Tuesday, October 10, 2006

What's Right about the Traditional Church?

So I've been asked the question, what is right about the traditional church? To respond adequately to that question, I must first dispel the idea that this is a discussion about traditional church vs. contemporary church. Let me clearly say, I see the two as the same. To reduce the issues of the church down to guitar vs organ is to rearrange the proverbial deck chairs on the Titanic. I agree with Reggie McNeal's assessment of the contemporary church, it's really nothing more than the traditional church on steroids. The music is different, the dress is casual, and the sermon is more conversational, but that's just packaging. Underneath the wrapping, one still finds the same structures in the church of the 1950s, just with different names. They are still institutions. They still need "members." They still have their creeds. They still have a "gathered" mentality. They still have the same "three step" program to fixing every spiritual problem. They still have hierarchy. They still have a classroom view of discipleship. They still need lots of money to support bloated staffs and even bigger buildings.

The structure of the contemporary church is no different than the traditional church, only the wrappings are a little shinier.

So to ask the question "what's good about the traditional church," one must ask that question in context of the realities of a specific day and age. 50 years ago, near everything was right about the "traditional" church. The church connected with the language people were speaking. We spoke in terms of members. So did the culture. We spoke in terms of denominations and institutions. The culture was fine with that. It trusted government and religious institutions. After all, America was a "Christian Nation." The church could act as a club. People thought in club terms. The church spoke against every taboo in the culture. The culture was agreed with those rules. The church had complex financial structures for affecting change. So did the VFW, the Lion's Club, and every other organization like it. The church was "step by step" oriented, introducing the cut and paste versions of the Roman's Road and the Four Spiritual Laws and the Sinner's Prayer. That was okay. The culture thought in modern, methodological terms.

But ALL that has changed. Every single bit. America is no longer a "Christian Nation." The moral culture is radically different. Institutions are viewed with extreme distrust. Most hierarchies are seen as bloated and self-serving. The culture rejects extreme bureaucratic processes for filtering change and spiritual care. Thinking is much more relative and open. And we have rejected soundly the step by step easy solutions to life. Life is complicated. Spirituality is an ongoing journey. And God cannot be reduced to a simple set of statements. The culture realizes that these things have failed us, yet the church continues to dress up those old failed ways with new wrapping paper.

You might be thinking, who cares what the culture thinks? The church should drive culture, not the other way around. Agreed. But the reality is that these things we defend in the traditional church are NOT IN THE BIBLE. They are add-ons that we've incorporated in the institutional life of the church. Not one place in the New Testament do you find membership, or a step by step process to union with Christ, or buildings, or budgets, or religious nationalism. What we as revolutionaries are talking about is not tearing away at essentials of the faith, but embracing the true essentials. Tearing down all that is not Scriptural. It happened once (i.e. Martin Luther) and it needs to happen again.

Our culture is way ahead of us in areas in which the church should be leading. The culture is talking about spirituality. The church is talking rules and creeds. The culture is talking about eliminating world hunger and AIDS. The church is talking about how to get more members. The culture is examining through science, philosophy and spirituality the deep complexities of the universe. The church reduces the beauty of life to simple unnatural literalism. The culture is embracing volunteerism in transforming numbers. The church needs more committee members. The culture is hungry for community. The church emphasizes big gatherings while giving cheap talk about true intimacy. The culture is taking the important conversations about life into the streets, restaurants and coffee shops. The church is building their own streets, restaurants and coffee shops. Fad diets and plastic surgeons promise only a superficial transformation, and people are buying it! Why? They are hungry to be transformed. And how do we respond? We offer more classes.

Does the traditional church do right things? Yes. But the margin is incredibly slim. If we were forced to pinpoint a percentage on how much the church is doing truly biblical things, it would be less than 20 percent. And that's being generous. What takes the majority of our time? Athletic programs. Building campaigns. Finding more "members." Increased giving. More choirs. More flashy drama. More discipleship classes. More activities. More meetings. More rules. More isolation. More grandstanding. More rock throwing. At least 80 percent of our efforts are on things that aren't essentially biblical.

So, if you want me to say the traditional church is doing right things, I will say so. But if we really want to be applauded for the incredibly minimal impact we're having on the world, then maybe we are simply clinging to a state of denial. Here's reality: less than 4 percent of teenagers are projected to be a part of the institutional church in the future. Well. At least we're 4 percent on target.

I realize how negative I sound. Trust me. It gets old for me too! But I hunger to see a real move of God where Christians aren't held up in a Christian subculture, where Christians are a part of the essential conversations of society, where people don't refer to Christians as the butt of a bad joke, where our artificial categories of "good" people" and "bad" people are torn down and the conversation about who we are and who God made us to be can really take place, and where Jesus (the real Jesus, not the political Jesus) gets a real hearing.

If this seems too much, just read Acts 2. No pastors, no property, no creeds, no political action committees, no by-laws, no tracts, no new members classes, no invitations, no small group charts, no bookstores, and no guitars. Just a spiritual passion for living out the teachings of Jesus Christ - nothing more. And 3,000 plus people joined the fellowship that day. Now that deserves a standing ovation.


Anonymous Tom said...

Thanks for your insite. I agree on many points but never forget the church is people. People born 1 year ago and people born 90 years ago. They are different but they have one thing in common, they fight change once it is established. It is like moving an old tree, it is hard because the roots go deep. My thoughts such as they are.

12:44 AM  
Blogger RevDave said...

Good reminder Tom. We all know that, and yet we function as if it's an institution. And institutions are made to be served. And when we serve the institution (buildings, budgets, and numbers), people come second and the people we are called to reach and serve get lost in the work of institutional preservation. It's simply about rediscovering the value of humanity as God values it.

5:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

With all that said, assuming it's not institutional, what will the "church" that you are starting look like?

9:50 PM  
Blogger RevDave said...

Imagine a church where small groups look more like house churches - all "pastoring", ministry, and community outreach is done within the house church setting. Forget two hour in home Bible studies. It's "doing life together" kind of relationships. Picture now a network of house churches connected to a larger identity (i.e. the "church"). The larger body will be resource the house churches, provide weekly worship gatherings, and network with other churches and the community to do hands on ministry in our neighborhoods. All this is with little or no full time staff (at most, part time), no buildings (other than what we lease for gatherings), and a very loose organizational structure. Now ask me next week, and it will probably be a little different, but that's the concept.

10:02 PM  

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