Category Archives: home church

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.

Cards on the Table (Rethinking Church #17)

It is time that I remind readers of my objective in writing this series. I am not writing a church history or a complete survey of church doctrine and practice. There are many related questions that I cannot address if I am to stick to my original plan. My aim is to reexamine my place in churches of the type I have attended all my life. It is the type my students and friends attend. These churches hold with varying degrees of intensity to evangelical theology and piety. They are mostly non-denominational, or at least they have a great deal of local control. I believe that many others find themselves in similar situations and are also in the process of reexamining the ways they embody their Christian faith in church life. Hence my hope is that others will benefit by thinking along with me.

Cards on the Table

I have come to believe that most organizations that call themselves churches are really ministries of the church or parachurch organizations. They are inspired by the New Testament vision of the church as the body of Christ and motivated by its mission of witness to Jesus. They do much good work—ministry to families, children, teens, singles, and seniors. They provide large meeting places where hundreds or thousands of believers can meet to experience worship and teaching at the same time. They establish homeless ministries, teach English as a second language, create prison ministries, provide daycare for working parents, and much more. But in many cases, the church’s essential nature, activity, and mission are obscured by concerns that could better be dealt with through parachurch organizations devoted to these matters. And by adding these features to their agendas and organizing themselves in the ways necessary for accomplishing these tasks efficiently, churches transform themselves into parachurches.

Don’t get me wrong. I have no objection to the existence of parachurch churches. In fact, I believe they have an important place, and I support their existence. But I object when these institutions claim to be identical to the essential church and imply that to participate fully in the people of God you must join this type of organization and give lots of money and time to it. This is not true. You do not have to join a parachurch church to be a good Christian and participate fully in the body of Christ. A church can be everything that the church is supposed to be, do everything it is supposed to do, and work effectively toward fulfilling its mission with a few believers meeting in a home or under a tree. This type of church needs no common treasury, no employees, no property, no government entanglement, and no professional clergy. I do not want to idealize the small house church as purely and simply the essential church, acting only in the essential ways, and having no goals other than the essential goal of witness. However I am clear that it is closer to that ideal than the complicated and expensive organizations that we usually call churches.

Many big, parachurch churches realize that meeting in very large assemblies, though having many advantages, cannot facilitate the intimacy, friendship, and deep community that can be created in regular meetings of small groups. But parachurches tend to view their “small groups ministries” as adjuncts to the larger church. My dream is to see this priority reversed. You do not have to be a member of a parachurch to be a faithful Christian, but if you want to do so, think of it as an adjunct to the small church where community in Christ really happens. This reversal would of necessity require parachurches to repurpose themselves as organizations designed to facilitate small churches getting together periodically to encourage each other and cooperate on larger projects. This reversal is unlikely to happen, I understand, but from now on I plan to treat the parachurches I attend in this way.

Next Time: The Church and Money—A Very Sad Story.

WHAT’S THE PROBLEM WITH THE INSTITUTIONAL CHURCH? (Part Two of “Are You “DONE” With Church?”)

In the previous essay we considered four reasons some people are “done” with the institutional church. This movement is documented in a recent book by Packard and Hope, Church Refugees. The “DONES”, as they are called, stopped attending church not because they cease to believe in Jesus but because they found the church too bureaucratic, too top-down, too inwardly focused, too judgmental, and too impersonal. Most of its available energy, they complained, is focused on self-preservation. Today I want to deal with the promise and problem of institutional churches.

What is an “Institutional” Church?

This question is not easy to answer in a precise way. Any group that meets together intentionally, regularly, and for a purpose has already been institutionalized. Apart from some level of institutionalization, there can be no group identity. Without leadership, order, and purpose no group exists. Hence there is no such thing as a non-institutional church. The real issue, then, is this: at what point and under what conditions does the church become over-institutionalized? That is to say, at what point do the means by which the church organizes itself to accomplish its God-given mission become hindrances to carrying out that mission? The answer to this question depends on your understanding of the church’s mission and your judgment about the best means by which to accomplish it. Well-meaning people differ and have different tolerance levels for institutionalization.

What is the Mission of the Church?

I am asking about the church’s original God-given mission and mandate. Ekklesia (church) is the designation Jesus and the apostles used most often to describe the community of believers. These individuals were made into a unity by their faith in Jesus and by the indwelling Spirit of God. Putting it as simply as I can, the mission given to the church falls into three categories: to be, to act, and to speak. This community was to be the body of Christ visible in the world. It is to embody his Spirit, character, devotion to his Father, and cruciform love for others. Each individual believer and the community as a whole should make visible Christ who is the Image of God. The ekklesia and each individual member should act toward those inside and outside as Jesus did: in love, compassion, truth, and faithfulness. And the church must speak to the world about Jesus. It proclaims the gospel of forgiveness and renewal, of judgment and hope. It teaches men and women how to live, think, and feel as Jesus did.

What are the Church’s Practices?

Every group must have a purpose, an order, and an identity. And it must engage in practices in which it works toward its purposes and expresses its identity. As we noted above, the ekklesia is called to be, act, and speak; and the central goal of acting and speaking is that it may be formed into the image of Christ. Hence in the New Testament we find the ekklesia meeting together often and engaging in certain practices designed to hold before it the image of Christ, to create and reinforce the unity and love among the believers, and to impart strength and gain understanding. These corporate practices are baptism, the Eucharist, fellowship meals, prayer, the reading of scripture, teaching, and singing. Baptism and the Eucharist allowed believers to participate in and be reminded of the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. In these two practices we confess and proclaim our faith openly, and in this way it becomes real to us. Believers unite their hearts in prayer to God and in listening to the Word of God from scripture. They cultivate friendship though sharing meals and conversation. They draw strength by confessing their weaknesses. Through these common practices, they became a family, God’s children, and brothers and sisters of one another. In my view these simple practices are indispensable for the ekklesia. How could a church dispense with baptism, or the Eucharist, or fellowship meals, or prayer, or the reading of scripture, or teaching, or some form of singing?

The Means Must Serve the Ends

A group’s claim to be a Christian church must be measured by the extent to which it embodies and carries out the original mission and mandate Christ gave to his disciples. An institution that ceases to work toward the original mission ceases to be the church. The church is free to advance that mission by whatever means it believes are effective and consistent with the original message and mission. However, the original practices I mentioned above are so intimately tied to the original message and mission of the church that they cannot be excluded. Baptism and the Eucharist were commissioned by Jesus, and prayer, confession, scripture reading, and teaching are intrinsic to the story the church tells itself and the world. Table fellowship and conversation are necessary for the communal life into which we are called.

It seems that the mission and the essential practices of the church can be carried out effectively by a very small group and a very simple organization. Nothing in the original mandate requires a large, highly organized institution. In fact, the mission of creating a community in which people are formed into the image of Christ—to be, act, and speak like Jesus—seems doable only in small groups. Many of the practices lose their meaning when removed from a small into a large group setting. How can you share table fellowship, prayer, Eucharist, or confession with a thousand people at a time? Admittedly, there are things a large group can do that a small group cannot. A large, highly coordinated group can leverage significant economic and political power to get things done. A large church can purchase land and build an impressive complex with worship, educational, and recreational facilities. It can hire a large, talented staff to run its programs. It can put on an impressive worship service. I can see why someone might be attracted to such a church. You’d have the feeling of being part of something big, powerful, and impressive. A huge array of services would be at your disposal. You could participate at whatever level you wish.

All this “added value” may be related indirectly to the original mission and message. But it may also obscure the original mission. The “extras” that become available in the large church model have a way of becoming the essentials. It is a law of sociology that the larger the group, the more complex the organization and the more detailed the rules required to keep it unified and coordinated. Bureaucracy, top-down leadership, impersonal style, inefficiency, and rule-centered life is the inevitable outcome of the desire to become large and coordinated. And once formed, bureaucratic institutions and the bureaucrats that manage them tend to adopt the primary aim of self-preservation. But in its original design the ekklesia is supposed to gather as a family, a fellowship, a Eucharistic community, a set of friends. Each person’s goal is to become like Jesus and help others be formed into his image.

Thoughts

I don’t know of a one-size-fits-all solution to the problems I see in the typical institutional church. I am still thinking through this question for myself and in my own situation. I am clear on a few things, however. I will speak for myself: (1) No matter what my relationship to highly or over-institutionalized churches, I need to be part of a small, simple, Christian community whose central purpose is to help believers to be, act, and speak as Jesus did. (2) I want and I need to acknowledge and be in communication with the universal ekklesia insofar as possible. No individual or small group in isolation possesses all the wisdom needed to sustain and pass on the fullness of the faith. (3) I believe church leaders should take great care not to allow the means and programs they employ to hijack the mission and drown out the message Jesus gave the church. (4) It has helped me to realize that many churches act more like parachurch organizations than the intimate community Jesus envisioned. They do many good things related to the Christian message and mission. I can gladly support many of these good works, but I no longer expect to be “churched” by these institutions. That’s just not what they do, and I am making my peace with that. Perhaps some of those who are “done” with institutional churches left because they expected them to be something they were not and could never be. If they had not expected so much they would not have been so disappointed.

I think I am “done” with this topic until I am blessed with more insight. We shall see.