why relational church?

why relational church?

by dwight friesen


Doug has a love/hate relationship with the church.  Some of his fondest memories, his life shaping moments and his deep relationships have been within the body of Christ.  He became a pastor to help other people experience what he had experienced.  Over the years he has had a front row seat to a spectacular Divine show: breathtaking redemptive narratives, broken relationships reconciled, hope discovered and embraced and so on. 


His front row seat has also given him an all too close vantage point to witness the horror of the Bride of Christ morph into the Bride of Frankenstein, wrecking havoc on those in its path.  Annual meetings that went sour, cruel unsubstantiated rumors spread throughout the body, declining numbers, shrinking budgets and the sinking feeling that he wasn’t good enough.  He had come to dread random phone calls from parishioners who wanted to speak with him, fearing that they too were about to tear away yet one more strip of his dwindling dignity.  He used to love being with people and now he increasingly saw them as interruptions.  Doug read of large churches, often wondering how those leaders could be relationally connected in the detailed lives of the people in their churches. 


When he and his wife, Renee left seminary they would often talk and dream late into the night with anyone who would listen about the wonder and beauty of doing life together.  They spoke about the dream of being known and knowing others, about participating in the day-to-day life of their neighborhood as they let the light of Christ shine through them.  They dreamt about bearing with one another, and about loving through disagreements, and about finding small practical ways to demonstrate their love for Christ by loving the members of their church family.


Five years into their first pastorate those passionate late night conversations were a distant memory.  “Youthful idealism – borderline utopianism,” he said to comfort himself.  Words like: exhausted, stale, alone, scared, defensive, and dry were now regularly appearing in his journal.  Renee was also growing disillusioned with vocational ministry.  She subtly dreaded board-meeting nights.  As she watched Doug come home with mixed feelings, having often being misunderstood.  She knew it was becoming too much for her.  She had started to go to bed before he returned just so she wouldn’t have to see the discouragement on his face; sometimes she even faked sleeping.  After five years he and Renee were done.  Doug had submitted his resignation with nowhere to go.  Maybe he could work with Renee’s dad.


While packing up his study and his dreams he came across a binder filled with essays he had written while in grad school.  A wave of nostalgia washed in.  He sat flipping the pages reading a paragraph here and there.  He thought of some of his professors, his fellow students and the passion he had once lived and breathed.  “What a far cry from this,” he thought looking at his boxed up life.


One of the essays he had written popped into his head.  It was a book report on Bonhoeffer’s Life Together.  When he found it, he read the entire thing twice, with glossy eyes.  “What had gone wrong here?” 


Working with Renee’s dad was OK.  Doug liked to joke that he went from hocking “Eternal Fire insurance” to auto insurance, usually eliciting little more than a slight chuckle.  He and Renee had a hard time finding a church to attend, so for a while they quit going altogether.  For the first time in their lives they slept in on Sunday morning – and liked it. 


As Doug and Renee talked with the people they were meeting in their new life they were surprised how many connected with their story.   Their feelings of being disappointed or hurt by the institutional church found ready “Amens,” as did the sense of new freedom in their post-church life.

  •       “Since I quit ‘going to church’ I have more time with my family and I love it.”
  •       “Now that I don’t have committee meetings, I’m getting to know my neighbors; it feels like they actually want to know me.”
  •       “Today, when I hear of a financial need or I see a friend who needs help I give, I don’t need to wait for a ‘church response.’  I am the church response.”
  •       “Since I ‘dropped out’ of Sunday School and midweek programs our family has started to volunteer one Saturday each month at a neighborhood food bank, we’re making a real difference, I think Christ is pleased.”
  •       “My husband and I go for walks on Sunday mornings.  We talk and pray.  And we’re no longer content with Christian clichés; instead we wrestle with God – together.”

Doug and Renee began to deconstruct their church experience and began to find others who wanted to deconstruct as well.  They started a small group in their home.  Often their conversations were as prophetic as they were profane.  They discussed the church’s hierarchical power structures, external measurements of success, programmed spirituality, church marketing that seemed more image conscious than concerned with honesty, the myth of the priesthood of all believers, the disproportionate amount of money spent on buildings and religious professionals, and how so much church-growth seemed to stem from clergy’s instinctive grasp at self-preservation.  Their conversations often took them back to Christ’s interactions with the religious leaders of His day. 


Jesus’ ministry was so relational.  He had such authority but refused to wield power, there was no discernable program instead He met each person uniquely. 


After a while God’s Spirit began to challenge Doug, Renee and their small group.  They began to sense that they could do more than deconstruct what they had experienced; God may actually be inviting them to begin something constructive.  Maybe they could be a Christ-community; a church without power structures, and permission systems, without dogmas of exclusion but points of invitation.


But how? 


Seminary had not trained Doug participate in a relational church.  “Am I the only person thinking this way?  Are there other Christ-communities that are wrestling with the meanings and implications of relational theology in the practice and structure of church life?  How can relationality be the organizing and structural principle for a Christ-community?”


Doug is beginning to sense that his vocational ministry burnout may be one of the greatest gifts God has given him.  Doug, Renee and their community still have a love/hate relationship with the institutional church but they beginning to find fresh life in relating with God each other and their world.

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  1. Hello Dwight,

    I have been perusing through your site for a while now off and on. I love your thoughts and they helped me articulate to my soul and other people my feelings and ideas with clarity. I just recently resigned as a campus minister from a institutional church to do a simple church plant. I am reading The Social structure of Reality by Berger and it is hitting the spot.

    Do you have phone conversations with people? I would love to talk to you and pick your brain a little. We are on this journey of the non-institutional church, but we have been in the institutional church for about 10 years as full time ministers. I am working at FedEx and loving the freedom of not introducing myself as a “minister” now. It is great!

    Anyways, thanks for your time.

    In JEsus,