“Thy Church Unsleeping” (Rethinking Church #30)

Did I achieve my goal in writing this series? Did I clarify my relationship to the church and find a way forward? Perhaps I had already come to my conclusions and simply had to articulate in detail my reasons. Nevertheless, I have learned from this process. As readers of this series know, I was a leader—an elder—at the heart of a parachurch church for nearly twenty-three years. In this role, I gave lots of time and lots of money to its maintenance. I experienced lots of frustration and anxiety. And there were also moments of joy and success. I loved and still love the people. But my overall conclusion is that the system of organization and traditional social expectations limit how well such an institution can actually manifest the church in the world. Hence I came to the conclusion that I could no longer serve as a leader of an institutional church. Nor can I be an enthusiastic participant in the parachurch church project. I don’t want it to disappear, and I don’t want to discourage those who benefit from it from participation. I too can participate in it and support it in its role as a second circle bridging simple churches to the universal church. But I can no longer direct huge amounts of time and energy and money to its success as an institution. I need to use that time, energy, and money for something I really believe in.

As I said in previous essays, I am a professor, a theologian, a Christian, and a lover of the church. I have had the opportunity to receive an amazing education, and as a professor of theology, I have been given time to teach, read, learn, think, and write. I have had experience in the fulltime paid ministry and as a leader in a church. Hence I feel a call teach what I have learned to as many people as possible in whatever medium I can. As far as my relationship to the church, I participate in a simple church that meets in our house—or online during the pandemic. This has been one of the most profound and encouraging experiences of my life. But as a teacher of the faith I feel a call to serve all believers everywhere, the universal church. I don’t believe I—or any other theologian—should identify myself as a teacher of the specific doctrines characteristic of my tradition. I speak to everyone “as one without authority,” a phrase Kierkegaard used to describe his writing as someone lacking ordination. I view my ministry as trans-congregational and trans-denominational. Like a traveling evangelist—who travels mostly via the internet and books—I will preach the good news to anyone anywhere.

I end now with a prayer and one of my favorite hymns.

Prayer

Father in Heaven! Bless Thy church everywhere: the persecuted with courage and relief; the weary with rest and renewal; and the lukewarm with revival.

Come Holy Spirit! Quicken the dead; strengthen the weak, embolden the fainthearted.

Come Lord Jesus! Accompany those who must walk lonely paths, give your gentle presence to the dying, and gather your people into their eternal home.

Amen.

The day Thou Gavest

The day Thou gavest, Lord, is ended. The darkness falls at Thy behest;

To Thee our morning hymns ascended: Thy praise shall hollow now our rest.

We thank Thee that Thy Church, unsleeping, While earth rolls onward into light,

Thro’ all the world her watch is keeping, And rests not now by day or night.

The sun that bids us rest is waking Our brethren ‘neath the western sky;

And hour by hour fresh lips are making Thy wondrous doings heard on high.

So be it, Lord: Thy throne shall never, Like earth’s proud empires, pass away;

But stand and rule and grow for ever, Till all Thy creatures own Thy sway.

Keep it Simple (Rethinking Church #29)

The essays today and tomorrow will bring this series on rethinking church to an end. As I stated in the first essay, my primary purpose has been to clarify my own relationship to the church and get a feel for a way forward. I hope that others may benefit from thinking along with me. I continue to believe that I can best help others by telling them what I see, understanding that each of us is placed differently.

A Simple Church

I wish that every Christian was part of a simple, small church. I hesitate to call it “a church” because the image of the parachurch with all its extra features inevitably comes into our minds. I prefer to think of it as the simplest manifestation of the church. Simple churches must guard their simplicity by limiting themselves as much as possible to the essential features, activities, and mission of the church, which I described in the first few essays in this series. The simple church owns no property, has no employees, and takes no collections. As far as the government is concerned, it does not exist. Its worship is not stage centered but community centered; and the community centers itself by focusing on Christ. It will—indeed, it must—have leaders and teachers, but everyone gets to participate. It is a family where even the little ones are honored. Everyone knows everyone. It is not a little church with ambitions of becoming a big church. It has no agenda and no ambitions but to love one another and help each other better to serve the Lord. It manifests the fullness of the church because Christ and the Spirit are there directing our attention to the Father.

The simple church can take many forms according to circumstances. If necessary it can be just your family, and in extreme circumstances even you alone. You may be part of many simple churches, for example, in online fellowship with far-flung friends. Your simple church gathering may welcome guests or it may be reserved for intimate friends. Worship can take many forms as long as it does not become stage centered. Keep it simple, and don’t forget why the church gathers.

Reform Parachurch Churches

In the previous essay, I proposed a concentric circle model of how individual Christians and simple churches can maintain communion with the whole church. As I argued, simple churches that close themselves to the universal church will become insular and one-sided. They will miss out on the gifts and insights God gives other believers. The parachurch church—the traditional church congregation—is first circle beyond the simple church.

I wish, therefore, that traditional churches would recognize their parachurch status and reform themselves to play that role more effectively. Parachurches cannot replace simple churches but can facilitate communication and fellowship among them and between them and the universal church. Parachurches churches can become places where the best teachers among the small groups and guests from elsewhere can share insights with the larger gathering. And they can facilitate cooperation among believers in projects that cannot be accomplished and should not be attempted by simple churches. Also, traditional churches, given their social visibility, can become a person’s first introduction to Christianity. They can provide some spiritual support for people that are not yet involved in simple churches.  However, parachurches should recognize that they cannot provide intimate the fellowship and the mutual encouragement possible in simple churches. Accordingly, I hope these churches will encourage all of their attendees to participate in something like what I call a “simple church.”

Next Time: My conclusions and my prayer.

What’s the Solution? Any Practical Advice? (Rethinking Church #28)

I am a professor. As I look back on my life it seems that this is what I was destined to become. I love to learn and teach. Thinking is a passion and understanding a necessity. I want to know the truth of things, the cause of things, and the order of things. Everything is my subject. I don’t mean every subject—chemistry, physics, biology, and sociology—although I am interested in all things. I mean everything all together, the whole universe. What does it all mean? Why does it (and we!) exist, and where is it all going? I want to know its deepest secret, to see it, touch it, smell it, and taste it! I want to enter into it, be immersed in it and raptured by it. That is why I am a theologian. That is why I am a Christian. For me, the question is not “Why seek God?” The question is “Why seek anything else?” Why should I devote my energies to anything else but the best, greatest, and most beautiful of things?

I am in no position to judge my own abilities as a thinker and teacher, in absolute terms or in comparison to others. However I am pretty sure that I am better at thinking and communicating than at church planting and administration. So, when I am asked about the practical implications of what I’ve been saying in this series, I hesitate to give advice. Each of us has different experiences and finds ourselves in different situations. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. Perhaps I can best help others by reflecting on what the series means for me.

I am a Christian, and I feel a special bond with other Christians. I want to enjoy their company—conversation, prayer, and worship. I want to give and receive, love and be loved, teach and be taught, strengthen and be strengthened. In other words, I need the church and I love it. There is only one church, because there is only one God, one Lord, one Spirit, one hope, one baptism, and one faith (Eph 4:4-6). But that church is scattered in time and space. We cannot know each and every member by physical proximity. Yet, I believe I have an obligation to establish a relationship to the whole church in every place and every time.

I think of that relationship as a huge set of concentric circles. We need an inner circle of friends with whom we can spend time in intimate fellowship. Without intimate fellowship of this kind we cannot experience true community, which is a taste of the kingdom of God. It’s not an adjunct, a recruiting tool for the big church. It’s the real thing. It is where we meet the living and breathing, feeling and thinking, flesh and blood church. It’s not the anonymous crowd or an impersonal institution or distant clergy. This inner circle can take many forms. However it must be open to the next circle and the next and the next, and so on until we’re in touch with the whole church. Why must we do this, and how can we accomplish it?

We need communion with the whole church because it is one and God gives gifts, insights, and experiences to every part, everywhere, and in every age. And every part needs what God has given to every other part. Cutting our little group off from the whole is like limping along with one leg, fighting with one arm, and flying with one wing. We get so focused on our little insights and limited experiences that we mistake the part for the whole. Each little church can be a manifestation of the whole church only as long as its circle is open to all the other circles.

How can our inner circle commune with the entire set of concentric circles? Perhaps here is a legitimate role for the parachurch church. Such churches provide places for many little inner circles to gather to hear from each other and from a wider circle of a tradition—Baptist, Church of Christ, Pentecostal, Wesleyan, Lutheran, and Anglican. As I have emphasized in this series, it’s important not to allow the parachurch church and the tradition it embodies to replace the inner circle of fellowship. But even they are too narrow to encompass the whole church. There are other traditions, wider circles to encounter. To receive God’s gifts and insights they preserve we will need to speak with or read the works of representatives of these traditions.

Different Protestant traditions need to maintain communication with believers from other Protestant traditions—Lutheran, Reformed, Anabaptist. Protestants must listen to Roman Catholic and Orthodox voices and vice versa. Each little circle needs to be informed in some way by the thought and experience of all the others. And all of the living need to listen to the voices from the past. The most important voice from the past is the Bible. But in every age certain Christian truths were perceived with great clarity and others were overlooked. Ours is no different. The church needs scholars who keep the past alive. It needs theologians who read the Bible and theological works from every era and every tradition to keep each little group, every parachurch church, and every tradition aware of the whole church.

And that is why I am a professor. It’s why I teach. And it’s why I write.

The Point of it All (Rethinking Church #27)

We are nearing the end of our project of rethinking church. In the concluding essays I want to draw the series together in a few summary points, make some observations, give some advice, and make a proposal.

The Point of it All

  • The essence of church is simple and versatile. Where there is genuine faith in Christ, baptism, and the meeting to fellowship with the Lord and each other, there the church becomes visible.
  • The mission of the church is simple and clear. Its task is to witness by word, life, and deed to the reality of Jesus Christ crucified and risen from the dead.
  • Most churches, past and present, augment their essential nature and mission with optional features that they view as legitimate means, appropriate in their situation, to manage their affairs and carry out their mission.
  • It is vital to distinguish between the simple essence and mission that must be present in every genuine manifestation of the church and the additional features that may be helpful in specific times and places.
  • To emphasize the distinction between the simple church and traditional churches that have taken shape over the centuries, I called the latter parachurch churches.
  • Churches need to examine themselves continually to make sure that the once-helpful additional features do not replace or neutralize the essential features. Church reform always begins by comparing the existing condition of the church to its God-given essence. Whatever feature or activity that renders the church incapable of manifesting its essence or accomplishing its mission must be recalibrated to harmonize with the original norm.

My Hope for the Series

I don’t think I have unrealistic expectations about the prospects for human perfectibility. I am not offering a secret formula for creating the perfect church. I do believe, however, that it is possible to do better. I have not argued, and I do not believe, that parachurch churches are illegitimate and should be abolished. Many people find them life giving, and I would not take that away from them. I hope, however, that the leaders of these churches—if they happen on these essays—will take to heart the distinction between the essential features of the church and the nonessential ones and engage in self-examination and reform. Experience in church leadership has taught me that reform of existing parachurch churches will not be easy. You may need to start from scratch, and like Paul avoid “building on someone else’s foundation” (Romans 15:20).

I embarked on this series in hope of clarifying my own understanding of the church and my relationship to it. I also hoped that others might benefit from thinking along with me. I had in mind especially those believers who find themselves troubled or alienated from traditional churches but have not lost faith in Jesus. They love being with other Christians but are disillusioned with traditional churches. Some of these believers are older and have given much of their lives to church work, as volunteers or as paid clergy. They are tired and a bit cynical. I want them to know that they do not have to choose between unhappily continuing in the traditional church until they die or melting into secular culture. There are many options for being the church in this world between those two extremes.

I also had in mind young people (20s to 40s) many of whom are not be able to hear the gospel message because it gets mixed with “churchy” language and programs. Having spent a lifetime in the church, I understand “Christianese” and even speak it. I can pick up on the slightest biblical allusion. I get the symbolic rituals and holy tones of “preacher speak.” But most young people don’t get it, and acquiring a taste for these things is not prerequisite to becoming a disciple of Jesus. It all sounds strange, weird and cultish.

If there is any value this generation seeks it’s “authenticity,” and if there is anything it hates it’s “inauthenticity.” And if there is any institution that reeks of inauthenticity it’s the traditional church. For sure, there is more to the Christian way of life than authenticity, but Jesus was hard on hypocrites and praised the pure in heart. Authenticity is not trendiness but honesty. It’s having no gimmicks and planning no tricks. No plastic smiles, fake happiness, or implausible certainty! Jesus said to his disciples as they left to tell the good news to the Judean towns and villages, “Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give” (Matt 10:8). Freely! Not a word that comes to mind when I think of most churches.

I want my young friends to experience a community of other believers where they can learn and teach, know love and fellowship, encourage and be encouraged by others, and give and receive strength. I want them to experience the simple, essential church wherein they can be formed into the image of Christ and become authentic witnesses to the kindness of God embodied in Jesus. They may at some point learn to speak “Christianese,” come to appreciate the arcane traditions of the church, and may even wish to join a parachurch church. That may be a good thing. But let’s not force them to begin there.

To be continued…

Open Door and Cheap Grace (Rethinking Church #26)

Perhaps by now you are wondering where I am going in this series. Do I have anything good to say about institutional churches? And if not, what is the alternative? I promise that I will answer both of these questions soon. Today, however, I need to continue my critique of institutional church practices. We must rid ourselves of the notion that contemporary forms of doing church are the only and forever best ways of being the church in the world.

The church will face many challenges no matter what form it takes or what means it uses to accomplish its mission. Jesus was persecuted and his message rejected. We can expect no less. The world is never going to welcome the call to repent of its immorality and idolatry. It loves the broad way of self-indulgence and pride. It’s not attracted to the way of self-denial and self-control. Holiness holds no appeal and righteousness excites no hunger or thirst. But sometimes the church creates problems it might not otherwise face by the forms it adopts and the means it uses.

Programs that Need Money

I’ve already spoken about money at some length. However I want to mention one more problem with money-driven churches. Contemporary churches instinctively institutionalize programs that need money and lots of it. Hence it needs contributing members and lots of them. This need introduces ambiguity into the church’s evangelistic witness. We are tempted to reduce the price of conversion from “repent and believe the good news” (Mark 1:15) and “take up your cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34) to “come and join our nice church.” The motto of every successful retail business is “The customer is always right.” If we set up the church so that we need to attract customers and keep them happy, how can we at the same time call them to “count the cost” of following Jesus (Luke 14:15-35)?

Family Friendly Churches

Since history began every member of most families worked to support the family. For most of that time, families could work together in agriculture, home industries, and domestic chores. There were no electronic media, no schools, no soccer practices, and no music lessons. Evening meals were taken together. But the rise of the modern economy and culture brought dramatic changes to family life. Increasingly, since the end of WW II many middle class children grow up in homes where both parents work in industry and children spend their days in schools, their evenings doing homework, and their weekends in sports activities. Parents expect daycare workers and schools to educate their children while they are at work and coaches to teach them athletic skills in the evenings and on the weekends while they relax.

And on Sundays modern parents expect churches to act like the daycares centers and schools on which they rely during the week. Church leaders respond to this pattern of expectation by providing child care, age segregated Sunday school classes, and a full range of youth programs. Churches feel pressure to hire children’s ministers, youth ministers, young adult ministers, and family life ministers. They build huge complexes to accommodate all these activities. Otherwise they will lose families to churches that provide them. In the meantime, parents fail to teach their children the faith or spend time with them modeling the Christian life, which is among the top two or three essential responsibilities of parenthood. Are we helping or hurting families by assimilating the church to the pattern of busyness that is the bane of modern family life?

Guest Friendly Churches

Before the nineteenth-century revivals that periodically swept the United States after 1810, church services were not really guest friendly or evangelistic in nature. For the most part, they were for insiders, the elect. After the Civil War right up to the present, the Sunday service became a time to “invite your neighbor” or to receive “walk ins off the street.” The sermons and all other public activities betrayed an awareness that the “unconverted” may be in the audience. The constant presence of outsiders guaranteed that the church could never conduct its meetings in ways designed to build up the church to maturity in Christ. The original purpose of the gathering was forgotten.

Stage-Centered Meeting

In my experience, most contemporary churches are stage centered. People come to watch, listen, and feel. The preachers, readers, worship leaders, musicians, and singers are at the center of attention. The church experience becomes performance and entertainment. If the performance is not satisfactory we go somewhere else. Center stage in the spotlight becomes a place of honor to be sought. The stage replaces the table, the music replaces the Eucharistic meal, and a feeling of transcendence replaces Christ crucified and risen.

Next Time: Don’t despair! We can do better.

Why Church Reform is (Almost) Impossible (Rethinking Church # 25)

Models of the Church

In every age the church takes form in the world as an association of people, and it borrows a model of organization from the surrounding society, modifying it according to needs. In the early days, the church adopted the Jewish model with the central authority vested in the apostles and elders at Jerusalem and locally in household patrons and elders that presided over the church in a particular city. Sometime during the second century, elders became priests and a single bishop asserted rule over each city.  After the church became the official religion of the Roman Empire, it began to model itself after the imperial administration. In the East, powerful bishops or patriarchs ruled over the main cities—Alexandria, Jerusalem, and Constantinople—and the surrounding districts. In the West, the bishop of Rome began to model himself after the Emperor to become the single head of the whole church and all the bishops. The church developed a huge and complicated bureaucracy to administer the imperial church.

The Protestant churches of the Reformation era in breaking with Rome became national or city-state churches. As I pointed out in the previous post, Protestant churches in the United States still preserve the basic form acquired in the Nineteenth Century. Some denominations adopted a centralized and bureaucratic administrative structure. Others remained a loosely associated family of local congregations. Still others choose some level of centralization between the previous two.

However they organize themselves formally, at an informal level certain styles characterize most contemporary churches. (1) The church as a business. Church leaders, whatever their official titles, administer the affairs of the church in the way chief executive officers and boards of directors administer businesses. Churches have products, marketing strategies, strategic plans, shareholders, customers, and hold market shares—all by other names of course. (2) The church as a school. Schools have administrators, teachers, classrooms, lectures, and curricula. (3) The church as a charitable organization. This type too must be organized to receive and distribute goods and services to its target recipients. (4) The church as a theater. Theaters need administrators, theater halls, actors, musicians, and directors. (5) The church as community center. Community centers offer gathering places for socializing, meetings of various interest groups, recreation, and organizing for political activism for one cause or another.

Two Big Problems

Reform is Impossible. Though these non-theological models and styles dominate the actual running of churches, churches still use the religious rhetoric of the kingdom of God, family of God, or body of Christ. Apparently, they don’t see the irony in this. For they don’t resemble a family at all. Nor do they hold everyone accountable to the ethics of the kingdom or work like the body of Christ. And when an individual actually urges the business, school, charitable organization, theater, or community center type church to return to the family or kingdom or the body model, the deep logic of these models absorbs, overwhelms, and neutralizes every effort at reform. I do not doubt that churches adopt these models in good faith and for practical reasons. But hidden within each of these models is an irresistible logic fundamentally at odds with the essential nature and mission of the church. All species of star fish can regrow a lost limb as long as the central disk remains, and a few species can regrow the central disk and all other limbs from just one limb. I learned from experience that you cannot reform a church by tweaking this or that program or renaming an office or an activity to sound more biblical. It changes nothing to start calling a church secretary an “office minister.”  True reform begins with abandoning the foundational logic of alien models and all their outward manifestations. The problem is in the DNA not in the name.

Assimilation is Inevitable. The irresistible logic, the DNA, of such models as businesses, schools, charitable organization, theaters, and community centers—even if they are adopted by churches—demands assimilation to the archetypical, secular form of the model. When churches look and operate like other institutions in society, the logic of the model demands that they place themselves under or be forced to assimilate to the ethics, laws, and social expectations applicable to analogous institutions. By law and social expectation our society expects all employers and public accommodations—theaters, schools, hotels, restaurants, etc.—to treat every individual equally regardless of ethnic origin, religion, physical ability, gender, and sexual orientation. This logic seems as compelling to insiders as it does to outsiders.

Until recently, most churches ordained and employed men only as clergy, and even roles open to laypeople were reserved for men. However with recent changes in public expectations, many people are asking such questions as “If women can be senators, professors, heads of fortune five hundred companies, actors, singers, world-renowned athletes, and police officers, why can’t they become preachers, bishops, and elders…since the church in all other ways looks and acts like businesses, schools, and theaters?” This irresistible logic is powerfully working its way through all churches in the western world. And, just as it will inevitably drive most churches to assimilate to feminism, it will surely drive many churches to assimilate to the gender revolution.

The pressure to assimilate to a culture hostile to authentic Christianity cannot be successfully resisted merely by stubbornly refusing to change. It can be dealt with only by uncovering and repudiating the subversive logic at play when we adopt the model of the church as public accommodation or business. It is not the church’s essential mission to provide the public with employment or places of honor or social services or social acceptability or recreation or social networking—or any other worldly good or service. I don’t think we yet realize how much freedom to pursue our essential mission we give up when in good faith and for good reasons we adopt models designed to pursue other ends. Nor have we yet realized how costly our liberation from the relentless logic of assimilation will be—nothing short of death and resurrection.

To be continued…

Should the Church Serve the Common Good? (Rethinking Church #24)

Since the Fourth Century, the church has functioned within Western society in the role of a supporting player. It became a teacher of morals, pastor of souls, and guarantor of the overarching worldview that made sense of life and the social order. The church accompanied you through all of life’s passages with her sacraments: at birth with baptism, passage into adult with confirmation, transition into the married state with holy matrimony, and in your journey through death with last rites. And along the way she helped unburden your conscience through the sacraments of penance/absolution and Eucharist. The church was involved in education and ministry to the poor. Feast and fast days, Sundays, Saint’s days, and holy days of all sorts marked out time and gave rhythm to life.

The sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation did not fundamentally reorder this symbiotic relationship between church and society at large. Looking back with benefit of hindsight at the late Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries we can see some early indicators of the coming change, but it was not until the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries—after Darwin, Spencer, Dewey, Freud, and Marx—that the exponential growth of cities and rapid industrialization produced the beginnings of secular society in the United States. There had always been a large minority that were unchurched. But even the unchurched thought of themselves as Christian and viewed the institutional church as a social good.

The current institutional form of churches in the United States—despite all the doctrinal and organizational differences among them—derives from the Nineteenth Century, the era after disestablishment—that is, after the separation of church and state—and before thorough secularization. Churches of today do not expect to be financially supported by the government but still present themselves to society at large as serving the common good. And they expect to be treated as a social good. They want to speak to the moral, social, and political issues of the day. They wish to retain all their traditional privileges.

However in the early Twenty-first Century a significant, but disproportionately powerful, secular minority in society—especially within journalism, education, and entertainment—no longer thinks of the church as a social good. This minority is especially critical of traditional Christian morality. They no longer view the church as a reliable teacher of morality. Indeed, the church is viewed by many as institutionally sexist, homophobic, transphobic, and racist. Its critics portray it as a purveyor of hate and a hindrance to social progress.

What is to be done?

Since I am speaking in this series autobiographically and from experience, I don’t want to generalize. However, from what I see I do not think that the status quo can be maintained for much longer. Some secular progressives would like to destroy the church by using government power to tax and regulate it into oblivion. Others hope to cancel its speech with interruption and protest. But I think the greatest threat to the church’s Christian character is its own unwillingness to rethink its centuries-old role in society at large. As a whole, society no longer looks to the church as its moral conscience, teacher, pastor, and guarantor of a meaningful worldview. Consequently, the church stands at a crossroad. On the one hand, the broad road beckons. It can try to prove its continued relevance to society at large by adapting to society’s progressive morality while deceiving itself into thinking this new morality is thoroughly Christian. Or the church can give up its vain ambition to be recognized as chaplain and advisor to an increasingly pagan culture and take up its original mission as a countercultural witness to Christ crucified and risen from the dead. Remember what Jesus said about our anxious desire to survive:

“For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it” (Mark 8:35).

This truth applies to churches as well as to individuals.

The Importance of Fellowship (Rethinking Church #23)

Today we consider the third component of the church gathering, fellowship. I don’t know what comes into your mind when you hear the word fellowship. Perhaps you think of a time for coffee, donuts, conversation before or after the formal worship service. Or perhaps a monthly or quarterly potluck meal after the worship hour. Or even more informally, hallway conversations before worship services begin or after they conclude. These occasions can produce fellowship, but I have something else in mind. The English word fellowship translates the New Testament Greek word koinonia, which can also be translated sharing or participation or communion. The Christian idea of koinonia is that of many people sharing in the experience of Jesus Christ and being united with each other by their mutual participation in him. John speaks of personally seeing, hearing, and touching “the word of life.” But he wants others also to experience this life and have the joy of sharing this life with them:

“We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship [koinonian] with us. And our fellowship [koinonia] is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. We write this to make our joy complete” (1 John 1:3-4).

Paul speaks of the Lord’s Supper as a participation or sharing in the body and blood of Christ and then connects this experience to the unity of the participants:

“Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation [koinonia] in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation [koinonia] in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all share the one loaf” (1 Cor. 10:16-17).

The church as it is described in the New Testament is a fellowship, a shared life in Christ. Christians met often in small gatherings to eat, pray, study, and worship together. As we can see from Paul’s discussions in 1 Corinthians 10 and 11, they shared in the bread and wine in honor of Christ. They knew each other intimately and were supposed love each other as brothers and sisters. Their meetings were designed to encourage and strengthen each other to live a life worthy of the name Christian. Their unity, love, and holiness served as a witness to Christ. When one of their number began living immorally, they knew about it, took it seriously, and attempted to intervene. If all else failed, they would refuse to allow this immoral person meet with them (See 1 Cor 5:1-13). And that refusal was made simpler because they met in private homes, not public buildings. The individual’s spiritual welfare and the integrity of the community’s witness were at stake.

In my life as an individual believer and as a church leader I have rarely found true fellowship in the gathering of a traditional church or parachurch. You can meet with a hundred or several hundred people once or twice a week in a big stage-focused assembly for years without getting to know anyone intimately. Few people know your struggles, needs, or interests. You may never hear others’ individual expressions of faith. Fellowship, sharing, and community take time, and we don’t have time to experience real fellowship with hundreds of people. At minimum, then, a traditional church, if it recognizes the need for fellowship, must put a high priority on getting everyone in a small group designed to promote fellowship. However, some people may need to make the small group their primary church gathering and the big church a secondary one.

I mentioned above the need to intervene in the lives of Christians who are trapped in immorality or other sins. This becomes almost impossible in a big church as I discovered as a church leader. Often my fellow leaders and I discovered problems only after it was too late to help. Also, it’s difficult to confront people with their sins if you don’t know them, they don’t know that you love them, and you have not invested time in their lives previously. And in our litigious age church leaders are concerned about getting sued for invasion of privacy. All this adds up to the secular ethic of “mind your own business.” This is not fellowship!

What would the church gathering look like if we designed it for maximum benefit in worship, instruction, and fellowship?

Next Time: Do traditional parachurch churches have a future in a post-Christian culture increasingly hostile to the Christian gospel and ethics?

The Future of the Sunday Sermon (Rethinking Church #22)

The church gathers for worship, instruction, and fellowship. We spoke about worship in the previous essay. Today I want to consider instruction. Christianity’s understanding of God and our duties to God is communicated in a story that must be told and told again. No one is born knowing the religious stories, traditions, and myths of their people. This is true even of religions based on the cycles and powers of nature. It is even truer of Christianity, which incorporates the history of Israel—of Abraham, Moses, David, and the prophets—into the New Testament story of Jesus and the teaching of the apostles. New converts and children must taught this big story and how to live within it. No one is released from the school of Christ except by death.

Instruction is all the more important in situations where Christians are a minority and the surrounding culture is pagan and hostile. The pagan story is told in the daily activities of commerce, law, entertainment, and education. If faith is to survive we must intentionally retreat to places where the Christian story is repeated and lived. The Christian household and the church gathering are the two most important places where this takes place. And in these two places we are often encouraged to develop a routine of individual Bible reading and study.

I’ve always had a near romantic view of preaching. As an undergraduate I took courses in preaching and as a graduate student I loved my course on the history of preaching. The prophets of Israel preached judgment and mercy to the people. Preaching and the sermon have always had a place in the life of the church. Jesus taught in the fields and in the synagogues. The apostles and early missionaries preached the gospel to Jews and gentiles wherever they could gather an audience, in the synagogues of the diaspora or on the Areopagus in Athens. After Christianity became the favored religion in the Roman Empire, such bishop orators as Gregory of Nazianzus, John Chrysostom, Ambrose, and Augustine preached many times a week to large audiences of new converts eager to learn about their new faith. There were some great preachers in the Middle Ages, Bernard of Clairvaux and Thomas Aquinas for example, but preaching did not return to its former glory until the Reformation.

In the Protestant Reformation, preaching became the central event of the church gathering. The people needed to be taught the story and meaning of the Bible. Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, and others preached many times a week. The First Great Awakening in the mid Eighteenth Century, and the Second Great Awakening in the early Nineteenth Century revived and transformed preaching into its modern evangelistic form. In the view of many preaching theorists, nineteenth-century preaching reached its peak in Charles H. Spurgeon of London. Throughout all these changes, the sermon has remained the central event in Protestant church services.

At the risk of sounding like Jeremiah, allow me to express my concerns with the state of preaching and the sermon today. I am not speaking of every preacher and every sermon but of the general practice of preaching and audience expectations. In the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, the ideal preacher was highly educated in theology and the Bible, sermons were instructional, almost like academic essays, read word for word to the congregation. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—the age of Dwight Moody, Billy Sunday, and Billy Graham—things turned emotional and church music served as an emotional “warm-up” for the high energy evangelistic message. Today, if I’m not completely mistaken, the order has been reversed, with the sermon being a continuation of the music in the sense that the sermon must appeal to sentiment, begin with a clever hook, contain lots of stories, be marked by humorous moments, and be punctuated by pictures and movie clips. And of course, there a few Scripture quotations sprinkled throughout. In short, sermons need to be entertaining. Definitely not academic, complicated, and instructional.

What does this new audience expectation mean for the preacher and sermon preparation? It means that preachers spend what time they have left after doing their administrative duties searching the internet for hooks, movie clips, pictures, and stories rather than studying the Scriptures and meditating on how they apply to the people and the age. And for all that work, the modern sermon contains little instruction on the true scope and depth of the Christian faith. Nor does it really challenge the deep pagan myths that animate our post-Christian culture. Sometimes it unwittingly reinforces them.

Something has gone wrong with the church’s work of instruction. In my experience many church goers today are abysmally ignorant not only of the meaning of the Bible but even of its storyline. Hence they become easy prey for every “new” idea that hits the New York Times best seller list, the more mystical, speculative, and metaphysical the better. They unknowingly incorporate classic Gnostic, Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu, and Native American “wisdom” into their thinking not even realizing that these ideas contradict the Christian faith at its most fundamental level. It seems to me that they embrace these ideas primarily because they are interesting, exotic, stimulate their imaginations, and resonate with the rhetoric of progressive culture—inclusion, universality, diversity, tolerance, and individual liberty. No truth, no thought, no cross, and no judgment.

Listening to a twenty minute uplifting talk on Sunday mornings will not repair a half-century of neglect. We may have to do something more radical…like beginning a serious personal study of the Scriptures or gathering with a small group of serious-minded believers to read and discuss the Scriptures. Or, reading together and discussing some great Christian writers. Or, reading astute Christian critics of modern post-Christian culture. For me, buisness as usual is not an option.

Next Time: What is fellowship?

What is Worship? (Rethinking Church #21)

Today we move from considering the organizational structures, finances, and the clergy systems that characterize most contemporary churches and shift our attention to the Sunday gathering. What goes on at a typical Sunday gathering of an evangelical, Bible, or community church? (I am not at this time addressing the theology and character of liberal, mainline, or liturgical churches.) And why do such churches gather? I think we can place the Sunday activities of these churches into three general categories: worship, instruction, and fellowship. Ideally, these three types of activity aim at forming the church as a group and as individuals into the image of Christ.

Worship

It would be worth our time to examine all the biblical words and activities related to worship, but I can achieve my limited purpose in this essay by working from a general idea of worship. Worship is a God-directed activity that attempts in thought, word, bodily position and movement, or symbolic use of elements of creation to express a fitting response to the being, character, and action of God—in expressions of admiration, gratitude, and submission. In worship, we place before our minds the greatness, goodness, beauty, generosity, and love of God. We don’t need to think of these qualities as general characteristics only. For God demonstrates these qualities in the wonders of creation, in acts of salvation and judgment experienced and told by the prophets and poets of ancient Israel, and most of all in the life, words, miracles, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In worship we express awe at God’s greatness, gratitude for his generosity, praise for his excellence, longing for his presence, and amazement at his love.

Strictly speaking, worship is an individual act. It must come from the heart and express the true thoughts and affections of the individual worshiper. Certainly the presence of others of like faith can enhances our worship. We find others’ expressions of worship resonating with our own and increasing our sense of God’s presence and glory. Hearing others sing, pray, praise, witness, and explain the scriptures can enhance our perception of God’s presence, praiseworthiness, greatness, and love. Some are gifted to articulate in words what we can only feel. Many eyes and ears can perceive and many voices can express what one cannot. Hence corporate worship can be transformative. But the transforming power does not derive from the number of people praising God but from the vision of God that together we see. And for worship to be authentic and transformative, each person must see with their own eyes, hear with their own ears, and express their own hearts.

I understand completely the desire to attend worship at a large gathering in a state of the art facility to be lead in worship by talented professionals. The music is excellent, the lighting is perfect, and the stage presence of the worship leaders is impressive. The worship flows smoothly. Sound fills the room. Just seeing a sea of people standing to sing and raising their hands gives one feeling of confidence and spiritual power. But as someone who served as a church leader in one role or another for thirty years, I ask myself about the cost in financial resources and volunteer time to make this event happen. Is it worth it?

More importantly, does this impressive event accomplish the purpose of corporate worship better than less elaborate and costly gatherings? If the purposes is, as I stated above, to encounter God’s greatness and love and express our wonder and gratitude, all with the goal of transformation into the image of Christ, I don’t see any decisive advantage. Twenty believers gathered in a living room can accomplish the same goal. No doubt the large gathering, because of its greater resources, can do things a small group cannot.

But the reverse is also true. In an assembly of 2,000 people, 1,950 will be completely unknown to you. You will sit in rows looking at what is happening on stage. The senior pastor is like the celebrities you see on the screen. You feel like you know them, but you’ve never had a meal with them. And they don’t know you. In a small gathering you can hear from everyone, you can learn their stories, see their faces, and hear their voices. There is no stage, no spotlight, and no microphone. You know their names and the names of their parents and children. You know their concerns. You grow to love them in the concreteness of their everyday lives, and you are available to each other throughout the week. Worshiping with this church is really transforming.

Of course, these two models are not mutually exclusive. You can choose one or the other or combine them. Whatever you choice I hope you will measure what we actually do as churches against the essential nature and goal of church. I get the attraction of the big church in the matter of worship. But what about the other two reasons for gathering, instruction and fellowship? Next time we’ll think about that.