One of the things I have come to appreciate now that I'm 34 and tried doing the fellowship thing apart from any church is that it doesn't work, not really, and not for very long. I could see valid criticisms of the church right and left from friends and family and I often heard the argument, "I can get fellowship by spending time with Christians outside of any formal setting." I bought that whole way of thinking for a while and maybe it really works in some settings, but ...
I heard someone once say she wasn't into organized religion for a few years. This could often be a valid criticism ... but it could equally often be a sign that the organized religious institution she was attending wasn't getting her what she wanted. If she wasn't acknowledged as having a more or less prophetic right to tell the pastor whether he was annointed or doing something important she tended to lose her ardor for that pastor's leadership. It's not that the critiques were groundless in themselves exactly (but sometimes they probably were), it's that she had something to get out of being listened to that may have compromised what she could have said. In other words, it's tougher to think of the pastor or other believers as better than yourself if you're constantly desiring to be the person who is respected and listened to because you're you then you're guilty of having the same problem many a pastor has.
Now don't get me wrong, I do think fellowship can happen apart from church settings but there are things that don't tend to happen. More to the point, there are things that people who pull out of churches say DOES happen that don't. Corporate worship and prayer, for one. I know, people can tell me that these things happen but if you factor out families (more on this later) and factor out spin-offs associated with churches it's not that common to have home church/alterna-church gatherings that last long. One reason is simply that if they last long and are effective witnesses to the Gospel they are likely to become churches. Another reason is that if they don't they are not about the Gospel but about the pet theological, cultural, and political goals of the people involved.
But at a more basic level I came to realize over ten years that these home-churches or alternatives to institutional church don't work because they abdicate or ignore the very things that they supposedly get apart from church. Basic stuff like corporate praise and worship of the Lord, corporate and individual confession of sin, prayer for the sick, helping widows and orphans.
Maybe one man or woman can do all these things and not attend a church but a perso nwho does that is being part of the church and paradoxically is likely to draw people to themselves. If not, then a person who sings and studies and discusses Scripture; a person who sets aside time to help the poor and powerless; a person who confesses sin and hears confession of sin; a person who prays for the sick and a person who annoints with oil if functioning like a bishop/overseer/pastor or has someone in his/her life that fulfills that role. We are made both for submission and for leadership and the trouble with the alterna-church role is that either it fails utterly to do or be what the church ought to be herself, but often in succeeding as an alternative simply proves itself what Jesus originally designed it to be, which takes all the force out of the criticism.
If the Church is the bride of Christ doesn't saying that the institutional church isn't where church happens effectively saying that no one who has put on the wedding dress is the bride? It's not like the bride is all that awesome now, I know, but the Church is not just about me and Jesus. Even long-time married people go on dates. It feels almost as though the problem with finding "church" apart from a church is that it's like being married but refusing to have date night because you can get the conversation, friendship, sex, parenting, and all those other things in other contexts apart from going on an official date. Sure, but husbands and wives go on date nights anyway, right? I just find it strange that what people understand in the natural realm of things seems so invisible in the realm of fellowship with God's people.
If you want to sing praises to the Lord, confess and repent of sin, share with the people whom you are able to share with, gather in the name of Christ with two or three believers, you CAN do all these things without officially being linked into a local church, but I have to ask if by doing all those things you aren't already doing church so to speak. And I have to ask if you can't do these things in the context of a church, or rather if you haven't made a church in the context of doing these things. Churches as institutions didn't come about because someone decided to make an institution one day in Jesus' name.
It seems like either churches become graveyards of spiritual movements or they aren't movements at all, but God has a history of working with wayward and lost people. If Jesus let His people divide before His coming I can see Him easily letting them divide after His ascension before His return.
So, sure, churches as institutions mess things up but to say they are dead is to forget that where two or three gather in His name, He will be there. The problem with saying that churches aren't what Jesus came to establish is that if you go that far you're calling Jesus a liar at some level. Jesus didn't say that the Church He established, and the apostles never said that the individual churches were all that awesome. Christ's message through the apostle to churches in Revelation are full of stinging rebukes but also of encouragement, and the recognition from Christ Himself that those pathetic bands of Christians who tolerated Jezebel or who were lukewarm were churches, churches that belonged to Him, churches dealing with persecution and confusion. This doesn't mean any of them were without flaws, and it doesn't mean that people can't have fellowship and confess sin and publicly proclaim the kingship of Christ in some alternative they imagine to what they consider the unfixable local church.
But that hardly means that such a criticism of the local church or denominations is really solving anything. Scripture is replete with men like King Saul who clearly saw what his own problem was and was not saved by that knowledged. Knowledge in itself is not power, at all. Knowledge can bind you, too. I'm not even going to bother getting so geeky as to explain the conundrum at the end of Watchmen, besides after two decades the comic book is going to be a movie anyway. The thing I mention in it is that you get these people at the end where knowing what is really going on makes them guilty of either not stopping it or accepting it. At best the one person who doesn't compromise is destroyed. Perhaps, for the sake of silliness, I could proffer that as an allegory about people who are confronted with problems in the church. Some go along to get along, some attempt to stop it and are destroyed, and others attempt to stake out a position where they don't compromise but they only destroy themselves because they don't have an alternative that actually works, they simply refuse to accept what is.
My musings here are not abstract. I got dragged to home fellowships and alternatives to organized religion by my parents. I recall one group met in Portland and I recall being prayed for and some fellow was praying the Spirit would take control of me. I felt like I was being suggested to get "slain in the Spirit" and the guy assured me no. I think this was the place where some self-announced prophet from South Korea came and visited and talked about how (this was around 1992) God revealed to him that California would sink into the sea by 1997 because of its wickedness. Hmm ... last I checked California is mysteriously still on the map! So much for that prophet.
Another home fellowship I was impelled to attend was out in the middle of nowhere in Oregon (for those of you who have been reading from the beginning you know I originally hail from Oregon). After about six or seven CCM choruses there was a brief discussion of some part of an epistle and the conversation quickly ranged toward theories that black, unmarked United Nations helicopters were practicing secret operations inside the Oregon borders. Some middle aged guys swore that this was what they saw and that the U.N. and the Clinton administration were planning on suspending the COnstitution and the Bill of Rights and getting ready to declare martial law. Women were talking about how they liked Rush Limbaugh but that he often gave them a critical spirit. .... uh, yeah.
So I don't recall us visiting that group more than once or twice. The strange irony to all this was that a few years ago when I talked with my mother about how she and my stepdad had compulsory church attendence I went along with because I didn't feel like being disagreeable (I was referring to college years when so long as I was under their roof they insisted I had to go to the church they went to, where ever they decided "the annointing" was) my mother said that they always picked churches on what I and my siblings liked. Really? I never in a billion years would have chosen to go to "the church that rocks", and I wasn't the one who was leaping to befriend some skeezy teenagers who were scoping out my sister. My parents insisted I should make friends at the church. It didn't matter that I had nothing in common with them and had no interest in getting to know them--that just meant that I needed to acknowledge that all Christians need to have in common is being Christians (true) and that I should work at being friends with them (still wouldn't do it). Eventually my stepdad proferred the rather pragmatic advice that if I didn't like the way some teenager leered at my sister I should hang out with the guy just to make sure he didn't misbehave. Okay, that was finally the argument that worked on me so I hung out with the loser.
For someone who grew up in churches that were "dead" or not "alive" I get the desire to abandon all churches or "organized religion". I have heard people say they don't even like the word "church". But guess what? Jesus used it and if you claim to love Jesus at some point you will come to love His people, even if they treat you like shit. You don't redefine who God's people and who the "real" church is around how you have been hurt because the moment you do that you are like the legal expert talking to Jesus and asking, "And who is my neighbor?" wanting to justify yourself. It is a matter I am contemplating regularly, obviously. There are many bad churches, institutions that have severe problems, but beyond a point that is tough to pin down it looks like Judah and Samaria and when Jesus came to visit them both He had both blessing and rebuke for them.
I have seen why it's tempting to bail on churches or the idea of formal church but unless you are a brilliant social networking who is actively seeking to confess your sins to others and also need little help to have your own sinful patterns pointed out to you having friendships within a group that formally meets to praise the Lord isn't all that bad. Of course it won't really do you any good if you run that group because if accountability isn't mutual and loving it's not accountability by any stretch of the imagination. I don't mean accountability in that you sign some waiver that lets people kick your ass as though that's what it meant and nothing more.
James 5 says we should confess our sins to one another. That means if I sin against you and I don't know about it, talk to me. If I don't repent, find some other people who can make the case more saliently. IF you sin against me I should be able to talk to you. If we don't talk to each other than brothers or sisters in Christ can help out. If I won't listen to you but insist that you should listen to me, or if you insist that I should listen to you but you won't listen to me, that's the sort of relational rupture that is hard to fix precisely because it is (if we're both Christians) in the church. Alternatives to church often fail, utterly, at this sort of mutually confessional relationship. In fact it was in home fellowships that were crazy (and I grant many aren't) that I heard from a woman that she translated "Abba" into "Daddy". So this became occasion for her to very proudly and confidently said, "Daddy said my husband and I should move to town X and start a business there." This woman eventually made off with a bunch of money from aforementioned home church and left her husband and hasn't been seen or heard from in a while. Another fellow who led the home church that met in Portland got divorced a few years later.
One of the objections to institutional churches is the abuse and misuse of authority but it is actually PRECISELY this thing that is most likely to be abused by people who are critics of "organized religion" or the "institutional church". They also frequently feel as though they are the victims of such pastoral or institutional abuse, not realizing that they may carry within them the seeds of the same penchant for abuse of spiritual authority or wanting to refashion the nature and definition of who God's people on earth "really" look like in more or less a similar way to how their abuser did.
Paradoxically I am starting to feel that the "dead" churches have the advantage here. You have to jump through so many hoops to get ordained as a minister in a denomination you better be fairly sure it's what you're called to do and you have to give up years of your life to get certified and approved. If you just nominate yourself to be a spiritual leader because you think it's a good idea you have pre-empted a whole litany of tasks that denominations would make you do. Even if you think a year is a long time or a year and a half, it's not long compared to four years of divinity school, apprenticing, getting reviewed by a denominational network, and finally getting installed with the understanding that you'll get moved if they don't think you're up to it.