Many are dying in the churches of Christianity today. Perhaps you are one of them. I was. I sat in a pew, Sunday after Sunday, year after year, listening to sermons. I would try to focus my mind on what I was hearing, sometimes with delight, sometimes with an overwhelming tiredness, almost always with a desire to surrender my life to God, but not knowing how to do it. I would get up from my pew, stirred by the words I heard and the final hymn I tried to sing with all my heart, sometimes to make my way to the front to "re-dedicate my life to Christ," usually to make my way to the rear, to shake hands with the pastor and greet as many people as I could before plunging headlong into another busy week.
My resolve to be a different person that week would begin to erode as soon as I stepped out the door of the church. The reality of my life would come crashing down upon me and I would switch into survival mode, coping as well as I could to hold my marriage together, provide a comfortable living for myself and my family, and maintain my sanity in the process. Who would know that the condition of my private life was such a contradiction to the lofty ideal I embraced each Sunday?
No one would know. I was considered the exemplary Christian in every church I was ever in. My family was considered the exemplary Christian family. I taught Sunday school, led worship, preached in the pulpit, was faithful to tithe. No one knew that I was dying inside. I had everyone fooled except myself, my wife, and the counselors we quietly paid to help us come to terms with our brokenness.
Do you realize that there are millions of people just like me in churches everywhere who convince one another, and even themselves, that they have a "satisfying walk with the Lord" when in fact, in the darkness of their own lives, hidden from their "brothers and sisters," they harbor all manner of lustful and debased thoughts and gratify their selfish and worldly desires, take refuge in and get their self esteem from their careers, neglect their wives and children, etc. Just like I was, they are dying in their churches. Unable to trust their pastors or Christian friends with the intimate details of their lives, they resort to professional counselors to help them cope with the contradictions in their lives and the resulting havoc in their personal relationships.
It was a long time before I would give in to my wife's pleading and agree to see a counselor. That was for weak people. From time to time we would hear about Christian acquaintances of ours who were going through divorces. I would shake my head and wonder how they could consider something so contrary to scripture. Why didn't their pastors help them? Why couldn't the counselors they went to set them aright? Then my own wife's quiet desperation began to find a voice and my self-righteous stand began to weaken. If I would not go with her to counseling, would I pay for her to go alone? Shame and insecurity and anger flooded over me.
Why couldn't she just talk with her friends, or other women in the church, or even the pastor? She had a couple of friends whom she trusted enough to share her deep struggles with, but they were not in any better place themselves. They urged her to seek professional counseling, just as they were in the habit of doing. As for other women in the church, there was no foundation of trust there -- we hardly knew them. And as for the pastor and his wife, they were our friends and our peers. We didn't see them as having wisdom or experience beyond our own.
We gutted out the next ten years on some combination of Christian counselors and Christian self-help books. Our hopes were raised and dashed so many times, we became numb to our own pain. Our growing family and our ever-increasing standard of living gave us enough distractions to carry us until the time when we would find the therapeutic healing environment of life in Messiah, where true healing and restoration would begin.
The first counselor my wife saw was a Christian woman who had her office in downtown Boston in a building owned by one of the larger conservative Evangelical churches. For her time she charged three times my wife's salary as a Registered Nurse. On her second visit, my wife happened to step into the elevator with her counselor, who coldly ignored her until they arrived at her office. There my wife asked her, "Did you even recognize me in the elevator?" She shrugged off the question and redirected the focus to my wife's problems. Somehow my wife did not have confidence to continue her therapy with this "sister in Christ."
In the years that followed, we became aware that more and more of our friends were seeing counselors. One dear friend of ours went to seek help for his failing marriage from a man who left the pastoral ministry in his conservative Evangelical church to strike out on his own as a professional counselor. The "care" he received for his hard-earned dollars left him hopeless and his marriage ended in divorce. Shortly after he quit going to this counselor, he learned that the counselor himself was divorcing his wife and had "come out of the closet," admitting his homosexuality.
Many other Christian friends of ours have had similarly devastating experiences, going to counseling year after year with no relief from their condition, virtually becoming addicted to the counseling itself, so starved are they for deep, honest interpersonal relationships and accountability. For lack of caring shepherds and trusted friends, they pay self-appointed counselors to hear their confessions and absolve them of their guilt.
These "professionals" sort their "clients" into well-defined categories: adult children of alcoholics, co-dependent and addictive personalities, victims of sexual abuse and incest, etc. Each receives reasons for his maladies, goes off to the nearest Christian bookstore for the latest book on his condition, joins a "support group" of other broken people who share the same malady, and tries to cope. Another Christian friend of ours learned that she belongs to the Adult Children of Alcoholics category. She has been faithfully going to her ACOA Support Group for more than seven years now, learning more about her problem and meeting more people with problems like hers. She loves it. She loves it to death. She is dying in it.
Shortly after we first met the Community, my wife described the life we had seen to a Christian counselor she had come to know. She described the simple common life, the good authority, the respectful, obedient, happy children, the similarity to the early church described in the Bible in Acts, chapters 2 and 4. With a wistful look in her eyes, this counselor told my wife that if the church was really being the church, that she would be out of a job. My wife replied that surely there would always be a need for counselors. But this woman insisted that no, if the church were real, there would be no need for her profession. She admitted to being a parasite, living off the pain and suffering of her "brothers and sisters in Christ."
Like Father McKenzie, the so-called priests and pastors of Christianity live separate lives, disconnected from the daily lives of the Christians whom they try in vain to direct with their weekly sermons. Truly, no one comes near. And like Eleanor Rigby, the Christians in today's churches learn to put on a mask to hide their inner torment. They cling to memories of stimulating experiences in their churches -- weddings, musical events, retreats, presentations of visiting missionaries -- in a desperate effort to convince themselves that it is not all a sham. They hold on to the hope that at least some are making it -- the Sunday school teachers, the deacons or elders, the music directors, the pastors -- so maybe someday they also will get their lives together. They live in a dream.
But the Christian stars are not making it either. Ten years ago I attended a "Pastor's Breakfast" in preparation for a Billy Graham Crusade in Boston. Among the men at my table was the pastor of a large suburban Evangelical church. He was a well-known radio preacher and the author of several popular Christian books on "making it" as a Christian in your marriage, family and social life. His charisma was immediately evident at our table, and we all felt privileged to be with him. He was the very picture of Christian successfulness. A few months later, his picture was in the papers across America. He had resigned his position, confessing his adulterous relationship with his church secretary. Sadly, this is far from unusual in Christianity today.
Reality is that no one is "making it" in Christianity. All are slipping away into death, clergy and laity alike. Whether or not they have fallen into gross immorality, they are abiding in death because they are not vitally connected to one another. They are divided from one another in countless ways: physically, emotionally, economically, theologically, and politically. They cling desperately to their own independent lives, because they do not believe the words of our Master:
Whoever wishes to save his life shall lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake, he is the one who will save it. (Luke 9:24)
Because they do not lose their own lives, they don't receive Messiah's life, which is able to save them. They are not vitally connected to Him; therefore they dwell in death, cut off from the only source of life.
When we met the Community, we saw the reality of life in Messiah that almost fifteen years in Christianity had taught us was impossible. We saw ordinary people living together in unity, laying down their lives for each other every day, working together, eating together, teaching their children, teaching each other, being healed. They had all given up their independent lives -- careers, homes, possessions, opinions, etc. -- for the sake of Messiah, and received His life in return. The shepherds among them lived the same life as the rest -- open, accountable, trustworthy. They didn't become shepherds because they had earned a degree in some institution. They were recognized as shepherds because they had demonstrated their character, their faithfulness, their stability, their wisdom and their love by years of laying down their lives for their brothers and sisters. No one was going to "professional counselors" because their needs were being met in their own households by people who truly loved them.
I was dying in the church -- in Christianity -- and I knew it. Despite my pride and my unwillingness to give up my Christian "salvation," I came to see that my intellectualized faith divorced from the reality of a pure, open and simple life together with others who were living the same life, was no salvation at all. I heard the words of Yahshua from the lips of someone who had obeyed them:
No one of you can be My disciple who does not give up all his own possessions. (Luke 14:33)
I came to see that there was a death I had to give myself to, a total surrender of my life and possessions, in order to gain eternal life in Messiah (Philippians 3:8). As it was, death was overtaking me in my relationships and in the turmoil of my own soul. Finally I saw that I was faced with a choice: death by decay behind my mask of pretense, leading to eternal death, or death by the voluntary act of my will, leading to eternal life.
I am so thankful that the God of heaven stopped me on my journey to death and led me to where I could see a demonstration of his life. (Eleanor Rigby never got that chance.) Here I can live with people with whom I can share the deepest things in my heart. I can trust them because we have entered into a covenant together, a blood covenant, sealed by the blood of our Master Yahshua. We were able to reach his blood because we actually gave up our lives in the waters of baptism. Now we no longer live for ourselves, but for Him who died and rose again on our behalf (2 Corinthians 5:14-15). He is making us into His royal priesthood. Rather than wiping the dirt from our hands as we bury one another with neglect and selfishness, we are being cleansed as we learn to love one another as Messiah loved us.