I am a lover of the local church in any form I find it, provided we mean the same thing by "church." I’ve had forty years of ministry in all kinds of churches, internationally and here in the States. I have seen some great ones and some very sad, sickly ones—and that has little to do with size. If it is a true church, however, I’m for it and wish to see it flourish. I’ve not lost my enthusiasm for this throughout all these years of ministry.
In a recent book on baptism (Going Under: Discussions on Baptism), I defined a church in this way:
A church is a body of baptized believers gathering regularly to share life with Christ and each other, to affirm and proclaim His gospel, and to submit to His headship in doctrine and practice, according to His written Word.
This statement expresses the irreducible aspects of church life in my estimation. Of course, there are other commands given to the local church—but there is also much freedom. I suggest that we take our freedom more seriously.
Let me probe:
For instance, why not vary the time that you meet on Sundays? Is there really anything sacred about meeting at 11:00 in the morning? For years now, I’ve been part of a church that meets on Sunday afternoons. We are together from 4:30 until 8:30 p.m., ending with a meal. Then people stay until they wish to leave, which could be late at night. Is that less than "church?"
Remember that the early church did not have Sundays as a day off until Constantine in the early 300s. They had to meet early in the morning before work or late in the evening after work, even on Sundays. If this day gets eaten up in commercial enterprise as the years go on, Christians are not going to miss out. We certainly can meet in the evening like our ancient forebears did during the greatest years of church expansion. Right?
And do we have to do the same thing in the same way every week in our meetings? I watched a music leader recently just take last week’s bulletin, mark out the old hymns and scribble in the new for the next week. This church hasn’t changed that form for fifty years! We must be committed to those aspects of edification and worship God prescribed, but must we always do them in the same way and in the same order? May we not vary things to make these essentials more "real" to us?
In fact, let me suggest that you get rid of bulletins. I know we have a website called "Bulletininserts.org," but I still prefer that you not have them. If you need a bulletin for announcements (the original purpose), at least cut out the "order of service" segment. We should prayerfully plan, of course, but what possible reason could there be to tell everyone ahead of time what is next in our meetings? Leave a little room for suspense and flexibility. I think the apostle Paul would have said, "An order of what?" Doing all things "decently and in order" is not a command to make a written order of service or even to put hymn numbers on a board in the front.
More on this freedom within the meetings: What if two or three men preached the Word? Anything wrong with that? Or what if there was an exposition prior to any music? Could that happen and a church still be orthodox? Yes, of course. What if the offering were collected discreetly in a box at the back, rather than by passing the plate? What if there were no "Sunday School" as you have previously known it, but Bible study took place in other ways? What if there were no public altar calls? What if there were no wooden box in the front called a pulpit? What if you ate a meal every Sunday ("the Lord’s supper" surely was not just eating a tiny piece of bread and drinking out of a little cup)? What if the people did not sit in pews, or even in rows? What if you did not meet in "sanctuaries"?
I do not know what your church should do. You may think it through and come right back to where you are now. At least then you would be doing what you do for a reason. And nothing I’ve suggested is out of line with the Scriptures, nor does any of it reflect negatively on a church’s orthodoxy.
Dismissing our true freedoms for the purpose of mere conformity is a stultifying error. And, it is a serious misunderstanding and a failure of Christian love to put down other churches that do things differently than your church, yet otherwise believe and practice the truth. It implies some things that you should not want to say about yourselves. Among them is that you have taken what has been handed down to you unthinkingly and without consultation with the Spirit.
Here are the bold steps that I recommend for church leaders:
- Figure out on paper what God expects of a true church in terms of practice and meetings. Search your Bibles for the non-negotiables. Get them down as clearly as possible. Then determine to accomplish those objectives at any cost.
- Write down all the possible ways that these objectives could be accomplished in a legitimate and biblical manner.
- Pray throughout your weeks of searching about what God would want you to do. Do we really care about anything else?
- Attempt to figure out how you can move from where you are to where you wish to be.
- Depend on the Spirit and start to work in a responsible and sensitive way.
In many churches, the above steps are a recipe for a crucifixion, I know. But think about it. What is to be gained by continuing the way you are going?
I can hear some saying, "Why fix it if it ain’t broke?" Well, it is broken. And only the most blinded fail to see that. With unprecedented numbers of unconverted church members, silly entertainment substituting for worship, prayer almost non-existent, true discipleship not even attempted, real community among believers not even considered as part of the equation, evangelism cheapened to gimmicks and show, we are most certainly "broke." And your church may be worse than this. If one church trivializes the gospel through its dazzle, the other has turned monotony into an art form.
If we do not make some adjustments, then we will not keep our next generation interested any longer. The predictions look dour in terms of the future if we continue business as usual. And I’m also including the "seeker sensitive" model in "business as usual."
Though I appreciate their zeal, the "emergent church" does not appear to be the answer. Our liberties are limited. We may not go so far as to minimize the importance of clear doctrine, or ignore the lucid instructions given to us in the Bible for organizing our gatherings, in order to connect with our culture. To whatever extent this is happening, it presents a substitute without substance. On the other hand, the answer is not to love man-made forms so much that we will never change simply because we prefer the trance-like comfort of being immutably consistent with our past.
Though we love what the Reformation restored to us, we are more shaped by the Reformation structure and pattern than by the early church’s liberty and flexibility. The forms of the Reformation served well in that culture. They were new and fresh and within biblical boundaries. But must we be Reformation-like today? Yes, when it comes to the doctrines of God, man, salvation, etc., because the Reformation returned us to the Bible. But likely not when it comes to external forms. We must use our freedoms and rejoice in that liberty.
Most importantly, we must demonstrate that God’s Spirit is involved in every aspect of our life and worship together. Without reference to Him, the One who knows all hearts, we may hide our relevant God and His relevant Word in patterns of unrelenting sameness and artificial piety.