Background of So You Don’t Want to Go to Church Anymore
Jake Colsen’s So You Don’t Want to Go to Church Anymore was first published in instalments online over four years. Jake Colsen is a pseudonym for the creative output of two people: ex-pastors and friends Wayne Jacobsen and Dave Coleman. There is a definite sense that this work has benefitted not only from the collaboration of its two writers, but also the many internet readers who commented and shared their own stories relating to problems with institutional religion (the prevalent theme of the book).
If you have any doubts about the reality of the problems they identify therefore, you can be assured that they had plenty of anecdotal evidence to support them as they wrote.
Of the two authors, you’re probably most likely to have heard of Wayne Jacobsen. He also collaborated on the New York Times bestseller The Shack and helped to found Windblown Media.
A Summary of So You Don’t Want to Go to Church Anymore
So You Don’t Want to Go to Church Anymore is about a church worker called Jake who is dissatisfied with his spiritual life. Despite working longs hours in service of the church, he can’t seem to get into close relationship with God. In fact, the more he works for the church, the further God seems to evade him.
Then, one day, he sees a man called John talking to a crowd about what Jesus is really like. He’s amazed. It seems that this man is able to talk about Jesus as if he actually knew him personally. Jake even begins to wonder whether he might in fact be the John of the Bible – John the Apostle.
Over the next four years, Jake and John will have many chance encounters. These encounters will result in deep conversations about faith and following Jesus. Through their conversations, Jake navigates his way towards a new life. Leaving the staff of the church he works for, he eventually finds a more relational, less institutionalised way to participate in ‘church’.
The Problem with Institutional Religion
A System of Reward and Punishment
One of the main problems that John has with institutional religion is how guilt-driven it is. In a chapter where John visits Jake’s church, they pass the church’s Sunday School. This gets them talking about some of the problems with the way churches educate children. John notices that Sunday School teachers encourage children to participate in spiritual practices through a system of reward and punishment. This system ultimately results in the high-achieving children getting a sense of undue self-righteousness. Meanwhile, the children who don’t quite manage to keep up, feel like they’re spiritual failures.
It turns out that this guilt element isn’t just restricted to the Sunday school – it’s prevalent all the way through the church structure: from the children to the top of leadership. As he walks through Jake’s church, John observes noticeboards calling for volunteers to fuel the church’s work. He points out how much of the advertising for these positions manipulates using guilt to get people to sign up.
Jake soon realises that the whole church institution is set up based on a system of reward and punishment. Not only that but it needs to be so to keep its heavy wheels in motion.
Why This is a Problem
The problem is that a system of reward and punishment is in complete opposition to the teachings of the Bible. As Christians, we know that we cannot earn our salvation. Nothing we ever do will make God love us more nor less. Instead, we’re made right with God, despite how bad we are, through accepting His Grace. Yet unlike the teachings of the Bible, these Christian institutions lead people to believe that the more they volunteer and set a good example for the church – the more God will accept them.
This is a complete distortion of the truth. As with all distortions of truth, this has terrible spiritual consequences for those who buy into it. This is because such distortions rob them of the peace and joy of knowing about God’s unchanging love for us. Instead of accepting this love, despite never having a hope of deserving it, and allowing this love to change them – people live under one of two powerfully damaging illusions.
Either they believe that God does love them because they are so superior that they were able to earn it.
Alternatively, they don’t know God loves them and, seeing how broken they are, don’t believe God ever could love them.
A New Vision of Church
So, if Jake’s church’s model of Christian community isn’t working – what will?
How can Christian community exist in a form that doesn’t result in the distortions of God’s truth John identifies?
Changing the Meeting Place isn’t Enough
After leaving the church he worked for, Jake tries to form a house church with some other ex-church attenders. Yet the close relationship with God and strong spiritual life Jake craves remain elusive.
John shows that it’s because the people participating in the house church are still operating under a sense of obligation. They go to the house church each week because they feel that they have to. The result is that even though they’ve moved church from a big building to a home – not much has changed.
This realisation, in turn, leads to a big question. How can Christians free themselves from this sense of obligation? This sense that they’re taking part in spiritual practices to win ‘gold stars’ from God like the children in Jake’s former church’s Sunday School?
Removing the Sense of Obligation
For John, this can be achieved by realising that God’s church isn’t something people make. It’s a reality that just exists. Whenever God brings Christians together in community, no matter what it looks like, that’s church. We don’t need to fill our schedules with church activities to do that. Instead, throughout this book, we watch as God works to bring Christians who need each other together at the perfect moment.
Despite never scheduling a meeting with Jake – John always seems to show up when Jake needs him. Later, as Jake needs less help, people show up in his life who need him.
Freed from a sense of obligation, Jake and his wife can enjoy the reality of church without feeling like they need to strive to create it – which only results in humans distorting it, as we have seen.
I give this book four stars.
The writing itself isn’t as excellently crafted as Barbara Brown Taylor’s Leaving Church, which I reviewed recently. Nevertheless, I whole-heartedly agree with the problems it identifies with institutional religion and the guilt-driven culture it so often breeds.
Furthermore, I enjoyed the portrayal of God’s workings throughout the book. The ways in which characters flit in and out of people’s lives at the right moments and get peace to do things exactly when they need to, ring very true for me.
My Defence of So You Don’t Want to Go to Church Anymore
Is So You Don’t Want to Go to Church Anymore Biblical?
Unlike the prominent Christian blogger and book reviewer Tim Challies, I don’t agree that this book isn’t grounded in the Bible:
Those who hold closely to Scripture may affirm some of what Jacobsen teaches in this book, but they must reject its overall message.Tim Challies
If anything, Jacobsen and Coleman profess to trying to recreate a vision of the church that is more like the New Testament church – in terms of how early Christians met in homes, for example, in forms that were uncomplicated by ‘institution’.
Grace vs Works: A Deeply Biblical Concern
Besides, the objections to the guilt-driven elements of institutional religion are undeniably Biblical. These objections could be summarised in terms of the tendency of institutional religion to imply (if not outright teach) that salvation is achieved through works – namely church participation – and not by Grace.
That this is the reality of many churches (aka the writers didn’t create a ‘strawman’ as Challies implies when he describes the church Jake leaves as: ‘a ridiculous parody of a church’) is evident in how so many internet readers resonated with this story as they uploaded it online.
Jacobsen and Coleman Do Respect (Some) Spiritual Authority Figures
While the lack of formal structure in Jacobsen and Coleman’s vision of church might give rise to the belief that they are opposed to the hierarchy of the New Testament church, a closer inspection reveals that this isn’t in fact the case. There are positive figures of authority in the form of church which evolves in the course of this book. We are not just left with ‘peer to peer interactions’ as Challies puts it. Both John and Jake are examples of these positive figures of authority. Yet they reach these positions of authority in a different way. Instead of a church officially appointing them as such, they become teachers because they have something to teach and the people walking alongside them recognise this enough to want to listen.
While not formalised through ceremonies or official appointments, the writers of this book believe that hierarchy as well as other elements of church portrayed in the New Testament will always exist because they are realities of the spiritual church. We don’t need to formalise these elements to make them exist.
Besides, surely having unofficial figures of authority who find themselves in that position naturally is preferable to being forced to listen to the sermons of somebody with nothing worthwhile to teach, but who has the official position bestowed on them to do so?
My Only Real Criticism of So You Don’t Want to Go to Church Anymore
God Still Uses Broken People … and Institutions
My only real criticism of this book is instead that it fails to adequately acknowledge that a church can be broken and still be used by God. In fact, if He didn’t work in this way, no church would ever be used at all. No form of church, whether guilt-driven or not, will ever express the spiritual reality of God’s church perfectly. Wherever humans are involved, some amount of corruption of spiritual truth will follow. Even John and Jake won’t ever be perfect teachers in this new form of church. No matter how carefully they avoid inflicting people with a sense of obligation, some type of distortion of the ideal will inevitably arise.
Whilst Jacobsen and Coleman recognise that there are some who live out wholesome spiritual lives within highly institutionalised church structures, they present this as the exception rather than the rule. Even if this is true and their alternative vision of church really is far superior, it will still fall short of the ideal.
Jesus Walks in Imperfect Places
A prominent theme of the Gospels is that Jesus shows up in the places we don’t think He should. If that means He hangs out with tax collectors and sinners in the New Testament – when it made the Pharisees’ skin crawl – then that also means that He wouldn’t object to showing up at a highly structured, institutionalised church service where guilt is used (however damagingly) as a tool in its armoury. Jesus will always go where there are even a handful of people who truly want to find Him. This may, surprisingly, turn out to be in such a church’s congregation.
This being so, while the vision of church Jacobsen and Coleman present does work as a good antidote to many of the problems of institutional religion they identify, we should be prepared for disappointment if we think any form of church will be totally free of error on this earth.
Whilst Jacobsen and Coleman do a good job of making sure we are careful not to idealise any one form of church (they warn against trying to copy forms of church that you admire – instead you need to let God be the inspiration of whatever He wants to create in the context you are in), we still need to remember that even Godly inspiration will be muddied by our human involvement.
In fact, it is only by Grace that God shows up at all in any of our efforts to bring earthly form to the spiritual reality of the church.
Prompts for Thought
What were your impressions of the book?
Did you think the church Jake leaves in this book was a ‘ridiculous parody’ as Tim Challies put it, or similar to churches you’ve experienced?