Have you ever seen a pot-bound plant? Perhaps you’ve bought a plant from a nursery that’s been sitting on the shelf for a long time. You remove the plant from the pot—roots, soil, and all—intending to plant it in the ground. What you find is that the plant has become pot-bound. The roots are winding about themselves within the confines of the pot, surrounded by depleted soil.
Were the plant to stay in the pot much longer, it would wither and die. It’s only chance to survive is to be removed from the pot and placed into the soil out in the open air. There, the roots have a chance to grow deep and pull nutrients from the soil in an ecosystem that is nourishing and replenishing.
The collective group of followers of Christ here in America are very much like that pot-bound plant. It languishes behind church doors, stifled by religious stuff; not growing, malnourished, frail.
I would also liken it to a tree growing inside of a building, straining to get out. Parts of it are occasionally visible where it grows through openings of opportunity; but for the most part, it is stunted, sickly, and functionally useless. It is certainly not living up to its potential.
The artificial, man-made, unnecessary, religious stuff that we’ve adopted has become a prison of our own making that we can’t seem to escape. Sadly, most Christians have no desire to escape this bondage, believing that the cage is the life that God wants for us.
The clergy-laity divide that has resulted in a debilitating spiritual caste system, the centrality of the “worship” service, the corporate structure, the programs that substitute for personal interaction, the marketing strategies and advertising gimmicks, the desperate and pathetic attempts to recruit unbelievers, the greedy consumption of resources, the passivity of the majority of believers, the carefully controlled membership roles, and the myriad things with which we are entwined have suffocated the assembly. The bulletins, the choirs, the rock bands, the Jumbotrons, the pious decor, the furniture, the flowers, the lingo, the dumbed-down Sunday School booklets, the weekly lecture that is supposedly required to keep the wayward people from straying, the MTV-style Christian music videos—the things that we aren’t supposed to complain about because “there’s nothing wrong with them!”—have sapped the vitality from the people that Jesus has chosen to represent Him in the world.
Fortunately, there is hope. The life-giving Spirit of God is still active. The Spirit is alive and well, undaunted, patient, and ever-vibrant. We have a choice before us. We can forsake the binding religious stuff and pursue life as God intended. Or we can wither and die. It’s a gutsy move, stepping out from the shelter that largely insulates us from engaging the culture and interacting with people who are looking for hope. It will be uncomfortable, and it will be scary. But the payoff is guaranteed to be beyond anything we can imagine. Don’t believe me? Take a fresh look at Jesus’ teaching. He’s tasked us with scattering throughout the world to bring healing and hope to those who desperately need it, as we did (and frequently still do).
Those who are bound to religion may call this a false choice. Instead of either/or, why can’t it be both/and? Why can’t we have the best of both worlds? Why can’t we have our churches and accomplish great things for God? I’d entertain the idea if I ever saw it work on a sustained basis, but I haven’t. Sure, religious movements have flared up occasionally, but they’ve been quickly extinguished. Emotional events have briefly gained momentum but then lapsed into oblivion. Not one has resulted in sustained unity. Churches, without exception that I have seen, produce more passivity than they do activity. They divide rather than unify. The larger body of believers has become more fractured and divided than ever. Christianity’s impact on the culture continues to rapidly diminish.
Either the tree breaks through the box or it withers. Either the plant escapes its pot or it dies.
There is no viable alternative.