Category Archives: Church Dropouts

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…

Simple Church, Simply Christian…Simply Impossible?

Many contemporary Christians have finally “had it” with institutional churches. They’ve not rejected Jesus or Christianity, but they no longer think attending a traditionally organized church is the best way to live as a Christian. In the previous two essays in this series (“Are you “Done” With Church,” May 14 and May 19, 2018) I expressed a great deal of sympathy for the critics of the institutional church. I hope you will read those essays along with this one. I argued that the essential nature, purpose, and activities of the church are very simple and can be accomplished by a small group meeting in a home. None of the trappings of traditional churches are necessary. We don’t need property, budgets, employees, professional clergy, or tax exempt status. Indeed, the activities that occupy, the motives that drive, and the resources that are consumed by institutional churches quite often crowd out the essential elements of the church as they are described in the New Testament. What are we to conclude: are all Christian institutions beyond house churches illegitimate? Or do ecclesiastical or para-church institutions have a place?

Are there things about the essence of Christianity and the church that drive us out and beyond our small-group churches? I believe there are, and I can think of three. First, Christianity exists throughout the world, and the church is one body even though scattered the world over. In the words of Paul, “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:4-6). Hence every Christian and every local church ought as far as possible seek communion with every other Christian and every other local body. We ought to encourage and be encouraged by the faith, hope, and love of other believers. Just as in a local church, so in the universal church each can learn from the knowledge, experience, and wisdom given to all. Christians from different places can challenge each other to remain faithful and correct each other when they stray.

How can (or may) small-group churches do this? In many ways! Modern forms of communication have made our task so much easier than in the past: books, articles, essays, blogs, electronic discussion groups, and recorded sermons and lectures are ours in abundance. And word of mouth is still a very effective way to communicate with those in our networks. But what about creating institutions to facilitate communication? Conferences, city-wide and regional meetings, and workshops? Or, what about creating networks of small-group churches, forming fellowships, and working within denominations? Do seminaries and other educational institutions have a place? As you can see, there is no end to the ways individual believers and simple churches can seek to establish communion with Christians world-wide. And I believe creating such institutions is permitted—as long as we do not allow these specialized institutions to replace the simple church or exercise dictatorial authority over the faith of individual believers and local churches. But these abuses are almost inevitable, and the history of the church can be written as the story of abuse and reform.

The second and third reasons believers may create institutions beyond simple churches are: for co-operative action and to pool scarce resources. Preaching the gospel and ministering to sick, abused, and destitute human beings are essential parts of the Christian mission. In most cases, an individual or a small-group church does not have the financial or human resources to accomplish the task. Hence Christians have from the beginning cooperated to establish hospitals, homes for the elderly, orphan homes, foundations, missionary societies, and other institutions devoted to these tasks.

Study, learning, and teaching are also essential functions of the church. If a small-group church has access to a Bible and someone that can read, it can get along for a while. But it would be much better off if it had access to deeper knowledge of the Bible, church history and doctrine, and much else. The small group I meet with contains five PhDs with one of them in New Testament and another in theology. But not every group of 20 people is blessed with such highly educated teachers. Hence from the early days believers sought educated teachers. Sometimes teachers stayed only a little while and then move on to other churches. At other times they were appointed to an enduring office. Some were supported and some volunteered their services free of charge. As with the first reason for institutionalization, so with the second and third, abuses are common and reform is necessary. Volunteer teachers become resident clergy and resident clergy become a ruling class.

Conclusion

It has not been my aim in this series to argue that it is always wrong or misguided for Christians to establish institutions to facilitate the work Jesus gave us to do. I have argued, rather, that we ought to get clear on the difference between the simple church and para-church organizations. Most institutional churches are a mixture of the two. They demand the kind of loyalty due to the body of Christ, but most of their aims, activities, and structures are, though good and desirable, non-essential and perhaps extraneous to the meaning of church. Christianity is by definition life together in service to God with other believers. But Christianity is not defined by membership in a para-church institution or a mixed institution like so many “churches.” It’s not always wrong, and it can be a good thing, to participate in an institutional church. But how much better to be also a simple church and simply a Christian! It is possible.