Some friends were concerned I’d lost my senses.
I was leaving a great job at a great church in L.A. I was going across the country to start a new church in Raleigh. “Doug! There’s a 90% failure rate! Don’t do it!” But when it was clear I was going, they gathered a care package for me. In it was a book, a here’s-how-to-start-a-church book. It was full of super sensible stuff.
Gather a team.
Clarify the vision.
Start small groups.
Do smart stuff like that, and you’ll have a pretty good church.
Which was probably true.
But we didn’t do any of it.
Remember, I was already in a really good church. And “good” church — wasn’t that good — for a whole lot of people.
I didn’t understand much back then. But I did understand that if we did all those smart things, we’d be another church — not working for a lot of people. So, like Thoreau, we went to the woods to discern how to live well. Like Moses, we went to the wilderness to learn how to live.
And there in the quiet, one of the first nudges we discerned…
Be authentic community.
Whatever religion is, it starts there. Authentic community.
Which was kind of exciting. Some clear direction! A place to start! We set right off to build authentic community. We have lots of walking paths in Raleigh. We walked together. We talked about our lives, our souls, the pretty parts and the ugly parts. We worked on being honest, authentic.
It didn’t go very well.
Turns out, authentic community is really hard!
Polite community is so much easier!
When we got close enough to reveal our shadow sides, we couldn’t help but get all judge-y with one another. We didn’t try to back away from authentic community, we just did. It was instinct, hard-wired in us. We’d been harshly judging ourselves for years. Of course we did the same to one another. It was really demoralizing. Here we had a clear sense of direction, a place to start rethinking religion. But right out of the blocks, bam! Ugliness. Conflict. Hurt.
What I Learned
Our problem wasn’t that we were in unhealthy religion. Our problem was that unhealthy religion was in us. For all our good intent and hard work, we were carrying around some bad religious instincts — inside us! In our story, our god was harsh toward our weak parts, our sinful parts. We were just being like our god.
We’d been in church most of our lives. But our religion had not made us able to do authentic community. Our religion hadn’t been making us good people. We couldn’t even love and care for one another authentically. When we went any deeper than polite-to-each-other, when we showed our flawed selves, it was jarring to see who we really were.
The journey to healthy religion starts…
when we dig unhealthy religion, out of our own souls.