Tuesday, November 29, 2016

A 21st Century Reformation

“Give us a king to judge us.” And Samuel prayed to the Lord. And the Lord said to Samuel, “Obey the voice of the people in all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. (1 Samuel 8:6-7 ESV)
It seems for all of our advancements in science, technology and understanding the world around us we as God's people can still fall into the same traps Israel did 3000 years ago.

Some Personal Context

I'm going to be highlighting a problem I see with the structure of the church, but I want to be clear about one thing upfront. I love Christ. I love the gospel and the kingdom of God. And I love the church. I love the people of God and the ministers that serve. There isn't another organization on the planet that has done more to help mankind than the Christian church. You won't find more honest, loving people than those that know Jesus Christ personally and strive to make his name famous in the world. The church is full of wonderful people who want to love God and love people.

I also want to be honest with my perspective and personal bias. I grew up as a shy, quiet kid in a charismatic church and very much felt overlooked by leadership because I was quiet. This created a lot of hurt in my upbringing that still carries forward to this day. I count myself among the de-churched but I don't want to be. I want to meet with my fellow brothers and sisters and encounter the presence of the living Christ.

I'm an engineer by trade. A large part of what I do is to analyze systems and look for improvements. To look for improvements means you first have to find deficiencies. Pointing out deficiencies always has a negative tone.

I want to apply my trade to the structure of the church, namely the weekly Saturday/Sunday gathering. I want to see if the structure helps or hinders the mission of Christ.

While this writing does carry a fair bit of critical perspective, keep this in mind: God is always moving and transforming. He uses broken vessels to make things whole. There is a lot of good in the church. I just want to see the church become even better.

It may seem arrogant of me to analyze and recommend ideas for the church. I mean, who am I to comment on centuries of tradition? All I can say is I'm just a child of God with a burden on my heart. And I don't think I'm alone in seeing some problems with the church today. This is just my attempt to put words to my thoughts and impressions. All I can say is chew the meat and spit out the bones.

Is Christianity honestly different?

Like it or not, Christian churches rise and fall by the personalities that lead them. Great-sounding worship, dynamic preaching, well-designed facilities and your chances of successfully attracting large crowds goes up. Off-key music, monotonous, dry sermons and outdated decor and even the most devoted follower will make a beeline for the exit.

But is this really how church is supposed to be? Dependent on personality and talent? We preach that Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life. We preach that He is the risen King of Kings. We preach that Christianity is a relationship, not a religion. If that truly is the case why does Christianity look like every other world religion?

I wonder if Christianity looks like every other man-made religion because it is precisely that, a religion structured with a man at the center.

Protesting the Protest

On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther hammered "Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences" to the door of the Wittenberg Castle church, also known as "The 95 Theses." This gave rise to the Protestant Reformation which can be summarized in the three solas:
  • sola scriptura (scripture over tradition)
  • sola fide (faith over works)
  • sola gratia (grace over merit)
From the Protestant Reformation began a tidal wave of church splits and new denominations. As the joke goes you can always tell how many churches will be built in a given year by the number of drape colors available at the store.

In the Protestant tradition we place the 66 books of the canonized Bible as the foundation and authority to our faith. As such we make the sermon and the pastor delivering it the centerpiece of the gathering. The trouble is we can't all agree on what the text means. And let's face it, we as people don't do being wrong very well. Better to split and avoid the argument. And though we keep the Bible as a foundation we violate it's teaching.
I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. 1 Corinthians 1:10
Yes, the Bible is the foundation of our faith. And the Bible points to Jesus. And the central theme to Jesus' teaching is "God loves man."
"Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?"" And he said to him, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets." (Matthew 22:35-40 ESV)
"You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you... For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:43-48 ESV)
"A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another." (John 13:34 ESV)
How can we love brothers and sisters we disagree with if we separate weekly to meet only with those in whom we do agree? I think the world sees this and rightly judges we don't show love well. Especially when it confronts us with the possibility of being wrong, Especially in being wrong about our theology.

It seems to me as Christians we should be lovers of truth and grace. The truth is we are all sinners. Every one of us is fallible and gets things wrong. Leaders get it wrong. Pastors get it wrong. Churches get it wrong. Denominations get it wrong. Even Bible translators get it wrong.

But amidst all this wrongness is a greater truth. We are forgiven. Not based on our merits but based on the blood of Jesus. There is nothing in our lives that is not washed clean by the blood of the Lamb. Nothing is too crooked it cannot be made straight by the work of Christ, including theology and tradition.

Relationship: Giving Up the Right to be Right

I have a slightly radical idea. What if rather than running away from being wrong we embraced wrongness? Not to call wrong right but to choose relationship over being right. What if rather than shaming wrongness in us and in others we offered grace and forgiveness? What if we gave up our right to be right, even about our theology, and chose relationship instead?

It seems to me in the evangelical world we misinterpret the words of the Great Commission.
"All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations." (Matthew 28:18-19 ESV)
I think instead of the word "disciple" we read word "convert." The message of the evangelical church sounds something like this. "Come to my church so you can hear a sermon that states what we believe. We want you to believe it and be right. Then you can get some of your friends to come to our church so they can hear a sermon, believe what we believe and be right. And then THOSE friends can get THEIR friends... and on and on the party goes.

Does anyone else smell a multi-tiered marketing, Ponzi scheme? Where is the final value of in this endeavor? Is the point of this life just to get across a line of salvation and then wait to die or for Jesus to come back? Or is the purpose of disciple-making something entirely different, something much richer and deeper?

I believe the church today is structured to streamline and optimize the creation of converts, not the formation of disciples. What's the difference? Converts merely parrot back some truth about Jesus they heard preached to them. Disciples are committed to an ongoing process of transformation. Disciples are actively pursuing Christ, exposing the darkest corners of their hearts to the light of truth and grace. For a disciple life is an all-consuming process of become like Christ. And that means living a wholly transparent life. Walking in the light, not in the darkness.

What was Christ like? He was perfect and He loved being around the imperfect. He hung out with the rebels and scoundrels of society. He came for the sick not the well. It was the clean, sanitary piety of self-righteous religion he chastised, not the sinner. Wrongdoers clung to Christ because He did something mankind could not do. He loved wrongdoers because they were wrong and needed to be loved. Anyone can love what is right. It takes Christ to love what is wrong.
God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8 ESV)
Does the modern church service look to embrace wrongness or rightness? Does the modern church service showcase the sinner or the saint?

What is ministry?

Look at what we call the modern church service. People arrive to a building, sit down and face a stage. The music pastor leads a few songs. Announcements and greetings. The teaching pastor delivers a sermon. The people shake hands and leave. In that entire gathering who is participating and who is looking on? The pastor, the under-shepherd of Christ, stands above the flock conducting the business about bringing truth and the flock sits passively watching a show. Does this sound like the Christ of the Bible? The one who washed feet, spit on blind eyes, touched lepers, offended religious leaders?

What does Scripture say about the gathering?
What then, brothers? When you come together, EACH ONE has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for BUILDING UP. If any speak in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn, and let someone interpret. But if there is no one to interpret, let each of them keep silent in church and speak to himself and to God. Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. If a revelation is made to another sitting there, let the first be silent. For YOU CAN ALL PROPHESY ONE BY ONE, so that ALL MAY LEARN AND ALL BE ENCOURAGED, and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets. For God is not a God of confusion but of peace. (1 Corinthians 14:26-33)
Notice that everyone is speaking, everyone is contributing and yet things are orderly. Where are the leaders? What role do they serve? Let's look at another passage that describes the role of leadership.
And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to EQUIP THE SAINTS for the work of ministry, for BUILDING UP THE BODY OF CHRIST, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to GROW UP IN EVERY WAY INTO HIM, WHO IS THE HEAD, INTO CHRIST, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when EACH PART is working properly, makes the body grow so that IT BUILDS ITSELF UP IN LOVE. (Ephesians 4:11-16)
Did you catch that? The leaders exist to equip the saints to do THEIR ministry, not the other way around. What is the ministry of the saints? The building up of the body of Christ. The leaders don't build up the body. They train the body so it can build itself up. The leaders are training the flock to minister to each other, to be Jesus to each other.

I don't think Christianity was intended to have a clerical caste system where certain people are elevated to assume the role of Jesus to minister to the flock. The body of Christ is supposed to minister to itself and the world. It is the body of Christ that incarnates the spirit of Christ on earth, not one man.

By scripting the gathering and preaching the Scripture as a monologue from a pulpit we have robbed the Word from being made flesh and coming alive in the present-day body of Christ here on earth. By isolating and elevating one man and his staff to do the work of ministry we have reopened the gap between God and man that the cross sought to bridge.

How did we get this way? Personally I think we've allowed worldly practices to enter the church for one big reason: pride.

If we have a large church with lots of attendees the world says we are a successful organization. If our view of success is number of converts and converts are measured by those attending church then the current model works very well. But if our goal is to see each member wholeheartedly ministering to the collective at the gathering, to be the body of Christ, the incarnate Jesus in the world, well then we are severely missing the mark.

If we have a select group of people doing the ministry of the church we can show up and enjoy the superficial without any sort of spiritual commitment to the outcome of the gathering. We can pay our money and hide in our seat, never taking the risk of exposing our hearts to the people we call family to receive healing. We never get to experience the joy of being Christ's hands and healing the hearts of those sitting right next to us.
If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. (1 John 1:6-7)
If we're really honest with ourselves the modern church is a platform to showcase successful, talented people using their gifts. There's nothing inherently wrong with demonstrating talent. I believe there's absolutely a place in our culture for entertainment and education. But we are lying to ourselves if we think that is truly what church is. Let's call our meetings what they really are. Concerts. Lectures. Seminars. Crusades. Just don't call it church.

We need a 21st century reformation of the church. The church needs a "come to Jesus" discussion. We need to take a step back and truly ask ourselves, "Are we following Christ or are we following man?"

The Tops-Down Church

Do a Google image search for "church service" and see what comes up. Every photo will have a common theme. All the people are facing forward, seated or standing in rows in front of a stage where one person or a group of people perform. The organization structure, the order of service, the very architecture of the building bears striking resemblance to a top-down, command-and-control organizational chart.

Traditional services
Contemporary services

This seems to run against what Jesus instructed for leadership.
"You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." (Matthew 20:25-28 ESV)
I don't care who you are or how humble your character is. When you rise in position in an organization and perform on a stage you become greater in the eyes of those in the organization. Even if it's not your intention you become a lord over those around you. The more you talk the more people become quiet. The more you cast vision the more people blindly follow.
I have written something to the church, but Diotrephes, who likes to put himself first, does not acknowledge our authority... he refuses to welcome the brothers, and also stops those who want to and puts them out of the church. (3 John 1:9,11)

The traditional, tops-down church model.
Blue dot = pastor. Gray dot = flock
Emphasizes monologue and static structure.
De-emphasizes interaction and sponteneity.
A shepherding, non-hierarchical church model.
Blue dots = pastors, Gray dots = flock
Emphasizes interaction and spontaneity.
Maintains oversight.

I think Christ had a different model for his church. One that removes all the hierarchy. One where He is the head, all the people are His body, and the elders are overseeing the gathering. For me I think a good analogy is a playground at the park. At the center are the children, playing and exploring. Parents are on the perimeter watching over the kids, making sure the kids stay safe and don't fight.

"Anyone who doesn't receive the kingdom like a child will never enter it." Mark 10:15

Maybe that's what we need. Maybe it's the younger, immature believers that need to be speaking and sharing more and the older, wiser believers that need to be listening and offering help when needed, including leaving the ninety-nine to go after that one lost sheep. Maybe there is no need for any vision casting other than the vision that believers need to get together and everyone needs to contribute in their own way from the music of their own hearts.
So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. (1 Peter 5:1-3)

A Family Gathering

Picture this. You arrive at a location with your family and take a seat at a table. The room begins to fill as others arrive and finds their seats. Seating is organized to encourage relationship. The low rumble of conversation is punctuated with the occasional burst of laughter. Eventually someone rises and says they would like to offer a prayer. All heads bow as thanks is given for the gathering.

A group of musicians walk over to their instruments and begin to play a song they felt was important to sing. Voices raise, eyes are closed and (for the more charismatic) hands sway back and forth. The instruments stop and the heavenly chorus of voices vibrate off the walls and ceiling.

Then the feasting begins. Hot food comes out of the kitchen and people get generous helpings of their favorite casseroles, salads and bread. There is always enough food, no one goes hungry and the leftovers are sent home to families that need a break from cooking.

In turn people rise and share what Jesus has placed on their heart. Perhaps it was a verse they were reading that resonated with something that happened earlier. Maybe it is a word of encouragement they felt someone needs. Another rises and confesses they are struggling and need some help. The laying on of hands. Prayers for blessing, healing and comfort. Intimate one-on-one conversations. All this happens at the gathering. This is real life. This is family. This is Christ.

Next Steps

For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God... And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. (Romans 8:19,23-25)
So where do we go from here? How do we do better? How do we BE the church rather than GO to church?

I wish I had answers but I think it's up to each congregation to figure it out. I've been waiting and praying for some kind of breakthrough. Perhaps pastors and mature believers can seek God and ask for direction in their own gatherings. My hope and prayer is that with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, with the guidance of Scripture we can find a way to make our gatherings a place where the entire body of Christ operates as intended, with all its members performing their function, ministering to one another.

Sola Christo. Sola Sanguinem. Only Christ. Only the blood.


  1. Mike, thank you for this post. I'm a new pastor at a fairly traditional Lutheran church in Iowa (trust me, we look a lot more like the first picture you posted than the second!) and I wonder if you have experience with a more liturgical church as opposed to a contemporary evangelical style celebration service. We absolutely still have the challenge you've identified where the pastor does far too much and the congregation slips into being an audience, but we do have a different flavor to it. My Lutheran vocabulary hears what you're describing as a crisis of vocation. Also, your post reminded me of some emerging/emergent congregations such as http://stlydias.org. Anyway, thanks for posting your thoughts.

    1. Thanks for the reply, Daniel. I've never attended a Lutheran service before. I'll need to check it out sometime to see how a more liturgical expression feels.

      One of my childhood friends recently started attending Catholic mass. He felt it better suited his family's needs and convictions.

  2. Hello Mike, I followed your link on an article on pastors.com because what you were saying about churches putting on a happy face really resonated with me. I have spent 32 years in the church (Baptist) and about 25 years as a church member. I now realize that I didn't understand pain and suffering until just last year, when it happened to me personally. I see everything from a different perspective now. I am very sorry for your loss. I am following your blog, mine is http://godiswithmeinmydarkesthour.blogspot.com/

    1. Thanks for reaching out, Summer. I'll check out your blog, too.