10 Reasons Why I Left the Institutional Church in Search of the Ekklesia

Church building

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.


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 my article “Christianity in Crisis,” which was a response to an Andrew Sullivan’s article in Newsweek:

“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 Gallup, more than 1 million adult Christians in the U.S. leave it each year.) But many of those Christians are now gathering with local ekklesias that are not institutional. They are not “churchless.”

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 my article “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.

Here are 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 five—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.”

Here, now, are 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, visitable 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 anyone leading, facilitating 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.

Frank Viola is a popular conference speaker and the best-selling author of numerous books on the deeper Christian life, including Revise Us Again, From Eternity to Here, Epic Jesus, and Jesus Manifesto (co-authored with Leonard Sweet). His blog, “Beyond Evangelical,” is rated as one of the most popular in Christian circles today: frankviola.org.

For the original article, visit frankviola.org.


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