Church for the Next Christians … Community or Mission?

In Weekly Meanderings this week Scot linked to a post by Chaplain Mike aka Michael Mercer on The Internet Monk: A Rant from a Loser in the Worship Wars. Mercer clarified his points in a follow-up post the next day: Let Me Restate That … A Rant Clarified. These posts are worth a careful read and I would like to use them to set up and pose a serious question, continuing the conversation from a few weeks back when I put up a couple of posts arising from reflections on Gabe Lyons’ discussion in his new book The Next Christians. You can find the earlier posts here and here. Gabe casts an optimistic vision for the future in his book, but also discusses some aspects of Church he thinks must change.

The western world, including the US, is becoming increasingly secular and pluralistic. This has consequences for Church and for the next generation. Sitting in secular Universities for the last 30 years as graduate student, post doctoral scholar, and, for the last 19 years, professor I have seen and felt this reality on a daily basis.

In a changing environment adaptation and change is necessary, and we are seeing that in many ways with different models for church being advanced … from seeker friendly, demographic oriented, house church, organic church, to multi-campus mini denominations.  The church is evolving to meet the new challenges, to survive and prosper. The various changes in our society and the changes in the models for church have an impact on the way we understand church and the way we understand the nature of worship, the function of the church and  role of the pastor.  This has led, for many, to the worship wars.

This brings me back to Mercer’s posts – his first post was something of a rant and a ramble, but contains a key point. His second post clarified the point. This is not about style of worship, it is about the purpose of church in the context of a local gathering of the body of Christ, and it is about the role of the pastor.

Is the church community or mission?

Is the role of pastor first and foremost evangelist and visionary or is the emphasis shepherd and teacher?

I put up a premise on my earlier posts …  church is and will remain at the epicenter of Christian community, it is the community, essential for worship, for sacrament, for fellowship, but the work of the church, the work of the pastor, is not to lead or cast vision or draw people in, but to equip, disciple, and send Christians out.

Chaplain Mike makes much the same point in the third question he poses in his original rant.

(3) Where is the courage to be counter-cultural?

I would pose this question in slightly different way, but the essence is here. We need to be counter cultural in approach to the church as committed community and as the body of Christ.  I am going to quote a good chunk of Michael’s post A Rant from a Loser in the Worship Wars here:

Last Friday’s post on the Epistle to Diognetus quoted a strong challenge to today’s church. “Christians are recognized when they are in the world, but their religion remains unseen,” its author wrote. It seems the evangelical approach in this culture is exactly the opposite. Our religion is recognized in the world, but we remain hidden. The attractional philosophy tries to make our religious services and practices enticing to our culture, while we fail to teach people how to actually live in the world day after day as followers of Christ.You will find little, if anything, in the NT about attracting people to the faith through the gathered worship of the church. That is simply not what worship is about. Worship is an activity for God’s people. We should certainly be hospitable and welcoming to those who may come among us, but the NT church is not a “temple” designed to draw people in. The NT church is a community of people, who worship together and then scatter, in order to penetrate the world by fulfilling our various vocations in the world, testifying to the Good News face to face, person to person in all the contexts of daily life in the world.

Any gifted showman can attract a crowd. Any gifted program director can design and run an organization that will get and keep people involved in activities. It is being done all over the country. But who is forming the community in which Christ is central and spiritual roots sink deep, where people are being encouraged to have quiet hearts that pay attention to what God is doing, sensitive hearts that pick up on subtle signs that a brother or sister needs attention, thoughtful hearts devoted to study, meditation, prayer, and contemplation, hospitable hearts that welcome the neighbor and are open to the stranger? Who is encouraging the kind of worship that forms such hearts? Who is providing the grace and space, the otium sanctum—the holy leisure—the silence and intimate conversation by which they are formed?

Church leaders have traded their calling as pastors for jobs as showmen and program directors, and that is the essence of our culture, not counter-cultural. The people we are trying to win should be getting to know us, not our religion. But we wear our religion on our sleeves and hide ourselves from the world.

Church for who and for what? The point that Chaplain Mike is making here is in agreement with the point that I was trying to make in my earlier posts on the Church for the next Christians. What questions should we be asking as we seek the will of God in the context of a local gathering of the church?

Bringing people in. If the ruling question is “How can we get people to enter this building?” there will be one set of answers. When the goal is getting people in the door resources of time, money, and space are funneled in this direction. Space is remodeled to attract outsiders and draw them in. Programs are evaluated strictly on the basis of numbers, or on their potential for bringing numbers in the right demographic. There is a market plan, and an audience is targeted. Programs deemed counter to the goal are dropped, and if people are hurt, like Mike’s friend who set off his rant, it is regretted, but part of the pragmatic necessity.

When the worship service is structured as part of a growth strategy to attract people the presentation on the stage is designed with this in mind. This defines the music style – but more then this it defines who is allowed to participate and what is presented.

Libraries and Christian education, beyond high school anyway, may be deemed an inward focused luxury that can not be afforded. They are rationalized away as not really effective anyway. The local church becomes a mission, not a community, and certainly not a committed learning community where individuals mature and grow, age and change.

Equipping the people of God. If the guiding question is different – “How can we best equip our people to to go forth in their vocations in the world to witness and proclaim the gospel?”  then the answers are different. We may still turn meeting space into a casual space designed to facilitate conversation – but only if this will help the people in the church connect and grow. There will be change and there will be conflict, but there will also be growth on the individual and the congregational level.

We may change the style of worship – but only because it will help the people here, now, grow and mature as they come before God.  The worship service will be directed toward God and will involve the entire congregation – from children to octogenarians. The most powerful services I have attended, the most vibrant churches, have had children, youth, young adults, the middle aged, and the elderly taking part in different ways at different times.

Worship as marketing strategy destroys worship as time for the family of God, the body of Christ, before God.

I suggest that the question we need to ask is the second. The guiding goal of the local church is to be the community of the body of Christ, to worship God in corporate gathering, to equip people to to go forth in their vocations in the world to witness,  proclaim, and live the gospel.

How is this accomplished? In his second post Chaplain Mike brings this down to three specific questions, which I’ve recast a bit. (1) Is the church a congregation for everybody? (2) Do our pastors focus on love of God and love of people as their primary calling? Not abstract love of potential attendees or the poor, but concrete love of the real people who are in the congregation today. and (3) Is the emphasis on gathering believers for worship and teaching and then sending them into the world as representatives of the body of Christ? Again, I quote from his post, this time Let Me Restate That … A Rant Clarified.

Is our church a congregation for everybody? Do we honor our elders, for example? Do we involve our children? When people look at our church and attend our services do they see both unity and diversity? Do they see people loving and getting along with each other despite different tastes and preferences? Do they see a willingness to humbly learn and grow in areas that might make me stretch so that I can appreciate those who are different from me? It’s about character, humility, Christlikeness, love, not about putting on a slick program (no matter what style it may be).

Do our pastors and church leaders grasp that their first duty is to love God and love people? To deal with the specific people God brings and to work with them on a personal level? To form a community and environment for them so that they may experience spiritual formation? To walk with them in their daily lives and have conversations with them in all the situations and seasons of their lives? The pastor’s calling is not to be a visionary or a program director.

Can we embrace the simple concept that we gather as believers for worship, and then scatter into the world to do our service? “Worship” was never intended to be an outreach to the lost and unchurched. So, worship together as God’s family, with grace and hospitality, of course, to those who may visit you. But then learn that the “Christian life” is not one lived in the confines of the “temple” (the church program). Make Monday-Saturday your primary context of outreach and service and attraction to Jesus Christ as you live out your vocations in the world. We are called to win people by our lives, not by having them attend an entertaining program.

We need a repair, as Chaplain Mike says, of the ecclesiological foundations of our church. I say this not as a 50+ woman on the losing side of generation war and the worship war, but as a university professor who lives every day with the struggles of maintaining a Christian faith and walk in the hostile environment of a secular University. I say this as one who has and still does struggle constantly to find a way to be Christian in this environment, to grow mature enough in faith and understanding to live as a Christian ought. The churches I have grown in were spotty in their ability to help Christians meet the challenges of the world. The vision of church as mission is even worse.

We need roots, we need depth, we need community, we need commitment, we need teaching that can stand the test, not entry level 20 minute (or 40 minute) sermons. We need room for questions and conversation. We need to be grounded in the scripture and the depth and coherence of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Church as mission cannot and does not deliver.  It does not demand enough, it does not give enough, it does not teach enough, it does not persevere enough, it does not love enough.

I am optimistic for the future, long term, because God is in control, and His plan will not fail. I am pessimistic in the short term because I think history demonstrates rather conclusively that He will let us mess it up and fail big time.

What do you think?

What questions and goals should be guiding our churches? How does this play out?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net

If you have comments please visit Church for the Next Christians … Community or Mission? at Jesus Creed.

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