Seldom in my life have I read a book that managed to hold me captive on almost every page; where I simply had to read another chapter before I went to sleep and that shook my little boat in a dangerously good way. “SO YOU DON’T WANT TO GO TO CHURCH ANYMORE?” is such a book. It’s a must read for anybody who has wondered if the life and freedom that Jesus had died for, was for more than just religious duty and Sunday routine.
Jake, an associate pastor at a local church in Kingston, overhears a man called John (whom he believes may be the actual apostle John) interrupt a crowd of people on the street who had been arguing about church related issues and about Jesus, slinging insults each other’s way. John’s words to the crowd shook Jake to the core of his belief system, for he’d never hear anybody talk about Jesus like John, as if they’d actually met Him.
Months later he runs into John again in a park during his lunch break, and so begins Jake’s journey of realising just how screwed up the “church system” had become. He realised how his own love for Jesus had slowly faded over the years and had sought to bury himself in his ministry to avoid having to deal with his emotions. He thought that going into full time ministry would help him realise his dreams, but after 4 years they simply kept eluding him.
The same thing happened to his parents years earlier in their lives when they were expelled from their old church (which they saw as persecution) and started a new one. Jake was telling their story to John: “Since they were no longer welcome at their church, they decided to start a new one together. The first gathering brought more than 80 people crammed into a small house. The atmosphere was electric. They decided to get organized, rent a building and hire a pastor.” Then for the first time I saw it so clearly. “And it slowly died.” I muttered, astonished at the realization.
To which John replied: “They were so distracted by all the work that they soon lost that joy of simply loving Jesus. Strange isn’t it, that forming something into what they thought was a church could do what persecution couldn’t?” (p. 20).
The modern church has replaced the Old Testament laws (for example circumcision) with modern manmade rules, such as cooperating with the church program, subtly using guilt, conformity and manipulation to control its attendees. As John rightly states: “Anything will lead people away from God’s life, as long as it preoccupies them enough to serve as an adequate substitute for the real thing. It’s easier to see the problem when the standard is circumcision in Ephesus than when it is Sunday morning attendance in Kingston” (p. 21).
John never gave out his contact details, always insisting that they would run into each other again if they were meant to.
Several months later John paid Jake a surprise visit during the Sunday morning sermon at their church. Jake was supposed to oversee the sound system, but snuck out during the sermon, wanting to desperately chat with John, whose words had lately actually brought him more frustration than anything else. As they walked past the bulletin boards displaying all the church’s programs and activities, it became clear to Jake that the “church system” thrived on the efforts of its members. John shed truth on the matter: “One of the most significant lessons Jesus taught his disciples was to stop looking for God’s life in the regimen of rituals and rules. He came not to refurbish their religion, but to offer them a relationship. Were all those healings on the Sabbath, and the recording of them, just a coincidence that he found more sick people then? Of course not! He wanted his disciples to know that the rules and traditions of men get in the way of the power and life of his Father. And it can be pretty captivating too, because we all do what we do thinking it pleases God. No prison is as strong as religious obligation. It takes us captive even while we’re patting ourselves on the back” (p. 33).
Lots of church leaders see themselves as moral policemen who are there to make their members “better Christians”. John pointed out the problem with this approach: “Who is going to draw near to God if he’s always trying to catch people at their worst moments, or always punishing them for their failures? We’re too weak for a God like that. We use guilt to conform people’s behavior, never realizing the same guilt will keep them far from God.”
“That’s why Jesus’ death is so threatening to those bred in religious obligation. If you were sick of it, and realized that it alone couldn’t open the doors to the relationship your heart cried out for, the cross was the greatest news of all. If, however, you made your living or earned your status in the system, the cross was a scandal. Now we can be loved without doing one thing to earn it.”
Jake then posed the number one objection to the gospel of Grace: “But won’t people misuse that as an excuse to serve themselves?” To which John replied: “Of course, but just because people abuse something doesn’t make it wrong. If they want to live to themselves, it doesn’t matter that they claim some kind of false grace. But to people who really want to know God, he’s the only one who can open the door” (p. 35).
Each of Jake and John’s subsequent meetings happened months apart, running into each other in the most unexpected places. During these meetings Jake’s religious mindset repeatedly got offended by John’s unexpected answers to his piercing questions and statements. Lots of manmade traditions get exposed in the subsequent chapters, such as John’s opinion on people being involved in so called “accountability groups”: “All the accountability in Scripture is linked to God, not to other brothers and sisters. When we hold each other accountable we are really usurping God’s place. It’s why we end up hurting each other so deeply” (p. 40).
Since their last conversation, Jake had been trying to implement the things he’d heard from John at his own church, with disastrous results. John told him why it hadn’t been working: “Jake, if you listen to anything else I say, listen to this: Don’t use our conversations to try to change others. I’m only trying to help you learn to live in God’s freedom. Until they are looking for the same things you are, people will not understand and you’ll be accused of far worse. You’re trying to live what I said without letting God make it real in you. It won’t work that way. You’ll just end up hurting a lot of people and hurting yourself in the process” (p. 44).
In another meeting John pointed out the problem with churches having turned into institutions: “…institutions can only reflect God’s love as long as those in it agree on what they’re doing. Every difference of opinion becomes a contest for power” (p. 49).
Standing up for the truth eventually brought Jake to several crossroads, put him in very precarious positions and left him having to make some tough decisions. The plot thickens with every chapter and it gets harder and harder to put the book down.
Eventually Jake has to make up his mind to leave the church and possibly start a home church, but even with that comes the danger of simply substituting one system for another, as John points out: “If this is another place for you to find your identity and to bury your shame by thinking you’ve got a better way to do it than anyone else, then you’re sating the same thirst, just from a different fountain” (p. 71).
I’m not going to give away the entire plot – the book ends way too well to do that! You can order this book or download the free 1.9MB electronic copy in PDF format here: http://www.jakecolsen.com/contents.html
Andre van der Merwe