My parents moved to Central Florida when I was three. They did it for the water skiing, but they found something much more important than that. They were involved in a new church plant (Methodist) and became close to the others just beginning to congregate together. We met in a rented public school, and then in a small church, then a large church, then in a huge church–but mostly we met in our home.
Mom was the church hostess. At least once a month we would hold a big church get-together with boating and skiing and lots and lots of food and visiting and goofy games and just enjoying one another. That’s not counting the innumerable “pop-ins,” Sunday School picnics, ladies’ groups, youth activities, mission meetings and so on. I didn’t realize it then, but I and my brothers were involved in a rare happening. The church was literally happening at our home.
I hated “going to church,” listening to the interminable sermons, King James Version prayers, liturgies, choir pieces, boring Sunday School classes, etc. (I did like the hymns, tho.) I hated that it always took so long for my parents to stop talking so we could go home. The only thing I really liked about what I called church was when my brothers and I stole into the fellowship hall and raided the sugar cubes. I couldn’t understand why Mom had such a problem with that. 🙁 But I loved it when the church came to our house. That was always a lot of fun.
It was great while it lasted. The Methodist church hierarchy didn’t appreciate our little church spending so much money on missions. We did send in our required allotments of everything based on our membership numbers, but we collected a LOT more than that, and I guess they wanted to make sure it was being “spent right”. We sent out a lot of mission teams to build schools, homes, and church buildings, and the projects weren’t all for Methodists, and soon we were “punished” by having our pastor moved to another church far, far away. That was the beginning of the end, since the new pastors the officials sent in were determined to bring us into line and quell what was seen as a rebellion. As soon as we got one pastor saved, they’d send us another to deal with.
I’ve been trying to “go back home” ever since, and after many, many false starts, have finally found my way. God is community. We say God is love, and isn’t that just another way to say the same thing? God the Father, God the Son and God the Spirit have lived in eternal community for–well, forever. They’re so unified that they are literally One. God wants to let us in on that! 😆
Does this sort of unity look like the church today in the west? One man (or woman) standing in front, exhausted by the demands of pastoring even a small congregation, giving a message that is not news to most of the listeners. One person or group leading “worship” which consists of pre-planned songs the congregants are to sing. The desires of the deacons, the skill of the worship team and the quality of the sound system determines, in large part, the quality and character of the “worship experience”.
Are these leaders gifted by God? Often they are. So what’s wrong with this picture? Could Paul plant a church like this? Um . . . no. Paul was not a great orator by his own admission. He didn’t have a forceful delivery or a great measure of charisma. As far as we know, he wasn’t a phenomenal singer, and he didn’t have a wife to play the piano and set the proper mood. He sold his tents rather than setting them up for “big revivals”. He did occasionally raise the dead. He cast out demons and healed the sick, but he didn’t call out the news media to publish “his” deeds. And his first impulse was not to gather the ushers and extort a huge offering to further “the work of the Lord”. He just collected a small circle of new believers, taught them how to minister to one another, and left–usually with an angry mob on his heels.
So what did these new believers do after Paul hastily moved on? We know in part because of his letters to them. They gathered in homes, had dinner, talked about God, shared their joys and sorrows, prophesied to one another, sang songs God had given them, cared for one another . . . lots of “one anothers”. That’s what they did, chiefly. They “one-anothered”. And they had unsaved friends and they invited them to church. It wasn’t like inviting people to “church” today. Like pulling teeth, and once they agree to come, you spend the rest of the week agonizing and begging God to let it please be a good sermon and good music and basically, a good show–because even the most skilled ministry team can’t put on a good show every week, and none of this is in your power to influence in any way. No. It was more like, “We’re having a barbecue over at Jack’s house this weekend. Why don’t you bring the wife and kids and come join us? We’d love to have you.”
The New Testament church was far from perfect, as anyone who has read the epistles can quickly point out. I believe that we’re called not to go back to the NT church, but to take up where they left off. Learn from their mistakes, but pick up the original model where every believer is a priest (even during the “church service”), every woman is a sister and every man a brother. I mean this in the true sense of sisters and brothers as our families would like to be–not in the sense of merely calling one another “sister” and “brother”, which just sounds dumb.
For the NT church, the beginning of the end was Constantine picking and paying the clergy, providing beautiful buildings in lieu of meeting together in one anothers’ living rooms, and making it expedient for citizens to “become Christians”. Again, just like with my childhood church, it was the hierarchy . . . the bureaucracy that killed it.
Maybe our churches should be gatherings of legendary friends committed to learning to hear from God and walking in His strength to carry out the task He gives us. Maybe every believer should be free to say whatever God gives him in the middle of the meeting. (What would the reaction be if you tried this at your local traditional church?) Maybe being the church means more than getting together with the back of someone’s head to hear a rehash of one of last year’s better sermons, listen to some well-practiced tunes, and pretend you’re worshiping to the tasteful contemporary songs (or beautiful old hymns) that were chosen on Tuesday by the worship director.
What if being the church meant helping your brother get his house ready for the sheet rock crew that’s arriving Monday morning? What if it meant spending the day at the park playing with one anothers’ kids and eating hamburgers and potato salad? What if it meant taking care of a sick grandmother who’s been sent home from the hospital because Medicare said it was time? What if it meant a couple of the members mentoring slum kids who didn’t get the reading skills they needed in the public school classroom? What if it meant truly discipling that friend who’s been hanging out and now has come to believe, rather than shunting him off to a once-a-month, one-size-fits-all “discipleship class” led by an overworked man whose gift is really prophecy, not pastoring or teaching?
What if worshiping meant walking together along a trail in the park and ooing and ahing over the beauty God has and is creating? What if that song that begins running through your head as you meet with your friends is the song God would like to hear you do, acapella, rather badly, but with conviction and love from all? What if we’ve been missing the boat for, oh, 1700 years or so, and now Jesus is calling over the bows, “Grab the rope–I’ll pull you up!”? What if we said, “No, Lord. Thanks, but I feel I’m called to stay in this old wineskin and teach it how to stretch.”?
God has used the instutional church. He can use anything–He’s God. But are we honoring Him, or are we honoring our history? If the IC is not fostering, but rather hindering the growth of relationships, the development of spiritual giftings in the whole body, the maturing of daughters and sons, the discipleship of believers, the spread of the Gospel to all the earth, maybe it’s time to listen to Jesus and see whether we hear Him calling us to grab the rope and get onboard with Him in what He is doing NOW.
We’ve all heard the saying, “You can’t go home again,” meaning that what we remember as home no longer exists. I believe this is true. My childhood experience was wonderful, but I don’t want to go back there. The NT church had a lot of problems, and we certainly don’t want to go back there. But what if we could pick up the good things–the valuable and precious things that were left behind–then climb up on our ancestors’ shoulders and go on from there, taking advantage of the things they’ve already learned, remembering their mistakes and their triumphs, grab hold of Jesus’ outstretched hand, and go ON? I’m ready to take that journey with my family and my Lord. I am SO ready. I thank God for working so hard and patiently to get me back to the trail I lost so long ago, and for giving me traveling companions to help and to be helped by along the way.
Grace and Peace,