01/31/2014 07:56 pm ET Updated Apr 02, 2014

Hackchurching: A New Approach to the Christian Lifestyle

In a TED talk released about a year ago, Logan LaPlante describes an educational approach he refers to as "hackschooling."

Since I was homeschooled/unschooled K-12, I could relate to 13-year-old LaPlante's eight facets of education from my own life as a teenager. My parents had the revolutionary idea to emphasize business education before literacy with my siblings and me. My parents read aloud to us and let us pursue reading and math by interest. As a result, I was reading by age four while some of my younger siblings waited until they were much older.

The business emphasis prepared us for success at a more advanced pace than the standard "3 Rs" approach. I sold used books on at age nine, using my own checking account, debit card, and shipping and handling services, including customer service every time I made a mistake on an order. My little sister raised chickens when she was 10 and sold the eggs, and my little brothers have run too many businesses to recount -- homemade fencing swords, decorative Final Fantasy VII swords, chain-mail jewelry, and used luxury accessories for up 1000-percent gains on eBay. When we recently found out that one of my brothers was dyslexic, he was glad to have business experience and not to feel inadequate as a poor reader. He was also prepared for success despite his setback.

I say all this because hackschooling makes sense. Each child is different, and if the goal of education is to prepare them for success, helping them "make a life instead of making a living" means they ought to be more involved in their own education plan. Preparation for the real world is more effective with hands-on interaction, and the Internet has made information available for free. I can study any language, scientific or mathematical concept, or writing technique with a free library membership and Internet access.

Are we together on the benefits of hackschooling? Stay with me here. I'm a hackchurching Christian.

A few years ago, Donald Miller remarkably compared the church to an educational system, and said the church is lacking because nobody graduates. I suggest taking the notion further: perhaps church would be better done with individually designing our own schedules and curricula.

I haven't loyally attended a church in just over a year, and it would probably be longer, but I'm only 21 and just moved out of my parents' home. Every time I get inside a church, I find myself distractedly questioning everything: why are we sitting down and letting one person talk? Even a classroom has more room for discussion, as most churches don't expect the congregation to raise their hands and ask questions during the sermon. Why do we open with worship, and why should the band belong on a stage as if they're performing, if we're all supposed to be having a personal appreciation of God? Who preaches to the preachers if Christianity is a journey that doesn't end with graduation from seminary? Why do we dress up if healing only comes through openness instead of false presentation?

When a friend recently asked me about my take on finding a church home, I told her about my approach to building a Christian life for myself.

Here's a list of things church is supposed to provide. Like the standardized education system, it is less effective than designing a personal approach to doing faith, or hackchurching.

1. Teaching. Reading a book is harder than listening to a sermon. It takes longer than a couple of hours a week. It requires personal motivation, and studying with an open-book access to my Bible helps me check every claim I have questions about, rather than the more passive note-taking process sitting in the classroom-style layout of a church. I also listen to many sermons online and can pause and research as I go.

2. Worship. I began personal worship after hearing a compelling sermon on the radio at the age of 13. A friend had let me down, and I had never tried singing in my family's spacious backyard before. The sermon asserted that in personal worship during trying times, the infinity of God would come into focus and my personal problem would have less importance. I put this to the test, and never dropped the habit. Church doesn't provide this experience for a few reasons: there's no shame in dancing or running alone or singing in the backyard, while the congregation is full of people. Also, a church worship session means singing songs selected by someone else. These songs may be great, but the songs with special importance between God and me will always bring me to a more connected mindset. I've rarely been to a church that would play Halestorm's "Beautiful With You" during worship.

3. Community. Since I stopped attending church, I realized how much of a clique-like attitude I'd fallen into. A church is a ready-made community, and it's handy because the people who attend have chosen that church for various reasons: perhaps they all like the sermons, setup, or pastor. This creates an exclusive community, even if the church has a strong outreach program, because these people have their various reasons for showing up each week. The only way to avoid a Christian clique was to pursue diverse friendships for myself, and explore different conversation topics with different people. Church wasn't just a clique; it also provided a rather poor community. Each service goes through a pattern, and connecting with people happens briefly before and after. I have attended some groups who took time in the service to break off into small groups and offer real community, but it always took just as much extra effort as I would have to put into seeking out wise friends.

4. Accountability. If I was finding a better group outside of church, I could easily hand-pick my friends and choose not to surround myself with people who would challenge me. Isn't this just as much an issue in the modern church? I found it easier to conceal my shortcomings and needs in a group setting once a week than when having coffee one-on-one with someone who loves Jesus and cares deeply about seeing me grow spiritually. Of course I could be unaccountable, but that would make it difficult to keep any friends, and I found more challenging perspectives from a wide variety of supportive and insightful friends than in church.

5. Consistency. So if I don't attend church every week, perhaps I'm afraid of commitment. My story might help clear this up: a year ago, I was attending a quickly growing church in the basement of a dear friend. I felt strongly called to start a similar group of my own, taking the message of the kingdom of God to my university. The leaders of my old church prayed about it and agreed, commissioning me as a pastor to go begin work on my own. As I worked with my fellow students to study spiritual questions together and to teach them what I knew, a few things became clear: I didn't want to model an authoritarian approach. I ended up doing church spontaneously instead of going to church. I found myself saying, "I'm a woman pastor because I believe in gender equality in the church, but I also think Jesus meant it when he told the leaders to serve and be humble instead of teaching from positions of control and authority, so I don't call myself a pastor because that's what being a pastor means today." So I began investing with the people who came to me on an individual level, leading to many conversations where I could draw on my personal theological studies and construct a sermon on the spot. Listening became more important than preaching, and I learned so much about the people around me by being attentive to their stories and struggles. This hasn't changed, and my commitment to people will continue as long as there are people to just do church with.

5. Outreach. Like I said with the point on church cliques, outreach is often an extension of the congregation when attending church. Once I was free of one community of people who were counting on me, I could branch out and develop friendships with people outside my own faith, and it didn't have to be any different from my Christian friends. I got to know people from various religions, and I have several atheist friends. I'm just a Christian, and that means I'm in the church, so everywhere I go is church.

Once I began just being a Christian instead of thinking about church, I could bring church anywhere at any time. If a friend was struggling with a spiritual issue, we'd stop and talk it through and pray about it. If I had a question, I didn't have to wait until I could talk to my pastor; I would just call up one of my spiritual mentors. I found a much stronger community because I could both mentor and be mentored at the same time, and my friendships kept me accountable. I began hackchurching, and it was a huge part of maintaining my faith while church was making me lose it.