I suppose I carry a bit of a perpetual sadness about ‘church’. Not my church in particular, but in general. I think that if I was starting with a clean sheet, I’d probably suggest doing something different altogether. A huge part of that feeling comes from when I open the pages of the New Testament, and find that what we see there rarely seems to resonate with what we’ve ended up with. It is Francis Chan who has recently written a lot about what would you really start doing if you based your gatherings on glimpses of gatherings in the NT.
I’ve been reading Corinthians a lot recently. 1 Corinthians 11 – 15 contains Paul writing to offer teaching and correction to the church there, and what he suggests, in my view, sounds good! Yet, I think of the set up of large churches (by UK standards) like the one I lead, and realise that what he describes there is almost impossible due to the spaces we squeeze ourselves into and the format we’ve inhereted from generations of Christendom Christianity. There are just too many of us together on a Sunday morning to function anything like what Paul was talking about. Take a look at 1 Cor 14: 26 – 33 for a moment:
26 What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up. 27 If anyone speaks in a tongue, two—or at the most three—should speak, one at a time, and someone must interpret. 28 If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and to God.
29 Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said. 30 And if a revelation comes to someone who is sitting down, the first speaker should stop. 31 For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged. 32 The spirits of prophets are subject to the control of prophets. 33 For God is not a God of disorder but of peace—as in all the congregations of the Lord’s people.
Now, leaving aside the focus on the particular gifts mentioned, what you see here is a very multi-faceted, multi-voiced congregation with a plurality of leadership and ministries in operation. There is the strong mix of order (which is the point of the passage) and freedom in the Spirit. I read this and don’t imagine a room of 200 people, and I certainly don’t see them sitting in rows – I imagine they’re in a space where they can see each other, in a circle, perhaps – probably a space in a larger home, from what we know.
Another thing I don’t think I see very much is the maturity in churches for this to work. Frank Viola makes this point in several of his books. He basically proposes that your average church is ill-equipped and hugely inexperienced in any other form of Christian gathering to make this sort of thing a reality. He does, however, set out a journey in one of his books to help a group of people navigate such a reality.
The closest I got to this was the experimentation we began in Aberdeen, where we were seeking, in many ways, to ‘start fresh’ with a tiny team in an urban priority area where your natural ‘come to church and listen to the preach’ was just not going to work at all. We focussed all our meetings around food and on 100% participation from everyone gathered! It was highly missional as we invited people who weren’t yet Christian even to speak and ask questions of any particular passage we were looking at together. We encouraged the believers to come to the gathering with something to share or contribute. Don’t get me wrong, it was like babysteps church…and it was slow work building up confidence, partly because this wasn’t a community where education levels were high, it was a non-book culture, and so things were very different. Having said all that, it was enough for me to seal the conviction that another church was possible.
Ironically, after that experiement, I’ve since found myself in much more formal settings, but because I had that tantalising taste of something different, I guess I’ve never been able to re-settle fully into the old regime. Truth be told, I have a longing that one day I’ll escape the old structures! Equally, I’m interested to hear of people who want to imagine a different path, convinced that there is indeed another way.
I think my strongest conviction is that our current models of church are detrimental to discipleship. They’re counter-productive in that they encourage passivity. Now, I enjoy giving a (hopefully) good preach, but I’m under no illusions as to the limits of that approach to disciple people, or indeed to create a fullness in the life of the gathered church. There is a place for preaching and teaching, but surely not at the cost of interaction, full body ministry, active operation of the gifts of the Spirit, Spirit-led order, and real life-on-life engagement?
Thing is, so many of us are stuck in our inherited models, and for the want of a bit of boldness, miss out on deep treasure to be found in Christian community. I’m just ‘thinking out loud’ here…I’m also reflecting on ministry over the years, and even my own setting now, asking the questions about what will release the church to be the church for our 21st century context. I’m also at the stage in my life where, if I don’t have the courage to invite others to explore the alternatives, I’l only ever be a person who perpetuates the status quo. No…I think the time has come to be brave for the sake of the gospel and the glory of God. I’m thankful to be part of a church who, at least in part, are open to new possibilities.