Tag Archives: Church

The Author’s Dilemma—An Autobiographical Reflection on the Maxim, “No Good Deed Goes Unpunished”

As readers of this blog know I recently published two books, Rethinking Church and The New Adam: What the Early Church Can Teach Evangelicals (and Liberals) About the Atonement (Cascade, 2021). Although I felt compelled to write and publish those books and I believe they are worth reading, I have a hard time feeling good about promoting them. Part of my hesitancy arises from imagining that other people might view me as promoting myself, seeking honor, or placing myself above others.

This fear was reinforced about a week ago. I posted a link to the Amazon.com page for The New Adam to a FB group to which I belong. (It is important that you know that this is a church group.) One person commented on the link something like this:

“I wish people would stop trying to sell their Bulls…ty books to this group.” [BTW to protect this person’s identity, I’ve deleted the original post and all subsequent comments.]

What do you say to a comment like this? I said something like this:

“I did not know bulls…ty was a biblical term. Perhaps, even if you read my book you would still think that it is bulls…ty, but surely you cannot know this before you read it.  I wonder what you want from authors and teachers. Should they cease writing and speaking and hide their thoughts from the world for fear that someone will think they are merely seeking attention or placing themselves above others? I think about all the great books I’ve read and how much I appreciate the labor that went into them and the insights I received from them. Indeed, no human being is without sin. Everyone loves honor and enjoys attention, and no author’s heart is entirely pure. But isn’t too cynical to judge the work of every author, speaker, and teacher—even when you have not studied their works—as exclusively self-aggrandizement?”

I agree that there are too many books. Libraries are full of them, and millions more are printed every year. Many of them repeat what has been said hundreds of times already. Most do not grab my attention. With rare exceptions, I read only the best books I can find on whatever issue I am thinking about at the time.

Why then do I write more books and essays? Is it because I need attention and confirmation? Perhaps this is a factor; I won’t deny it. But there are other reasons as well. When I was a young person I had many troubling questions. I needed answers. I asked my teachers, and I searched in books. Within my circle at that time I found no one who could help. And there were so many books in the library I did not where to start. Soon realized that to make progress I had to think through problems for myself, and I discovered that the best way for me to do that was to write. I also discovered through experience that other people could benefit from my work of thinking and writing.

What drives me to write and publish, besides the need for attention and affirmation? I want to understand my Christian faith insofar as I can and I believe that helping others to understand is one of the best things I can do for them.

Do I believe that by thinking about the issues surrounding the atonement I have achieved greater insight into my faith in Jesus Christ and the salvation he offers? Yes. I do. Do I want you to read The New Adam? Yes. I do. Do I want you to tell others about it? Yes…because I want them see what I have seen and experience what I have experienced. I pray the Lord will forgive me for my less noble motives. And if there is any bulls…t in my books I pray that my readers will forgive that as well.

Note on the definition of B.S.: In his famous essay “On Bs…t,” Harry Frankfurt defines this mode of speech as focused not primarily on truth, as the liar and the truth teller are, but on conveying a favorable impression about the speaker to the audience. One who speaks this way carelessly blabs confidently about things he does not really understand (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005).  

The Point of it All (Rethinking Church #27)

We are nearing the end of our project of rethinking church. In the concluding essays I want to draw the series together in a few summary points, make some observations, give some advice, and make a proposal.

The Point of it All

  • The essence of church is simple and versatile. Where there is genuine faith in Christ, baptism, and the meeting to fellowship with the Lord and each other, there the church becomes visible.
  • The mission of the church is simple and clear. Its task is to witness by word, life, and deed to the reality of Jesus Christ crucified and risen from the dead.
  • Most churches, past and present, augment their essential nature and mission with optional features that they view as legitimate means, appropriate in their situation, to manage their affairs and carry out their mission.
  • It is vital to distinguish between the simple essence and mission that must be present in every genuine manifestation of the church and the additional features that may be helpful in specific times and places.
  • To emphasize the distinction between the simple church and traditional churches that have taken shape over the centuries, I called the latter parachurch churches.
  • Churches need to examine themselves continually to make sure that the once-helpful additional features do not replace or neutralize the essential features. Church reform always begins by comparing the existing condition of the church to its God-given essence. Whatever feature or activity that renders the church incapable of manifesting its essence or accomplishing its mission must be recalibrated to harmonize with the original norm.

My Hope for the Series

I don’t think I have unrealistic expectations about the prospects for human perfectibility. I am not offering a secret formula for creating the perfect church. I do believe, however, that it is possible to do better. I have not argued, and I do not believe, that parachurch churches are illegitimate and should be abolished. Many people find them life giving, and I would not take that away from them. I hope, however, that the leaders of these churches—if they happen on these essays—will take to heart the distinction between the essential features of the church and the nonessential ones and engage in self-examination and reform. Experience in church leadership has taught me that reform of existing parachurch churches will not be easy. You may need to start from scratch, and like Paul avoid “building on someone else’s foundation” (Romans 15:20).

I embarked on this series in hope of clarifying my own understanding of the church and my relationship to it. I also hoped that others might benefit from thinking along with me. I had in mind especially those believers who find themselves troubled or alienated from traditional churches but have not lost faith in Jesus. They love being with other Christians but are disillusioned with traditional churches. Some of these believers are older and have given much of their lives to church work, as volunteers or as paid clergy. They are tired and a bit cynical. I want them to know that they do not have to choose between unhappily continuing in the traditional church until they die or melting into secular culture. There are many options for being the church in this world between those two extremes.

I also had in mind young people (20s to 40s) many of whom are not be able to hear the gospel message because it gets mixed with “churchy” language and programs. Having spent a lifetime in the church, I understand “Christianese” and even speak it. I can pick up on the slightest biblical allusion. I get the symbolic rituals and holy tones of “preacher speak.” But most young people don’t get it, and acquiring a taste for these things is not prerequisite to becoming a disciple of Jesus. It all sounds strange, weird and cultish.

If there is any value this generation seeks it’s “authenticity,” and if there is anything it hates it’s “inauthenticity.” And if there is any institution that reeks of inauthenticity it’s the traditional church. For sure, there is more to the Christian way of life than authenticity, but Jesus was hard on hypocrites and praised the pure in heart. Authenticity is not trendiness but honesty. It’s having no gimmicks and planning no tricks. No plastic smiles, fake happiness, or implausible certainty! Jesus said to his disciples as they left to tell the good news to the Judean towns and villages, “Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give” (Matt 10:8). Freely! Not a word that comes to mind when I think of most churches.

I want my young friends to experience a community of other believers where they can learn and teach, know love and fellowship, encourage and be encouraged by others, and give and receive strength. I want them to experience the simple, essential church wherein they can be formed into the image of Christ and become authentic witnesses to the kindness of God embodied in Jesus. They may at some point learn to speak “Christianese,” come to appreciate the arcane traditions of the church, and may even wish to join a parachurch church. That may be a good thing. But let’s not force them to begin there.

To be continued…

The Church and the Clergy System (Rethinking Church #20)

I ended the previous essay by listing some advantages of the practice of hiring a staff of highly educated professional ministers to organize, lead, and teach the church. As I noted, however, this practice makes sense only in parachurch churches. In fact, they cannot function otherwise. Today I want to consider the problems with the clergy system—the system not individual ministers.

The Spiritual Life of the Clergy

I’d like to believe that most people who enter the professional ministry do so because they feel a divine call and want to serve the people of God. They have a warm personal faith and want to serve the Lord freely and happily. However, entering into an employee/employer relationship with a church introduces a new dimension. You now become dependent and responsible to a church and its leaders. You are no longer free to speak, write, and serve as you please. Your time is not your own. Your family is not your own. Every job comes with restrictions and responsibilities, but this job entangles itself with your relationship to God. Even if your employer-church never asks you to say, refrain from saying, or to do anything that violates your conscience, how do you know whether or not, without being aware of it, you are trying to please the church when you should be endeavoring pleasing the Lord? And most insidiously, after a few years ministers are tempted to think of their ministry as they would any other job, a means of livelihood. If paid ministers are not careful, the work they began freely and joyously in response to a divine call will become a heavy burden. Spiritually exhausted and embittered, they look for a way out.

The Clergy/Laity Divide

The ideas of the ordained clergy and the paid ministry are not identical, although they often overlap. The New Testament makes a distinction among various functions within the church, and some possess a kind of authority. Jesus chose the twelve apostles for a special ministry. Their central claim to spiritual authority was their unique relationship with Jesus. They were chosen by Jesus and witnessed his teaching, miracles, and death with their own eyes and ears. They also witnessed the empty tomb and the risen Jesus. The core of their unique authority, then, was their first-hand knowledge of Jesus. Paul came later and rests his authority on having been chosen and called by the risen Jesus. No one can take the apostles’ place or challenge their knowledge of Jesus.

Apostolic witness and authority functions today only through the apostolic teaching, which is contained in the New Testament. No human being living today possesses any spiritual authority to speak in God’s name or make judgments about another person’s status before God except as they are faithful to the original apostolic teaching. No person owes spiritual obedience to another human being except as they trust that their counsel articulates the apostolic teaching. In my view, the spiritual authority of a person accrues today not by a ceremony called “ordination” conducted by an authoritative church body but by a life demonstrating deep knowledge, faithfulness, sincere love, wisdom, and holiness. In short, no one claiming “clergy” status possesses spiritual authority within the church—I am not speaking about parachurch churches, which operate by parachurch rules—to demand obedience from “lay” believers. Only if their lives demonstrate those qualities mentioned above do they have any spiritual authority at all. Even that authority is rooted the persuasive power of their words and lives.

Why do I insist on breaching the wall between clergy and laity? Clergy often give airs of having special access to God and use their supposed elite status to maintain power and privilege for selfish and quite worldly reasons. Sometimes the “laity” are quite content to let clergy play their game because it gives them an excuse for spiritual laziness. Let’s get clear on this: perhaps industry and the economy work better by instituting a complete division of labor, but not the church. Every believer is called to the virtues of faith, hope, and love. The Spirit works to transform everyone into the image of Christ. All Christians have a responsibility to use their lives in service to the Lord. We’re all in our own way preachers, evangelists, missionaries, pastors, and counselors. Everyone is a theologian, for you must not allow others to think for you. No one is allowed to hand their conscience over to another human being!

Clergy and the Mission of the Church

As I pointed out early in the series, the essential mission of the church is witness to Jesus Christ in life, word, and deed. The work of the church is helping people come to deep faith and be transformed into the image of Christ. One of the greatest temptations paid minsters face is coming to view the mission and work of the church through the lens of their own self-interest. The church can do its work and pursue its mission without seeking to become large, wealthy, famous, and powerful. However, the private interest of the clergy would be better served were their church-employer to become large, wealthy, famous, and powerful. Indeed, it almost seems that the big, parachurch model of church and the clergy system are congenital twins. We cannot imagine one without the other.

When faced with decisions about the direction the church should take, can paid ministers choose options that facilitate the church’s true work and mission but go against their private interests? Even if, as individual believers, they wish to pursue only the essential work and mission of the church, the swift current of the clergy system sweeps them downstream, no matter how hard they swim for the shore. How hard it is for clergy to seek first the kingdom of God! With human strength alone it is impossible, but with God all things are possible!

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.

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.

Simple Church, Simply Christian…Simply Impossible?

Many contemporary Christians have finally “had it” with institutional churches. They’ve not rejected Jesus or Christianity, but they no longer think attending a traditionally organized church is the best way to live as a Christian. In the previous two essays in this series (“Are you “Done” With Church,” May 14 and May 19, 2018) I expressed a great deal of sympathy for the critics of the institutional church. I hope you will read those essays along with this one. I argued that the essential nature, purpose, and activities of the church are very simple and can be accomplished by a small group meeting in a home. None of the trappings of traditional churches are necessary. We don’t need property, budgets, employees, professional clergy, or tax exempt status. Indeed, the activities that occupy, the motives that drive, and the resources that are consumed by institutional churches quite often crowd out the essential elements of the church as they are described in the New Testament. What are we to conclude: are all Christian institutions beyond house churches illegitimate? Or do ecclesiastical or para-church institutions have a place?

Are there things about the essence of Christianity and the church that drive us out and beyond our small-group churches? I believe there are, and I can think of three. First, Christianity exists throughout the world, and the church is one body even though scattered the world over. In the words of Paul, “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:4-6). Hence every Christian and every local church ought as far as possible seek communion with every other Christian and every other local body. We ought to encourage and be encouraged by the faith, hope, and love of other believers. Just as in a local church, so in the universal church each can learn from the knowledge, experience, and wisdom given to all. Christians from different places can challenge each other to remain faithful and correct each other when they stray.

How can (or may) small-group churches do this? In many ways! Modern forms of communication have made our task so much easier than in the past: books, articles, essays, blogs, electronic discussion groups, and recorded sermons and lectures are ours in abundance. And word of mouth is still a very effective way to communicate with those in our networks. But what about creating institutions to facilitate communication? Conferences, city-wide and regional meetings, and workshops? Or, what about creating networks of small-group churches, forming fellowships, and working within denominations? Do seminaries and other educational institutions have a place? As you can see, there is no end to the ways individual believers and simple churches can seek to establish communion with Christians world-wide. And I believe creating such institutions is permitted—as long as we do not allow these specialized institutions to replace the simple church or exercise dictatorial authority over the faith of individual believers and local churches. But these abuses are almost inevitable, and the history of the church can be written as the story of abuse and reform.

The second and third reasons believers may create institutions beyond simple churches are: for co-operative action and to pool scarce resources. Preaching the gospel and ministering to sick, abused, and destitute human beings are essential parts of the Christian mission. In most cases, an individual or a small-group church does not have the financial or human resources to accomplish the task. Hence Christians have from the beginning cooperated to establish hospitals, homes for the elderly, orphan homes, foundations, missionary societies, and other institutions devoted to these tasks.

Study, learning, and teaching are also essential functions of the church. If a small-group church has access to a Bible and someone that can read, it can get along for a while. But it would be much better off if it had access to deeper knowledge of the Bible, church history and doctrine, and much else. The small group I meet with contains five PhDs with one of them in New Testament and another in theology. But not every group of 20 people is blessed with such highly educated teachers. Hence from the early days believers sought educated teachers. Sometimes teachers stayed only a little while and then move on to other churches. At other times they were appointed to an enduring office. Some were supported and some volunteered their services free of charge. As with the first reason for institutionalization, so with the second and third, abuses are common and reform is necessary. Volunteer teachers become resident clergy and resident clergy become a ruling class.


It has not been my aim in this series to argue that it is always wrong or misguided for Christians to establish institutions to facilitate the work Jesus gave us to do. I have argued, rather, that we ought to get clear on the difference between the simple church and para-church organizations. Most institutional churches are a mixture of the two. They demand the kind of loyalty due to the body of Christ, but most of their aims, activities, and structures are, though good and desirable, non-essential and perhaps extraneous to the meaning of church. Christianity is by definition life together in service to God with other believers. But Christianity is not defined by membership in a para-church institution or a mixed institution like so many “churches.” It’s not always wrong, and it can be a good thing, to participate in an institutional church. But how much better to be also a simple church and simply a Christian! It is possible.


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.



Is Your “Church” a Parachurch Organization?

Question: What if we thought we attended church every Sunday morning when in fact we attended a meeting of a parachurch organization?

Many good Christian works are accomplished by parachurch organizations. My wife and I contribute financially to many of them, and she serves on the board of one such institution. Examples of parachurch organizations are: Christian schools, colleges and universities, mission and service organizations, community Bible study organizations, hospitals, different kinds of fellowships and support groups, campus ministries, apologetic organizations, and Christian homeless shelters. The list is endless. Much of the good work Christians do in the world is done through these organizations. And that is good.

So what is a parachurch organization? It is para to the church, which means it exists “alongside” the church. As an institution, it does not claim to be the church. But it sympathizes with and supports the church’s mission, and the people that constitute its membership are Christians and in some way participate in church itself. Its mission and many of its activities overlap with the mission and activities of the church. That’s what makes it related to the church in a “para” way.

What marks the difference between a parachurch institution and the church? The differences are marked by how parachurch organizations are constituted, what they add to the church’s organization and mission, and by what they cannot do in their own names. Parachurch institutions are created by Christians for ministries about which they are passionate. They are usually organized as legal entities with non-profit status, establishing thereby a relationship with the federal, state, and local governments. Their missions are usually narrowed to one type of good work, education, evangelism, apologetics, healthcare, homeless shelters, etc. But there are also some things parachurch organizations do not do in their own names. For example, you do not become a member of a parachurch institution by confessing Jesus as the risen Lord and submitting to baptism.

What is the church? The church is the people of God and the body of Christ. It is constituted on the divine side by the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ through the events of Jesus’ death and resurrection and the sending of the Holy Spirit. Faith is created through the preaching of the gospel and the working of the Spirit, and those who believe respond with repentance, confession, and baptism. The church’s mission is to speak, live, and embody the gospel of Jesus Christ in a covenant community. It witnesses in the present age to the reality of the coming reign of God. As a people, as the body of Christ, as a covenant community it exists in the world as a visible unity of many. And from the beginning, this necessitated meeting together to participate in the spiritual realities—one God, one Lord, one Spirit—that have the power to maintain the scattered people as one. When the church gathers, it listens to the words of Jesus, the prophets, and the apostles. It remembers the death and resurrection of Jesus by sharing in the Lord’s Supper. The community invokes God in prayer, and everyone is encouraged to live a life worthy of the gospel.

The church’s essence and mission are very simple, and accomplishing its mission requires few of the things we’ve come to associate with churches. It does not need money, land, or property. It does not need clergy or employees of any kind. Nor does it need scores of tired volunteers the “make things happen” on Sunday morning. It does not need accountants, bank accounts, or receptionists. It does not need a stage, a worship ministry, or microphones. It does not need to exist as a non-profit corporation. It need not have any legal entanglement with the state. Nothing in its constitution or mission requires any of these things.

But most of the “churches” we attend have all of these unnecessary things. Indeed we cannot imagine a “real” church without them. They have huge budgets, large staffs, and expensive properties, which force them to organize themselves like businesses. To fund this enterprise, church leaders need to spend lots of energy on financial matters, planning, accounting, and fund raising. Staff must be managed and paid. Because their meeting places are designed to accommodate over a hundred people—and some a thousand or more—many of these churches are staged-centered and focus on the few people running the show. This creates a celebrity atmosphere where importance and visibility are identified. There is little sense of the unity of the many or intimacy of community or accountability. In analogy to a concert or political rally or a lecture hall, the unity is created by focusing on the speaker or singer. The meeting includes people who are present for a variety of reasons. Many feel like strangers, and some suffer silently for years without anyone else knowing their struggles. And all these extras were added on the supposition that—even if not necessary—they would be helpful in carrying out the mission of the church. But hasn’t it turned out to be the opposite? Doesn’t this stuff get in the way? Hasn’t the means eclipsed the end?

Perhaps the churches we attend every Sunday are really parachurch organizations? They are devoted no doubt to good works and activities that overlap with the church’s mission. They are founded, funded, and for the most part populated by Christian people. They include some activities essential to the church, and the church is present somewhere in all the busyness. But they are not just the church, not simply the church. And because they are not simply the church, the essence of the church is obscured and its essential mission is neglected.

As I said at the beginning, many parachurch organizations serve the mission of the church in admirable ways. I do not reject the legitimacy of parachurch churches. So, I shall be attending a parachurch church this Sunday…but I do so with some uneasiness…because I long for the simple church, stripped of unnecessary baggage, devoted single-mindedly to the original mission.

Challenge: Make a list of the things your church is, has, and does that are not essential to the church Jesus founded and the mission he gave, things that if you removed them the church would still exist. Next ask yourself which ones of those things cause the essence of the church to shine forth and help it accomplish its mission and which ones obscure its essence and hinder its mission. After you’ve done that why not work in your church to reduce the number and significance of things that keep your parachurch church from being simply the church?

Ron Highfield

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Craving Obscurity in a Celebrity Obsessed Culture

Everyone wants to be known and loved, and no one wishes to live and die in obscurity. The “good morning” we receive from a passing hiker, a conversation with a good friend, or the most intimate expressions of love…we need acknowledgement, affirmation and love from others. How else could we feel confident in our own worth and sure of our significance and place in this world? Apart from a sense of belonging we lose our love of life and energy for work. Clearly, desire to know and be known is part of our created nature. But like all other aspects of our created nature this desire can be misdirected and abused.

Jesus warns of the dangers of seeking applause from the public:

Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you,
for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets. (Lk 6:26)

But I want to be well thought of, and I like it when everyone speaks well of me! It feels good. And it feels good because it makes me think well of myself. However, Jesus reminds us that other people are in no position and have no authority to pronounce us worthy of praise. Quite the opposite, the world rarely finds truth praiseworthy, but it loves beautiful lies.

Thomas à Kempis in The Imitation of Christ warns against inordinately seeking knowledge lest we look down on others for knowing less or become obsessed with seeking praise for our intellectual accomplishments. He advises seeking something else:

If you wish to learn and appreciate something worthwhile, then love to be unknown and considered as nothing (1.2).

In another translation the words “love to be unknown” are rendered “crave obscurity.” Those words cut me to the heart. I don’t “crave obscurity,” and I don’t “love to be unknown.” I fear it. Living in obscurity seems like not existing at all, and dying unknown and unremembered seems like being erased from existence or worse, never having existed. And yet the words “crave obscurity” haunt me because of the falsehood they expose and truth to which they bear witness. Thomas à Kempis is not urging us to “love to be unknown” in the absolute sense. Nor does Jesus allow us to dismiss all knowledge of ourselves that comes from outside ourselves. This is not possible. Instead, both urge us to learn to be satisfied with knowing and being known by God. To know God is to know truth, and to be known by God is to be known truly. If I know the One who knows me truly, I am in touch with truth about myself. And knowing the truth about myself frees me from the endless quest to make myself pleasing to others.

Now I want to apply the principle of “crave obscurity” to the church. Just as individuals need to learn to be satisfied with knowing and being known by God, so does the church. Just as desire for recognition, legitimation, acknowledgement, influence and honor blinds and corrupts individuals, so do such desires blind and corrupt churches. One could write a history of the church from the First Century to today by tracing the church’s efforts to become accepted, honored, respected, visible and influential in the political and social orders of the world.

As soon as a few believers begin meeting in homes or a local rented hall, they begin to dream of “greater” things: greater visibility, greater numbers, greater influence, a bigger staff, a bigger meeting venue, and a larger budget. Their obscurity to the world troubles them. They feel incomplete and insignificant. They crave the things that have come to be associated in the public mind with the legitimacy and permanency of institutions: legal incorporation, property ownership, wealth, visibility in public space and employees.

My question today is this: what would the church look like if it “loved to be unknown and considered as nothing”? What if it “craved obscurity”? What if it put all its energy into a quest to know and be known by God? What if it became invisible to the world? Would it lose anything essential to its existence? Or, would the truth set the church free, free to be the church in truth.

Has Your Church Forgotten Something?

I have been deeply involved in the life of church since I was a child. The church taught me about Jesus and formed me as a Christian and as a person. I love her and I can’t imagine my life without her. Early in my life I felt a call to serve in the ministry or, as I would have articulated then, “to become a preacher.” And after some hesitancy in my teen years I decided to take that step. I studied Bible and theology in college and graduate school, receiving my Master of Theology degree. I spent approximately ten years in campus ministry, youth ministry and preaching ministry. After receiving my Ph.D. in religious studies I began teaching at the university level. That was nearly 28 years ago. For much of that time I served as an elder in a local church. Last summer, after 22 years as an elder, I ended my career in this role. I informed my beloved congregation that I could no longer do what contemporary elders are required to do and make the decisions they must make. For the first time in a long time I am a regular church member.

I want to share with you today a perspective that has gradually been crystalizing in my mind over many years. I have come to believe that many of the challenges that consume the energy of contemporary churches arise because they have redefined the nature and work of the church to include many things almost wholly unrelated to the essence and original purpose of the church. The New Testament church was a family, but we’ve transformed it into a bureaucracy. The early church’s ministers were traveling missionaries or respected local leaders, but we’ve turned them into religious experts and middle class professionals. The first churches met in homes around a table, but we met in a hall in facing a theater stage.

Think of how much energy and money churches spend and how many legal and political entanglements they bring on themselves by involving themselves in following unnecessary things: owning and managing property, hiring and managing professional clergy and staff, acquiring and servicing nonprofit tax status, organizing and funding worship bands, singers and worship ministers, and buying, maintaining and operating expensive sound and video systems. And consider how many unnecessary and inefficient programs must be staffed with overworked volunteers and paid staff. Think of how much envy, resentment and showiness having a stage with spotlights and microphones as the focal point of the service evokes.

Ask yourself why people attend church and on what basis do they choose a church. Do they attend church to be reminded of who they are in Christ, to participate in the Lord’s Supper with their brothers and sisters in Christ, to hear the Scriptures read, to encourage and be encouraged to live lives worthy of the gospel? These are the essential and original reasons. Or, do people attend a church event because of the music, the speaker or the wide array of services provided for children, teens, singles and other affinity groups?

I am not a reformer. I am not an iconoclast. I simply want to spend my energy on things that really matter.  And I wish that more churches would do the same.