One of the things many positive traits that Christians should be known for is doing everything with excellence as we strive to make the Imago Dei within us known. As Brian Sanders writes in Life After Church, this should include our leaving church if the Spirit moves us to do so. To some, this suggestion is sacrilege on the order of the pastor declaring that he is leaving his wife because God wants him to ‘be happy.’ Leaving A church is not the same as leaving church, Sanders is quick to remind throughout his work and it is not a confrontation of God. Rather, it is a way of reconciling the internal movement of the spirit within a particular Christian’s life that does not align with the direction of the body in which she worships and has community.
One of the most important things that the author asks us to consider is how we define church. Can a redeemed believer ever leave The Church? Theologically, no. Our membership in the body is sealed at our surrender. To be able to fully deny Jesus and profess unbelief is not the call of this book. Sanders asks the Christian who is considering a move from their current church to no church or to another congregation to consider the form that the soon to be ex-church takes. Three components are needed to declare a body to be ‘church’: worship, community, and mission. He gives three examples (which I quote directly) against which to compare our church:
- A group of men who meet in a bar after work to talk about living deeper, more surrendered lives in which they take time to pray for their families and invite their nonbelieving friends to share a meal and the gospel would be church.
- A Sunday morning service where a great organ resounds the glory of God and the music and preaching move thousands of unrelated people, who return the next week to have the same experience, never engaging the mission or each other—this is not church.
- A group of mothers invites other mothers to a park after school and builds relationships with them and their kids, hoping to share Jesus with them. They also meet to pray for each other, listen to struggles, cry together and recommmit to the goal of living for Jesus and reaching every mother at that school. That is church.
- The church softball team plays in a church league, worships together on Sunday and even enjoys good fellowship before and after the games with Christians from their own team and from other churches. This is not church.
The Spirit rebels against a ‘church’ where God is not honored, people aren’t in community with each other, or they aren’t reaching anyone. This is what causes the unrest in the Christian’s soul causing him to consider the jump into the unknown. The absence of one or more elements cannot be made up for by the overemphasis on the others. Again, I quote Sanders on falling into this error;
- Just Worship: hypocrisy. If our spiritual life is confined to a privatized worship that’s sincere but doesn’t lead us into mission or into deep relationships with others, we face the threat of hypocrisy. We offer ourselves to God but don’t put into practice what his presence and his Word would require.
- Just Community: idolatry. If we pursue deep relationships but fail to live those relationships in the light of the mission of God or to submit those relationships to the headship of Jesus, we risk idolatry. Deep relationships unmediated by a concern for the kingdom and mission of God will take over our hearts, taking a place that should belong only to God. These unbalanced relationships will quickly become unhealthy and detrimental to our spiritual life.
- Just Mission: pride. If our spiritual life is confined to independently pursuing mission but not open, accountable friendships or dependence on God, we risk becoming our own God. Taking the mission on ourselves without realizing our need for God or the people of God will certainly lead to error and egomania.
Without all three, the place we find ourselves is not church.
This book didn’t generate the buzz that others have over the past year since it was published and I must admit, this sat on my shelf for some time before I picked it up to read. While it is messy in the way that our lives as Christians are, Brian has filled the book with so many nuggets of wisdom and insight that you want to read with a pencil or marker in hand to underline or highlight those thoughts that you will want to go back to again and again. The final pages about leaving well reveal his true heart for The Church; we are not to leave to damage but to rebuild or strengthen. Selfishly leaving for the satisfaction of injuring others is not an acceptable action for the people of Jesus. We leave in love and concern for those left behind.