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Thoughts on My Trip to London

October 14, 2010 3 comments

Some of you have asked me about the recent trip to London. Here is a rough snapshot of my response to St. Paul’s Theological Centre.

Last week I enjoyed the opportunity to observe an emerging theological training program. Several ministers from the United States visited St Paul’s Theological Centre in London, England. Our little group consisted of pastors of large and small churches, counselors, church planters, a Bible college president, a missiologist, and a chaplain.

For five days we observed and participated in the life and culture of Holy Trinity Brompton and their college, St. Paul’s Theological Centre (SPTC). Along the way, we ate our share of fish-n-chips, toured a few museums, visited Churchill’s war room, talked in pubs and enjoyed several delightful meals.

I was personally enriched by walking the streets of London, conversing with old and new friends, and worshipping at Holy Trinity Brompton. The visit was marked by blue skies and warm, windy days. It was also marked by our desire to watch and learn ways that each of us might personally and collectively work toward renewing theological training here in the United States and in our local communities.

Our main focus was to visit with the staff of SPTC and to observe the sessions. As a quick summary, SPTC is a theological training school integrated within the local church. Students attending SPTC are typically persons training for ministry, church leaders seeking further studies, and professionals seeking to learn more about Christian faith while remaining in their chosen vocations.

Several things make SPTC unique: it’s focus on training while serving local ministry; it’s connection to the larger church; it’s commitment to intellectual and theological rigor; and it’s integrated missional model.

I’ve attempted to summarize what I observed for my own processing as well as the discussions I am continuing to have with other ministers in the region. I realize my own observations are colored by my own values and longings, but I hope this will be helpful as a summary of what stirred within me:

Hospitality
I felt welcomed into this mission-centered community but even more deeply I sensed a “generosity of spirit” that infused every aspect of the faith community.

This same church developed and exports the evangelistic Alpha Course to over 169 nations. The Alpha Course introduces the gospel to those who want to learn more about Christian faith in a friendly, relaxed setting. Hospitality seems to pulse within the Alpha Course and it makes sense that the community reflects embodied service and love through their acts and attitudes of hospitality.

Integration
When I was in college and considering a seminary education, my pastor warned me, “Be careful, you may lose your faith while training for ministry.” This disintegration between academic pursuit in the university and the devotional life of the church community created deep-rooted conflicts, dis-ease and dis-integration within the community of faith.

SPTC represents a large move throughout the Body of Christ to restore training within the context of the local body. Localized training (in contrast to university or seminary training) doesn’t have to compromise intellectual rigor, but rather needs to integrate that rigor within the context of the lived faithfulness of serving within local faith communities. In fact, SPTC represents a way that local faith communities can dialogue with seminaries and university divinity programs.

I appreciate that SPTC has developed it’s training within and through the support of church leaders while also drawing upon leading thinkers like Alistair McGrath, David Ford, Jane Williams, Richard Bauckham, and others.

At the same time, SPTC is training students in context. The context of relationships with other students, the context of local church communities and the context of serving in local congregations.

So I see multiple “integrations” at work in SPTC such as local/global, intellectual/devotional, and the possibility for cross-cultural integration as other churches establish training centers and share resources across cultures.

Relationships
My observation of integration is directly connected to the high value placed on relationship. By relationship I mean person-to-person relationships, church to church relationships, and even church to culture relationships. How do we learn in a way that enfleshes Jesus command to “love one another as I have loved you?”

Conversation
I observed a model of training that values dialogue. The student training happened within the context of worship and within the context of fellowship, so I saw the dual emphasis on speaking/listening to God and one another.

While I observed a conversation with tradition, I didn’t have an opportunity to observe the conversation with living members of the older generation. Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy once observed that history changes when three generations come into agreement. When the baby Jesus was presented in the Temple: three generations joined together. Mary and Joseph as parents offered their son to the aged generation of Simeon and Anna.

I’ve observed SPTC’s commitment to the youth and their commitment to ancient tradition, I hope that there is also a corresponding commitment to connect youth with the wisdom and engagement of living elders (parents/grandparents).

Translation
For students seeking ordination, SPTC seeks to place the students in church planting or ministry roles within local faith communities. As I observed the congregation associated with Holy Trinity Brompton, I saw services that offered “high church liturgical worship,” charismatic worship, youth worship and more.

The opportunity to learn and then apply that learning within distinctive settings seems to me to be the work of translation. How do we translate Gospel in differing cultures? On one level I think translating Gospel within these varied worshipping communities represents an important aspect of translation, but I also look to the commitment of SPTC to train professionals who come from business, art, healthcare and other fields. The opportunity for translating Gospel in these settings offers a great possibility for the church, and I believe there is potential within SPTC to see this work of translation enfleshed in students learning how to live/speak this proclamation in distinct settings.

Mission
This need for translation connects back to the Alpha Course. Our hosts Graham Tomlin and others helped us all to see how the vision of SPTC is directly connected to the vision of the Alpha Course. The church is on mission to proclaim Gospel. The Alpha Course provides a context for proclamation and invitation to new believers. SPTC provides the training for believers who want enter into the mission of church planting, church serving, and Gospel proclaiming throughout culture.

I appreciate the holistic vision that integrates evangelism, church community, and theology into one community.

Submission
Even as mission for the kingdom of God drives the heart of SPTC and Holy Trinity Brompton, I sensed an even great submission to the King of the kingdom.

I end with the observation that most inspired me during our stay. At one point, Nickey Gumbel told our group that the goal is not to see how big you can be but how small you can be. A moment later he said that if the ministry dies, it dies.

These two statements captured for me a “spirit of submission” to the true Authority, our Lord and King, Jesus Christ. We follow Christ into mission but there are times of danger when mission can trump personal relationship (to Christ and others). This attitude of submission toward God and one another shined in every team member we met.

This humility touched me profoundly. I have observed and known all to well the power of ambition in ministry. To see a spirit of humility pervade the work of a church that is touching millions of people around the world, stirred and continues to stir me.

As I process my time in England and with the kind people at SPTC, I am struck that what they showed us was not simply a technique or a model but a culture that has been cultivated in time and space. As we seek to learn how their work might fit into our communities, I think we can appreciate this culture of hospitality, mission and humility that seems to permeate much of their work.

It certainly stirs me to seek to learn and emulate. If there had been a model like this when I was in school, I might have stayed in the academic setting. I wanted to teach, but I wanted to teach people in a more holistic, relational setting that reflected the true content of the message.

It makes me think of story from the start of my ministry. In 1988, my new wife and I moved onto a drug and alcohol ranch. My primary function was to lead the men in a daily Bible study. At some point during the year, we began to explore the book of Romans together. I would usually introduce a passage, offers a few reflections and invite conversation. One day, a man who was deeply struggling with cocaine addiction offered a response to Paul’s message of grace. He looked up and said, “So Billy Graham needs the grace of God just as deeply as me?”

Through this broken man, I encountered a depth of God’s grace that provided redemption for us all: the righteous and the sinner. His comment changed my whole ministry. In him, I learned that ministry was about listening and speaking, about call and response between God and man as well as between man and man.

What I observed at SPTC gives me hope that churches can help people grow in faith, and ministry, becoming people who live in the rhythm of call and response, of listening and speaking.

Categories: church

Adapting House Church

December 8, 2008 Leave a comment

Gene Edwards once wrote that every church shouldn’t look the same, but that each local gathering should discover their form together. Mike Morrell posts an interesting blog about discovering church in the home and how the journey led them into an openness to liturgy and other ancient church elements. I think he rightly describes this adventure in church as a journey. And if we’re open, God may lead through some fascinating places and relationships along the way.

Categories: church Tags: ,

Living Amid the Ruins

April 9, 2008 Leave a comment

Almost four years ago I wrote about the fall of modern structures, suggesting that gatekeepers like government, media, church, and education were crumbling due to their reliance on a modern worldview that had collapsed. Later I was to discover that 30 years earlier, Ivan Illich had been thinking and writing in a far more comprehensive way on a similar theme.

As some people proclaim they are tired of church, others proclaim they are tired of voting. In fact, there is a great deal of disappointment and distrust of church, government, science, universities, and more. Whenever frustrations move from personal, localized distrust to mass distrust then something is not working in the society. I think this is a sign of breakdown of the Western world

Today while I was driving over to eat dinner with our little community, I started thinking of ways to better explain what I mean by the end of the Western world.

When we speak of the Western world, we generally refer to the commonality of cultures between people of Western Europe (including US and Canada). While the local languages may differ, there are certain common symbols that guide our way communicating, impacting the way we think and act. These symbols are rooted in a common core that reaches back to the forces that shaped our modern Western world: Christianity and Greek philosophy.

Even though many people reject Christianity and have never studied Greek philosophy, these symbols still shape the way they see the world. If we look backward into an earlier era such as the Medieval world, we are looking back to a time/place when people shared a different symbol set. The symbols may include a certain set of rituals such as the Latin Mass and a set of Holy Days. While there where local variations, the common mass and the common calendar defined a way of experiencing life and communicating life.

Each local area may express and develop the symbols uniquely through particular types of clothing, speech pattern, songs, dances and so on. In other words, the stuff of life that connects people: family, dress, home, language, worship, etc. When we speak of a world, we are suggesting that there is a commonality of symbols that caused people to see the world/understand the world in similar ways. While each person viewed and experienced the world slightly differently, a common set of boundaries for defining the world was shared by most of the people.

When I speak of the Western world, I am speaking in a similar way. The Western World might in one sense be a combination of eras that stretch back to ancient Rome up through today. In that sense, the Western world contains many worlds such as the Classical, the Medieval, the Renaissance and so on. The controlling group of people in any given era share some common core of meaning that allow them to communicate and build a society together. Every world is always fragile and never independent of the people within it.

As the Western world passed through the Enlightenment and moved toward the modern world, there was a great anticipation among many people that the world was going to get better. We could understand the world around us through disciplined reason. We could observe the world around and find the real. A sense of hope in progress propelled many of family and individual to expect a better world tomorrow. (This is a super simplistic reduction.)

While a sense of hope and anticipation led the charge, a certain pessimism also begin to grow. The multiple tensions within this world stretching for tomorrow might show up in the arts through artisits like Charles Dickens who kept reminding the “civil” world of an underclass with struggles and pains.

Charles Darwin exemplifies this expectancy of the progress just like many revivalist preachers did. Their zeal and hope were expressed in vastly different ways but a common threat still held them in a one world. Some people saw beneath the fabric and knew it was unraveling. Kierkegaard and Nietzsche both identified a rotton apple within their world even if one moved deeper into faith while the other move away from it.

As the nineteenth century waned and the twentieth century waxed, a growing denizen of thinkers, writers and artist began to question the fundamental symbol sets that held the Western World together. Then Einstein rocked the science world with his theories. WW1 resulted in over 40 million deaths (Wikipedia). From 1918 to 1919, influenza killed off between 2.5% and 5% of the world’s population (see Wikipedia). These strains kept building and pressuring a world view that was already starting to crumble. As Yeats proclaimed, “The center cannot hold.”

Within ten years, nations around the world descended into a Great Depression and then another devastating war (WW2), which demonstrated that even science could prove the demise of the world through atomic warfare. These external strains were only coupled within internal strain that questioned the core symbol sets that pointed to a hopeful future, that trusted our reason, that believed in what we could see, smell, hear and taste.

Gradually more and more groups of people began to notice the problems of the Western world. It’s wasn’t as rosy as we had believed. The institutions made of people (like government and education and church) could act destructive. And collectively people could really be destructive. The stories and symbols and ideas that held this world together seemed questionable. They also allowed for slavery, prejudice, destruction of native American lands and families, sexual injustice.

The 60s was not a surprise blip on the map of the 20th century. It was when masses of young people finally abandoned the common symbols that bound the West together. The death that impacted many thinkers at the end of WW1 had now spread to young people. Some suggested the world would be so much better if we did away with all the trappings of Western civilization like religion and nations and conflicts.

The symbols that were cracking in earlier centuries completely collapsed in the twentieth century. Even the basic symbols sets of common language were questioned. Could we really even find a common meaning? RD Laing suggested that we could and would never know anoyone elses experience beyond our own. The meaning of words and even the trustworthiness of our own observations were questioned. We saw a man land on the moon, but did he really land on the moon? We saw a plane crash into the two towers, but did we really?

While the late 70s to the present have tried to turn the clock back before the 60s, it cannot happen. The 60s were an explosion of mass doubt and disbelief in the Western World that was a long time in coming. And yet the contradiction of the 60s (as well as the contradication of many would-be messiahs today) is that the people before screwed everything up but this modern project really does work and if we just make a few tweeks, through out a few behavoirs and add a few new gadgets, we can still make the world a better place. Using some vague modernist idea of progress, people continued to rely on a world view that was busted and broken.

We’ve watched over the last 40 years, the collapse of this world view played out in our institutions (made up of people who are losing their common symbol set). From the government corruption to the shootings at the schools, we see a world where we no longer trust institutions (and no longer want to go to church).

This disintegration is being played out all around the Western world, including the fighting in Iraq. While most people will point at someone or something else as the problem, they fail to see that the whole ship is sinking. We can never go back to 1950 (or the garden for the matter). Now we go forward to a new creation, a new world.

When I say that the Western World is dead, I mean that the symbols expressed in ritual and language and ideas no longer bind us together. So we abandon this civilization and revert to a tribe of like-minded people for comfort and security (liberal, green, conservative, libertarian and so on). We are living at the edge of chaos even if we try to convince ourselves otherwise.

We chaos will not prevail. The West will move forward. A new articulation of the future will eventually speak a vision of the world that will draw the masses together and we’ll move forward beyond this interim period. We will probably not even realize when that happens. But it will. And as I Christian, I believe that we will move forward learning and living out the radical implications of our confession in even more fuller ways. We are moving from glory to glory.

What will it look like to move forward? Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy suggested we move look back to move ahead. And many have begun to look back. The challenge of the church is to articulate through the voice of humility the way forward that leads to the resurrected Christ Jesus who calls us from glory to glory.

The Late Great Medieval World

April 8, 2008 Leave a comment

I love studying the Christian Celts, particularly the golden period of the 5th to 8th century. What little we know about this world seems offer a balance to our world today. Their faith was less abstract and more rooted in every day living. Their prayers engage every activity of the day with God’s grace–from sweeping to stirring fires to milking cows to taking walks. They are rooted in community. They seem more in touch with creation.

It is easy to project back all our ideals to a period in the ancient past. (And to ignore many of their fatal flaws.) And we really don’t have enough information to paint a clear picture of that period. But we do have some writing and images that suggest a more integrated worldview between natural and supernatural as well as a connectedness to the land and the community/tribe.

While the Christian Celts may have brought some unique perspectives to the world, they also represent a way of thinking and living that was characteristic in that world. But this world came to an end. In a simplistic summary of history, I’ll point out a few major events.

The Western Church and the Eastern Church officially split in the Great Schism of 1054. While this split resulted from centuries of tension, it marks a formal break in the church that violates the love of God among His people.

A series of Crusades took place between 1095 – 1272. Millions of people lost their lives and the participation was debated then as now.

It appears to me that the next two events are judgments on the West possibly as a result of the Great Schism and some of the abuses of the Crusades but also maybe for other factors. These judgments in one sense represent the end of the medieval world (just as WW1 and WW2 represent the end of the modern world).

The Great Famine 1315-17 – While famines were a constant threat, this famine resulted in 1 million deaths, marking the end a population growth between the 11th and 13th centuries.

The Black Death – 1338 – 1375 – During these years, it is estimated that over 75 million people died. The Western world looked completely different. Entire towns ceased to exists, families lines ended, the social fabric fell apart.

The Medieval worldview did not have the energy to move this broken population forward. If we were using our terminology today, we might say that the world entered into a post-Medieval world. The world had to be rebuilt through new ideas, symbols, economic systems, cultural orders and more.

Part of reaching for a new world emerged in what we now call the Renaissance (14th – 17 th century). This emerging world had two competing interests: secular and Christian.

Martin Luther posts his 95 theses in 1517. While reforming voices and movements echoed through the church, this seems to mark the articulation that leads to a new world view. Secularist would prefer to speak of Renaissance, but I think the Reformation maybe the more defining transformation of the period. The energy of this worldview gave birth to modern science, classical music and more.

While the shift was not so dramatic, this new world gave birth to our modern world (both good and bad). The strain between secular and sacred only grew during this period. The doctrine of the Trinity was not guarded or articulated much during this period. James Jordan suggests that the unequally yoked marriage of Christianity and Greek thought propelled this world forward but eventually corrupted this world as well.

(I think Ingmar Berman’s “Seventh Seal” is exploring the end of the modern world via a story on the end of the medieval world while inverting Kirkegaard’s aesthete, ethicist and knight of faith.)

This world showed signs of breaking in the 19th century but the fundamental collapse was World War 1 and the echo of World War 2. We live in the arftermath of a world that died before most of us were born. Much like the post-medievalists, we live in a time that awaits a fresh articulation.

More on this later. I’m going to bed.

Gifts with strings attached

March 26, 2008 Leave a comment

Just because a gift comes with “no strings attached” does not mean that it is a better gift than one “with strings attached.” A gift can come as an expression of invitation to a deeper relationship. By deeper relationship, I am indicating some greater level of exchange in shared intimacy. The gift of an engagement ring is an invitation to a deeper relationship with greater levels of intimacy.

If the invitation is a welcome one, the person receiving the gift delights in the “strings attached.”  This is a way for me to being thinking through the idea of covenantal gifts.

The ten commandments come not as a weight but as gifts of life (invitations to relation) with expectations of responsibility. This covenantal picture in the commandments is sometimes pictured as a marriage between Israel and YHWH. Thus the imagery in Isaiah and other places of the marraige with God’s people (and in the New Testament as the bride of Christ).

What’s Wrong With the Church III?

March 20, 2008 3 comments

After I started writing these posts, I didn’t really like the title and wanted to change it, but I’ve already started. I see God’s blessing pouring out from large and small churches, from Reformed and Pentecostal not to mention Liturgical churches. His Sovereign love and redemptive power cannot be limited by our frail and failing attempts to “solve” His church problem.

We cannot domesticate the divine through our structure, rationality or emotional encounters. Rather, we can only lift up hands and hearts of thanksgiving for His unflinching faithful love to the faithless, stumbling saints who walk toward glory.

And yet, I don’t think it wrong to question and challenge and seek to be a people and a church that is always reforming by the continuing light that shines out from His Word. I believe we live in a time between times. The world has not seen such drastic challenges since waning of the Middles Ages. As the Crusades and the Black plague and the shifting patterns in Western Europe shook the whole framework of medieval life and thought, God worked in and through His people to bring change. A new articulation of the future came through Martin Luther. His song echoed and developed in the growing chorus of other saints who stretched forward to the future God was creating.

God worked in mighty ways through the modern world that was to emerge. But time came for His judgment upon the excesses and arrogance of the modern world. And the 20th century experienced the devastating blows of war and destruction as the modern world crumbled before the face of modern engineers who finally figured out a way to create paradise without God.

I believe we are living in time between times as we weight (and wait) for a new articulation that leads God’s people (and the world) forward as a reforming people rooted in the every living Word. What some call post-modernism is more like remains of modern failure. The new time we are being stretched toward will continue the movement of God’s Spirit that transforms and blesses creation through the frail people of God.

Continuity in Time (and space)
With those thoughts, I would suggest that one of the great challenges for the church (large or small) is to find continuity in time (and space). We’ve grown up as heirs of Descartes (and others) who decided we don’t need anyone before us. There is a difference between subjecting tradition to the judgment of God’s Word and rejecting tradition altogether. Many of us grew up in churches that lost their memory and functioned as atemporal islands.

Today some have started looking backwards, grasping at various rituals from the past and hoping to resurrect some ancient experience of God that is older than this morning’s cup of Starbucks. This is good but is a bit chaotic and can sometimes create a mix-mash of rituals that may be another way we try to domesticate God.

I think the church is challenged with watching and listening to the developing story in Scripture of God’s people. When YHWH appears to Moses, He is the God of the Fathers. In others words, He appears as the faithful keeper of the covenant. As Israel emerges from the dust of Egypt, she consistently is challenged to remember the story. By the time Jesus comes, He is coming to a story of redemption that is deep in the memory of God’s people (recounted and re-enacted through feasts and festivals, sacrifices and Sabbaths).

Jesus breaks the bread and pours the wine and tells the disciples to do this in “Remembrance of Me.” The temporal continuity continues. They are called to be God’s blessing to the world and as they go out into all the world, they are called to continually remember who they are.

We must listen to the Scripture and learn ways to remember. First and foremost by the breaking of the Word and Sacrament. We are part of a people who God has called out to bless the whole world. We are not isolated islands. Somehow, we must relearn to remember who we are and who went before us. Somehow we must learn to retell Biblical history as well as Church history. We are connected with God’s people across time and space.

Our struggles at church are not about figuring out how to fix what all the other folks ruined, but to consider one another above ourselves. If I just decide to leave church and start meeting at a coffee shop, I may be simply exchanging one form of subjective interiority for another. But if I humble myself before God’s people throughout time and throughout space, I may learn to love and serve those with whom I disagree. I may be changed, humiliated. I may even learn to suffer for my enemies and love through death and beyond.

Before I actively tried to do home church, I was so certain that I knew the problems of church and knew exactly how to would correct them. Now I realize what an absolute failure I really am. By God’s grace, I continue to serve and to try to follow this call, and to trust that in spite of my arrogance that has been humiliated again and again, God is transforming me into love.

In some small way, I believe seeking merely to break open the Word and listen to God’s command, and to break the bread and drink the wine, God is at work. Changing me. Reintegrating me, the disconnected modern, into a body that has known suffering in the wilderness, that has been crushed in again and again, that has walked through the midst of a warring world, bearing the Name of Jesus, the Word of Love to the forsaken and forgotten.

And even as I am learning to remember, I trust my Father above is and does remember His people in the bread and wine, and will not forsake His people, but will create a marvel greater than anything our world has yet to fathom.

Categories: church, House Church Tags: ,

What’s Wrong with the Church II (Disorganized Church)

March 19, 2008 3 comments

Contining from the last post, I reiterate that these ideas are my own flawed eyes and insights.

I’ve been involved in some form of home church meetings for the past 17 years, and for nine of those years with the same group of people. At times it has been painful, discouraging and exhausting, and that’s probably because it has been a small family. This is about a choice to love and to continue building relationships, and not about, “If it feels good, do it.” (Which is what a lot of American Christianity looks like to me.)

I’m not blind to the weaknesses of home churches, and I do not believe that they are some kind of panacea for the body of Christ. While there are many challenges, here are some problems that initially come to mind.

1. Sectarian and judgmental – Many home churches movements that I have been around use words like “Basilica” to describe the larger, organized churches. They fundamentally believe that these churches are some expression of paganism or compromise with the greater culture. And I admit, our group has struggled with feelings like that at times. When I first started participating in home churches meetings, a good part of the meeting would be devoted to castigating other large churches.

Our little group has tried to discipline our tongues and spirits not to stand in judgment on the church system. When I’m in a group (home churchers or otherwise), I do my best to refrain from the common tendency to point out all the flaws of paritcular churches, movements or “TV Evangelists.” For the most, these groups are not part of my world, and I simply need to keep my mouth shut.

This pattern of judgment and criticism toward the larger body of Christ seems to be a pattern in various small church/simple church movements over time. Now I don’t deny that this pattern can show up in any size and type of church, but it seems particularly magnified in the home churches with an us vs. them mentality. (There’s a good sign though in that some newer home churches see themselves as missional extensions of a larger body.)

2. Low commitment – Because of the casual nature of home churches, I’ve watched many people come and go. People may disappear for weeks at time and then reappear. While I don’t like the heavy-handedness I sometimes see in churches, this overly casual attitude can limit the possibility for real intimacy over time. It is hard to reveal our weaknesses in front of people who may have no deep commitment to the relationship.

3. Doctrine of the Holy Spirit – While some home churches embrace the sign gifts of the Holy Spirit, I’ve seen a tendency to reject His action in history. What do I mean by this? They tend to read church history through the lens of how a bunch of people messed up the church and turned into a pagan substitute for the body of Christ. And only a few faithful held to the true calling of the church. I see this as a practical denial of the Holy Spirit’s involvement with the church. As though somehow God couldn’t keep sinful man from ruining the church He created, so a few faithful have to keep relighting the true torch of faith and passing it on.

Any groups (home church or otherwise) that are looking for some pure expression of the church, end up putting more confidence in man’s plans and designs than the Holy Spirit’s guiding presence to preserve and present the church as the Bride of Christ. God calls sinful men into His kingdom of love. He transforms them in the midst of a called-out community of other sinful men. Of course, our humanness interferes and ends up wounding and distorting. But the wonder of God’s providence is that He works out His purposes in the midst of our fallen lives and creates a masterpiece (as Paul so wonderfully captures in Ephesians).

4. Continuity through time – One of main problems of I see home church and large Evangelical churches is the breakdown in continuity through time (past-future-present). But I will pause here and write a bit about that in the next little post.

What’s Wrong With Church I (Organized Church)

March 17, 2008 4 comments

Longing for a Holiday wrote a post yesterday about why staying home and reading the Scripture was more appealing than attending Palm Sunday services. She got me to thinking about why I left organized church in 1991. After immersing myself in ministry during the late 80s, I resigned in spring of 91 and walked away from organized churches with no plans to ever return.

In fall of 92, I went to graduate school and studied relationships. At the beginning, I railed against all the problems of organized church. Eventually the anger left, and I learned to love the church in all its human messiness. Over the last 15 years, I’ve grown to listen and learn from various streams within the body of Christ, but I still haven’t returned to organized church.

As I’ve thought about replying to yesterday’s post, I decided to break this “What’s Wrong with Church” into three posts, considering problems with organized church, problems with disorganized church (home church), and how might we respond. This reflects the struggles a sinner still learning to love through the cross, so it’s still filled with lots of my human flaws. I sketch out these ideas, knowing that God in His grace blesses many lives through large, organized churches (and even TV ministries).

Here are three key problems I have with organized church (specifically large organized churches).

1. The Illusion of Success
To walk through the land of Egypt still inspires countless visitors. Impressive, stunning structures such as pyramids fill the visitor with wonder. In its prime, the civilization of Egypt looked likes an amazing success. But, of course, it enslaved people. Herod, following the wisdom of Egypt, also built a pretty impressive kingdom: a great Temple and many stunning buildings. But at the expense of the people. When Jesus came Judah looked pretty successful with passionaite worshippers, intensive discipleship programs, a glorious building project, and expectations of soon return of the Messiah.

It looked successful (both physically and spiritually) and it was a complete failure, standing under the curse of God. Now the reality is that we as sinners stand under judgment and live and move and have our being by the gracious love of our Father. It’s not wrong to dream big and build big, but the danger is always that trust will transfer from the grace of God to the wisdom of our buildings, best-selling books, discipleship programs and more.

I fear many big, organized churches are in danger of believing their own press (just many of our big time evangelists). This illusion can mean that relationships with God and one another can be sacrificed in order to keep the project moving forward. Watching this pattern play out again and again drove me from organized church in 1991.

2. Sacrifice Relationships
The last point leads into this second point. Relationships become secondary to buildings, structures, org charts, and so forth.

The responsibilities of a Puritan pastor reached beyond simply delivering a great sermon on Sundays. He was in the ministry of the “cure of souls.” This required time spent with every family in the church, including nurturing the spiritual formation of the children. The bigger we grow our churches, the less relational a pastor can be. Many churches have layers of staff with some lower level folks (and often non-staff) involved in the lives of the families (if that post even exists at all).

In Paul’s Idea of Community, Robert Banks argues that Paul’s primary metaphor for the church (though implicit) is the family. His language is of brothers and sisters and our Father. Jesus also uses family language to speak of the growing community. He actually redefines the Mediterranean understanding of family as the burgeoning family of disciples.

Unfortunately, many Christian friends that I know who attend large churches, explain that their “real relationships” are outside the church. Some have told me that they would be hesitant to share their real struggles with anyone in the church where they attend. This a huge problem and seems to mock the whole idea of “forsake not the assembling of yourselves together.”

3. Superficiality
Some big churches also fall prey to the “trend of the moment.” I had one “very successful” pastor (both in planting and publishing books) tell me he questioned the church creeds and thought we might need some new creeds. I almost fell down. Whatever hot, exciting trend in culture (with its church variation) can easily become the temporary fad.

Even relationships has become a temporary trend. Instead of a long-term commitment to love through the suffering of the cross, words like “relationality” are easily tossed around to indicate the importance of a growing trend. Of course, I wonder what happens to that relationality with the trend grows boring and everyone moves on to the next big thing.

Part two coming
These comments were primarily directed to large churches but I realize these faults can show up in any size churches. While I’ve chosen to spend the past 15 years in simple churches that were focused on home-style meetings (with a bit of liturgy), I also see some fundamental problems with the home church movement. I’ll share that in part two.

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