Church


On a recent Sunday morning I was getting ready for church, in fact I was in the shower where all good thinking seems to begin, and I began to wonder what was in store for us that morning. The more I thought, the more questions I had. The questions weren’t really spontaneous but more like a culmination of sorts, an amalgam of thinking from the preceding months, and even years. The heart of the question was why do our church services (in a variety of congregations and denominations that I visit) look the way they look? More specifically, why do most services revolve around someone instructing us for about 30 minutes, or more? Why is the sermon the focal point of the entire service? Is this really focusing on Jesus? Is this what Jesus intended when He instituted the church?

I speak with a lot of pastors about strategy, service design, structure, vision, mission and a host of other topics, but this specific line of thought and questioning is fresh for me. Preaching has always been an accepted part of the weekly gathering, at least in modern history. Most folks, including myself consider it sacred and would never consider lowering its place of prominence in a service. But this particular morning my thoughts were going elsewhere, and I’ve not been able to sideline either my thoughts or my questions since they began. In fact, I’ve leaned into them and explored them on a deeper level.

Somehow we’ve gotten to the place where we’ve divided the “service of worship” into two segments: Worship, and Bible Teaching. So much so that we often hear the comments, “Great worship today,” or “Great teaching today.” I just can’t accept that as being appropriate any longer. Here’s where I am: Because we’ve decided the weekly gathering is primarily an attractional event for evangelizing the lost or instructing believers our focus is not on celebrating Christ and His kingdom on the earth.

What would a service look like if the focus were not the sermon or a particular style of music? What if we really gathered to celebrate the kingdom of Christ? What would we stop doing? What would we start doing? Perhaps you’re part of a church already focused on the kingdom of Christ. Perhaps you’re developing a hunger for such a gathering, or perhaps you think I’m a bit foolish for even thinking about this. I wonder if our services aren’t kingdom of Christ focused because we don’t think that’s an attainable goal, or it doesn’t look like what we’ve come to expect from the modern church? I wonder if it’s because we’ve turned the church into our hired hands for evangelism and without a seeker event we feel we have no other means of exposing the lost to Jesus.

As you can tell, I’m doing a lot of wondering these days. I’m not suggesting we abandon music or the Bible but I am wondering what it would look like to be more like the early Christians in Acts. Not really sure where this is taking me, and not sure what this even has to do with my current role in life but the journey continues. 

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This morning I was reading N. T. Wright’s Simply Christian and came across a great quote. I was actually sitting in the warm Arizona sunshine enjoying a few days of relaxation while I’m sure many folks were in church. I was, in essence having a time of communion with God as I read and enjoyed the sounds of nature that were so alive on this mild, desert morning. The words that especially caught my eye, and were so refreshing to me were describing the church,

It’s where you’ll find people learning to pray, coming to faith, struggling with temptation, finding new purpose, and getting in touch with a new power to carry that purpose out. It’s where people bring their own small faith and discover, in getting together with others to worship the one true God, that the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts.

I find this so refreshing because it has nothing to do with the externals we tend to associate with “worship” today. Those externals of music, sound, style, programs, design and many other so called features churches talk about to market themselves to an uninterested, disengaged public. I find myself longing for authenticity, relationship, transparency, shared struggles, and in general being loved and accepted rather than judged. Why, in so many instances has church become a place for performance rather than community? 

I love getting together with a group of people and just being me; being accepted like I am and being appreciated in spite of how different I may or may not be from the others in the group. That seems to happen more outside the church than within. More with the so-called non-Christians than with those who call themselves believers. I wonder what that means! 

I grew up in a very non-liturgical church. I hate to put this in writing but in our church most liturgy was more likely viewed as mindless repetition. Reflecting back I now understand it was a matter of ignorance more than preference. We had a Good Friday service a few of my growing up years but many times we went from Easter to Palm Sunday with no focus on the passion of Christ. I never heard the term Maundy Thursday until I was an adult.

In more recent history I have come to appreciate much of what I missed during my growing up years. One of those is Maundy Thursday and the focus it provides. In my reading this morning I ran across this short hymn sometimes sung on Maundy Thursday in Eastern Orthodox services. I offer it here for reflection.

Of Thy Mystical Supper, O Son of God, accept me today as a communicant; for I will not speak of Thy Mystery to Thine enemies, neither like Judas will I give Thee a kiss. But like the Thief will I confess Thee: Remember me, O Lord, in Thy Kingdom.

I went to church on a recent Sunday and discovered that on Easter we were going to be a different church than we are on every other Sunday of the year. A church that normally has two different services (in reality they’re not that different from one another) at 9:30 and 11:00 is going to have identical services at 9:00 and 11:00. I’m sure their reasoning was along the lines of it being Easter and wanting to do something special, accommodate the crowds, etc. I understand that, but for me that’s only part of the problem. 

Easter is one of those days when a lot of people are going to make their twice yearly trek to church, so the church leaders, being the marketing geniuses they are tend to think they should do something special on that day. After all, if the show’s good enough maybe these twice-yearly attenders (Chreasters) will become regulars. Here’s the problem with that line of thinking.

When you decide to pull out all the stops and put on a big show, your Easter guests aren’t getting a true representation of who you are. They might be getting what you wish you were, or what you want them to think you are, or even you on steroids, but it’s not a true picture. For those who still don’t see the problem, what happens if they come back the next week?

For starters, some of them will show up at 9:00 for the 9:30 service since that’s the time they came on Easter. Those who come on time may not feel the same buzz in the air when they enter the building as they did the week before.  Once the service starts there’s a good chance they’ll feel it; the Easter switch. The church they attended on Easter and the church they’re in now are two different churches. Sure it’s the same building, some of the same people but it’s a totally different service. They’ve been duped!

Just because it’s Easter and you may attract a bigger crowd please don’t be different than any other Sunday. Sure you should celebrate the risen Christ. Go ahead and make it a Sunday to remember. But why is that different from the other Sundays of the year? Be true to who you are. This isn’t a contest, it’s Easter!

Recently I sat in a room with about fifty pastors (which is an interesting thing in itself and should probably be its own post) to hear a presenter talk about the Organic Church — this particular presenter’s label for house churches (not to be confused with the Neil Cole book by the same name). I went not knowing what to expect really, although since it was a denominationally sponsored meeting I had some pre-conceived assumptions. In simplistic terms the concept he presented was one of taking the church to neighborhoods and gathering in small groups of people as opposed to the large singular gathering each week. 

The presenter was very quick to point out that this was not a replacement for church as we know it but rather a new form, or a new alternative to traditional churches or church planting. Some of the people in attendance weren’t tracking too well with his presentation but most were in agreement with him. That was until he began talking in terms that made it sound like this organic movement somehow needed to be harnessed, strategized, systematized and institutionalized so the denomination could support it and be able to jump on the house church bandwagon.

The presenter spoke in terms of a system for training, accountability, reporting and multiplying. In short, he seemed to be taking something organic (his word) and turn it into a church growth strategy. In the meeting I voiced a concern that should we try and denominationalize house churches we might kill them before they ever got started. I believe in the concept of house churches and believe they will be a significant part of the church fabric of the future. I even applaud the denomination’s desire to understand them and give blessing to those people who prefer to gather in that type of setting. However, if they’re going to truly be organic then let them evolve organically and not strategically.

Although my thoughts on the subject haven’t fully crystallized, here’s my take on things right now. I like the concept of house churches and believe having a small group of people extending the love of God to others around them (and even around the world) can be a very powerful thing. I also believe it’s a very Biblical concept and should the Holy Spirit choose to bless it through multiplication that’s fine, but I don’t see that as the goal. While I think it’s fine for house churches to affiliate with a denomination I’m not sure it’s all that beneficial. 

It seems to me that house churches have the opportunity to “be the church” without having the requirement of keeping church machinery grinding forward. House churches don’t need to focus on increasing their numbers and can instead focus on increasing their love for God, each other and the world around them. I believe there is a place for the traditional church and the house church, and believe they can even co-exist within a denominational framework if people so choose. 

So having said all that, what’s your take? What’s your preference?

That’s quite a mouthful — it’s the name of a class my son Ryan just completed this past weekend at the university he attends in Nampa ID. One of the books they used to guide them through this topic was, The Shaping of Things to Come, by Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch. Although I’ve not yet read the book, Ryan told me so much about it that I feel I’ve heard all of the good parts. He can get quite passionate about some topics, provided they push one of his hot buttons.

The main focus of the class, at least in simplistic form was the church getting away from being event-centric and taking the church to the streets. That means people getting involved in their communities, living out their faith daily and touching people with the love of Christ. Serving them, loving them and leaving the transformation up to God. In other words, being missional, at least in part is not having the agenda of getting people to come to the church event. 

This line of thinking has put my mind to work and raised a few questions. If the church you attend were to cancel the weekend service — the event we’ve come to refer to as “going to church” —  what would you do with this new-found “free time”? How would you serve God? Would the people you encounter throughout the week notice any kind of God-connection if you didn’t have church to talk about? Has “church” become your primary connection to God? I’m afraid the answer for most of us is yes.

While the event-centric church has been successful in the past I would suggest those days are numbered. I just have a hard time believing that God cares how many people show up for the weekly event. I think He’s far more interested in how we’re impacting the world we live in, and how we’re loving those around us. We don’t necessarily need another church or another event to be the church God has called us to be.

I’m not suggesting we do away with everything we know of as church, but I strongly believe it’s time to rethink how we do what we do. I’m not talking about a new style, a new time or some other formula. I’m talking about a new church. Have we strayed from where we need to be? What are your thoughts?

I help lead a marketing company that specializes in brand-experience. We not only help develop, define and promote our clients’ brands but we develop strategies to ensure that whenever someone experiences those brands that their experience supports and reinforces the brand. Frequently I think and write about the potential downside of church marketing as in my recent post, The Commoditization of God. Regardless of where you fall on that subject there are certain realities to consider, and one of those is that every church is a brand. 

By brand I’m not talking about your church building, name or even your logo, but rather what is behind those things. What are your priorities, what do you stand for, how do you impact others and contribute to their lives, what is your mission? All of those things and more contribute to your brand. Your brand is the very essence of who you are. Brand is a powerful thing and as a marketer I would say most churches don’t consider how critical of a role it plays. And of course where there’s a brand there is brand-experience.

When I was a pastor I considered myself not only a brand champion but a brand-experience expert — which has translated well into my current role. A large part of my pastoral role was making sure brand and experience were in alignment. While that involved much more than the public gatherings that seems to be a good place to focus. Consider this: when people experience your brand do the two things align? If your brand includes community involvement, how much do people experience that? If it boasts of relevancy how is that experienced? If your brand speaks to the poor and disenfranchised how is that played out when people gather each week?

Just some thoughts that sort of streamed through my mind this week. So, what’s streaming through your mind right now? Is the brand-experience at the church you attend in proper alignment? Let me know your thoughts!

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