This week I read two posts by Donald Miller on the Storyline Blog. One was talking about how he doesn’t connect to God when singing in corporate worship, in which he shared that he didn’t attend church frequently. Apparently the Evangelical community took issue with this and he followed up with what I thought was a really, really thoughtful treatment on the topic of church attendance and church community.
I have my own thoughts, and I know a lot of evangelicals who have walked away from church membership or regular attendance in a local church. A few years ago I wrote a few posts about Church stuff, and while they are interesting, they are not nearly as incisive as his so I suggest that you all read his posts.
Regardless of whether my own thoughts are insightful, I thought I would share some new thoughts that came while reading the blog posts.
1) Church as Community – When I was younger I never really thought of church as a source of community, it just happened. Maybe that was just a God thing that happened when I was a new believer, because I really need to have my faith developed and to be surrounded with people who believed as I do. So what happened? Do I not need to be surrounded by people of faith? No I still do, but… Community often presents as tribe. It is a division that is counterproductive.
2) Church as Tribe – tribe or clan is a natural human instinct. It helps us define our position vertically – the pecking order. Who is my tribe allows me to define my status, value, by comparing myself to my colleagues or peers. The tribe produces accountability or at least it can – and it also protects and cares for its members. But tribes are also about recognizing distinctions – you aren’t from my tribe – you are different from “us” – different often equates to “wrong”. Tribes are somewhat exclusive or exclusionary – you can’t be one of us, until you meet all these “criteria”. A lot of evangelicals talk about being like the new testament church – but there were no tribal tendencies in the new testament church. When your calling card into the faith is “I’m a dirty rotten sinner in need of forgiveness”, the exclusion can’t be a motivator.
3) Church as Financially Efficient – One of the most interesting camera angles that Don’s blog post illuminated was that of the North American church and it’s relationship to the free market thinking, and being the “product of supply and demand”, and an adaptation of an ancient institution organized by scholars after the invention of the printing press”. The problems that arise when thinking of church through a financial lens are that a free market economy. We locate our church where people can afford to fund ministry, rather than where people need to be ministered to. We think of inreach first (maintaining our budget) rather than outreach first. When I drive down the major street near my house, in two miles, there are seven churches. Total congregation is about 3000 – not even a mega-church by today’s standards – yet we have invested our finances in duplicate infrastructure. None of those churches is full during worship. That is the price of tribalism. Supply and demand indeed. The real value of “organizing” is to pool our resources. The Body of Christ as described in scripture is a model of resource management. God has given us a diverse resource pool, gifting all of us to accomplish His mission. Churches act as stewards of those resources (both financial and human capital) yet I have never heard a sermon about “marshalling resources” as a form of stewardship, only about giving in the context of personal stewardship. Who among us believes that God is glorified in the acquisition of real estate or the construction of facilities? Yet how much of our resources are “marshalled” to achieve those goals.
4) Church as Obligatory – Donald reflected on the comment that attending church was a duty or a responsible of Christians. Our duty is to “encourage the one another” – Hebrews 10:25 may be the most oft quoted verse regarding the “attendance imperative”. The thing is, that was written 1500 years before the church went tribal. It is as if evangelical Christians believe that the only way we can “hang out” with other believers is in a church service. Liturgy provides a common experience that tends to draw us into unity – but that unity is tribal, not ecumenical. The Unity imperative in the new testament, is not divided by tribes or denominations. It is universal (catholic) unity. The evangelical church is an EPIC FAIL when it comes to unity. What is wrong with an “ad hoc” church meeting in someone’s home ministering to each other and to our community using pooled resources. A church without formal governance or structure or even accountability beyond the mutual accountability implied in the one-another imperatives in scriptures. It would be nice if the church had a true “home office” as it did in the early first century (home office was the church in Jerusalem?) a universal seat of apostolic authority. But as I read my Bible, apostolic authority ended when the full canon of scripture was complete. Now we have scriptural authority, and the Holy Spirit.
So where does that leave me?
1) I attend a local church regularly, although I am not a member. I (unlike Donald) do connect to God in corporate worship, both in singing and in sermons and other traditional liturgical practices. I give intentionally, of my time and financial resources, both to the local church, and to missions individually.
2) I struggle with community at church. In fact, as I have grown older, that struggle has increased. I have lost my core connections (the leaders or pastors who I looked up to, who cared for and shepherded me, to who I was truly accountable). As I have moved churches a couple times in the last 7 years, I realize that I have changed and my need for fellowship is different than it once was. I find it harder to make friends in general, both in and out of church. I suppose it is a natural result of investing so much of my self in my family, that over time, I have valued them way, way above all other friendships. I actively wonder whether this pattern will naturally reverse itself, as my family naturally needs less of me as time goes on.
3) Every time I have been invited into and served in a formal church leadership office, I have lost a little bit of my soul. Having observed first hand, the kind of politics and tribalism and partiality, catering or pandering to parties and cliques, dynastic dynamics harmful to the Body of Christ. I am now somewhat cynical of “church” and the structure and trappings.
4) I realize that every local church has its people issues, organizational issues, financial issues, and that God allows us to imperfectly minister to one another. My own inner analyst gets tweaked and wants to help things get better. I have to thread the needle of increased involvement and commitment around the level of interest or enthusiasm my spouse feels, because my increased involvement in church means decreased availability to her. I also have to consider whether we can serve together, (always a blessing), and how each of our gifts and talents can be used of God.
Nonetheless I believe:
The Body of Christ in the local church was designed by God to amplify the effectiveness of individual believers in accomplish His mission. God made us to have fellowship with Himself. He created us in his image, so we also desire fellowship. Since we all are imperfect, we stumble. We need our fellows to help us when we stumble, to raise us up and restore us. God’s mission requires the diversity of resources that is collected in the church, each local body being diverse within itself, and diversified among its sisters. In my experience, discipleship is a communal activity, it cannot be accomplished by study alone. Nor can it be accomplished by worship and prayer alone. Nor can it be accomplished by ministry work alone. Discipleship – the development of faith and perseverance of the believer requires all of these things. It demands that I exercise all of my spiritual gifts and talents. I cannot find a better context in which to do this than the local church. That said, local churches have taken many forms and shapes, structures and liturgies, there is no biblical prescription for how the local church should work. As soon as we (as a local church) start to value the form above the mission, we have fallen into error. As soon as we say that our governance structure is better, our doctrine is better, our teaching is purer, our anything is better – we have fallen into error. The error is “our”. The church is not “our” church. It is God’s church, we are merely stewards of resources that God has given. We are merely the managers and the servants. Therefore being fallen, and not perfect, we should reflect on how we can do better, not as one having already “arrived”. That is my interpretation of running the race, or fighting the good fight of faith. It is never being completely satisfied, with the status quo. It is accepting and forgiving our failures, without becoming complacent or apathetic.
Remember the parable of the talents. Jesus was preaching to pastors and elders as much as individuals. Its not about what you do with your money. Its about what you accomplish for God with the resources in your stewardship.
So Now What?
None of these are new thoughts for me. This blog is full of these ideas. I think the North American church needs to recast itself, not because it is no longer relevant, but because it is no longer effective. Donald Miller talked about the church evolving into an entertainment experience. I think that is a useful adaptation in North America because we are a fallen wealthy culture seeking entertainment above all things. I also think that local churches struggle with adapting – the struggle with mission outreach because the outreach vehicles that saved the members is no longer effective in the community. So how do we help the church adapt without ceasing to become the church that God is sponsoring?
What about Donald Miller?
Like many people with “unusual” ideas about church or spirituality or faith – Donald Miller will receive all kinds of “static” from people who want to believe above all things that they have it “figured out”. I am long past believing that I have it figured out. I no longer strive to “finish” figuring it out, I am just grateful when God gives me new insight. Sometimes insight is temporal – true in a moment, or context but not universal. I think that Mr. Miller has a lot of good insight, and we should carefully consider the things he has to say. I have known people for years who have “wandered” away from church. They are still “in the faith”. They found creative ways to persevere in their faith. They worked a missions, did para-church, home church, all kinds of “alternatives” to traditional. They had all kinds of reasons. Some were wounded or abused. Others just were impatient. I am concerned that I am impatient. I am concerned that I will seek alternatives, because I don’t have the patience to wait for the rest of the body to catch up with me. I am concerned that this is an area of sin. However, when I look to the scripture for examples of people who appeared not to have a home church, I start with the apostle Paul. He appears to me to be completely itinerant. He met with people anywhere, anytime. He involved himself with community wherever he was. He worshiped in contexts that we struggle to imagine like prison, shipwreck. Like many Christian leaders, he supported “The Church”, and local churches, without necessarily being constrained by their issues. So, before we get all up in arms, lets think about what Paul did – confront doctrinal error, and meet believers and unbelievers where they are. Rather than criticize Donald for his earnest sharing – why don’t we do the same. Meet him where he is by trying to understand how he got there.