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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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