Category Archives: Church Reform

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.

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Are You “DONE” With Church? (Part One)

You’ve been an active member of a church all your adult life, giving generously of your time and money. You’ve been right in the middle of church life since you can remember, within the leadership, perhaps, or even as a staff member. You’ve listened to hundreds of sermons, attended countless committee meetings, showed up at prayer breakfasts, choir practices, and planning meetings. You’ve been a member of the worship ministry, education ministry, building and grounds ministry, finance ministry, tech ministry, involvement ministry, and more. And all along you thought you were serving the Lord and making a difference. But now you are not so sure. You’re tired, disillusioned, and ready for a change. You gave it your best, but you’re DONE.

Recently I had a conversation with a friend, a sincere believer, who falls into this category. He no longer attends a church. He’s done with the traditional way of doing church. He recommended that I read a book about people like him:

Josh Packard and Ashleigh Hope, Church Refugees: Sociologists Reveal Why People are DONE With Church But Not Their Faith (Loveland, CO: Group.com, 2015).

My friend kindly gave me a copy of this book, and I read it immediately. I am not going to do a full book review in this post, but I do want to condense its basic message. Church Refugees summarizes the findings of a qualitative study of 100 interviews with people who have stopped attending traditional/institutional churches. Most of these people had been very active in their churches, and 20% had been in volunteer leadership positions or on staff. They are not part of the growing segment of the population with no religious convictions, the so-called “Nones,” that is, people who choose “none” on religious preference surveys. They are the “Dones.” They are not unchurched but dechurched. As one participant put it, “I was churched right out of church.” Most of them retain their Christian faith. Indeed many left institutional churches because they found themselves unable to practice their faith effectively. Four central themes recur across the interviews (p. 28):

  1. They wanted community…and got judgment.
  2. They wanted to affect the life of the church…and got bureaucracy.
  3. They wanted conversation…and got doctrine.
  4. They wanted meaningful engagement with the world…and got moral prescription.

The authors explore these four themes in the four central chapters of the book. (1) The “Dones” longed for community, honesty, understanding, and intimacy with people of like faith. Instead, they found that no matter where they went the dominant ethos of institutional churches was judgment, that is, an anxious, unsympathetic, and impatient attitude toward the weaknesses of others. (2) They wanted to participate meaningfully in the life of the church, to try new things and serve in new ways. But their efforts were stymied by layers and layers of bureaucracy. In institutional churches there are many stakeholders and limited resources. Small changes in one area may affect the whole organization in unpredictable ways. The Dones finally concluded that no matter what its stated ideals the main purpose of bureaucratic churches ends up being self-preservation. (3) The Dones wanted their churches to be safe places to express opinions, questions and doubts and to explore their faith both intellectually and practically. But what they experienced were demands for doctrinal conformity. Questions and expressions of dissenting opinions were met with coolness and sometimes hostility. They were not expecting doctrinal anarchy; they understood the necessity of a church having a confessional identity. But they wanted church teachings to be presented with humility and openness to change. (4) Many of the Dones wanted the church to be engaged constructively in the social issues and needs of their communities, in alleviating poverty and homelessness, in addressing racism and other forms of injustice. But what they experienced was moral pronouncements from the leadership. In their experience, institutional churches were almost completely inwardly focused.

Sympathetic But Not Done

As regular readers of this blog know I have many concerns with traditional/institutional churches. (See my post of August 14, 2017, “Is Your “Church” a Parachurch Organization?”) I am very supportive and empathetic with my dechurched friend, and I expected to resonate with the experience of the “Dones” and to be in agreement with the basic message of Church Refugees. So, I read it within a day of receiving it. But my overall feeling was disappointment. I agree with many (not all) of the Dones’ criticisms of institutional churches: they are too bureaucratic, too top-down, too inwardly focused, too judgmental, and too impersonal. But I was disappointed with what the Dones are putting in place of the institutional church. As a whole they are no longer participating in the communal life of the people of God. They don’t seem to understand what the church is. For sure, they have a nose for what it is not: it should not be the bureaucratic, inwardly-focused, clergy-dominated, self-perpetuating organization they left. But they don’t have a sound theological understanding of nature and mission of the Spirit-filled and Christ-shaped community that was created by the Resurrection of Jesus, the Pentecostal outpouring of the Spirit, and the apostolic mission. Nor seemingly do the authors; at least they don’t venture into those waters.

The last few chapters of Church Refugees offer recommendations on how institutional churches can keep people from becoming Dones or, less likely, reclaim some of those who already have. Most of these suggestions involve ameliorating some of the problems that provoked the exodus of the Dones. I don’t find these suggestions very convincing. The biggest problem I have with the authors’ proposals is that they are not radical enough, that is, they do not go to the root of the problem by rethinking the faulty, thoughtless theology of the church that lies behind the typical institutional church the Dones are leaving. I do not think churches should first ask themselves, “What can we change to keep people from leaving?” As far as I can tell from these interviews, the Dones’ theology of the church is just as superficial and defective as that of the churches they left; so, it cannot serve as a norm for reform. Indeed, it seems to me that many of the problems the Dones raise exist because the church has tried to serve too many constituencies and defined its mission too broadly. They won’t be solved by adding another group to please. I believe the first question we should address is, “How can we make sure that the institution we call “the church” really is the church as measured by the New Testament vision of its nature and mission?” What radical changes we would have to make if we took this vision seriously!

Looking forward

There is a church in my neighborhood that displays in view of a busy street a sign that says, “Saint Evagrius Lutheran Church [Not its real name]: Everyone is Welcome.” Every time I drive by this sign I groan. In my view, the idea that the church’s inmost life, its most intimate and solemn moments are matters open to the public at large arises from the superficial theology of the church that is shared by most institutional churches and the people who are leaving them. Radical problems need radical solutions.

To be continued.