Church: How?


St._Paul's_Baptist_-_west_sideHow 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.

Published in: on December 30, 2015 at 6:17 pm  Comments (2)  
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Whose Job Is It Now?


DentistryTwo or three years ago I learned about an inner city ministry called World Impact. I was impressed with the well-rounded approach the organization is taking to reach the unchurched poor living in the cities of America.

Besides church planting, evangelism, and Bible studies, they develop leaders from their converts and train them to shepherd others in their community. They also have schools, sports teams, emergency food and shelter, camps and conferences, job training, and dental and medical care.

At least they used to.

Hold that thought.

A week ago I stumbled upon a PBS program called The Paradise. After two weeks I’m ready to say this is the next best thing to Downton Abbey (season four begins Jan. 5, by the way 😉 ). A particular exchange caught my attention in the second episode.

First, The Paradise is the name of a store. I missed the very beginning, but it appears to be a clothing store attempting to cater to the wealthier citizens in England during the 1800s. The owner has faced some opposition to the idea of “ready made” clothes which are considered inferior products.

But for the sake of this post here’s the pertinent event in the story. Someone abandoned a newborn baby boy–a foundling–at the doorstep of the store. The owner is discussing with one of his workers what to do with the infant, and she remarks that people used to leave foundlings at the doorstep of the church. The owner pauses, then says, The Paradise has become the new church.

Sadly, too true, I thought. A commercial venture, a corporation, doing what churches once did.

But as I think about “what churches do,” a couple thoughts run through my mind. For far too long it seems to me churches have let others care for the foundlings and the poor.

There are any number of reasons for this, but at least here in Southern California, there has been an awakening–a realization that “the mission field” with its ripe harvest is downtown as well as across the border or on the other side of an ocean.

World Impact is one parachurch organization that is seizing the opportunity to do in the inner city what missionaries do overseas: provide for the physical and spiritual needs of the people.

But now I wonder. Will World Impact continue to provide dental and medical service for the poor? Will doctors and dental technicians and nurses and dentists still give of their time and ability to help the needy? Or has the government taken over that job?

Clearly, there’s still much Christians can do to help the inner city poor besides dental and medical care, but I can’t help wondering if churches won’t be more and more marginalized as government grows. But maybe if we had paid attention to our inner cities sooner, government wouldn’t have taken health care over.

I suppose the real question is, what else should we be doing to help the people our society is trampling?

Who are those people? I think most of us would say abuse victims or the disabled. Some would add women who are single and have decided against abortion. Still others would include prisoners and their families.

Yes, yes, and yes.

But who is falling through the cracks? Someone with vision needs to look at what the church is doing to reach gangs and the porn addicted and college fraternities and any number of others. Because if we don’t reach them, The Paradise or the government will come along and offer to be the new church.

Published in: on October 17, 2013 at 6:59 pm  Comments Off on Whose Job Is It Now?  
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