Over the seventeen years since I first started to write about the possibility of a viable Christian lifestyle outside the Organised Church, I have been asked many questions, both by fellow “outsiders”, and by earnest churchgoers. Among those that have come from churchgoers, there is one line of questioning that has been more frequent than any other.  It goes something like this…

“Can a follower of Jesus really remain usefully involved in Christian Service, if he or she gives up most (and perhaps all) of the channels-for-service that are organised by local churches?  We suspect that, if believers don’t have specific projects in which to take part, they won’t actually do very much for the Lord.  With time on their hands, they may dabble a little in doing-good-at-a-personal-level, but most of the extra time they have gained, by giving up church programmes, will sooner or later be spent on their daily work, or on further DIY at home, or on increased involvement with sports and hobbies, or with surfing the internet, or with watching TV.  They won’t remain ‘fruitful’!”

It’s not that those who pose this kind of question think there is anything intrinsically wrong with sports, hobbies, or the other normal human concerns I mentioned.  They would accept that there is a place for them in Christian discipleship. What they are claiming, however, is that such activities will begin to take an inappropriately large slice of the time of the out-of-organised-church believer.  They feel that, without a ‘programme’, our lives will become increasingly about serving, ourselves (albeit in legitimate ways) and decreasingly about serving Jesus.  If you haven’t already been personally challenged along these lines, I am fairly certain that you will encounter this same question – worded one way or another – sooner or later.

I would answer this particular challenge by pointing the questioners to a line of teaching in the New Testament.  I would begin with some phrases from John 15 verses 5-8, where Jesus says: “I am the vine, you are the branches.  If a man remains in me, and I in him, he will bear much fruit….If you remain in me, and my words remain in you….this is my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit.”  Jesus says that the key to fruitfulness is sticking close to Him (as branches would stick close to a vine) and letting His every word continually shape our actions (as the sap flowing out from a vine causes the branches to flourish).  Jesus doesn’t teach: “Remain in the Church Programme, and you will bear much fruit.”  I am not at all claiming that you can’t
bear fruit through Church  Programmes, but I am pointing out that that is not the key to fruitfulness as defined by Jesus.  The key is: “Remain in Me, and you will bear much fruit.”

In the previous chapter of John’s Gospel, Jesus has already taught His disciples how that will work out in practice, after He has gone to take His place at the right hand of God the Father.  In verses 25 and 26 of Chapter 14, Jesus explained that, once He has returned to Heaven, His voice will come to us through His Spirit: “All this I have spoken while still with you. But the Counsellor (literally: “the Called-Alongside One), the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things, and will remind you of everything I have said to you.”  Jesus is saying that those of us who are not living in the time of His earthly ministry, in order to experience “vine-like” fruitfulness, will need to be listening closely for, and responding to, the words of the Lord, as they come to us through His Spirit.  The Apostle Paul takes up this theme in many places, e.g. “Let us keep in step with the Spirit” (Galatians: 5, 25), and “Those who are led by the Spirit of God are the sons of God” (Romans: 8, 14).  Once again – though I don’t deny that many who are working through Church programmes are, indeed, true “sons of God” – the key message is not “Those who are led by the Church Programmes are the sons of God”. The key message is, rather: “Those who are led by the Spirit are the sons of God”.  The New Testament’s definition of a committed (and potentially fruitful) Christian is a person who is continually intent on hearing the voice of Jesus as it comes to us through His Spirit, and on responding to that voice.

My answer, therefore, to those who think that our “non-programmed” lifestyle diminishes our discipleship, is to say that, so long as an out-of-organised-church Christian “keeps in step with the Spirit”, there will certainly be fruitfulness.

Over the years, I have come across many believers, outside the ‘system’, who are unquestionably “keeping in step with the Spirit”.  The Spirit seems to point them, at work and in leisure time, to opportunities for blessing others, practically, financially, moral-support-wise, and spiritually.  From time to time, He seems to lead some of them to get involved in a specific project that proves genuinely worthwhile.  Then again, the Spirit seems to remind them of the importance of not neglecting their own families.  He also prompts them, often in quite specific ways, to pray, and also to express appreciation of the many aspects of the goodness of our Heavenly Father.  All in all, these out-of-organised-church believers are concerned for others, and they are prayerful, and they are worshipful.  Alongside this, the Spirit reminds them of the truth behind Jesus words: “Come apart, and rest awhile” (Mark 6:31 AV), so that they don’t forget, either, the value of relaxing, and enjoying God’s world.  In my opinion, this kind of approach to discipleship produces a biblically balanced Christian Life.  Those who have a simple focus on “walking in the Spirit”, even if they are outside the system, have the full potential to be fruitful.

Mind you, I have noticed that the lives that strike me as most fruitful, in our own particular scene, seem to flow from men and women who have also grasped a couple of other biblical truths about life in the Spirit.  The first is that involvement with the Scriptures will be a vital part of walking-in-the-Spirit. The more aware you are of the great principles that run through the Word of God, the more easily you can discern what is truly the voice of the Spirit.  The second is that involvement with “Neighbours” will be a vital part of walking-in-the-Spirit.  Jesus is so keen on us loving our neighbours (in His wide definition of that word) that we should expect the Spirit to make a big thing of calling our attention to individuals whom He wants us to come alongside.

To sum up – provided you realise that the Bible has an important place in the Christian Lifestyle, and so has “Neighbour Love” (or, as I called it in my recent book, “Cross My Path Care”), you can simply focus on listening for, and responding to, the voice of the Lord – and your life will be fruitful!

All this is my answer to fellow-Christians who cannot believe that our lifestyle is valid.  However, I also take it as a challenge to myself – and I think you should too!  Let us never be complacent.  There are always forces at work to undermine the Kingdom.  Let us ensure that, each day and every day, we out-of-organised-church Christians remain in partnership with the Lord, firmly yoked to Him, listening for His voice, and responding to it.  It is the only way to live, and I believe we shall begin to appreciate its rightness, and its glory, more and more as the days roll on.