A starting thought on church

One of our regular blog commentators asked that we discuss the topic of the local church and how the local church in New Testament times might be different to the local church in our modern world. This might a deeply personal issue for many of us who may have either been hurt or disappointed by our own experience of church, or perhaps have found it to be a life-saving and cherished place. So it is not a trivial topic or academic exercise to talk about. Interestingly, I have felt the Lord wants to teach me about this recently. My thoughts are still jumbled on this, but I thought I would put in a slightly messy introductory post to start the conversation. I plan to post my more fully developed thoughts on this later – maybe the interaction here will help that along. Most importantly I would like to know – is your experience of church everything you would like it to be? Is it what you think God wants it to be? If not, why? Please comment and share your experiences, questions or views and check out this funny video called Parody of a modern church service.

In some ways, Christians aren’t what they used to be.

People are a product of their environment, and we all know that the world we are living in is changing at a rapid pace. It is not the world our parents grew up in, nor the one Martin Luther and John Calvin knew, and it is definitely not the world that Paul lived in. Let’s not even mention Moses and Abraham! Bear with me while I flesh this out to make to my point.

Roads, railways and air-travel have revolutionized the way we move ourselves and our resources around. Think about how that has changed the way people live; distances that once took days to cover now take only minutes. Not only are we far-moving today, we are fast-moving. Machinery enables us to quickly mass produce the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the books we read and the buildings we inhabit. Industrialization has every reason to be called a revolution. And our brains are wired totally differently to people living even a hundred years ago. Education and philosophy have changed the way people perceive their world, understand themselves, solve problems and express themselves. Consider how differently people think about everything these days because of modern ideologies such as capitalism, democracy and post-modernism.  And you can use your own imagination about how communications technology (radio, TV, internet) have changed the way families, businesses and friendships operate. On the same note, Google has changed the way we find and (don’t) remember information, social media like Facebook has changed the way people relate socially and smart-phones have (dis)connected us in an alarming way. Like I said, Christians aren’t what they used to be. And neither are churches. In New Testament times, each city had one church – now a small town might have more than a dozen. Churches are using technology, churches are on Facebook, churches have members who travel from other towns.

The mind shudders at the thought of the culture gap between us and biblical times. And yet, we look to the biblical texts for guidance on how to do church. Nevertheless, for 2000 years the local church has remained. Throughout all history it has braced itself against the winds of change – sometimes resisting it (some churches still only use organs), sometimes embracing it (we watched a YouTube video the other day during the sermon). One thing is for sure, God is at work in this radically developing world. The same God with the same plan for His creation as delivered to us in the bible. And yet, the various denominations of worldwide church are not on the same page when it comes to how this ‘eternal and unchanging’ gospel needs to be lived out in the radically different places and cultures and historical eras that it has found itself in. Some churches have been suspicious of the changes in the world and have felt the need for separation from the world in order to remain holy and different enough to be salt and light. Others have embraced change as redeemable and felt the need to be relevant enough to bring be salt and light in society. These are two important and often clashing impulses in Christians; how much are we ‘in the world’ and how much are we ‘not of the world’?

Some churches are steeped in tradition – the way that they do things was decided hundreds of years ago and remain very similar today. And yet none of them necessarily emulate the original 1st century church in the way they do several things in church (should they?).  Many of these things developed in a later time and place. For some people visiting such churches, it may seem like entering a time machine and going back several centuries. Is this a healthy way to do church in our modern world? And yet some other churches want to throw away tradition and totally reinvent the way Christians should fellowship and worship together. They want to ignore church history and everything that God might have added to the Body of Christ since New Testament times. To them, church life has no roots in the past at all. Is that the answer?

This question has been really personal and frustrating for me. Not only have I struggled with the niggling feeling that there is something dissatisfying and unhealthy about the way the local church operates, but I have also longed and desperately desired to see a glorious expression of God’s kingdom on earth. To be honest I have heard of it corporately from others, but I have not yet seen it. Some people love to say that there is no perfect church, and I understand that. I do not want a perfect church, but I would love to be part of one that Jesus is proud of. I would feel a lot better about it if I was in the minority – but I have spoken to so many that feel the same way that I suspect it is very common. I wonder sometimes if this experience of many fellow believers isn’t due to some inherently flawed way of doing church. Perhaps we have failed to be relevant. Perhaps we are too relevant. I think it is a mixture. And this is not to mention that (as I said earlier), Christians as individuals aren’t what they used to be. Many of the changes in our society have not been good, and the effects on church members have not been good. Christian fellowship these days can be very superficial and because our culture is so egocentric Christian fellowship can also be filled with self-centredness. I know that ‘doing’ church requires some sort of structure and program, but sometimes I feel a fleshly congregation can mess up any good ‘program’. On the other hand, you might have really passionate and innocent ‘babes in Christ’ who are not nourished and even spoiled by one of the unbiblical church ‘systems’. So it works both ways.

On a positive note, just as with Israel, it does seem to me that God has been reforming, reviving and correcting His people very often in history – I’m thinking of examples such as the Reformation, the Puritan era and revivals in America, the Wesley brothers and others in Britain and the more recent Pentecostal and charismatic movements in the 20th century. There are many more. It seems to me that God has been involved in many of these things (and inevitably so has Satan). During some parts of history it also seems that God led his people to embrace different strategies for completing the Great Commission. For instance, there was a period in the 1800’s of great missionary activity; churches sending individuals and teams of people to foreign countries and continents to preach to unreached people groups like never before. Another example from the last few decades which comes to mind is the sudden awareness in churches (right across denominational boundaries) of the need to have smaller groups of people meeting in their homes regularly for fellowship (often called cell-groups or home-groups). I truly believe that God has been transforming His church in many of these aspects.

Of course, some Christians do not. If you are Roman Catholic, you don’t believe in the Reformation. If you are Reformed, you might not accept Pentecolism as a move of God. There are some Christians who decide to see the Charismatic movement as some sort of heresy. Or they do not accept that Christian music should be played with certain modern instruments. Furthermore, not all Christians think Hillsong worship music is a work of the Holy Spirit in our day. I find it strange that these very people do not realise that their ‘denomination’ was probably also the new kid on the block at one time. I wonder, what is the new kid on the block today? Where do you see the Spirit at work in the Body?

Some of you might say we must look to the bible for guidance, but how can we bridge the gap between our modern society and the context of the Scriptures we read? Surely we must be faithful to the Word, and yet surely we cannot pretend that we do not need caution and wisdom in applying them in such a different world. This issue from a previous post is a great example!

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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4 thoughts on “A starting thought on church

  1. John, this post is probably the best one on Some Thoughts yet. It reads real lekker, and it hits nerves of truth from start to end. It raises many point of discussion. Well done!

    I’d love to hear some responses from the other readers, or from you, on how we bridge the gap.

    Chat later!

  2. Hi all,

    Maybe it’s just me, but are we all holding our breathe to see who’ll step into the pooh first? 🙂

    Although I may say more later, a starting remark would be this: church is described as a body or organism in the bible. I realize that structures are required for practical reasons, but sometimes it feels like most churches are 90% structure and 10% organism. My belief is that God wants us to head towards churches which flip this relationship. The structure should support the organic body, not try to supplant it.

    Love,

    The Finch

    • Hi Finch. What does this look for you? Have you ever been in an organic church, or perhaps experienced it for yourself somewhere outside? I think one of the things churches are doing to become more organic is to start up cell groups and home-groups etc. But this seems to me to be a hit and miss, its often not working. So how do you help Christians experience this?

  3. Finch I think you have put your finger on something that is so central to this discussion; namely, what IS a local church? Is it an institution like the Catholic church with worldwide local branches? Is it an autonomous company that offers products and services at a price? Is it an NGO that tries to bring change in local communities? Or is it something totally different to human structures, something living and organic that structure can’t produce? If we want to know HOW to do church, we first need to establish what church IS, and secondly what the local church is FOR.

    So you say you see the local church as an organic thing. Organic means many things to us today. It can mean natural, as opposed to unnatural. I guess this has been what much of the house church movement has been about – bringing Christian fellowship into more ‘normal’ settings such as the living room as opposed to ‘unnatural’ settings such as the pastor-pew setup, cathedrals and stadiums etc. This can be extrapolated to other things such as how inorganic the Lord’s Supper has become etc. So I guess for me organic church means something which integrates more naturally into normal life and isn’t sort of compartmentalized into superficial events. Another way of seeing organic church which links with this is organic in the sense of living, as opposed to inorganic. Something which is organic is alive because it was created with the inherent capacity to grow and reproduce etc. You cannot make a plant grow, it grows because it is a plant. And you cannot build a plant from scratch, you’ve got to use another plant to reproduce itself. You want a tree, you plant a seed.

    In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul uses an interesting farming metaphor to describe church as an organism. He said that while he had planted and watered the churches under him, it was God who gave the growth. For me that sort of captures this combination of structure and organism. In essence church is organic because it is something which has life in itself – it has its own DNA, you can’t make it grow – it grows because the life of Christ indwells it. On the other hand, farmers do need to plant seeds, till the soil and water the crop: in other words organic growth needs to be facilitated by a good environment and structure. It is sort of like that image of Jesus being the vine. The life is in him, but His Father is the gardener – there is plucking and pruning – and as in all the Old Testament imagery and many of the parables, the owner of the vineyard hires workers to build the trellises and supporting structures that guide the growth of the vine and maximize the fruit-bearing. God’s workers are human people that have to put the local church into a structure that facilitates the organic nature of Christianity.

    Another way to understand this idea of being Christ’s ‘Body’ is to see it as a kind of literal metaphor for being Jesus in the world. As the cliche says, we are his hands and his feet and his mouth. So besides being organic, the church is also an extension of Jesus and his ministry into the wider world beyond where it began in Israel. Not only is a Body a natural, living organism. It is also the functional part of a person that operates in the world. This is also the difference between ‘institutional’ church and organic church, the institutional church is often guided by doctrines and theologies, whereas for me the idea of organic Body church is that it is connected to and led by the Head to be an expression of the life of Jesus that we see in the Gospels. That is also leading, I think, into the second question: what is church for?

    I guess the main question is, does the local church as we know it facilitate the churches nature and the churches purpose?

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