Category Archives: church practices

Rethinking Church–Just Released

I am excited to let you know of the release of my new popular level book Rethinking Church. Some of you followed my 2020 series “Rethinking Church” in which I developed many of the ideas that now comprise this book. I hope you will go the Amazon page and read John Wilson’s Foreword to the book and my Preface. Perhaps you will think of people who would be encouraged and challenged by reading this book. It has questions for discussion at the end of each of its seven chapters and would serve well for small group discussions. I also believe church leaders need to consider my criticisms of churches that continue “business as usual.” And I present a different and much simpler vision of church life.

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 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?

Rethinking Church #9: The Church Travels Light On the Narrow Way

My goal in first part of this series has been to place clearly before our minds the essential features of the New Testament church so that we can use this vision to assess the forms and activities of the contemporary church. Only one more question remains in the first part. Does the New Testament mandate any essential practices that the church must perform?

The issue of church practices moves us into new territory and raises a significant problem. Defining the essential nature of the church as the faithful in Christ and the essential nature of the church’s work as witness puts some distance between the church’s essence and first-century culture. However, religious practices and their symbolic meanings are always deeply rooted in specific cultures. Had the first-century church designated dozens of its culture-bound practices as essential, it would have been impossible for Christianity to become a world-wide movement for all time.

The first great challenge to the church’s universal nature arose as the question of what Jewish practices must be incorporated into its life: circumcision, kosher rules, Sabbath laws, etc.? After a long and intense struggle, the view of Paul prevailed: Christians do not have to practice the Jewish law. Faith in Christ is enough. We can only imagine what would have happened had Paul lost this argument.

There are two practices, however, that the first-century church passed on as essential: baptism and the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist. Like all practices they have deep cultural roots. Baptism harkens back to the Old Testament’s ritual washings, which were continued and modified in Second Temple Judaism (515 BC—70 AD) and in Jewish sects like that at Qumran, in which the faithful were baptized several times a day. Jewish baptisms enacted ritual, symbolic cleansings to remove defilement and render the object or person qualified for interacting with God. John the Baptist, drawing on these traditions, demanded that the Jews of his day repent of their sins and have themselves baptized in preparation for the impending divine judgment on the nation.

Jesus instructed his followers to be baptized and to baptize others. Even though baptism has deep roots in the Old Testament and first-century Judaism, the church has held the practice essential for its life because Jesus instituted it as a permanent practice for his people. The meaning of baptism, then, must be explained with reference to its historical background. Yet, baptism is not utterly alien to any culture, for it involves the symbolic use of water as a cleansing and life-giving agent, something universal in all cultures.

The second essential practice is the Lord’s Supper in which the church gathers to share a meal in the presence of Lord. The Supper has deep roots in Jewish identity, deriving from the Passover meal eaten in haste as the Lord delivered his people from Egyptian slavery. The Eucharist must not be uprooted from its background in the Old Testament, for then we will not be able to understand Jesus’s adaptation of it to signify his sacrificial act of delivering his people from sin, death, and the devil and creating a new covenant. Like baptism, the Lord’s Supper is not alien to any culture, for everyone has to eat and knows the life-giving properties of food. Eating is a social act in every culture.

I will have more to say about these two essential practices later, but here I want to bring out the significance of the simplicity and universal adaptability of the church. The church consists of those who believe and are baptized into Christ, whose work is to witness to Christ, and who by participating in baptism and the Lord’s Supper remember and proclaim Jesus’s redemptive sacrifice. The church travels light as it moves from one culture to another and one century to another. It does not center on a holy site, for the Holy Spirit dwells in its midst. It speaks in the common tongue and not in a holy language accessible only to the learned. To make its sacrifices it needs no altars, animals, or priests. Its whole life is worship, and its prayers are its sacrifices. It needs no golden candelabra or silk robes. Its riches are good deeds, and its treasures reside in heaven. Though dispossessed of all its worldly goods, it loses nothing of its substance. It needs no alliances, and seeks no privileges from nations and empires. Its citizenship is in heaven, and it pledges allegiance only to the King of kings. It can meet in a basilica, in a living room, by a river, on a street corner, or a prison cell. It matters not, for the whole world is the Temple of the Lord.