How do we conduct church in the twenty-first century?
Above all, I think we should look to the Bible to show us what we are to do. Sadly, in western society, our church services are too often run as if they were a slick entertainment-style program. Everything is planned out ahead of time and fit into a slot, and horrors if someone should run over or go off script.
And yet, our former pastor said repeatedly that his sermon wasn’t entertainment, that we weren’t an audience sitting back and determining whether we’d been properly entertained. We were participants, he said, active agents in the process, not passive judges.
So which is it? A slick program or a vibrant interaction, believers with each other and with God?
I don’t think the Bible indicates anywhere that Christians assembling together should be a slick program. There isn’t support for such a notion in Scripture.
We are to do things orderly, but even in giving that admonition, the Apostle Paul left room for the spontaneous.
I am a teacher though, and spent the majority of my working life in a classroom. To be an effective teacher, a person needs to prepare, so the idea of just showing up and letting the Spirit move, which denominations like the Quakers once upon a time believed, doesn’t seem wise.
Perhaps, like so many other things, we’ve become so dependent upon our own abilities or ideas or inventions, we no longer see the wisdom in trusting God. Be that as it may, I don’t see churches going back to a “no pastor” system where they meet together and wait quietly for someone in their midst to receive a stirring of the Spirit and share what God has “laid on their heart.”
I can’t say that I’d want to return to that type of church service either. I believe we are to love God with all of our mind, as well as with all of our heart and all of our body. I see great value in learning from a teacher who has done his homework, who has studied and prepared.
Our interaction, then, is with the content the preacher presents. We should not be caught up in whether he’s told us a good joke or a touching story, whether he has a good video clip to support his point or includes information flashed on the screen via his PowerPoint.
None of those things is wrong, just like it’s not wrong to quote a passage from a novel or include a short drama. These are methods, they are not content. The method should not be The Thing.
What church needs to do is involve people. The assembling of ourselves together should be for edification—that is, “the instruction or improvement of a person morally or intellectually” (Oxford American Dictionary). Paul spent long hours instructing believers on his way from church to church. See for example Acts 20:7b—“Paul began talking to them, intending to leave the next day, and he prolonged his message until midnight.”
In that instance, of course, the young man Eutychus wasn’t as involved in the teaching as he should have been because he fell asleep. But the point here is, Paul wasn’t prepared with his thirty minute talk that he’d polished to a well-rehearsed shine. He was teaching what the people in Berea and Troas and Thessalonica and Colossae and Philippi needed to hear.
This instruction actually follows the model Jesus gave to his disciples after his resurrection. He spent chunks of time opening up Scripture to them about Himself.
The issue of the edification of believers becomes clear not only by example but by instruction. In one of his letters to the church in Corinth, Paul addressed the topic of using gifts in the church. He included what many today call the ecstatic gifts—prophesying, speaking in tongues, interpreting tongues, healing. Whether a Christian believes those gifts came to an end after the first century or where he believes they are on going, is immaterial for this discussion. The point here is what Paul says about preaching, or instructing the body of Christ:
For you are giving thanks well enough, but the other person is not edified. I thank God, I speak in tongues more than you all; however, in the church I desire to speak five words with my mind so that I may instruct others also, rather than ten thousand words in a tongue. (1 Cor. 14:7-9)
The priority, in other words, was to be the people in the congregation learning from the teacher—whether that was instruction in the word of God or praise and thanks. None of it was to be a solo effort. All was to be done for the edification of the others.
Church also fulfilled other important functions, not the least of which was to provide communion—the remembrance of Christ’s death by the breaking of bread and drinking from the cup. Jesus had commanded His disciples before His crucifixion to “do this in remembrance” because our relationship with God the Father hinges on our relationship with the Son.
What He did at the cross is central to the Christian faith. Without an understanding of His death as an atonement for our sins, Christianity is an empty religion, not a means of rescue from the kingdom of darkness.
The Church is tasked to pass on from person to person and generation to generation the remembrance of Christ’s death and resurrection. This too, of course, is interactive, as is all of church—at least, as it played out in the first century.
No slick programs. Just preaching and taking communion, helping the needy and singing.
Yes, the church also took care of the poor in their midst. I don’t see them giving to the poor outside their fellowship. though perhaps they did, and undoubtedly individuals did. But the church itself set up a plan and a program to take care of the needy, particularly the needy widows who had no other means of survival.
In their day, they were at the mercy of others. There were no pensions or social security, and an elderly woman without a husband had no means to provide for herself. God in His great love for the least directed the church to care for them.
Another “how did they do church”—they sang. I’ll need to elaborate on singing in the church another day because it’s become a much more complex issue than . . . well, I suspect than any in the first 1900 years of the church ever dreamed it would be.
Suffice it to say, that first and foremost the church is to edify believers. That’s pretty much a non-negotiable.