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: doctrine of the church
“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.
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?
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.
The Price of Privilege (Rethinking Church #15)
In the previous essay I listed four types of relationship between the church and the state—persecuted, free and tolerated, free and privileged, and established. In 1833, Massachusetts became the last of the original American Colonies to end its system of state support for churches. Since that time, churches in the United States have been officially “free and privileged” but not established. In the previous essay, “The “Friendly” Elephant in the Room,” I focused on religious freedom and its dangers. In this essay, I want to examine the idea of privilege and its temptations.
What is Privilege?
The word privilege has a long history and many meanings. According to the Oxford Dictionary of the English Language, it derives ultimately from Latin in the days of Cicero (106 – 43 BC). Privilegium combines two other Latin words, one meaning “private” and the other “law.” The word was at first used in a negative sense, as a law disadvantaging an individual or group. Later it acquired the positive sense in which we use the English word today. In this core sense, a privilege is an legal exception given to some people or groups but not others or a positive benefit bestowed by law on some but not everyone. Even though today we use it of special advantages some people have over others no matter how they were acquired—by birth or good fortune or successful labor or in execution of an official duty—it still possesses an aura of unfairness that provokes resentment and envy from those not so privileged.
The Church and Privilege
Many privileges enjoyed by the church today are also enjoyed by other nonprofit corporations, specifically those under the IRS classification “Charitable and Religious Organizations” [(IRS code 501(c) (3)]. Under these regulations, churches are exempt from paying certain taxes, and a portion of contributions by individuals to those organizations also receive favorable tax status. But in the United States, Christian churches and charitable organizations—along with other religious groups—are given special exceptions in deference to the First Amendment to the Constitution. For example, churches and some religious nonprofits claim exemptions from certain parts of anti-discrimination laws applicable to other groups. Below is a typical statement of anti-discrimination written for nonprofit organizations:
“[My Organization] does not and shall not discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion (creed), gender, gender expression, age, national origin (ancestry), disability, marital status, sexual orientation, or military status, in any of its activities or operations. These activities include, but are not limited to, hiring and firing of staff, selection of volunteers and vendors, and provision of services. We are committed to providing an inclusive and welcoming environment for all members of our staff, clients, volunteers, subcontractors, vendors, and clients.”
Often, churches and other religious nonprofit organizations place exception clauses within in these declarations claiming exemptions based on freedom of religion. Some simply say “[Organization X] does not unlawfully discriminate….” Others add explanations such as the following, “[Organization Y] is exempt from certain state and federal anti-discrimination laws based on its status as a religious non-profit corporation and its religious beliefs.”
The Cost of Privilege
The advantages of privilege are obvious and difficult to turn down when offered. As you can see from the discussion above, privileges granted to churches fall into two categories, financial exclusions and exemption from anti-discrimination laws. These privileges greatly advance the work of churches in so far as they are organized as legal, corporate entities that engage in commercial activity. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that revoking these privileges would destroy most churches as they are currently organized. For churches could not continue to do business as usual if they were subjected to taxation on income and property and individual contributions to churches were to cease being tax deductible. And were churches to become subject to the full range of anti-discrimination laws, they would be forced to hire atheists, heretics, and immoral people as ministers.
In recent years, churches and other Christian nonprofit organizations in the United States—and other Western countries—have come under growing pressure to conform to the dominant culture of anti-discrimination. Calls to revoke the church’s privileges and exemptions have grown louder and louder. And voices defending the church’s freedom and privileges are equally loud. As tempting as it is to enter this culture war as a combatant, I want to look at this issue from another angle. My concern in this series is preserving the church’s essential nature as the body of Christ and its essential mission of witness to Jesus.
The privileges granted by the state apply only to that dimension of the church that is visible to the state as a corporate entity engage in commerce. Clearly, only churches that exist as legal entities could be “destroyed” by losing their privileges. Only they can be blackmailed by threats of such revocation. Churches that refrain from organizing in this way do not receive privileges from the state. But they also do not need them or fear losing them. Nor are they in danger of mistaking them for the essence of the church.
I don’t want to be misunderstood. I do not believe that churches that organize themselves so as to take advantage of state granted privileges are necessarily doing wrong. Having served in church leadership in such churches for most of my adult life my concerns do not arise from secular resentment and envy. I am not hoping that the state will take away the church’s privileges. Nor do I long for persecution. I am simply urging the church to count the cost of accepting state granted privileges and to cease thinking of them as an unalloyed blessings. For if we believe that losing our privileges would destroy the church, we will be greatly tempted to do whatever it takes to preserve them. I want the church to be free of this fear. The existence of the church and the vitality of its mission do not depend on favors from the state. Even if the church gave up all its current privileges and ceased to exist as a legal entity, it would not thereby ceased to exist in its fullness as the body of Christ. Nor would its witness to Jesus be rendered ineffective. Even if we do not choose this path—and most churches will not and, perhaps, should not do so—it is liberating to know that it is available.
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.
Rethinking Church #6: The Church is Also the People
The human dimension is an essential feature of the church. The church is a gathering of people. It is not simply a divine idea or the divine dimension by itself. The church exists only as the divine and human are united in one community. In the New Testament, the ekklesia or church is called an assembly, a people, a nation (1 Pet 2:9), and a family (Gal. 6:10), each denoting human beings in community. The church, then, becomes visible in the world in a community of living human beings.
There are many kinds of assemblies and communities. The church is a people called together by the Spirit of God to live in Christ for the praise and service of God. But the church could not exist apart from a human response to that call. The most basic response is faith. Apart from a believing embrace of the message of Christ, repentance, baptism, and other churchly activities make no sense. Faith moves us to turn away from our old lives and mark that transition by receiving baptism, which is pictured in the New Testament as a spiritual washing (Acts 22:16) or a death, burial, and resurrection with Christ (Rom 6:1-7).
The transition from nonbelief to belief and its symbolic enactment in baptism is at once a transition from not being a Christian to being one and from not being a member of the church (or family or people) of God to being including in this people. Becoming a member of the church is not an add-on to becoming a Christian but happens simultaneously and is co-essential. It makes no sense to think one could be “in Christ” but not part of the body of Christ, a child of God but not a member of God’s family.
What is the Church?
Until this point in the series I have used the term “church” without defining it. For until we uncover the essential features of the church—that is, those factors that determine the difference between its existence and nonexistence—we cannot define it with precision. What, then, is the church? The church consists of those people who in obedient faith and by baptism have been incorporated into Christ through the work of Holy Spirit and so have become one body, one people, one family.
Wherever these factors are present, the church in its fullness exists. Once the church exists and begins to act, other factors come into play. Some means will be chosen to organize its life and work. Language and culture, too, will place their stamp on the outward forms of church life. But it is important not allow the historical and contemporary forms the church to hide the simple essence of the church. List any factor you please—clergy, systems of organization, property, employees, legal recognition, social visibility, tax exempt status—none are essential. Sweep them all away and the church exists still. The church is simple in essence and, hence, very adaptable in form.
The Individual Christian and the Church
Since New Testament language about the church envisions a community that gathers and acts as one at least on occasion, certain questions naturally arise in our individualistic culture: (1) does the church exist in each individual? (2) Or, does the church exist only when formally and intentionally gathered “as the assembly”? (3) If you were the only Christian left alive in a nation or in the whole world, would the church still exist? (4) Lastly, assuming the church exists even when not gathered formally, must an individual Christian gather regularly with other Christians as the church?
The answers to these four questions are implicit in the definition of the church: (1) Yes, the church exists in each individual believer. Each believer is called by God, lives in Christ, and participates in the life of the Spirit. The divine and human dimensions are united even in an individual Christian. (2) No, the church does not cease to exist when not assembled as a group to act corporately. Christ and the Spirit are not divided by distance. (3) Yes. The church would exist if you were the only Christian in the world. (4) Yes. Though individual Christians can act as members of God’s special people even when not with other believers—in prayer, praise, study, and service—the love of God poured into their hearts by the Spirit (Rom 5:5) will drive them into fellowship with others who share that same compelling love. The gathering is a manifestation in the present of the unity of all things in Christ “when the times reach their fulfillment” (Eph 1:10). And it can be so beautiful!
Next Time: We have not yet addressed the church’s divinely assigned work and purpose. In these areas, too, we will distinguish between essential and accidental features. What is the essential work and purpose of the church? Hint: it, too, is very simple.
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.
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.
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):
- They wanted community…and got judgment.
- They wanted to affect the life of the church…and got bureaucracy.
- They wanted conversation…and got doctrine.
- 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!
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.