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.
Category Archives: Church Visibility
“Thy Church Unsleeping” (Rethinking Church #30)
Did I achieve my goal in writing this series? Did I clarify my relationship to the church and find a way forward? Perhaps I had already come to my conclusions and simply had to articulate in detail my reasons. Nevertheless, I have learned from this process. As readers of this series know, I was a leader—an elder—at the heart of a parachurch church for nearly twenty-three years. In this role, I gave lots of time and lots of money to its maintenance. I experienced lots of frustration and anxiety. And there were also moments of joy and success. I loved and still love the people. But my overall conclusion is that the system of organization and traditional social expectations limit how well such an institution can actually manifest the church in the world. Hence I came to the conclusion that I could no longer serve as a leader of an institutional church. Nor can I be an enthusiastic participant in the parachurch church project. I don’t want it to disappear, and I don’t want to discourage those who benefit from it from participation. I too can participate in it and support it in its role as a second circle bridging simple churches to the universal church. But I can no longer direct huge amounts of time and energy and money to its success as an institution. I need to use that time, energy, and money for something I really believe in.
As I said in previous essays, I am a professor, a theologian, a Christian, and a lover of the church. I have had the opportunity to receive an amazing education, and as a professor of theology, I have been given time to teach, read, learn, think, and write. I have had experience in the fulltime paid ministry and as a leader in a church. Hence I feel a call teach what I have learned to as many people as possible in whatever medium I can. As far as my relationship to the church, I participate in a simple church that meets in our house—or online during the pandemic. This has been one of the most profound and encouraging experiences of my life. But as a teacher of the faith I feel a call to serve all believers everywhere, the universal church. I don’t believe I—or any other theologian—should identify myself as a teacher of the specific doctrines characteristic of my tradition. I speak to everyone “as one without authority,” a phrase Kierkegaard used to describe his writing as someone lacking ordination. I view my ministry as trans-congregational and trans-denominational. Like a traveling evangelist—who travels mostly via the internet and books—I will preach the good news to anyone anywhere.
I end now with a prayer and one of my favorite hymns.
Father in Heaven! Bless Thy church everywhere: the persecuted with courage and relief; the weary with rest and renewal; and the lukewarm with revival.
Come Holy Spirit! Quicken the dead; strengthen the weak, embolden the fainthearted.
Come Lord Jesus! Accompany those who must walk lonely paths, give your gentle presence to the dying, and gather your people into their eternal home.
The day Thou Gavest
The day Thou gavest, Lord, is ended. The darkness falls at Thy behest;
To Thee our morning hymns ascended: Thy praise shall hollow now our rest.
We thank Thee that Thy Church, unsleeping, While earth rolls onward into light,
Thro’ all the world her watch is keeping, And rests not now by day or night.
The sun that bids us rest is waking Our brethren ‘neath the western sky;
And hour by hour fresh lips are making Thy wondrous doings heard on high.
So be it, Lord: Thy throne shall never, Like earth’s proud empires, pass away;
But stand and rule and grow for ever, Till all Thy creatures own Thy sway.
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.
The “Friendly” Elephant in the Room (Rethinking Church #14)
A church with any visibility at all will have a relationship to the state—as persecuted, free, free and privileged, or established. Every state claims the right to decide what behaviors and beliefs of individuals and groups within its jurisdiction support or threaten its interests. It reserves the exclusive power to dispossess, incarcerate, or kill anyone it deems a threat. Hence the church must always maintain awareness of this “elephant in the room” even if the elephant seems very friendly at the moment. How, then, should the church relate to states—like the United States and other Western democracies—that acknowledge its freedom and grant it certain privileges?
The Quest for Visibility
Many contemporary believers have never questioned the assumption that the church should seek maximum visibility in society and take full advantage of whatever freedom it has to get its message out. After all, Jesus told his disciples to proclaim the good news to the whole world (Matt 28:18-20; Luke 24:47; Acts 1:8). We’re supposed to “let our light shine”:
“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven (Matt 5:14-16).
“If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels” (Mark 8:38).
I understand the desire for visibility, and I can see why people take Jesus’s statements as grounds for seeking it. But we need to ask what Jesus meant by “let your light shine.” I am pretty certain that Jesus did not intend to mandate building cathedrals and huge church buildings, wearing crosses and clerical dress, or getting a Christian tattoo and putting a fish bumper sticker on your car. Of course, Jesus did not forbid them either, and they can witness to the faith. But they also symbolize social power and wealth. Building an expensive church building is similar in some ways to planting a flag. It says, “We are here and are a force to be reckoned with.” Such visibility can be more intimidating than inviting to outsiders. Or, it can obscure the gospel by associating it with material advantages. I can understand wanting to be part of something big, powerful, and wealthy. It is a natural human desire. But I think Jesus had something else in mind.
It seems more likely, given its context in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5–7), that “let your light shine,” means taking seriously your responsibility to live every day and in every relationship in vivid awareness of the love of God flowing through you to others—even if some people hate you for it. Let constant awareness of your Father in heaven impart to you heightened sensitivity to the needs of others. The good you do will bring glory to the Father because it will be evident that your good works are inspired by the Father. The “light” Jesus speaks of is not that of the spotlight illuminating a 100 foot tall Cross on a hill above Interstate 405. It is not the light reflected off cathedrals, church buildings, and gold cross pendants. It is the lives of people that live, speak, and act in witness to the love of God revealed in face of Jesus. Nothing else is required.
Coming to see that the church can exercise fully its responsibility of witness without great social visibility can free us from the inordinate urge to seek social visibility and from incautious use of religious freedom granted by the “friendly elephant.” For what the state gives, it can take away.
To be continued…