For our Interview series this month, we sat down with Richard Jacobson, an author, podcaster, and once full-time minister in the institutional church who had originally experienced Christian faith in the context of 70s hippie culture. In Jacobson’s book Unchurching: Christianity without Churchianity, he presents a deconstructive argument against the scriptural validity of institutional church models, as well as a positive argument for organic communities such as house churches. You can learn more about the book and its companion podcast at Richard’s website. In this interview, we ask him about his ministry background, his life-long journey away from and back towards organic community, and his experience becoming a self-published author.
The Road to Pastor
Trellis Magazine: In the years before you authored Unchurching and formed the Unchurching community, what led you to becoming a full-time pastor? What was your journey towards feeling called to that role?
Richard Jacobson: As a kid, I had a “hippie” Christian upbringing. I was raised in the Jesus Movement, which was a Christian offshoot of 70s hippie culture (or the hippie offshoot of 70s Christian culture).
Every time people got together they were passionately talking about the Lord: praying for each other, reading passages of scripture to one another, sharing what they were excited about. I saw lots of miracles: people were getting healed and giving up addictions and any number of things. And it was just a community that was in love with Jesus, obsessed with Jesus, and Jesus was very present.
What I didn’t see or even hear anyone talk about were church buildings, senior pastors, Sunday services, sermons, and so on. And that didn’t seem inconsistent to me because none of those things are in the scriptures. Now that’s a provocative statement I understand. But really, you won’t find any of those things in the text.
TM: That was quite an experience starting out in a more organic type of Christian community. For a lot of people who have had a journey away from a formalized, institutional church setting, it sort of feels like venturing out into foreign territory and uncharted lands. But that’s where your journey began.
RJ: Honestly, a lot of my childhood is what I hear many Christians today saying they wish they could have. And what’s interesting about that is I’m old enough to have seen the pendulum swing and then come back. In the Jesus Movement of my childhood, it was very organic. It was very egalitarian. It wasn’t structured, it was just a natural part of everyday life to live in Christian community and have a shared spiritual life with others. And then over time the Jesus Movement gave way to the “Shepherding Movement” which became hyper-controlling, and then a lot of the the prominent leaders started forming institutional churches—over time, much of what made the movement great seemed to leak out as the programs took over.
TM: The “kids” grew up and decided they needed to do what all the adult Christians were doing.
Millennials want nothing to do with this organized form of Christianity, and I think a lot of what they are looking for is probably what I had when I was a kid.
RJ: It’s funny because the people I was surrounded by were the baby boomers. And if you think about that generation, they were the generation that was very anti-establishment across the board. And then when they grew up, they became the new establishment. I mean that in terms of both corporate culture and Christian culture. They became the CEOs in the secular world and they became the senior pastors in the Christian world.
But eventually that “grown-up,” institutionalized form of church reached a place where it wasn’t speaking to younger believers—at least not today’s believers. If you look at the statistics of people leaving the church today, it’s a mass exodus. Millennials want nothing to do with this organized form of Christianity, and I think a lot of what they are looking for (even if they don’t always articulate it this way) is probably what I had when I was a kid.
TM: So how did a kid in the midst of hippie 70s culture get to the point where you were a full-time pastor in an formal church?
RJ: I was maybe 12 or 13 years old when I first stepped into an organized church building. Our family just started “going” to church, and that was when I was first introduced to the idea of church as something you “go” to. People would ask me “So where did you go to church before this?” And I didn’t have an answer for that because I didn’t know church was something you could go to.
So I accepted the idea that now I was “going to church” for the first time and eventually got very involved in the organized church. For a time I did go through some teenage rebellion, but after a while I came back to the church, and as a young man in my very early 20s, I decided I was going to make up for lost time and become the poster child of volunteerism in my church.
I started singing on the worship team and teaching Sunday school. I was volunteering with the teens in the youth ministry. I was using all my vacation days from work to help out with VBS and short-term mission trips. I was basically there any time the doors were open and the lights were on.
TM: Many young Christians have gone through a season of that. “Let’s see…am I working or doing my laundry right now? No? OK, I can go to church!”
RJ: Exactly. Now I want to be real clear about this: at no point did I feel used or like I was doing it out of guilt or obligation. I was very happily serving and invested in my church, and I had the good fortune of being in a church that had very little politics and dysfunction and drama. So what eventually led me out the door wasn’t like some of the stories you hear where there was abuse or tragedy or anything like that. I was very happily involved in church, and it was really a foregone conclusion that I would eventually end up on staff and become a pastor in the church.
And so, after years of volunteering, I eventually did that. I became one of the pastors at my church—and for a brief moment, I was really happy doing it.
The Disconnect Begins
RJ: One day, soon after I started in my new role as church pastor, everything changed as I realized “Wow, I’m a pastor now, which means people are going to give a little bit more weight to my words than they used to.” Whether that’s right or wrong, it’s just part of the natural package that goes with being a pastor.
And I thought a lot about that responsibility. I felt I needed to double down on making sure that everything that I was teaching, everything that I was sharing, was thoroughly grounded in scripture. I needed to divorce myself from man-made ideas and preferences as as much as I could.
TM: So trying to get to a place where you felt like you were sharing the fruits of your study and and conviction based on the text, and not just sharing what was basically your personal opinion on everything.
I prayed: “Help me understand what real ministry is about and how the church is supposed to function. Show me how I’m supposed to be a good shepherd.”
RJ: Right. I don’t think that was a very lofty goal to shoot for. I started praying this really simple prayer every time I sat down to study the Bible: ”Lord, help me. Lay down anything that isn’t from you, that isn’t from your Word—anything that’s just man-made tradition that I picked up along the way. Help me see clearly what you had in mind when you conceived the church and when you installed pastors. Help me understand what real ministry is about and how the church is supposed to function. Show me how I’m supposed to be a good shepherd.” And so on.
The naïve part of that was I really didn’t expect that much to change. I was so familiar with the basic concepts of ministry. I’d heard them preached so many times from the pulpit and discussed so many times with other church leaders. I figured the basics were probably the basics. Sure there might be some little things on the periphery that needed to be addressed, but I was looking for a minor tune-up of my perspective…not full-on invasive surgery!
TM: Do you remember a particular line of study or a catalyst that made you think all of sudden “This church stuff we’re doing here is is not lining up with what I’m reading in Scripture”?
RJ: Yes, it started with really small questions that I thought I could take to other pastors and elders and have them quickly put to bed.
Like I read that passage in Corinthians (1 Corinthians 14:16) that talks about whenever you come together, each one has a hymn, a teaching, a revelation, and so on, and all of these things must be done for the strengthening of the Body. At face value that sounds like whenever we get together, it should be like everyone showing up for a spiritual potluck where everybody brings a dish, and we put it on the table, and pretty soon we have a feast where we’re sharing all of these things that were prepared by the other members.
Instead, what I saw on Sunday mornings looked more like a cafeteria line where everybody is standing there with an empty tray. And there’s one guy at the front of the line going “Look what I prepared for you this morning” and he’s just putting a dollop of that on each person’s tray.
So I asked a pastor friend of mine: “Why does it describe this gathering where everybody is participating? Why is it that on Sunday mornings you stand on a platform and talk to a roomful of people who just listen silently? How do you reconcile that?”
And my friend replied, “Oh well I see your confusion, but you’re reading that passage incorrectly. The point of that passage is not that Paul wants everyone to share. He’s trying to make sure that all of those spiritual gifts are in operation and all of those elements are part of a service. You have a time of worship, a time of teaching, etc. And if you look at the way we structure the the liturgy or the the flow of the service, that’s what we have. So all those things are covered. What builds up the body of Christ is all of those gifts in operation whenever we get together, not that everybody is getting to exercise those gifts.”
TM: On the face of it that sounds like a pretty reasonable and logical response, but obviously you didn’t feel fully convinced after hearing that.
Eventually I reached a crossroads. I had to make a decision. I wasn’t fully convinced that the way we were doing church was scriptural.
RJ: Well, I tried to be. I would take these questions to other pastors and church leaders and basically what I was saying was “Fix me! I’m struggling with this verse.” And I didn’t realize it was because I kept praying that stupid prayer and God was answering it—even though I was expecting something different to happen. So I would take a verse to a church leader and say Help me, and they would give me a rationale because they were speaking from years of study through a lens of tradition that allowed them to reconcile these things.
And then I would go back to the scripture and try to sit with that answer, but then I would stumble across another verse that would just give rise to another question. So it just became this back and forth, back and forth where I eventually reached a crossroads. I had to make a decision because I could either stand there week after week and teach, or I could admit that there might be a conflict of interest. I wasn’t fully convinced that the way we were doing church was scriptural.
And so I stepped down from my pastoral role, and it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done because I loved the people. The church was like a family to me. And while there were a lot of things about the job of being pastor that were difficult, there were a lot of things about it that were also really enjoyable. I feel like in many ways it was a great fit for me and it was just hard to give up.
But I felt like it was becoming an integrity issue for me. So I stepped down and tried to go back to being a regular church member. But it was kind of like Pandora’s box—it had already been opened and there was no way to go back to my previous life where all these questions hadn’t been raised. Eventually I realized if I was going to follow this thread, I needed to step out of the boat.
And so I quit going to church altogether.
The Issue of Money
TM: You talk about how it was a difficult decision to leave for a variety of reasons. Was financial consideration also an issue? There are many stories from from pastors who have wrestled with these questions—if the institutional church model is the right one and if they’re supposed to be continuing on that path. On a very practical level, it’s hard because it’s their job. It’s their livelihood. They might have a family and a mortgage. Did that play into your decision making as well?
RJ: It didn’t affect my decision in terms of whether or not I was going to go in this direction, but there was a definite impact on my family financially. What really sucks is I took a huge pay cut just to become a pastor. The job I had before paid almost twice what the church was able to offer me. To their credit though, they offered me—to the penny—the absolute maximum that they had in the budget to offer me. So I feel like everybody made a sacrifice. They were as pure hearted as they could be. And I wasn’t pursuing this for money, I was doing it because of God’s call for me.
But when I made this decision to leave, it was yet another setback, because when I returned to the company that I worked at before, I started at a much lower position. So I had to take yet another pay cut to leave the ministry, which was a huge step backwards.
As far as my sympathy toward other pastors who are faced with this decision, I would say: been there, done that! It is no fun.
The Birth of the Cartoons
TM: There’s always a personal story behind these issues. You can talk about the theology and theory of this church model versus that and what the Scriptures say about it. But the way this will affect people in ministry can be very challenging.
In terms of your story: you decided to leave your church body entirely and go on this new journey, and eventually you came to the point where you were becoming a teacher of organic church principles—eventually writing the book Unchurching and now you have a podcast as well. How did you arrive at that place?
RJ: Some of it started out of sheer exasperation. I made multiple attempts to write the book, and it was just too daunting, or maybe it was the Lord preventing me from doing it until the timing was right.
From the time I started writing the first personal study notes to the time the book was published, it was about a 15 year journey.
When I started having all these initial questions back when I was still on staff, I started making personal study notes for myself, with no intention of sharing them with anyone. These notes grew and grew over time, and I continued to make these notes even after I left the church because I was still just trying to sort everything out for myself personally.
Eventually I reached a place where I realized “Wow, I’ve got enough notes here. I should probably do something with this rather than just keep it to myself.” That led to me making my first attempt at writing the book, which was one of many I tried over and over throughout the years. Basically, from the time I started writing the first notes to the time it was eventually published, it was about a 15 year journey.
Anyway, after so many failed attempts at publishing my book, I reached a critical mass point where I felt like if I didn’t share some of these ideas with someone I was going to burst.
I had a background in graphic design and had dabbled in animation, so I decided “I’m just going to start making an animated video blog.” I started creating little four minute animations that each addressed some facet of organized church and compared it to the things I found in Scripture which contradicted that particular aspect of organized church. I also created some cartoons to go along with them, and the first time I posted a cartoon online I had set up a Facebook page that had just over 100 followers.
I posted the cartoon thinking no one’s going to see this except the hundred people who like my page, and within a day maybe, thousands and thousands of people had seen it because everyone started sharing it and the people they were sharing it with started sharing it.
It eventually got seen by 14,000 people—which is not “viral” by today’s standards, but the ability to put something out there and have over 14,000 people see it was amazing. And that was just Facebook—thousands more people saw it on Twitter, and many sites reposted it and stripped out my my name from the bottom of the cartoon. There are copies of this cartoon floating out there that have no attribution to me. And I’m fine with that. It shows the power of an idea, of doing something that strikes a chord.
TM: Clearly you hit a nerve. You hit some kind of a mark for people where they were really resonating with that concept.
RJ: Yeah, it was a great cartoon.
The Publication of Unchurching
TM: So that definitely took you some new places. How did you finally get to the point where you finally finished and published your book?
RJ: The blog took off, and through the blog I started connecting with other authors who were writing about house church. I started connected with different communities of people who were looking for something other than an institutional form of church. My world got immediately bigger within just a few months of starting this blog—as a matter of fact, it was about three months after that first post that I was introduced to the church community I’m in now. It turns out they were right here in my backyard!
Once I got connected with them, I decided I was going to take a step back from the blog because I didn’t want to turn my time in the community and my relationship with these new friends into source material for a blog. I didn’t want to be an outsider who was like a field reporter communicating to the rest of the world.
So I really dialed back the blog and it kind of went dark. The videos I’d made continued to spread, but I quieted down and became a member of this community for a while. After doing that for a good bit—I don’t remember how long—I reached a point where I finally felt a release to take another pass at this book. Actually I’m making that sound nicer than it was! I was driving down the road to my current job and started crying out and pleading with God—you know traffic is a great time to spend spend time with the Lord…
TM: Ah yes, the car as a place of meditation…
I don’t want to overstate the reception of the book because it’s a small niche, but as far as how it was received within that niche, it’s been phenomenal.
RJ: I think God’s phone rings off the hook during the morning and evening commute. So I was driving and praying and pouring my heart out, saying “Lord, please don’t let me die with this book still inside me!” Because at this point I really thought it’s never going to happen, it’s never going to come to fruition. And it wasn’t long after that I felt the release to try again. This time it really came together in a way that it never had in all my previous attempts. Maybe that’s because I was in a different place.
At last I was finally able to finish and release Unchurching— not thinking anyone outside my family and friends would necessarily read it. I just needed to publish it. And I don’t want to overstate the reception of the book because it’s a small niche, but as far as how it was received within that niche, it’s been phenomenal.
TM: That’s a great story about the origin of your book. There are a lot of aspiring authors out there who feel like their mythical book project is the thing that will never really happen. So it’s good to know that there’s light at the end of the tunnel.
RJ: Definitely! On my Unchurching podcast (which is a companion to the book), I released a special bonus episode where I talk about the publishing process because I am a self-published author. This was all done largely as a one man effort. I had friends who helped me proofread it and edit it and so on. But there was no marketing team and there was definitely no publishing house involved. It was just me using a variety of services to get my book out there. So for the aspiring authors out there who want to hear a little bit of the experience that I have, I share that in the podcast.
The Growth of the Unchurching Community
TM: What’s your favorite feedback or conversations that have come up after publishing your book and launching other media like your podcast and Facebook group? What what sort of feedback has come up that’s been really rewarding or interesting for you?
RJ: The mind-blowing thing for me has been the disproportionate amount of positive reviews about the book and the podcast versus the few detractors. I think it validates the number of people out there who have been desperate to hear somebody articulate what they have been feeling all along. That is the number one comment I get. If you go through the reviews on Amazon, you’ll see person after person saying things like “Richard has put into words what I’ve been feeling the whole time.” And that’s the number one thank you email I get. Readers will contact me all the time from various countries (which is also mind-blowing) because I thought this was a very American-centric sort of topic and apparently it’s not.
The readers feel validated that somebody has shown them scripturally that they are not crazy for thinking and feeling this way and for having the concerns and the critiques that they do.
So I feel really validated that the book has been well-received. But the readers also feel validated that somebody has shown them scripturally that they are not crazy for thinking and feeling this way and for having the concerns and the critiques that they do about the organized church. That model is not Biblical. It’s kind of like the Emperor’s New Clothes: everybody is standing around thinking the same thing, and it just takes one person to stand up and point it out. Suddenly it gives everybody else permission to say “yeah, I was thinking that too!”
TM: In an age when we’re being bombarded by so much media in terms of videos and blogs, there’s still something powerful about a book—just sitting down and reading a book where someone is able to articulate their viewpoint and go into the deep nuances and piece out a topic of study.
RJ: When it comes to something like the organized church model, it is a spiritual stronghold. And what I mean by that is this complex, constructed, rationalized paradigm has been built up precept upon precept. The way I have chosen to take it down through my book is brick by brick. It has to be systematically dismantled. You can’t make just one statement that’s completely foreign to someone’s paradigm—no matter how scriptural it may be—and have them accept it.
Like if I say “There’s no such thing Biblically as a senior pastor, actually there’s nothing like today’s pastors described anywhere in the Bible”—somebody who’s already wrestled with this topic and come to the same conclusion might say “Oh yeah, I know what you mean.” But somebody else might say “What are you talking about? Pastors are absolutely scriptural!”
Our idea of “pastor” is connected to spiritual authority, which is connected to leadership, which is connected to our concept of spiritual hierarchy, and so on. All of these things are connected, and if you pull on one thread it touches on so many other topics. The only way to dismantle the dominant paradigm convincingly and get back to a fresh start is to have a long process, a long argument of deconstruction, and it takes a couple hundred pages to do that.
The Biblical Model for Church
TM: One of the contrasts you’re making is between people who have built up a pretty elaborate construct of what the Bible says about how to structure the church, and people like yourself who posit a counter argument to that. However, many people have also made the argument “well, there’s actually nothing in the New Testament about the structure of churches per se or exactly what you should do…it’s all pretty vague. There are all sorts of valid ways to do church, and as long as they adhere to the overall values of Christianity, it’s all good.” Have you run into that sort of argument? Do you feel like there are a good number of specific things in the New Testament about the nature and structure of church life?
RJ: I am so glad you asked that because yes, I’ve been confronted with that argument many times. I think the nature of the church is all over the New Testament. I think it is front and center. It is the elephant in the room. When the scales fall from your eyes and you see how specific the scripture is about what the church is supposed to be and how it’s supposed to function, that is probably the biggest aha moment. You’ll wonder how you ever swallowed this lie that the New Testament doesn’t have any specifics. You’ll suddenly realize, oh my gosh, it was right there in front of us the whole time!
TM: One last question: do you feel like organic or house churches—these smaller, tight-knit, egalitarian communities—can eventually “replace” institutional churches? There are a lot of considerations that people might think of, such as evangelism, missions, charities, education, and so on. There are lots of ways that churches—and to some extent large churches in particular—can provide services to communities. How do you see that playing out as you as you work through these issues?
Personally I wish more Christians were involved in organizations—especially those that have a humanitarian or charity effort as their mission.
RJ: I think there are a couple of questions in there. As far as more organic/simple/house church communities replacing the organized church, I don’t have any problem imagining that, since I feel like the institutional/organized church replaced that originally. The form of church that we see in the scriptures are these simple communities that truly operate like extended spiritual families, like the type of churches I describe in my book. That was the original and still most natural form of church community. And I would argue even the only Biblical form of church community.
But what happens is, because so many other things have been mediated through this organized church structure, they become joined at the hip in our minds. For instance, relief, or charity, or something like that—there is nothing preventing Christians who do not belong to an organized church from organizing an effort to bring relief or take on a charity effort. People assume that because I’m saying the church should not be an organization that I’m somehow saying Christians shouldn’t be involved in any way shape or form with organizations.
Personally I wish more Christians were involved in organizations—especially organizations that have a humanitarian or charity effort as their mission. There’s a difference between organizing something, and becoming an organization. God gives us the gift of administration for a reason, but I don’t think we should turn that gift on the church itself and distort what the church is supposed to be.
TM: The term a lot of people are probably familiar with is “parachurch” ministries or organizations and certainly there are already many of those. So you’re saying there’s nothing wrong with being involved in those, whether it’s for relief or charity purposes or education or whatever it may be, but that type of organization shouldn’t be conflated with how a local church body itself should be structured.
RJ: Exactly. I don’t think that’s really hard to conceptualize. Most of us have a job that we go to. We don’t live in our offices, and we’re not married to our coworkers. It’s interesting to me that we’ve tried to marry these two things—the idea of spiritual community and being a corporation—when I think they can exist very well side by side. One is not the other.
TM: Richard, thank you for being part of our interview series! Learn more about the book Unchurching, the podcast, and much more at unchurching.com.
And now for a fun, totally off-topic question: If you could travel to any planet in the solar system and study it up close, which one would it be?
RJ: Well…it’s not the sexy answer, but I’m probably going to say Mars, for a couple of reasons. One: being a sci-fi nerd, I think it’s the thing that we’ve fantasized as being the most achievable. Two: it would be cool to be the first guy to have that credit and have the bragging rights.
TM: Makes sense. Mars is on a lot of people’s minds right now—especially Elon Musk.
RJ: Yeah, and he’s probably going to get us there. So go Elon!