Has Your Church Forgotten Something?

I have been deeply involved in the life of church since I was a child. The church taught me about Jesus and formed me as a Christian and as a person. I love her and I can’t imagine my life without her. Early in my life I felt a call to serve in the ministry or, as I would have articulated then, “to become a preacher.” And after some hesitancy in my teen years I decided to take that step. I studied Bible and theology in college and graduate school, receiving my Master of Theology degree. I spent approximately ten years in campus ministry, youth ministry and preaching ministry. After receiving my Ph.D. in religious studies I began teaching at the university level. That was nearly 28 years ago. For much of that time I served as an elder in a local church. Last summer, after 22 years as an elder, I ended my career in this role. I informed my beloved congregation that I could no longer do what contemporary elders are required to do and make the decisions they must make. For the first time in a long time I am a regular church member.

I want to share with you today a perspective that has gradually been crystalizing in my mind over many years. I have come to believe that many of the challenges that consume the energy of contemporary churches arise because they have redefined the nature and work of the church to include many things almost wholly unrelated to the essence and original purpose of the church. The New Testament church was a family, but we’ve transformed it into a bureaucracy. The early church’s ministers were traveling missionaries or respected local leaders, but we’ve turned them into religious experts and middle class professionals. The first churches met in homes around a table, but we met in a hall in facing a theater stage.

Think of how much energy and money churches spend and how many legal and political entanglements they bring on themselves by involving themselves in following unnecessary things: owning and managing property, hiring and managing professional clergy and staff, acquiring and servicing nonprofit tax status, organizing and funding worship bands, singers and worship ministers, and buying, maintaining and operating expensive sound and video systems. And consider how many unnecessary and inefficient programs must be staffed with overworked volunteers and paid staff. Think of how much envy, resentment and showiness having a stage with spotlights and microphones as the focal point of the service evokes.

Ask yourself why people attend church and on what basis do they choose a church. Do they attend church to be reminded of who they are in Christ, to participate in the Lord’s Supper with their brothers and sisters in Christ, to hear the Scriptures read, to encourage and be encouraged to live lives worthy of the gospel? These are the essential and original reasons. Or, do people attend a church event because of the music, the speaker or the wide array of services provided for children, teens, singles and other affinity groups?

I am not a reformer. I am not an iconoclast. I simply want to spend my energy on things that really matter.  And I wish that more churches would do the same.

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7 thoughts on “Has Your Church Forgotten Something?

  1. Jim Stanley

    Ron, it’s uncanny that you and I have arrived at very similar conclusions regarding the work of the church. I resigned as an elder a few years ago because I believe that elders should be out among the sheep. You explained your position very clearly. Thanks. Now I know that I’m not the only nut. God’s speed.

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  2. nokareon

    Thanks for sharing this excellent piece of wisdom! I too have wondered this for many years, especially as Christian institutions (even the term makes me shudder!) in America clamor over maintaining their rights to religious freedom and expression. Now, it may well be that these are important issues to preserve in this country from a Political Science perspective—but clutching a space of privilege in the public sphere never seems to have been the agenda of the early church.

    To take one example: some voices in the progressive/secular sphere recommend enforcing the recent Obergefell Supreme Court decision by removing tax-exempt status from religious institutions that refuse to perform marriages between same-sex couples. The churches cry foul and insist on their right to religious freedom and expression. But why? What is it about the church of God that requires tax-exempt status and freedom to religious expression in order to carry out our mission? The fact that some churches would talk about compromising on their stance or of having secular justices perform same-sex ceremonies in their church simply in order to maintain tax-exempt status is telling. This is the church coffers talking—not the body of Christ.

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  3. Doug Smith

    Ron, I’m a big fan of your work and appreciate your heart for God and the truth. Thank you for articulating this so thoughtfully, clearly, and humbly.

    I don’t think most people see how the modern “liturgy” has been so influenced by culture. I yearn for a simpler day. Perhaps increasing cultural pressure may force us back into a more Acts-like structure. That will be uncomfortable, but ultimately, freeing.

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    1. ifaqtheology Post author

      Thank you Doug. I really appreciate that word of encouragement. We about hear of “first-world problems” and we mean things like our need to lose weight or getting our first ding in our new car. In analogy, I think we Northern Hemisphere, western Christians spend lots of energy on “first-world Christian problems.” On things that wouldn’t really matter if we were persecuted and things that don’t really “produce the fruit of righteousness.” Blessings! Ron

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  4. Dr Markus McDowell

    I echo the sentiments of those above. You have articulated something I have thought about for many years (though I enabled the process at times). Your conciseness has helped me clarified my own thoughts. Thank you!

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