What Church Do You Go To? (Why Jay Bakker is my Hero)

Saturday, October 05, 2013

I often get emails from people, stuck in dogmatic churches, who are hungry for grace. They hear the message of the cross expressed in terms of God's restorative justice, rather than divine wrath and revenge, and they ask me where they can find a church that teaches that, too. They hear the focus on unconditional grace and radical acceptance and long to be part of a church with that focus as well. So they write to me asking "Where do you go to church?"

I wish I could say I have found a great church where people are focused on being real and loving each other, warts and all. A place where asking hard questions is not a sign of moving away from Jesus, but a sign of moving closer to him. A place where the goal is not for one guy in authority to control people's morality like they were infants, but to empower everyone to develop a mature adult faith. 

That's what church ought to be like. So why is a place like that so hard to find? 

Maybe it's because pastors feel a pressure to act as if they are perfect, and so end up leaving no room for us to ask healthy questions either. Instead, they feel they have to act as if they have it all together. So we get up and sing happy and triumphant songs that don't really reflect our reality, the worship leader pumping up people with all sorts of unhealthy expectations, instead of creating an atmosphere where we can be real and loved for who we really are.

I wish there was a church that was focused on grace and messy radical love. I haven't found a place like that where I live yet. But I have been "attending" Revolution Church for quite a while via their podcasts from Pete's Candy Store in NYC and more recently from a bowling alley in Minneapolis, and I am proud to call Jay Bakker my pastor. What makes Jay so awesome is that he is an open book. Rather than being authoritarian, he gets us all to think and reflect by modeling this for us—including humbly questioning himself. Rather than acting like he has it all figured out, he demonstrates what normal and healthy struggle looks like, and in so doing creates a space for us to face our questions, too. He has real authority because he uses his power to lift up those who are often marginalized and kept down. He's my hero precisely because because he is not invulnerable and perfect, and makes it a little more okay for the rest of us to admit we aren't either.

I wish there were more churches like Jay's. I'd be the first in line if there was one near me! The trouble is that because he is focused on taking a stand for love alongside the marginalized, rather than making money his main goal and bottom line as so many churches do, that means he struggles sometimes to make ends meet. It's the opposite of the mega-church, and that is good because it means that it's the kind of radical place that Jesus wanted us to be a part of, and at the same time hard because the way of Jesus was never intended to be a business model.

So if you are looking for a place to go to church that is focused on grace, and, like me, can't find anything like that down the street, I'd like to invite you to come to my church next week. There's no commute, no problem with parking, you just need to stick some headphones on your ears and tune into the podcast. I'll meet you on the internet. It's not perfect, but I call it home.



At 11:19 AM, Blogger Jeremy Myers said...

You read my mind. Yesterday I listened to you interview from the "Out of the Box" podcast, and I remember thinking, "I wonder what church he goes to... or even IF he 'goes' to church." Now I know!

I am in pretty much the same boat, and listen to various podcasts during my commute, and also seek to love others in my town, community, workplace, and neighborhood with the love of Jesus.

I will add Jay's podcast to my iTunes. I also like Greg Boyd, Wayne Jacobsen, Bruxy Cavey, and a few others.

At 11:50 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

Yes, those are some of my favorites too! I'd add POTSC to the list, and for the worship I'll play Switchfoot til my ears bleed :)

At 11:01 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Yes Jay and Vince are awesome, real, beautiful dudes, there's actually a lot of good podcasts out there. Daily Audio Bible is a good community too. Love switchfoot too Derek! Shalom

At 11:01 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Yes Jay and Vince are awesome, real, beautiful dudes, there's actually a lot of good podcasts out there. Daily Audio Bible is a good community too. Love switchfoot too Derek! Shalom

At 8:18 AM, Blogger Samurai said...

Derek and Jeremy, speaking as one who didn't want to go near a fellow Christian for years let alone go to church... let me acknowledge that I know in my own way what it's like to feel that intense alienation and rejection.

Having said that - when you're in the hospital, which members of your faith community will come love on you? It's hard to be sick alone. With whom will you band together to go out and be Jesus' hands and feet to the hurting? Which Christians can you call up at the drop of a hat to hang out because you enjoy their company? Who will help you move to a new house when your nuclear family is just two parents and a toddler? With whom can you share a late night talking of your deepest struggles without fear of imposing on someone's time? When you're old and shut-in, friends and family perhaps passed on - who will come visit?

Therein lies the power of a local faith community that goes beyond good teaching or theology. Not to be oppositional or to dismiss good podcasts - but podcasts aren't people. I haven't got any answers except to say that I'm on the journey myself, and I've seen good faith communities with bad theology, bad faith communities with great theology, and everything in between.


At 3:48 PM, Anonymous Derek said...


These are very valid points. In response, let me clarify what I am saying here (and what I am not):

1) The point of the post was to outline what a good leader ought to be like: someone who models healthy struggle, someone who enables people to think and mature, etc. It was not intended to say that I prefer a virtual environment over a live one. If Jay and I lived in the same town, I would be there in person in that Bowling alley. If you have something like that where you live, that's great. I do not. So I am not saying it is ideal, I'm just saying that's how I deal with my reality. I would always prefer real face to face over internet when I have the choice.

2) What you are describing is friendship. You are of course correct that a podcast can't replace that. Deep friendship can happen at church, but in my experience it is actually extremely rare. Most relationships are actually very superficial. They are acquaintances rather than actual friends. They might not like to admit that, but it's true.

Now I totally agree that it's great to have people who really love you. We all need that. I just don't think that one needs to get that from church necessarily (lots of the population don't go to church and still have friends). Also church itself as it is setup is not very conducive to fostering developing friendship. It is more focused on information (sermon) and performance (worship) with the social aspect often being an after thought, and even sometimes even discouraged (I've often heard people say "we don't want to have our small group be a social club, we should be focusing on studying God's word!").

In sum, I agree that friendship and community is vital. I just think that church, as it is, does not really provide that. So the question is: how can we get that? The answer will not simply be "go to church." Either church needs to change, or we need to find it some other way.

At 7:38 AM, Blogger Jay Pfeifer said...

I have found such a place in the Eastern Orthodox Church. Listening to Ancient Faith Radio has taught me the East has never seen the cross as retributive in contrast to the West (Roman Catholic and Protestant). Maybe it's not for everyone, but it's my safe haven.

At 7:39 AM, Blogger Samurai said...

Amen. I hear you brother. I'm not trying to judge you for podcasting on Sundays. There's not a bone in my body that would want to say "Brutha, you sinnin'! You should be goin' to church on Sundees!" I admit I'm speaking from the ongoing lonely cry in my own heart for fellowship.

Let me tell you a story. Four years ago, I was in the wilderness. I believed in Jesus, but frankly, Buddhism probably felt like a more peaceful religion to me than Christianity. I thought of faith as something best practiced in solitude. The closest I could come to "Christian" was reading Thomas Merton. Then I met my wife, who grew up in the Bible belt. She was going to a small house church in Boston, so she invited me. I have to admit - I was intrigued, but I probably went in the beginning more because I was interested in her.

Fast forward to now - those folks in that little house church are now among my best friends. We still keep in touch though we're actually in different states now (and we disbanded because we all moved away). But getting there was a rough road. Just ask my wife.

I kicked and screamed every Sunday, and declared I hated church. I was so stressed that one day, I flipped off another driver on the way to church while uttering foul language. My wife (then my girlfriend) finally got to the point one day when she said, "Fine! If you hate it so much, we're not going. I'm not going to drag you every Sunday to something you don't even want to do." But something in me didn't want to give up. Maybe it's because I"m bullheaded & didn't want to concede defeat to my past hurts around church. Or maybe I was just being contrarian. But I was like "no, we're going, even if it kills me!" I remember that very night, when I had flipped off someone driving to church, someone asked me how I was doing, and I just started spilling my guts. I was going through a bad conflict with my parents, & I remember my buddy Aaron sharing with me that he was going through stuff with his parents too. We put aside singing, communion, and maybe a couple other stuff we usually do to listen to each other, and then pray for the hurts brought up. I remember feeling glad I went that night, feeling confused that just a few hours earlier, I was so convinced that this church was yet another one of those churches that I had always been sick of in my life.

Of course, speaking of singing, worship, bible study, and the like... we went through a journey around that too. It was a slow, halting progress towards real authentic fellowship. I remember after my wife and I got married, we both worked full time and were exhausted on Sunday nights. Yet the meetings dragged FOREVER. We'd gather at 5 and go till after 9! We just had to go through every part - singing, bible study, communion, and a long time of sharing and prayer. When we brought up the issue, we got some pushback, but we gently yet firmly kept bringing it up as something we wanted to address together with the group - partly because we didn't feel okay leaving early everytime and missing parts of the service and feeling rude, yet we had practical needs to attend to like sleep and time for our marriage after a rough work week.

It was painful and uncomfortable, but gradually we worked it out so that we focused on different parts of the "service" we used to do in full every Sunday. One Sunday would be singing/prayer, another sunday might be bible study - so that there's plenty of time for just relating, and so we could put a time limit on things.

I tell this long story (sorry) to express my hope for you, too, that perhaps there may be a group out there for you that would benefit from your presence. They may, in raw form, be full of holes & not anything like what you want. But your investment in them might be a catalyst for painful growth - both for them, and maybe for yourself. Well, I won't speak for you. That's my story.

At 3:56 PM, Blogger Brent said...

Great question...where do you go to church? I am a pastor in the High Country of Colorado. Our church name is called ONE. We are a place just like the one you were wishing to find. If you find yourself out in the ski-country of Colorado look us up. You might find a home away from home. You can also find us at www.onecommunitychurch.com This is not a plug...just an offer from another traveler.

At 9:33 AM, Blogger Samurai said...

A most interesting book for you, Derek:

Laying Down the Sword by Phillip Jenkins

I'd be curious to hear what you think of it, if you've read it.

At 10:59 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

Yes, I've read Jenkin's book. I think he does a good job outlining the problem, but felt he did not provide much as far as how to solve the problem, that is, how to read the Bible differently. So it's an important contribution, but left me wanting more.

At 9:25 AM, Blogger Samurai said...

Ah yes. But that's where you come in :)

At 4:59 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Love what you are doing. Wish I had a place like that here!

At 4:59 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Indeed. I'm working on finding a publisher for that now.

At 6:49 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 7:16 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've often wondered why God's punishments in the Bible often seem cruel and barbaric. They don't seem to fit the crime. People are commanded to be stoned to death for things like picking up sticks on the Sabbath when Israel was a Theocracy. Some (like Jonathan Edwards) have said that the correct punishment for a crime is proportional to the status of the wronged individual and that the Bible teaches that all sins are against God (which they are). But this principle isn't entirely correct. It's not just to punish a person more severely because of the status of the one he has sinned against.

Part of what determines the severity of the punishment isn't the status of the person one offends but the type of being one offends (after all, a crime against a human merits worse punishment than the same crime against a dog and a crime against a dog merits worse punishment than the same crime against an ant). All sins are against God (analogy: all crimes in Pennsylvania are also crimes against the state of Pennsylvania), who is a different type of being than all. This is why God's punishments can seem so severe. Yet we know that they are just and not abusive because they fit the crime.


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