(Estimated reading time: 13 minutes)
It’s a word devoid of meaning.
“Christianity” covers a range of denominations, churches, cults and sects, along with an endless array of dogmas, doctrines, theology, and piety. We’ve moved far beyond Catholics vs. Protestants, with all sides fragmenting into a multitude of factions.
It sometimes seems that Christians have only two things in common: labeling themselves as “Christians”, and everyone else as “not”.
Christinaity also covers a wide range of activities, most of which have nothing to do with the teachings of Christ. Preachers endlessly expound on the same words found in the Bible while competing with each other for the attention of the crowd. Amateur musicians bookend the preaching with something called “worship”. A cottage industry of Christian media competes for the audience’s attention when the entertainment service ends. Smaller groups of Christians meet throughout the week, endlessly talking about the Book, the church, and each other.
Above all, no one questions this behavior. The congregation focuses on the sins of others while avoiding their own selves in the mirror. All share a behavior that, when compared to the teachings of Jesus, can aptly be described as “not” Christian.
Almost everyone has experienced these Christians. Their experiences, combined with the experiences of others and media reports, is what drives away the young, the secular, and everyone else in need of Jesus.
It’s not a question of orthodoxy. It’s a question of orthopraxy.
Christianity went by another name in its youth.
You may have heard the term before. Before the word “Christian” was initially applied as a slander, the earliest followers simply called it “The Way” (Act 9:1-2; Act 19:8-9; Act 19:23-27). Although they upheld much of the old Jewish orthodoxy, they pointed towards a paradigm larger than the culture of their age.
What distinguished them from the rest of the Jewish culture was not their religion. Instead, it was their belief in the divinity of a man named Jesus Christ, who stated he was The Way (Jn 14:6) and that, through following His commandments, anyone could be transformed from the empty life they previously lived.
These early followers were not advocating for the abandonment of the old in favor of something new; one culture over another, one religion over another, or one new set of beliefs over another. Rather, they were advocating for following a person, one they believed to be very much alive in spite of his apparent death, one who empowered them to live according to what He taught.
Their focus was to live out what they believed as the best way towards convincing others.
Showing over telling; telling through showing.
That approach is orthopraxy. Instead of an orthodox approach of identifying, codifying, and preaching a correct system of beliefs (while ostracizing those who do not conform to the selected interpretations), they transcended the rules and laws of their age through practicing underlying principles. They did not reject orthodoxy (in contrast to many modern day practitioners of orthopraxy – Act 24:14-16), but channeled their focus towards that single word of love, holding their greatest love for this person named Jesus.
Love is the difference between The Way and every other faction of Christianity. Our practice defines us, more than words and beliefs can ever do.
The Way would eventually consume the Roman Empire. As it did, it began to gain a sense of self-importance, codifying behavior and conduct into a new orthodoxy forming the basis of Christianity today. The Way conquered an empire and, in turn, was conquered.
Those who followed The Way faded into the crowd, where they mostly remained to this day.
We are scattered everywhere.
Although few in number, there is not a gender, ethnicity, social class, or profession where you will not find us. We are found in every geographic region, nation, and culture. You’ll find us on both sides of the political spectrum, just as you’ll find us among the apolitical.
We may be rich or poor in the eyes of the world. We may appear with any label, or no label at all. We sit or stand next to you in church, in school, and at work. What is most striking is our willingness to cross all lines, extending a hand to those considered enemies. We are often found in unexpected places, the kinds of locations not connected with religious folk. We are molded to serve you where you are, not where we think you should be.
When we started this journey, you probably couldn’t distinguish us from anybody else. We were undergoing transformation, and that transformation took time. Eventually, we began to exhibit that transformation, even as we struggled to articulate the experience. If you were blessed to witness our transformation, your beliefs likely changed. Each of us still struggles to express this journey in words you can understand. What we see and hear goes far beyond our ability to express it. It’s one of the driving forces behind our practice; easier to show you than tell you.
We don’t try to be like Christ; we simply become like Christ. We are not imitators but authentic practitioners, moving with an increasing ease in all that we do. The more we seek and walk The Way, the more it consumes us, up to the day of our death. We are driven on by our love for a person instead of a religion. All competitors for our love fade away, if they are not outright vanquished.
This transformation goes far beyond changes in behavior. It includes transformation of paradigm, character, personality, and perhaps even biology. It’s not only what the apostle Paul termed as the fruits of the spirit (Gal 5:22-23), but an overall strength of character, demonstrated in surprising ways and in unique circumstances. We are always learning, always changing, always growing, even when we are static and unmoving. We love and give because we are loved and given too.
We speak and live by our highest understanding of truth. There is nothing false about us. If we discover we have been living a lie in any way, we confess it, while seeking forgiveness and righting wrongs. We do this, even if our confession ruins us in some way, for we do not give false testimony. We know who we serve, and the servant emulates the master.
We seek to share over preaching, demonstrate over evangelizing, teach over lecturing, structure over indoctrinate, and show our love instead of merely talking about it. We are not interested in categorizing and separating people based on what they believe and know. Instead, we only seek to live the light we have found, all for your benefit.
We produce the widest range of reactions in others. Some see our worth while many do not. In a world of selfishness, our profound unselfishness is often unsettling. Some hate us for the stark contrast between our behavior and their mockery, even resulting in martyrdom for a few of us. We are no strangers to hatred and suffering in spite of (or because of) our expansive and ever-growing empathy for others. Although the results are often devastating to us personally, our suffering is never in vain: each loss is for the broadest good.
We change the world as we travel through it. We demonstrate a better way to live while eroding illusions of control, upsetting power structures and balances, shifting paradigms and beliefs, and exposing falsehood and lies. None of these things are a focus of what we do; rather, these events are a byproduct of being ourselves. Our teacher (as well as all others who have followed in His footsteps) was accused of being a disturber of the peace. We learn to live with these accusations as well.
The foolish resist and fight us to their own demise, a demise often coming after they gain what they believe is victory over us. The wise embrace us, producing a mutual blessing. Some even become messengers as they also adopt The Way. We support and encourage all who seek the One we love through the gifts we share. We do not love so much as we embody love, in a way recognizable to all.
We are the ones who seek His presence in everything we do.
And in this modern world, we are fading away, one more sign of the times.
It started when I felt His presence for the first time.
There was always something “off” about the church while I was growing up. I couldn’t put my finger on the source; all I knew is that there was a vast disconnect between what was said and done. I began to search for what was missing. I would say I was the prodigal son, except that the house I left was not a holy house. Nevertheless, it didn’t take me long to fall into the same kinds of troubles as the prodigal son, crying out to God in desperation.
He answered, and I haven’t been the same since. I found the presence of God, and all I knew in those early years is that I wanted more of it. Little did I know that the world would spend the rest of my life trying to rob me of this experience. Some of the worst robbers came from the institutional church.
It’s not a conclusion one comes to all at once. It comes from an accumulation of many insightful experiences as the Lord takes you on a journey, through the lives of individuals, communities and cultures, both within and outside of the church. You begin to see that human life is more complicated than the simple characterizations often drawn from Bible studies.
This leads to a growing awareness that most of the preachers don’t really understand the people they preach too. Instead of attentively hearing and seeing, they do what the world does, waiting for the next moment to jump in with a Scripture quote. The Bible becomes a quiver of arrows, fired as rapidly as possible without regard for target. When they miss their target, they blame you. When they make you bleed, they call this the “glory of God”. When you oppose their wholesale slaughter, they condemn you.
Their knowledge comes from studying a book, not the people they preach too, and certainly not from seeking the God who authored the book (Jn 5:39-40). Theirs is a paper god, drawn from the very same pages testifying to that divine presence while leaning to their own understanding and the understanding of others (Pr 3:5-6). Their ignorance and ineptness is revealed through their behavior.
The more I became, the starker the contrast. It’s nearly impossible to illustrate the difference with words; a pity, considering words are often all we have in a digital world. It’s like trying to describe Atlantis to a person who has never set sail in a boat or seen an ocean. Both use words like “boat” and “water”, but both are referring to vastly dissimilar things. How can one understand the navigation of a sailboat when one has only set foot on a raft? How can one understand an ocean when the only frame of reference is a pond?
A successful illustration would require an understanding which only comes from putting those same words into practice, such as loving one’s enemies (Mt 5:43-48) and giving up everything one has (Mt 13:44-46). Instead, each focuses their attention and worship on everything and anything other than God, a broad list drawn from the cares and worries of this life with no bottom. In spite of free-falling into their destruction, they continue to believe that knowing the secret password of “Jesus” while engaging in fits of piety will somehow gain them entrance into His presence when that fateful day comes.
It wasn’t their hypocrisy, lack of compassion or love, lack of understanding, or lack of wisdom that was the problem. It’s the same lack as their forebears, a lack which will be there tomorrow. The same spirit guiding them (Lk 9:54-55) is the same spirit guiding those who pulled the levers at Nuremberg, lynched blacks in the South, burned witches at the stake, waged war in the name of Catholics or Protestants, executed heretics during the Inquisition, worshipped idols in ancient Israel, and forced every knee to bow before their understanding of God, rather than God Himself. When a person loves something more than God, the results only differ by a matter of degrees. Today’s hate is tomorrow’s motivation to execute those you hate.
Yet, perhaps I am being too harsh? We are sinners, after all, and part of the journey is discovering that the same seeds of “hatred, discord, jealousy, and rage; rivalries, divisions, factions, and envy” (Gal 5:20) exist within you. Some of what I noticed was only a reflection of myself, a projection of my own inadequacies unto others without realizing it. Seeing these flaws produced the necessary self-reflection for change. Other times, it was only an individual’s weakness and cross to bear: their life exhibited what they believed in other ways, also a part of my education and transformation.
Nevertheless, the majority demonstrated an ongoing contradiction between their words and behavior. Whereas I and others stumbled, learned, changed, and grew from our struggles (even if over a long period of time), they did not, learning instead to craft a better mask for a better disguise. It wasn’t that they were not keeping pace; they didn’t seem to be moving forward at any pace.
This perception only grew. Recycled sermons rarely seemed to go beyond spiritual milk (1 Cor 3:2). Bible study groups cherry-picked Scripture verses, providing anesthesia instead of growth. Plastic smiles were everywhere. Struggles living out this new life were never mentioned. The business of church often overruled the spirit of church. A few engaged in a level of savagery shocking enough even for the secular, and were sometimes pardoned for reasons having nothing to do with repentance. A vast chasm existed between the group claiming to love their neighbor, and the state of their neighborhoods, whether inside or outside the church building.
There was a surprising amount of bad fruit among what should be good trees (Matt 7:17-18). In time, I discerned between those who were loving and worshipping God, and those who loved something else, whether that something was materialism, careers, technology, politics, church culture, religions, ideologies, or specific people.
It dawned on me that many had wandered from The Way on an identical set of stone steps, initially parallel before slowly veering off in another direction. Something or someone had taken the place of the One who calls us all. Kinship over a common struggle dissolved. It became increasingly apparent as to who was working in the field, and who was loafing next to the barn, still expecting to be paid (Mt 20:1-16).
What’s more, working in the field among the secular revealed no difference between the secular and religious. I witnessed the same abuse of the Lord’s servants both within and outside of the house of God. When accompanied by a study of history, I learned that not only was the church not the house of God anymore, but that it was questionable whether it ever really was. Instead, the institutional church had become a haunt for demons, abounding with the false prophecies of political punditry while engaging in the kind of idolatry only found in America.
These experiences, when combined with the new life forming within me, brought me to an epiphany, one that I suppose I always knew, but which was now a conscious thought. I recognized with stark clarity that these people were not my brothers and sisters (Mt 12:46-50).
And I am not their Christian.
I know you’re out there.
Whereas many experience the touch of God at some point in their life, brushing it aside before going back to sleep, you did not. You were moved like nothing else. You laced up your hiking boots, grabbed a walking stick, and started the journey. Whether you started reading the Bible, attending a church, or joined the ministry, you wanted more of the divine, a desire stronger than anything else you ever wanted in your life. You found a love unlike any other, and you wanted to share that love with others, driven by the overflow of your own heart. It was a thrilling time, wasn’t it?
Yet, as you put into practice what you are learning, you are beginning to notice a disconnect between what is said and what is done, just as I did.
Has The Way become lonely for you? I know what many of you would say: you are never truly lonely, for you walk with the Lord. Although I agree with you, each of us knows that we should not give up meeting together, even if this same message is used by the institutional church to guilt congregants through their doors. God said it was not good for man (and woman, for that matter) to be alone (Ge 2:18). This was said when Adam still had His companionship.
Where are you now?
I know you’re out there because I come across you from time to time. We joyfully recognize our kinship almost immediately. Some of us are living out our vocation and gifts, some have only begun, and some of us don’t know they are on this holy path just yet. Regardless of where we are on the journey, we see the same spark of life in the eyes of each other, finding almost immediate comfort in a fellow traveller.
The more we go on, the more our numbers dwindle. As our understanding increases, the understanding of the many decreases, a multiplication of cold, dead hearts (Mt 24:12) without any apparent end. At the end of His life on earth, Jesus was utterly alone. For some of us, this will be our fate as well.
Yet, as Aragorn said to the soldiers of Gondor at the gates of Mordor, it is not this day. Hope remains while the company is true.
Are you a burned-out pastor? A minister teetering on exhaustion? A member of the laity who finds it increasingly difficult to make a positive impact where you are? Did you leave the church, only to struggle with isolation? Did you find a tribe and want to share it?
It doesn’t matter where you are. If The Way is a journey through a desert, then this blog was created to be an oasis. Stay for as long as you need. Refresh. Rejuvenate. Connect. Tell others where there is an oasis. Share other oases you have found.
If you should decide to stay, you can join me and others in ministering to others passing through. There is no shortage of need. May your gifts, your talents, and your experiences be living water for many.
May we find comfort with others searching for The Way.