seasonal dry spell are two very different things.

9. It was always predictable. A mark of institutionalization and the human touch.

10. The fullness of Jesus Christ couldn’t be expressed. One member of the Body — no matter how gifted — can never express His fullness. It takes a functioning Body to do that.

Now, don’t jump to conclusions here. This is my testimony, my experience, and my vantage point. And I’ve since discovered that I’m speaking on behalf of millions of Jesus followers who feel the same way.

Again, God uses the institutional church. And I’d never try to talk someone into leaving it.

In fact, I always discourage people from leaving unless they have the full agreement of their spouse and God is clearly leading them out.

My 82 year old grandmother was born a Baptist and she’ll die a Baptist. And that’s the way it should be in her case. If you try to talk her out of leaving her church, then you deserve an atomic knee drop! ;-)

The fact is, leaving a church could be devastating some people. See How (Not) to Leave a Church.

10 reasons why I’ve become part of the organic expression of the church (the ekklesia) in various cities for the last 25 years.

1. My spiritual instincts were crying out for face-to-face community, mutual sharing, mutual receiving, and mutual submission.

2. I discovered that I can’t live the Christian life by myself (and neither can you). Attending an institutional church service isn’t living the Christian life with others in a shared-life context.

3. I saw that God’s Eternal Purpose is bound up with a face-to-face, local, visible, visit-able corporate expression of Christ where every member functions under the Lord’s direct headship (rather than the headship of a man). So God’s ultimate intention is all about His ekklesia.

4. I saw from the New Testament that God’s heart beats for the Body of Christ in every locality to function under the Headship of His Son. And this insight/revelation/seeing brought me to tears and wrecked me for life.

5. I discovered that when every member of the Body gives Christ to one another, after being equipped on how to do this, the experience is just below the glory of heaven. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen a body of believers function under Christ’s headship without any one leading, faciliating, or controlling.

6. I wanted the fullness of Christ. And that’s only found when His Body — together — functions in a given place (1 Cor. 12-14).

7. I was shooting for spiritual depth and reality.

8. I longed for an environment where I could share the riches of Christ that were given to me and receive the riches of Christ that were given to the rest of the Body. (Not just from one or two members.)

9. I was seriously interested in transformation. And I discovered that hearing sermons and singing worship songs led by a worship team doesn’t transform. Hebrews 3 and 10 make clear that the antidote for apostasy and a hardened heart is mutual edification. “Exhorting one another. . . ”

10. I wanted to know Christ deeply, and I discovered that we can only comprehend “the breadth, depth, height, and know the love of Christ which passes knowledge” when we are “together with all saints.” It’s not an individualistic pursuit, but an intensely corporate (collective) one.

If this all new to you and you’re looking for more, check out my ReChurch Library.

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Comments

  1. MIke says

    I will just say this Brother Frank, please pray for our local assembly. And note that I said assembly and not church.

  2. joseph says

    Wow! I knew there were people like me. In regards to the church (which I refer to “the church system”. One thing I know the “body of Christ” will never come into its full Divine potential so as long as it is under the bondage of “the church system”. About 5yrs ago God gave me a dream, I saw a church building, as a matter of fact it was one of the local churches in my area, one that holds 1000+ member. This building was in ruins. They only part of the build standing upright was a corner piece. Meaning God is going to crumble what man has built.

  3. says

    Churchianity…no.

    Christianism…no.

    Faith in what the Lord has done…absolutely.

    It is getting difficult to find churches where the sinner in the pew isn’t the subject (the focus) of the sermon.

    I thought this was about Him.

  4. Michael Aigboeghian says

    Thanks Frank. I’ve been following your posts close to a year now. I first came across your book Pagan Christianity and it dealt with some questions on my mind then concerning the institutional church. I got to know about organic church via your website and I’m still praying to God to bring me to one. I live in Nigeria and you are considered a rebel when you begin to ask questions about certain church practices. I’m still in the institutional church bcos I don’t want to leave and dry up
    I pray God grants me this organic church experience. God bless you Frank.

    • Gunner says

      Brother Michael,
      My heart was moved as I read your comments and prayer this week and wanted to encourage you that there is Life in the Person of Jesus Christ; outside of the traditional religious system. I can also testify that His grace will keep you from drying up spiritually as you continually draw from the Fountain of Living Water. I and others I know; were also once afraid to leave because of the fear that the sufficiency of Christ as the Source of Life might not extend beyond the institutional church with no visible signs of the Lord’s Church.
      That “organic church experience” your heart is longing for is available to us all if we will trust Him to lead us into it and take that step of faith. Our spiritual survival isn’t dependent on churchianity or an institution but on Christ. That is true and comes at a price for everyone of us… but it’s worth it! :)
      I am currently joined to another brother in Christ, who is from Africa and have asked him to contact you on his experience outside the religious system in finding more of with through the members of His Body.
      Praying for a greater revelation of Christ for us all. (Col. 1:9; Eph. 1:15-19)

      Grace,

      Gunner

  5. Kalil says

    Great post Frank, the way you articulated yourself here was on point. Really clear and concise. Thanks for sharing from a place of love.

  6. tracy says

    I agree totally Frank. However, how do I find like minded brothers and sisters in Christ who are seeking the same thing? I live in the south, been “out” of church for years- I feel I am a wanderer. There have been times I have desperately needed someone to pray for me, as I have struggled with some things ( I have relied totally on Christ to get me through) and there have been times I needed those relationships with others who are genuinely after Christ – that seek to edify the body and do His will. But I feel I am lost. I live in the bible belt USA of churches and your considered an outcast or doomed if your out of church( lol ) so any advice or words of wisdom?

  7. Matthew says

    I wonder if one sees more Christian community in cultures that are not western? I live in Europe and evangelical churches here are also very institutional. Thanks for the post Frank. Also … and this is a bit off topic … in what book do you discuss Israel, replacement theology, etc.?

  8. Brenda Corey says

    Thankful for this article. The journey continues, but onward we move and gather. So glad for your visits to Williamsburg VA some years back. Will the real church arise? She is coming forth!

  9. Jorge Gomez says

    Wow. I just wonder how much of this movement has spread in Latin America. I studied for the ministry in the US and now serve in Honduras. We might just be suffering from the same ailments as the church in the US where the influence of the personal “revelations”, “prosperity theologies” have taking over our pulpits in exchange for the Word of God. I see people in my own country disillusioned with church in general as I am. You have painted a picture that describes my situation. I like the summary form that I have read from your books. I really appreciate it.

    Could I have the liberty to translate this into Spanish?

    Thanks Frank. The Lord continue to bless you.

  10. Debra Westbrook says

    You nailed it with clarity. We are looking for community. Perhaps that’s it. We are looking……not finding. Trusting God to direct our steps and show us where to go. We have visited 15 churches in SoCal. It seems like there is a consistent template that varies in miniscule ways. We always leave sensing our hunger grows deeper and deeper for community. On top of that we have been overseas for the past 8 years so we feel out of sync with even being back in America. What to do? Your blog helps us realize that we are not alone. My passion is seeing our creative expression in Christ rise up, moving in a variety of ways. Let’s see where this journey takes us.

    • Sally says

      That’s where we are too, Debra. Wish we lived closer so we could connect. How to find others! That’s what I need to know. I keep thinking, Jesus is the Head, he will guide us in this. But so far, not.

  11. says

    Even as a pastor in a traditional setting, I see the value of your thoughts. We do have that innate desire to go deeper with Christ. That doesn’t happen without living in Christian community.

    • Robyn G says

      it’s so refreshing to see a pastor embrace these concepts…the concepts of what christian community was orignally and is still meant to be :)

  12. says

    Amen! This is a good summary post of so much of what you have said over the years, as well as describes many of your readers. I hope that this reaches many of our brothers and sisters that are still a part of the institutional church. Thanks Frank!

  13. Steve says

    This all sounds great, Frank, and I often find myself hungering for exactly the depth you are describing. But how do you find such expressions of the Body? Lacking buildings, you don’t spot ‘em driving by. I doubt they advertise in the yellow pages. Got any advice?

  14. says

    Thank you brother Frank. I have written a book. Based on comments I am receiving from friends (who failed to comment on the manuscript I sent them earlier) I will be reconsidering all references to “the church” to try to avoid any misunderstanding. My references are not made in derogatory spirit, but this post not only confirms what I intend to look at, but gives valuable extra flavour.

    By the way, your The Eternal Purpose Of God was the first Frank Viola book I came across (in writing my Masters dissertation on the KIngdom of God as a visible phenomenon in 2005). That later led me to buy to Pagan Christianity and Reimagining Church.

    • Robyn G says

      I too try to be very careful when sharing my experience outside the walls…I never want to sway someone who isn’t yet being led by God…and I’m very senstive to never wanting to “persecute the church.” And as Frank shared, many Godly things are happening within the walls…in spite of the walls and the unnecessary activity and structure, just as they happen outside. I think the word “religion” has become a more favorable desciptor for me…and Jesus himself attacked “religion.” I don’t even go out of my way to share my journey unless someone’s conversation leads that direction…it is a very personal journey but one that I believe many many more are on the brink of…more than we realize…it’s the “elephant in the room” per se.

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