Religionless Christianity: Finding God Outside the Institutional Church

Recently a friend of mine shared concern over the fact that her children, who are in their forties, love Christ and live by Christian principals but have little interest in being a part of the institutional church.

I read this quote this week over at Emerging Mummy which speaks to why some Christians have left the church,

As we all know, this is the world 2.0, meaning that it is interactive and we are the people formerly known as the audience, viewing our individual voices and stories as equal and valuable.  Also, as Bill Kinnon said, we are also the people formerly known as the congregation:

“We are The People formerly known as The Congregation. We have not stopped loving the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Nor do we avoid “the assembling of the saints.” We just don’t assemble under your supposed leadership. We meet in coffee shops, around dinner tables, in the parks and on the streets. We connect virtually across space and time – engaged in generative conversations – teaching and being taught.

We live amongst our neighbors, in their homes and they in ours. We laugh and cry and really live – without the need to have you teach us how. – by reading your ridiculous books or listening to your supercilious CDs or podcasts.”

My friend attended my first book signing a few weeks ago which turned into a spiritual experience when each of my urban friends shared a portion of their testimony.  She commented that in that experience she saw a new and very different kind of Christian Community.  She stated “What you are doing reminded me of Bonhoeffer’s vision of a Religionless Christianity.”  She went on to say that she felt what many Christians were seeking was an intimate place where they could discover themselves, share their lives with others, and  find Christ in and through one another.

This concept of finding Christ outside the church walls and in ordinary people is a very strong thread in my book From the Sanctuary to the Streets and I also found this same thread in a book I read last week titled Divine Nobodies: Shedding Religion to Find God by Jim Palmer.  Palmer writes;

“In my disillusionment with institutional church, I contemplated chucking Christianity but I discovered that these were two separate and not nearly equal things…sometimes it is not a professor or a preacher leading you to divine truth but the commonplace people God sticks right in front of your face…Isn’t it people God indwells, not buildings?  When two or three believers are together encouraging one another in their journey with God, isn’t Christ present in their community whether the geographical location is First Baptist, St. Peter’s, or Starbucks?  Maybe my greatest need isn’t another sermon about Christian living, morality, and do’s and don’ts.  If the life of Christ is configured within me, isn’t spiritual growth a matter of grasping the reality of that and being transformed through my intimate, personal, individual relationship with Jesus?  And if the risen Christ lives inside all believers, doesn’t it stand to reason that significant relationships with one another are another dimension of experiencing Christ’s nourishing and renewing presence?… Perhaps God never intended people to relate to him through services, programs, and meetings.  Maybe “church” had devolved into a man-made bureaucracy seeking to control and manage God…Despite all the denominational distinctions I’ve come across along the way, for the life of me, I cannot find any other litmus test Jesus insisted upon to authenticate his followers except love.”

I think many believers, myself included, feel much the way Palmer does.  Some of us have experienced Christ more powerfully outside the church walls than by sitting in the church pews.  For Palmer, it is through encounters with individuals in his community and for me it has been through relationships with homeless and impoverished residents of our city.

My friend asked me what advice I had for helping her children connect to “the church.”  I think that depends on how you define “church.” What if we created spaces where ordinary people are encouraged to see Christ in one another and in the ordinary stuff of life?  What if through these ordinary encounters we helped people see God and grow in faith?  Are we willing to let go of curriculum, sermons, and bible studies and instead look deep within our own souls and hear Christ spirit that dwells within each of us?  Are we willing to see such spaces and encounters as a new expression of Christ’ s church? Are there individuals who have been rooted in the Christian faith who are willing to open up their homes, create such spaces, and point to God in the ordinary? Are we willing to trust the Holy Spirit to guide and lead us in our encounters?

I am not proposing that we do not need the institutional church nor am I suggesting that there is no need for theological foundations and training.  The institutional church is the spiritual home for millions of American’s and I also know that I would never have found faith in Christ without the institutional church. I am also a seminary trained theologian who believes that solid theology is essential for healthy spirituality.  However, our society hungers for a level of intimacy that is currently missing both in society and in many institutional churches and we have so busied those with a call to ministry with “church activities” that there are few who are willing to be guide those outside the church on their spiritual journey.

If it is intimacy that the 2.0 generation is seeking are we willing to release theologically grounded Christians out into the world to guide them on their quest?  Or will we allow them to wonder in the wilderness like sheep without shepherds?

My prayer is that those who have not found a home in the institutional church, or who like myself have been called out of the institutional church will create these kinds of spaces: spaces where we experience intimacy with one another and through each other experience Christ. Intimacy will not be found through the internet or social media, but it is present when two or three of us gather, seek to see Christ, and learn to love one another deeply and authentically.  That is the true church, no matter what you want to call it.


Filed under missional church, Theology, Top Post's of All Time, Urban Ministry

14 responses to “Religionless Christianity: Finding God Outside the Institutional Church

  1. Thank you for this post. I was raised attending church 3 times a week, and I have to say, I feel closer to the Creator in my own personal space or in nature than I ever felt the Presence in church.

    I think there is a return, though, to biblically based fellowship, and I found an interesting book on the subject called The Gathering by Ray Barnett. It discusses the biblical model of the first century Christian church, and how the insitutional churches have gotten so far away from that. I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to gather and worship with others, but is not comfortable with the current modes of Christian meetings.

    Take care and many blessings to you!

    • wmccaig

      Molly – thanks for your comment. I also appreciate you sharing “The Gathering”, it sounds like something I would enjoy reading. I will add it to my summer reading list. Have you found a group to gather and worship with? I know of a few folks doing these kind of “simple” or “organic” type gatherings and I think what God is doing in our Fairfield and Hillside conversations is bordering on what you describe but everyone I know that is doing this kind of ministry is still very new at it and still just groping in the dark seeking God’s leading every step of the way. If you have found a community of saints to share life with, I would love to hear more about your experience. Blessings- Wendy

  2. Thanks for this insightful post. I am currently rediscovering the Creator and removing the chains of religion in my own life. I must admit also that my experience outside of the Institutional Church walls has been life changing.

    • wmccaig

      Nancy, thank you for your post. I know from the comments of many of my friends, that it is often hard to find a place to share your spiritual journey when much of that journey is outside the church walls. That is one reason I created this blog. I wanted to share my journey and encourage others to do the same. I hope you will continue to be a part of this on-line dialog. I would love to here how your experience outside the walls has changed your life.

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  4. anewcreation

    This is a subject that interests me a great deal and which has just caused me much pain at the same time, as I have lost a spiritual friend because of our disagreement, and my friends’ deep conviction that being a Christian outside of the local church frame is unbiblical.

    I am struggling with all of this at the moment, and I would be grateful for your prayers as you seem to be ahead of me, but on the same path. I know I need the fellowship, but the fellowship which births out of my local church right now does not feel genuine to me.

    I know this will sound ridiculous to you, but God has provided me with amazing spiritual elders over the internet, people whom I have never met, but who are praying for me and giving me words of encouragement on my faith, etc. I know God has placed them in my path, and for some reason their words seem more honest and unbiassed than the ones coming from those who know me in my church. Why is that?

    Please pray that the Lord would provide me with Christian fellowship outside of those church walls.

    Thank you.

    I am glad I found your blog.

    God bless you


  5. wmccaig

    You are in my prayers. I think there are a lot of us kind of free floating right now. The structures that laid a foundation for “doing justice” do not support our work in the world so we have to create new structures that help us grow. I have several blogs about this and will be blogging more in the coming months about this exact topic. Your comment is further confirmation that this is what is needed in our world. Please join in the conversation over the coming weeks as I unpack what it means to start a movement of God.

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  7. Stephen

    Wow, just stumbled across this blog now for the first time. I really appreciate your insights.

    Is it not a little bit narrow to define the problem as being inside/outside the institutional church? Surely, it matters what KIND of institution the church has become? I, for one, feel like the evangelical church “programme” (and the content of its teaching) has become tired and irrelevant, although I very much enjoy being in a community of Christians. If there was a different sort of church to be a part of, maybe I wouldn’t feel the need to go wandering “outside” of my community so much?

    • wmccaig


      Thanks for your comment. By “institutional church”, I am referring to the idea that the church is an institution verses a body of believers. I do believe that God is creating ways of being church that are not institutional in nature. I don’t think a simple tweeking in the way we do church is the answer. I think we need to rediscover what church really is. For me, church is a gathering of believers who continue Christ mission in the world. It has nothing to do with an institution, building or hierarchical structure. Does that add more clarity? I am not suggesting that believers should not gather. Instead I am suggesting that that mere gathering is the church.

  8. Paula

    I found your blog because I heard you speak at Northminster church yesterday. It was my first time visiting that particular church and I am glad that I was able to hear your story and find this particular post.

    I started attending a church a little over 2 years ago and I was so happy until it stopped being about church and started becoming something else…it felt like a social nightmare and I started to realize that I was seriously addicted to the church and not to God. It’s been a struggle. I find myself going back to my old church and getting stuck again. The social anxiety is terrible but I keep thinking- how can I continue to follow God without a church so I started searching and going to a new church every Sunday. After reading this post, maybe I should step back and think about “church” in a new way.

    • wmccaig

      Hi Paula,

      Thank you for your comment. If you ever just want to talk, shoot me an email and we can get together. You are not alone in your struggle of defining what “church” is – both it’s biblical intent and what it has come to mean for you. We all carry baggage from bad experiences and I have known many people who have completely disengaged and other who have simply redefined what church is for them. I would be happy to listen to your story and offer any guidance I can as you continue your journey.

  9. Hi Wendy – wow, all the way across the world here in South Africa, the Spirit of God is showing us these same truths! We are currently a small group of believers who have been blessed to find solid, practical teachings in the form of DVDs by Andy Stanly, Louie Giglio,Francis Chan and the like. We feel that the majority of churches seem to have lost their spiritual and moral compass – running from one speaker\program\spiritual ‘fix’ to the next. It seems that the Bible has lost it’s authority in the church and anything goes, as long as the pews are filled.
    I served in a senior position at an international church, and in the process of being burnt out found that many leaders will not tolerate scrutiny or question, quickly hiding behind ‘the untouchable anointed’ indemnity. In my little town there are 25 churches – and not ONCE in 21 years at the same addresss have I ever opened the front door to anyone spreading the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ!
    I consider myself a fundamental Bible believer – and yet I still find peace in the fact that Jesus said He would build His Church (the Body of Christ) and although my name is no longer on a church membership list, the peace and joy in my heart affirms that my name IS written in the Lamb’s Book of Life! I have found that although I no longer give a specific percentage to a local storehouse (to escape the Malachi curse as I’ve so often been taught) that which I DO give to causes that I encounter, seem to be pleasing to God.
    Thank you for your article – it is the clearest confirmation I have yet found that the Church is in fact devolving back to it’s roots — away from the ‘business’ of the church and closer to going alongside our King Jesus in building the Kingdom, one needy soul at a time.

    Love in Christ our Lord
    Ken Everett

    • wmccaig


      Thank you so much for your comment! I love that image of the church “devolving back into it’s roots.” I do believe that is what we are seeing. Only those who define “church” as “2 or 3 gathered for the purpose of going on God’s mission together and following the way of Jesus as a path to living out that mission” will be able to see this emergence but Thank God for those “with eyes to see.” Thanks again for your very insightful comment.

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