I remember the moment I believed I’d finally become a mature, God-honoring Christian. I was in a multi-million dollar, cushioned-seat, air-conditioned sanctuary, where the pastor had just invited another member of his leadership team to the stage to give a ten minute sermon about tithing before the actual sermon began. It was right after the rock band performance (they were excellent, by the way) where the worship leader said in the middle of his power ballad cover of a David Crowder song, “Close your eyes and put your hands in the air. It’s just you and God here,” even though his face was plastered in true 1080 high definition on two 15 foot screens hanging above the platform. “God?” I asked, looking up at him. “I can see your pores.”
When the brief message about the importance of tithing began, I was informed if I wasn’t tithing ten percent, I was, in fact, “…robbing God. All He asks is for 10 percent and you can keep 90.” He concluded with, “That’s a pretty fair deal, if you ask me.” He then quoted Malachi, God opening the windows of Heaven and such and such, raining down riches and money and a new car upon your head.
Today I wonder if the underground churches in China, and the missionaries in Africa are preaching about tithing. I figure they mustn’t be since they’re underground and whatnot. Probably a direct result of robbing God.
Needing a new car and not wanting to steal from The King of Kings who halts the waves and knows the name of every star, the very God who could snuff me out of existence, and rules all of Heaven, Earth and Hell; the God who created the very Destroyer who wreaks havoc, the blacksmith who forges against me – that God – I didn’t want to rob Him of what was already His. He deserved His ten percent of my paycheck. A tip for keeping up the good work. Just like tipping my barista for a latte well made.
I make tithing a regularity in my life out of fear, guilt, and the desire to show the church I am on board with wherever their ship is sailing.
One of the first churches I attended outside of Los Angeles was in Portland. I ended up spending a few months in the Pacific Northwest during my travels, and made it a priority to attend this smaller, stripped down gathering of individuals seeking Christ as often as I could. But there was one particular thing about this church gathering I couldn’t quite grasp at the time. No one tithed. And no one even made mention of an offering. When I introduced myself to the pastor, he invited me out for a cup of coffee. At the end of our conversation and lattes,I casually inquired about why he never asked for an offering. “Well, I used to,” he answered. “The buckets are still at the doors on the way out, but I don’t ask. People will give if their heart is right with Christ. Your personal relationship with Jesus makes you generous. Not any message I’m ever going to preach about generosity. I’d rather people not give at all instead of giving out of guilt.”
It’s been months since I have returned to church. I didn’t take time away to stage an insurrection, start a petition, or try to fix a thing. I simply eliminated the Sunday Morning Routine from my life, and continued on in my relationships with Jesus, my wife, and my fellow Christian and non-Christian friends alike. It wasn’t planned or caused by pent-up aggression. I stopped going because I grew tired of looking for a church I felt I could call home. I spent the entirety of 2011 making the streets and the people I found inhabiting them my church. It would be fair to say that after such an experience, it’s been difficult getting back into the normal Christian swing of things. But to be honest, I’m not entirely sure I want to.
My last Sunday at church, I went recommendation of a friend who thought it would be exactly what my wife and I have been looking for. At the beginning of the service someone got up to say a few words about his pending trip to Haiti. I can’t recall what compelled him to go, but I think it had something to do with the following statement he made: “Christ calls us to be the salt of the earth. But what happens to salt when you keep it in a container? It starts to stick together and becomes a useless clump. This is what happens in too many of our churches. We clump together as Christians, only serving each other and our building, instead of spreading ourselves out as we were meant. We are the salt of the earth. Not the salt of this particular block.”
I had lunch this week with a friend named Bob. I told him about the salt clumping together. He had this to say: “Back when the church first started, it was lead by Apostles. And Apostles, what they did was build an army of believers to take out into the world. Today’s churches are lead by pastors. And pastors, they often build congregations to bring inside.”
While driving through the Midwest, I encountered a woman unhappy with the way things were going at her church. She felt as if she was being used for nothing more than a resource. “I feel neglected,” she told me. “I’ve been serving here for almost seven years now, and people just joining the team are getting treated better than me. It’s like a private club I’ve been grandfathered into whether they like it or not.”
I asked if she could bring this to the attention of her leaders. “It’s church!” I declared. “They are your friends. You should be able to express your concern.” She answered, “Well, I don’t want to cause dissension. I mean, I feel guilty. I’m just so grateful for the opportunity to be serving in God’s house. I mean, I’m being a bit selfish for wanting more recognition for the work I put into this place. After all, I’m doing this for God.” I admired her heart, yet I could’t help but wonder if God’s yard was any less important? Or what about His street? His neighborhood? His city…
Why did this woman believe serving within her local church was better than serving anywhere else? Don’t get me wrong, I love serving the local church. But God’s streets need just as much attention as His house. In fact, I would argue His streets could use a bit more attention these days.
This isn’t uncommon. Serving the church, particularly having a place on the platform, is a glorified and coveted position of servitude to the Almighty: skinny jeans, great hair, and chiseled features preferred. Who wouldn’t want to be up there leading hundreds and thousands into prayer and worship with their Maker? I’ve never been up there, but I’m prone to wanting admiration. I can only image from up there, it’s easy to miss the mark.
On the East Coast I spent some time at a church always “casting vision.” A select group of individuals made up of the church staff, and an elite team of volunteers would gather on a specific night or between services to hear the pastor speak about his vision for the church so everyone was on the same page, affording them the opportunity to get behind his vision for his church, which was also (obviously?) God’s vision for the church.
Does God really give a different vision to every pastor? Church is church. Church is the people. Not the building. That’s nothing new. You’ve heard it before. Wherever two or more people are gathered in His name, He is there. Which means church can happen anywhere, anytime. Maybe we could cut the church a little more slack for its screw-ups if we didn’t rely so heavily on Sunday mornings to get our fill.
When it comes to pastors, it’s hard not to follow everything they say. They are leaders, after all. And God bless their called hearts. I pray every day for God not give me that job. It took an entire year on the road to come to one very important realization: You are solely responsible for your relationship with God. People don’t like to hear this sort of thing. I wrote about it in a post called Your God Experience. I realized I could not deliver God in a perfect package that would fit wonderfully into your life. The way God reveals Himself to me might not be the way He chooses to reveal Himself to you.
We don’t want to be responsible for our relationship with God because what if we’re wrong? What if we screw it up? What if we’ve already missed the signs? I think the reason mega-churches swell, the reason we buy every book every pastor writes, is because it’s so much easier to simply follow behind someone else, mimicking their lifestyle and trusting your relationship with God is good by their actions, and how they live their lives. This is no one’s fault. We’re wired this way.
I lived it for years. I put the opinion’s of others about God in place of God. I figured these leaders at my church knew God better than I did because I was so new to Christianity. I believed whatever they said about God must have be true. It was a second hand relationship. I got lazy. I only read whatever everyone else in the church was reading. I prayed when others said they were praying. I gave as others gave. I made no decisions for myself. I was simply an observer of everyone else’s relationship with God, and based my decisions and self-worth off what I saw happening in their lives.
Community groups, connect groups, bible study groups. Whatever you want to call them, they’re all the same, and every church does it. I’ve never been to a church without them. And I think they are wonderful. I love community. In fact, I believe we will perish without it. But too often these groups last for only a few weeks.
I don’t like this concept, and I met another young man who didn’t like it either. He didn’t like having a curriculum, but he saw past that. What he couldn’t see past was spending twelve weeks with a group of people, and being expected to bond with them on some deep emotional level. “I don’t want to constantly rearrange and shuffle through friends,” he said. “I want to go through my life with the same group all year round.” It reminded me of what John Eldredge wrote in Walking With God: “You can’t just throw a random group of people together for a twelve-week study of some kind and expect them to be intimate allies.”
This young man had started his own Bible study. He decided instead of bitching about the state of church connect groups, he’d try to offer change to those around him who felt the same. A group where he wouldn’t have to take attendance, no signing up or following a curriculum, and anyone could come. That meant even people who didn’t go to his church. But he feared telling anyone at his church about it. He’d been going there for over three years when we met, and he was volunteering so much, falling into such a prominent position of leadership, he feared he’d be confronted and told that it might look like the church was encouraging its members to start their own “unapproved” groups.
“I remember thinking, if anyone here tells me I can’t do this, I’m gone. And then I thought, What kind of environment am I in that I’m actually afraid to let people know I have a Bible study outside of church curriculum?”
He started out with just 6 guys. And in 8 months there were 22 regular attenders. They prayed together, ate together, and some of them lived together. They talked about whatever happened to them that week, and where God was in it all. They were honest with each other about their addictions and their sins and their doubt. They pulled their money together to help whoever was in need on any particular month. “I trusted that every single guy in that group would have my back in battle if I needed him,” he told me. “And for those 8 months, I never felt more free or safe.”
I think the church is doing a lot of things right. I grew up in the church, Vacation Bible School, youth group, weekend retreats, all of it. I found some of my best friends in the church. The reason I believed in God and realized he loved me was because a large church in the heart of Hollywood opened their doors to me. They had lights and sounds and electric guitars. They wrecked everything I thought I knew about the church, and I decided to attend regularly. I am where I am today because of them. I love the church and all her flaws. It’s beautiful because it’s not perfect, and it never will be. But guilt has no place within the church, and that’s the most common thread I have found within church exploration. Guilt for not tithing. Guilt for not serving enough. Guilt for starting your own Bible study. Guilt for struggling with sex and pornography. And guilt for finally leaving.
I don’t know how to make church right or better. I certainly don’t want to start a church. God has not given me a “vision.” The last thing LA needs is another church with a young radical pastor where a bunch of young radical hipsters can show up in hopes of meeting other young radical hipsters of the opposite sex they can eventually marry and make babies with whose feet they can put tiny TOMS made of hemp on.
I get the sense a lot of young people are going to church these days in hopes of meeting that special Christian someone. And I hope it happens for them. That’s why I was at church. Sure, God renewed my spirit, I believed in the resurrection and Christ’s offer of sins forgiven, but I didn’t serve a day of my life for Him. I didn’t volunteer to please God. I served for the church because they made it look glamourous. I served the church to meet girls because as one pretty young lady once told me, “You looked so hot today while you worshipped with your hands in the air.”
We broke up, of course. And when we broke up, members of the church staff intervened whenever they saw us hanging out together afterwards. “Do you really think that’s healthy?”
“This is what happens when you date without the intention of marriage. You make it awkward for everyone else.”
“But we’re doing life together. I’m supposed to know everything about you.”
My church validated me. My relationship with God was entirely performance-based.
After my first year at church, I was an all-star volunteer. I served seven days a week, and was two paychecks a month short of being on staff. During that time, I took a girl out on a date, and we took things pretty far physically. Afterwards, I found myself in the shower at 2 am getting drunk trying to “wash the sin off” because we’d made out, and touched each other all over. Worse, she wasn’t even a Christian. How unholy. I want to grab that Max from 3 years ago, pull his naked, skinny ass out of the shower, dump his beer in the toilet and smack him across the face. I want to tell him he is pathetic. I want to tell him he is embarrassing himself. I want to tell him, “These things happen! This is life. And that is guilt and it is NOT of God.”
I knew if the church was aware of how badly I struggled sexually, I’d never be allowed to serve. I still hold out hope today that I was wrong about that. But I’ve heard too many church stories from too many friends who were asked to “step down” until they got things under control. I want to tell that Max if there is no place at church for the broken to serve visibly, then the church has completely missed the mark.
I went on to brutally abuse that poor girl’s heart because I wanted her so badly, but I was so consumed with guilt after talking to her because she wasn’t a Christian, I would go weeks without eating.
I eventually sought help for my sexual addiction to women and pornography, and consumed the New and Old Testaments as if they were the source of life itself. It was while reading these scriptures, particularly the books of Job, Isaiah, Matthew, and Luke, that I began to desire more than my church had to offer. The God of the Bible was not the God I was hearing about each Sunday. And because I couldn’t find Him in church, I set out across the country to find Him instead.
So this here, this is my relationship with God. All I can ever do is tell you about it and show it to you, and hope that it inspires you to one day have your own personal relationship with Him too. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, I don’t have the answers. Everything I have written above is merely an observation. I don’t know what is right here and what is wrong. Unfortunately, it’s so much easier to write about all the hurt I saw in the church. But I’ve seen so much good there too. My hope for what I have written here today is not to put in question everything your church is doing, but to make you look deeper into your relationship with the One who loves you most. Deeper than you’ve ever dared to go before.
No longer will one man teach another, ‘this is how to know the Lord.’ – Jeremiah 31:33-34