Wilderness Update — “It’s Not You, It’s Me”


I can tell you’re not sure if you wanna go 
and really that’s most understandable 
there’s whole a lot involved in where you place your bet 
and all these reports? They’re a little suspect 

• Bill Mallonee, “Yeah, Yeah, Yeah”

• • •

We interrupt our regularly scheduled Formation Talk for a personal wilderness update.

Another Sunday here in the wilderness wondering what to do.

I’m not feeling at home in church these days.

If it didn’t sound like a bad break-up line, I would march right in to the congregations I’ve been involved with over the past few years and tell everyone, “I’m sorry. It’s not you, it’s me.”

But that’s the truth. I keep trying to identify the specifics of why “it’s me,” but that has proven rather elusive.

I don’t really have a problem with “church,” per se. Because I know God’s love in Jesus, I love the church.

I love church people.

I love using my gifts of preaching and teaching in the church.

But, from the very beginning of my adult experience with the church, my involvement has been tied to vocation. From the start, I was a pastor or engaged in some form of public ministry.

For 30 years, this was my life.

Then it stopped.

Vocationally, I became a minister at large, a hospice chaplain, one whose “congregation” is outside church structures. I have fallen in love with the work of visiting patients and families, collaborating with other professionals on a care team, and sharing God’s kindness with those who are hurting out in the world rather than within the confines of the institutional church. It has been a transformative “divine assignment” for me.

The unexpected gift of writing and leading this blog has provided me with another vocation. It has begun to fulfill a lifelong desire to write. The daily discussions we have here stimulate my faith and thinking in ways I never thought possible. It is a time-consuming responsibility too, but I am loathe to think of giving it up. As a result, the time I am able to give to a local congregation as an active member is limited.

Personally, I am growing older and have moved into a new season of life. We are now keepers of an empty nest, grandparents, on our way to being recognized among the “elders” of our clan. We are no longer driven in quite the same way to provide as actively as we once did for our children’s spiritual well being. They are finding their own paths as adults now.

Old BarnYou might say (and I know it sounds crass) that in many ways I don’t “need” the church as much or in as many ways as I used to. I am fed by Word and Sacrament. In my life right now, as far as what I “need” in a church, that’s it. Period.

Stop there. Before you say it, let me.

I know that’s not the only way or even the best way of looking at being a part of a local congregation. It is also about being a part of God’s family, part of God’s mission in the world. And I have always bought in to an “all hands on deck” philosophy of the church’s mission. “Ask not what your [church] can do for you; ask what you can do for your [church],” to paraphrase an inspiring leader. Along with each and every Christian, I have gifts that God can use to build up the church. I would be happy to use them in a congregational environment were I not expending time and energy to use them in other settings.

Is this a problem?

There are other concerns, some of which I don’t feel comfortable sharing in detail. Let me just say that I have also lost a measure of faith on the ground when it comes to churches in our immediate vicinity. I have no major beefs, just a lack of clarity and confidence. It seems whenever I receive something resembling an “answer” to a query I have, it ends up leading to more and more questions rather than to a clearer sense of direction.

I’m not sure what I’ll do on Sunday morning.

When my wife asks me, “Are you going to church today?” I’m not sure what I’ll say. I know for sure I probably won’t feel good in the moment about whichever answer I give.

76 thoughts on “Wilderness Update — “It’s Not You, It’s Me”

  1. spending time ‘alone’ or ‘apart’ for a while is far from ‘abandoning’ traditional Church . . . people are called into ‘silence’ or into the ‘desert’ so to speak for a reason and there they experience something of the lives of those who are lonely from circumstances not of their own choosing . . .

    for many there will come a kind of loneliness that is not chosen:
    it happens to many who become ill, or are placed in confinement, or find themselves abandoned and set apart, not as a ‘choice’ but as a consequence of circumstances . . . these people still need ministers who can understand, having spent some time of their own in more quiet contemplation.

    Traditional Church sends people outward to serve in a world that is starved for understanding and compassion. A set-apart time of personal contemplation can deepen a minister’s ability to relate to those who are at the fringes of our communities . . . and I don’t find that outside of the realm of ‘traditional Church’ at all but more to be at the very heart of it


  2. btw when I first started reading the posts and comments here I was very angry what was said about the Evangelical Church. And very angry toward what I saw as Lutheran “arrogance” here. Over time though I’ve come to finally get it, as much as my pea brain can.


  3. “What is it about this site that makes people feel like it is more of a community than their local church is?”

    Kipp, it’s because the Evangelical Church can be a lonely place for some folks. I’m not nearly as intellectual as most of the commenters here, but for me this is a “sanctuary” to be real and find sanity. Good point about the “echo chamber”. I think we can all agree that the problem is with ourselves, much of the time.


  4. If you don’t have a 2.5-american-family I suspect it goes stale much sooner.

    I have no children, I think that had a lot to do with my dissatisfaction. Once I was married and in my 30s the Evangelical church just didn’t have much [positive] to say to me anymore. And the demographic of non “family” people dwindled pretty rapidly, then I became part of that dwindle.


  5. > What is it about this site that makes people feel like it is more of a
    > community than their local church is?

    I don’t know, I have not expressed that sentiment.

    > Is it possible to duplicate in the local church?

    No, a virtual community is just that, virtual. A simulacra.

    > only serves to reinforce our biased worldview?

    I don’t know about that. I see a fair amount of disagreement among commentators.


  6. I don’t think CM said “I don’t get anything out of it” the way you’re using it. For those of us who don’t “fit” into the American Evangelicalism as we see it in its current form, that’s not exactly the point. If it were it would be an easy answer: it’s not about you, so just shut up and go anyway. We know it’s not about us. But what if you truly believe, like I know many here and elsewhere do, that American Evangelicalism’s churches have jumped the rails? Go anyway? Continue to play the game because there’s no alternative? For those still in evangelicalism, or those still in an older tradition, the common criticism towards post-evangelicals that we don’t fit because we value our personal preferences too much or they-don’t-do-it-the-way-I-like or my-needs-aren’t-being-met, or any other criticism along those lines—–it’s not a fair rendition of what we are saying.


  7. Kipp, great questions, and you put your finger on some of the dangers of this kind of conversation. What you say is one reason I feel such angst not being deeply involved in a congregation at the moment.

    I would say that I hope IM never becomes an “echo chamber.” I heartily encourage lively discussion from a variety of perspectives, including those who have found peace in a church home and can have a ministry of showing the disaffected that they too can find safe and nourishing places in God’s family.


  8. I keep restarting this comment. I was going to talk about how I envied you finding your way out of the post-evangelical wilderness into your home in the Lutheran tradition, while I was still wandering. Then I was going to talk about finding my own way out of that wilderness into a church in the Mennonite stream of the faith. But now I just want to ask some questions and listen to the wisdom of the gathered on it.

    What is it about this site that makes people feel like it is more of a community than their local church is? Is it possible to duplicate in the local church? How? Or does the simple fact that this is a smallish, self-selected collection of readers drawn from a worldwide pool of theological web-surfers mean that a local congregation couldn’t do the same because their pool from which to draw is too small? Indeed, should we want to duplicate it? Is the reality that we are a bunch of like-minded people talking in the echo chamber, which feels great and affirming but only serves to reinforce our biased worldview?


  9. CM and others…I think once you hit your mid fifties you outgrow a lot of American church forms..power,control,programs and advertisement


  10. Chaplain Mike, I imagine that your work as a chaplain, not to mention also writing for Internet Monk, are significant draws on your time, energy, and other resources. I can be a bit of a workaholic, and I like my work. So I can say from experience that if you value your work, it may feel as though you are not working like a dog and be doing more. But in fact you may be working very hard – with the attendant consequences. And while you might feel listless about not doing more, I suspect anyone else would say you have committed yourself to a lion’s share of ministry and responsibility already. Perhaps merely showing up at church, and letting your main efforts go into hospice work is not just understandable, but wise?

    Then, of course, there is Internet Monk. I hope you never under-estimate what Michael Spenser, and now you, have nurtured here. This blog not only speaks to important issues in an intelligent and lucid manner, it has let people know they are not alone and not crazy for the struggles they have felt while living within faith communities, leaving those communities, or transplanting to new ones. That experience may be simple for some people, but for many it is a long intellectual and spiritual process. It can be tremendously draining, isolating, and difficult to discuss. The experience can be downright visceral. At least, that is my experience. This blog has helped me to think through some issues that I would otherwise have worked over in isolation. It provided much needed encouragement. It has pulled me back from quiet despair more than once and refocused my attention on Christ. Somehow, contrary to usual experience, this site became a safe zone of discussion and has managed to foster prolonged dialog. So, call this church or community or something else – but your efforts here have been consequential.

    This is very long way to say “Thank you.” I hope it provides some encouragement as you puzzle over things.


  11. Some churches would excommunicate you for having that on your shelf. Others might kidnap you and perform a forced, several day long exorcism. Some might even wish they could burn you at the stake. All the more reason to read it.


  12. “Separatism” as in We Have To Keep Our Noses Squeeky Clean So We Can Pass The Great White Throne Litmus Test. (Poster boy for such Avoid The Heathen They Might Contaminate You Don’t Be Left Behind: Kirk Cameron, who when filming Left Behind secluded himself in his trailer when he heard there were Heathens(TM) on the set.)


  13. Mike, there is no rule that says the people you share the altar with must be your best buds. You have more community here than the vast majority of congregations, and mostly due to your efforts. If Spencer is watching, I’d bet the continued activity of this place makes him very proud.

    I am fed by Word and Sacrament. In my life right now, as far as what I “need” in a church, that’s it.

    Right now, and forever. The church has nothing else to offer. That’s it. The sum total of the Christian faith. Community and all that is nice, but you can clearly get those things with or without a church.

    Is this a problem?

    No! There is no reason we must maintain the frantic spinning of our hamster wheels in 24/7 purpose driven all ages family activity centers posing as religious organizations. THOSE are the problem, not you. We’ve gotten very distracted, somebody needs to call us out of it!

    You, on the other hand, are fulfilling your vocation and working for mission in a more powerful way than nearly anybody I know. The “voice of sanity,” from the lofty reserves far above the Evangelical wilderness is so badly needed. Don’t even think about trading that for serving on the parish fellowship committee. And your work as a hospice chaplain is SO many good things for this world.

    I suppose you feel like maybe something is missing. Whatever it is, it most certainly is not your lack of making a contribution. Oh, and Bill Mallonee rocks! I use his stuff in church, on occasion.


  14. Mike,

    This looks like a crisis in progress, which as they say should not be wasted. I will not call it a cry for help.

    A couple of questions:

    1. Does your pastor read this blog?
    2. Do you ever have to deal with people who suggest that, by criticizing (attacking) the church, which is the bride of Christ, you are attacking Christ himself? Just curious. I’ve heard it a couple of times. And once was after quoting John Stott, of all people.

    Related topic—by coincidence a book just arrived from an old friend, a retired Episcopal bishop (anglicanesque, the good kind) based upon a conversation we had a few weeks ago. Author Ross Douthat, Bad Religion: How we became a nation of heretics. This could fit right in with the whole iMonk scene, Spencer’s book included, and precedes a book that I just ordered based on Mike Bell’s article a few days ago—Mark Noll’s Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Mike Bell: I’ll order Peter Enns’ book too, but for now it’s not available used!).

    And I just printed out Rod Rosenbladt’s article (available on a link to the right of this page) “The Gospel for Those Broken by the Church.” I promise to finish reading it right away.

    Great to be in the wilderness with you. It would be very lonely.


  15. I find myself consciously devoting myself to a community for the first time in my life at the tail end of it. And that includes being part of a teetering church where I am needed and would be missed if I did what I wanted to do, like maybe visit another congregation. This morning there were ten in the congregation including me, plus the pastor and organist. The scheduled acolyte was absent with family health concerns and I stepped in to light, then unlight, the candles. All hands on deck.

    This seems opposite to the spirit of today’s concern, but I don’t think so. I went twenty years before this with no regular church attendance, would do it again in the same circumstances. I don’t believe regular church attendance is required to follow Jesus unless that is where you are led. The original monks moved out to the wilderness to get away from the sorts of things that are listed here today.

    It is a sorry situation if you can’t honestly express your innermost concerns and feelings in a relationship, whether that is job, family, community, or in this case, church. I relate to T.S. Gay’s comment above,”a cry for churches to become a place where the different levels of development could be together.” Like the old fashioned one room school house with students from first to eighth grade all together, each learning at his or her own level. In my opinion would still work today, maybe better, but needing a teacher (pastor) who understands all the levels.

    This place comes as close to that as any I’ve experienced, and that primarily thanks to Chaplain Mike. We are extremely fortunate here. How many churches are there where you can come to church every day if you want to, not out of duty or obligation or discipline, and the doors are open, and you can interact with a stellar congregation such as this. And do it in your pajamas if you feel like it. CM, thanks for all you do. As you work this out, please stay true to your Self, the Christ within, who often seems to lead in new and unaccustomed paths if we are paying attention. Prayers sent your way.


  16. There’s a few lines from a song on the most recent U2 album, Songs of Innocence, that I wanted to share that I felt were pertinent to some of these comments. I also struggle constantly with depression (never been tested), but U2 has been a shining light throughout it.

    Since the album is only available on iTunes and not physical media yet, there’s no YouTube link, but since the album is free on iTunes, you can find it there.

    “there is no end to grief/ that’s how i know there is no end to love”

    “California (There Is No End To Love)”

    Then we fell into the shining sea
    Well, that’s what took me
    Where I need to be
    Which is here, out on Zuma
    Watching you cry like a baby
    California, at the dawn
    You thought would never come
    But it did like it always does

    All I know
    And all I need to know
    Is there is no end to love

    I didn’t call you
    Words can scare a thought away
    Everyone’s a star in our town
    It’s just your light gets dimmer
    If you have to stay
    In your bedroom, in a mirror
    Watching yourself cry like a baby
    California, blood orange sunset
    Brings you to your knees
    I’ve seen for myself
    There’s no end to grief
    That’s how I know

    That’s how I know
    And why I need to know
    That there is no
    Yeah, there is no end to love

    All I know and all I need to know
    Is there is no
    Yeah, there is no end to love

    Barbara, Barbara
    There is no end to love

    All I know and all I need to know
    Is there is no
    Yeah, there is no end to love
    We come and go
    But stolen days you don’t give back
    Stolen days are just enough


  17. NOTE: none of this is in direct response to CM’s post, just bb’s query.

    >can someone help me understand why with so much

    I can give you my two cents.

    > disillusionment, lack of fulfillment, or however you wish to term it, with the traditional church,

    I *was* disillusioned, I am not anymore, I feel rather optimistic. The problem does not really lie with the “traditional” church – by which I mean the boring old institutional church idealists love to rail against – I know I did. The problem is with a life-style, of which we are full and active participants, where a church, or pretty much anything like a church does not really have a a place. It will always feel detached, like some simulacra of community, etc… – because that is what it is, that is what we have made it.

    All discomfort does not fit this description, but a lot of it does.

    > why isn’t there more discussion about the possibilities that we may
    > have gotten church completely wrong.

    Once upon a time I participated in lots of that kind of conversation. Then I sat and listened to lots of that kind of conversation. It was a complete waste of my time.

    Once people get done pointing out everything that is wrong…. queue the crickets when the question of what to DO otherwise comes up.

    At best someone creates an anti-program program, which once it is realized that it is a program requires an anti-anti-program-program… and the tangled train wreck gifted to us by the Reformation continues to pile on.

    > Is it even possible that our “assembling together” was never intended to be what we have created it to be?

    I am 1,075% certain it means exactly what it says it means – to assemble together. To teach, to study, to engage in communal liturgy. Often boring, often frustrating, often tedious – and always terribly human. That requires teachers, people trained, it requires a safe legal place to meet, that means janitors, that means paying someone to cut the grass and shovel the sidewalk. Dreary old traditional church is the only operational form.

    Home church and other like movements are, IMO, often nothing more than religious elitism. They are trying to run away from the problem. If you could find *JUST* the right people, and none of those other people, and meet with JUST them, then it be a ‘good church’. Only that just isn’t church.

    First, life is hard. It is confusing. Or to use a trite/vulgar explanation – “Life sucks, get a helmet”. Embracing that with more open arms helps alot. Stand on the roof of the garage and have a good scream. It helps. But preferably when the neighbors aren’t around.

    Second, maybe the problem is we are trying to fit religion into our lives. I have been, and probably am, guilty of this. Rather than realizing pretty plainly that our lives do not fit the religious precepts we claim (and guilty == me). People feel disconnected, uncommitted… I hear this all the time – not just in relation to Church People. But in many many cases we have built our lives exactly to be this way – and darn tootin’ we are gonna change – this is the American Way!. It goes all the way to the bricks-and-mortar-[and-asphalt], it is built in, IMNSHO. We have back-yards not front-yards so we don’t have to be interrupted in our activities with out select people. We whoosh along in our little private machines, to work and back to home [and often at crippling expense – but we won’t look at it that way]. The garage door closes confidently behind us. We watch our entertainment on our DVRs, on our exact schedule, in our hermetically sealed living rooms. Yes, a lot of lives are not as extreme as this portrait. But I think the root of a lot [*not *all*] angst expressed at the church, at society, whatever, lies at our own feet. Many people have asked the church to be what it isn’t, they have asked the morning devotions etc… to be what they aren’t, because their are just lonely and/or disconnected – which really sucks. Sometimes “success” can ruin us.


  18. ““Let’s abandon all this tradition nonsense and get back to what the Bible says about the early church,””

    Been there, done that. Left more scarred than ever. And it’s hard to warn others of the dangers of this type of thinking unless they’ve also survived it.


  19. To clarify, what you summed up or are suggesting is exactly what really messed me up. Traditional “institutional” churches have been a life savior.


  20. “non-traditional church” is what really messed me up after leaving a more traditional independent fundamentalist church. non-trad in the sense of “anything goes”.

    i’m finding some healing in studying the traditional church. i’ve yet to cut ties to fungelical institutions (and lose yet another friend group) and fully embrace traditional churches.


  21. Thanks w, I appreciate it. Glad to have you here too. I know I come across as caustic at times, definitely got my trigger topics, and a bad or unproductive day at work may mean I’m commenting more often here than I should…but we all need our voices and a place to speak together.

    w, I’d also encourage you within your paralysis. I get this too, lived it strongly. Moving out of a charismatic understanding of life was key – remembering all the great scriptures in proverbs and elsewhere that talk about God blessing what you within the general framework of life he’s already told us about. to quote kevin deyoung’s once influential book on me…”just do something”.

    The last sermon I ever preached in a church was based partly on that book, partly on some of Piper’s work, partly on other stuff. It was because i had a burden for my peers who, literally, refused to leave for work or school or whatever unless they had a clear direction from God (read: word from the Lord, supernaturally) to leave their house. everything else, in their mind, was outside of the will of God and to be avoided at all costs.

    And sadly, my pointing to numerous scripture and building up theological/doctrinally systems that freed them to follow God boldly didn’t really help. I saw lives destroyed. Even four years later…

    My advice, simply, w, would be to pick something and go do it. God will be waiting.


  22. I’d love to not go to church for a while. I’m in my mid-50s and I’m tired. Tired of the cheesy songs, tired of the petty fights, tired of so little real spiritual nurturing being replaced by discussions on why we (Christian, particular church body, Americans) are so much better than everyone else and how we need to reach out with the good news so that they won’t be wrong any more. I want depth, duality, not either/or thinking. I want to be around people who understand that people from another faith background do have something to teach us. I want to be in a place where I can share a favorite book of mine and not be afraid of someone questioning if it’s doctrinally correct. I want to just be.


  23. I am struggling, again, with depression. Complicated with Fibromyalgia. Which came first kind of thing. Anyway I have been thinking about and praying for Jeff. How is he doing?


  24. It’s been about 20 months since the last church I helped lead folded among various personality and financial issues. Run of the mill stuff, really, nothing spectacular. However, after more than 50 years of being in and then leading in various churches, I can honestly say I have never been in one that actually worked and was healthy over the long term. This last one just did me in—I’d actually call it PTSD—again not because it flamed out spectacularly, but because it was just one more in the string.

    For the first time, I have not gone looking for another community, because it was community that never seemed to work. Occasionally I will go to worship in an unfamiliar church as a visitor, hoping to sense some spark from the Spirit that tells me to give this one a try. But I no longer feel the compulsion to be part of a local community, to get to know a whole new set of people, to become enmeshed in their particular set of issues, to put my heart and soul into ministering to and with them, and then to at some point have the whole thing not work out again.

    I feel surprisingly little guilt this time around. I’ve learned to serve God in other ways—and to know this too can be pleasing to God. Not everything has to be done through church.

    And yet, I am profoundly sad for the church, and for myself, that we are arms length.


  25. “it’s not you, it’s me.”

    It’s more accurate for me to say “It’s me because of you!” I’ve been on staff and volunteered in several capacities in both non-denominational and denominational churches as well as para-church ministries. I’ve seen the curtain pulled back and the exposed “wizardry.” It took some time, but I got to the place where I had to get away. There was a nice, soft landing for me in the EO. And although there are a number of issues within the EOC, I can honestly say that I believe the liturgy is all about God – there are no rock stars in this church. The priest (and his wife) are hard-working people who pastor their flock with the love of Christ. I’m sure it’s probably not this way in every EOC, but I feel blessed to be there and out of the craziness of the evangelicals and apostasy of the mainlines.


  26. “I seem paralyzed lately and unable to move. I’m waiting.”

    For what it’s worth, here is what T.S. Eliot had to say about waiting in his poem East Coker:

    “I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
    For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
    For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
    But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
    Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
    So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.”

    These lines have helped me through some troubled times. Maybe you can also find some value in them. You have my prayer.


  27. CM, I could echo everyone here and say that your writing and generous hospitality on this blog look an awful lot like creating a place for God’s people to gather, even if virtually. Your ministry here is a gift all around, I believe.

    But your wilderness update isn’t about what happens here, it’s about what’s happening there, where your body and your day to day life are. May you find, like Elijah post-prophets of Baal excitement, that there in the wilderness you are fully fed, maybe not in the places you’d know to look, not with the food you expect to eat, but plenty of it– enough for this moment and the journey today.

    This work of discernment can feel lonely and unsettled. May you know the Ground upon which you move and the Love within which you live. Blessings!


  28. W, Thank you for sharing your heart in such a powerful way. Your witness of presence, to the veteran, to Kelby, to each of us here, shines Christ’s Light into dark and lonely places. May you, too, experience the warmth of that Light, even as you wait.


  29. Hi DUMB OX,

    you wrote: ” American evangelical spiritual forming really has no concept of vocation and being a neighbor.”

    From what I have seen, for the conservative fundamentalists among them, you may be right.
    But I can’t help wondering ‘why’ in the name of all that is holy is this true ???


  30. bb,

    At least in my case this disillusionment stems from a couple sources. One, the church is often messed up, sometimes really messed up, and is easily dragged ‘off task.’ Second, I am really messed up. Either one can easily disillusion, and both at the same time is almost certain trouble.


  31. Marc, thanks. We, especially Jeff, have written about depression here. Michael Spencer did too. Today’s post doesn’t reflect that as much as it does perplexity, which is a natural part of everyone’s journey.


  32. Chaplain Mike,

    You have done a great job ministering to us in IM and to others in the hospice ministry and the church in general. And for that, I’m grateful.

    Of course, the question comes up when those who minister to others, who ministers to the ministers? I wish I lived nearer to you so I could take you to lunch sometime as well. But I just want to tell you I’m here with you in this dark night of the soul, of which I have had many.

    There’s something that really has my praying for you, what this sounds like. Have you, like Jeff Dunn, been tested for depression? It’s no shame if you are, it happens to Christians as well as anybody else. But I’m here with you in this.

    I am grateful that God has given me the Psalms to work through these dark nights that are common to me. They show it’s no shame to be down and depressed, and thinking I’m all alone, and nothing matters. The Psalmists also felt that way. Lately in my darkest night of the soul, I stumbled across Psalm 77, which gave voice to the very doubts and fears I was going through, and in that, I felt I was no longer alone.

    Yes, the Word and Sacraments are what we are together with in this hospital for sinners we call the Church.


  33. this blog is a ‘sanctuary’, Chaplain Mike, where people CAN come and express themselves honestly and it’s ‘okay’.

    in that way, you have continued Michael Spencer’s work, and so many of us are grateful

    don’t be anxious about being called into ‘alone time’ away from formal ‘Church’ . . . trust that it is for a ‘reason’ that has meaning for your life in a way you cannot clearly see right now

    I agree with the spirit of Damaris’ question, this: ” Are you a part of a Christian community through your hospice work?” Sometimes we think of ‘Church’ as having physical boundaries and enclosures but if we understand that what makes it ‘Church’ has no ‘boundaries’, we can begin to recognize that the ‘community’ to which we are drawn may be far more extended and pervasive than CAN be ‘contained’ physically . . . that spiritual dimension is not imaginary, just not so easily recognizable in our more structured needs for ‘place’, ‘time’, ‘familiar faces’, ‘like-mindedness’, ‘fellowship’ . . .

    perhaps your journey with service to the dying has exposed you to a deeper spiritual dimension for a while, in which case, your ‘growing pains’ are not without cause and not without some better gift of understanding that for suffering people and for the dying, there IS an ‘aloneness’ that sets them apart from others, and you will be more able to comfort them in that shared ‘aloneness’ . . .
    some needed strength will come,
    if this is the case in your current situation of discomfort with ‘formal’ Church . . .


  34. Thanks srs. I just got turned on to Bill Mallonee and I can’t get enough. I’ve listened to portions of Winnowing at the website, but haven’t ordered it yet. Amazing songwriting and poignant delivery.


  35. D.O., for me it’s not just about “going to church” or Sunday vs. between Sundays. I get that. It’s more about being a part of a church family that shares a common life in Christ and is nourished well together by the Word of the Gospel well spoken and the Sacraments distributed in love.


  36. I think it’s about being the church, not just going to church. American evangelical spiritual forming really has no concept of vocation and being a neighbor. That could be part of the dissonance between hospice service and what happens on Sunday. Monday through Saturday is when God is working in us and through us.


  37. bb, I am open to that discussion, but remember, such questions have been asked for two millennia now, and one of the more damaging roads people have taken, IMO, is to say, “Let’s abandon all this tradition nonsense and get back to what the Bible says about the early church,” or to embrace some other form of “restorationist” thinking.

    My own personal angst does not grow primarily out of disenchantment with the form all churches have taken (there are better and worse forms). We certainly have been critical of many forms, especially those of contemporary evangelicalism, but most of us are post-evangelical now, and have come to terms with that part of the church.

    Again, speaking for myself, I have no illusions of a utopian community. I know the church is, has always been, and will always be broken and imperfect. That’s why the Word of the Gospel and the Sacraments mean so much to me. My struggle right now is more vocational, personal, and local. And those of us who get together here share those things in hopes of encouraging and being encouraged.

    I’m glad you’ve joined us, and please don’t feel you have to sit on the sidelines. The more viewpoints we can hear, the better this community will be.


  38. For me it might appear to be disillusionment, lack of fulfillment or whatever but it isn’t. I am working through some very tough times in grief and this time is being met here within the church of this blog. The church to me isn’t the little segment I visit weekly although part of the greater whole. I could look back at the churches history and get an idea but it would surely be through a biased lense. My confidence is within the struggle we are going there even when it appears not. It certainly could be at some time in the future we see home churches being. It would seem to make sense seeing what technology we are currently experiencing and how that is going to grow. In the end we will always need to look each other in the eye in the hope the one who created us is looking back coupled with confident love. I guess there could me more but I might need to be quiet here and listen too.


  39. A disclaimer; I am relatively new to imonk. I am not a particularly great debater. I am not a professional believer.
    I read of so much disillusionment with the institutional church in this post, in other imonk posts, and other blogs, yet it seems that not many seem open to discuss a non-traditional form of church. Yes, if “home church” is the same format as institutional church, just moved to a different setting, then nothing has really changed for the better.
    I will virtually shut up and listen, but can someone help me understand why with so much disillusionment, lack of fulfillment, or however you wish to term it, with the traditional church, why isn’t there more discussion about the possibilities that we may have gotten church completely wrong. Is it even possible that our “assembling together” was never intended to be what we have created it to be?


  40. “I am fed by Word and Sacrament. In my life right now, as far as what I “need” in a church, that’s it. Period.”

    As a disillusioned evangelical that fails to be as enthusiastic and “fully engaged” (from our church mission statement ), i just wonder if that’s all that everyone needs, period. Thank you for the transparency in your writing. You are a Chaplain in the truest sense, in your vocation and here on iMonk.


  41. Sometimes, when we battle to understand, and grasp for truth, and vie for the right way, or the best way, we are going to sound mean. And sometimes, we need to to yell at each other too. And often, we do so needlessly. But whatever happens, we should bear no malice, carry no hatred, and be quick to forgive.

    And never speak/write out of spite or a desire to hurt.


  42. I go to this post. I read it and it echoes everything pouring out of me this day. My wife asked are you going to church and I did not want to answer either way. I’m not there. I don’t know what’s wrong. It isn’t that I don’t love God just the opposite I love Him more than I ever have. I heard such a horrible sermon last week but it isn’t even that. Everyone has off days. Most of the time I get up and leave after offering.

    I’ve been here and to say I’ve been learning by leaps and bounds would be an understatement. I pounder everything in thoughts and prayers almost every second. I am seeing things coming together in a more complete way. I am being shown the beauty of minds like Miguel, Stuart, Hug, and Danielle And Robert and really everyone who has contributed. I see in the good and bad but to benefit. The things I saw in the great friday debate…lol… were of great profit to me and this is still being formed as I reread it for the third and fourth times.
    Not so much in the intellectual realm of how to debate being I never was one to follow rules put forth by academia. My teachers struggled with me immensely as I would always ace test and do very little else causing them to always say if you would just apply yourself.

    I seem paralyzed lately and unable to move. I’m waiting. I have no choice because I have no clear direction. I am getting ready and waiting is becoming more difficult. You still have a ministry and it would seem difficult to me but a calling. I am called to lay ceramic tile and marble and to be a fan in the seats of the stadium at times. Once in awhile I get to play on the field and have a moment. More often then not the field is where I lay tile or in the gym or anywhere. I prayed with an 87 year old man in the gym the other day holding both his hands. A veteran of world war two. I hardly felt worthy of such a thing but he was highlighted to me so strongly I couldn’t ignore it. That is how it usually happens.

    I have spent a lifetime on my knees. My hands have knuckles on top of knuckles. They are dried and cracked and sometimes bleed mixing with the sweat of my brow. I can take physical pain ten times better than spiritual agony. Sometimes I am so alone. Yet here is where I find Him and He talks to me because in a way it is the only way I can understand. So my friend Kelby says to me ” you are so lucky he talks to you in the way he does”. I immediately see how different Kelby is from me and he works constantly on things like classic automobiles and I say so quickly back ” oh Kelby God is talking to you he is with you on every turn of the wrench in the way you understand him”. Then friday I see how He talks to Miguel, Stuart, HUG etc. etc. Then I realize how we hurt people when we place them in the same box we walk in and I want for the box to be tore apart.

    Thank you for this post CM


  43. Chaplain Mike: First let me say how much I appreciate what you do here at Imonk. When Michael Spenser died, I thought; where am I going to find another site like this. He articulated so well the wilderness experience I was feeling. Well you (and the other writers as well) have admirably carried on that legacy. The posts and comments here are truly an oasis in a desert of evangelical nonsense. The discussions in the comments are erudite, irenic, civil, and edifying to my growth in Christ. It truly is a ministry in every sense of the word. Carrying on in the string of remarkable coincidences from yesterday; you live in the same town as my sons. I would love to meet face to face. Lunch at Anne’s? My treat.


  44. I think I understand the feeling, and I’m guessing more is going on than you can put into this post.

    But I think it broaches a bigger issue, one raised by Victoria Osteen’s faux pa last week and an age-old criticism from atheists in general: do we worship for merely narcissistic reasons? Is it really just about me, my needs and self-interestf? I think even “…ask what you can do for your church” is still narcissistic. If the church served a mediator role, as questioned in last week’s iMonk Classic post, would that make church attendence any less narcissistic?

    Theologia Germanica – an odd little book loved by Luther next to the Bible itself and possibly written by Tauler, talks a lot about the problem of “I, me, and my”. The problem is how the American church can’t separate itself from those terms.

    If the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches offer anything, it is first a grander sense of transcendence: a sense of context first before connection.

    Why worship if I get nothing out of it and God doesn’t need it? That may be the next question…as ludicrous as it may sound. That’s how far the American church has fallen.


  45. Right on! As a retired pastor of a “successful” church it is hard to engage in a meaningful way with church and your description of Sunday morning struggles fits me perfectly. My continued engagement with chaplaincy in law enforcement often results in more meaningful and significant conversations and encounters than anything in a Sunday morning church experience. It is increasingly obvious that there are many on a similar journey so thanks for the encouragement!!


  46. “It’s Not You, It’s Me”
    But honestly, I’ll use Fowler’s stages as my stepping off point today. Just because a conventional developmental position is the level of most “goers”, and this stage has problems with query, does not mean that a congregation should not find means for growth to reflective, conjunctive, and universalizing. But our experience is this is not the case. It is very difficult for conventional types to relate to the angst and struggle of the reflective, and this is a big stumbling block to individuals in that place going on to the paradoxical reality behind the symbols of inherited systems.
    To use another growth analogy, if you use Jameson’s “Chrysalis”…..pupa stages are still attached to the plant they ate from earlier, but butterflies often flit from one to another. Jameson’s book was a cry for churches to become a place where the different levels of development could be together. But he also wished for some feeding stations to be developed for the butterflies. ( By the way, Jameson’s research asserts that many churches keep people in less mature stages).


  47. Chap,

    I am one of those people for whom church is a (beloved, in my case) part time job. I wear a lot of hats, most of them in the behind-the-scenes setup work, but also in the more public facing role of music director. I’m often the first to arrive and the last to leave.

    The way I see it, people in my position exist to serve people in your position. I do what I do so that those whose work is out in the world can come in late, find everything set up for them to worship in Word and Sacrament, eat at coffee hour, and then leave without cleaning up after themselves.

    You don’t need to use your gifts at church – you just need to use your gifts.


  48. What Damaris said.

    I’ve been gardening more lately and it has been therapeutic. Hunting and fishing used to be my “therapy pursuits” as a younger man, but now I like tending to things closer to home. If I could be a full time gardener and orchardist, I think I’d do it. But alas, we need an income and insurance, so it’s only a way for me to get alone for a time, worship, and enjoy the third pillar of monastic life which is work.

    May you find your monastery wherever it is. One needn’t be in seclusion or isolation to practice monasticism. Over the years you and Michael and this blog have taught me that. The disciplines are available to all of us and God’s grace reaches to each of us.

    When I taught biology, I often referred to Mendel’s work with peas laying the foundation for the modern understanding of genetics. It never dawned on me to wonder what he did with all those peas or even why he was raising peas in the first place. Reginald Punnett (of the Punnett squares in biology class) did his pioneering work on inheritance with chickens. It wasn’t until I read a history of British poultry that I understood why he was working with chickens. Neither man was setting out to invent or discover fundamental biological principals. They were raising food to feed people, a thoroughly mundane activity, to which each of them imparted a deeper level of meaning.

    I have found refuge in the mundane, but I think it is a sacred mundane. I have had insights while in the garden and watching the chickens that I would not have had otherwise. When I prune my apple trees, I connect with the teachings of our Lord and his apostles on the pruning activities he engages in to shape our lives on a level beyond the “book learning” or sermon-hearing I experience in church. In the word of Heinlein, I “grok” pruning now whereas before it was the intellectual assent to verbal propositions. It was what I experienced outside of church that gave depth of meaning to what I heard inside the church house.

    Church attendance may not be a place where you connect with the deeper meaning and insight you seek. I’m not saying you need to garden. For you, it may be art (I have friends who lose themselves in studying the interplay of light and color on canvas), or music, or literature.

    I believe you do good work here. I believe IM and the IM community is a solitary refuge. I pray that you continue to make it. And today’s post is proof that candor is beauty for in it we find truth.


  49. Maybe someone at your church needs to see you today for some reason. I would say “Go” to worship today. Some days, I feel as you do, but then I have to remember what I just advised you to do and also that God may have a blessing that you and I would miss if not there. Praying for you, and thanks for this blog.


  50. Mike,

    When I hear the Christian life that you describe leading right now, it sounds in some ways like the life of a member of a religious order — perhaps more like a mendicant friar or a Sister of Mercy than a Trappist. You are in the world, performing the work God called you to, and dealing daily with the least of these. It may be — I really don’t know, and I could be wrong — but it may be that not all are called to congregating in Sunday church. Most are, and for most of us not going to church may be a dereliction of duty, but somehow I don’t think that Saint Anthony or Saint Francis sat in his parish church every week. I know they both partook of Christian community — even Anthony, eventually — but it wasn’t parish-style Christian community. Are you a part of aChristian community through your hospice work? Can you receive communion from another chaplain as you work?


  51. CM…..you must know that I-Monk and your writings are getting me through a tough time, and that I am here reading first thing every morning (which is usually about 0445!) I need to share your struggles, so eloquently and truthfully presented, as they mirror my own….if not in situation, then in feelings and questions. I also need to listen to the debate your writings generate….sometimes chiming in if the spirit moves me, often just listening and learning. (as Aerosmith points out, “…live and learn, both from fools and from sages..”)

    I appreciate you taking up Michael’s mantle….God makes straight our crooked and crazy paths!


  52. Hanni, I can be mean and disagreeable, too; just ask my wife. I’ve let it go, and I hope you can as well.

    Besides, I do have a tendency to talk too much here, and elsewhere, when what I need to do is listen more. So I can accept the truth in what you said…..though the delivery could have been a little gentler (insert smiley face here).


  53. Robert F., sorry I spoke to you in an ugly manner yesterday. I can be mean and disagreeable. I need healing for that. P


  54. I’m learning from iMonk, from what you and others do here, CM, on an almost daily basis. This is Sunday School class the way I wish it would be at church, though it never is. Even when I disagree with what you and others say, I’m learning what I believe, what I can believe, by having it tested in discussion. Also, there have been times in recent months when I’ve wanted to contact you and ask for your personal prayer on my behalf, and though I’ve demurred in doing so because I was hesitant to overstep boundaries, I think those who benefit from your chaplaincy in their time of extremity are fortunate to have you alongside them in a pastoral role, helping them face their mortality. What you’ve got here at iMonk, and their in your chaplaincy work, is real Christian community. If that isn’t Church, then I don’t know what is.


  55. Dear CM,
    Thank you for what you do. I’m sorry you are going through this period of unease (and I pray it will be very brief). I have been incredibly blessed by the work you do here. If you ever make it to the Bay Area, In-n-Out’s on me. When I face the end of my days, I hope I will have a chaplain like you to guide me.

    (Also, you have good taste in music.. Have you checked out “Winnowing” yet?)


  56. As a hospice chaplain, you minister to people and their families during about as challenging a time as exists in life, and I can honestly say that you have impacted my life greatly over the year and a half I’ve been reading iMonk. I know I’m a pretty infrequent commenter who typically only posts to poke fun at your Cubbies, but I have been a daily reader for a while now, and over that time, I’ve gone from being confused and depressed about my faith to being much more comfortable with my faith, even though I have even more questions than before. And you were a key part to that shift for me. You are using your God-given gifts brilliantly; more so than I think you will ever realize; even if it may not be within the traditional church structure you may have expected.


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