Two from Thoman (2 of 2)

In this blog, Roger Thoman lists some very good reasons to believe in simple house gatherings.

http://www.simplechurchjournal.com/2014/10/i-still-believe-in-simplehouse-gatherings.html

Along these lines, I looked up a few things in James Rutz’s book The Open Church (which I hadn’t read in several years).  There are many dynamics to consider when opening up a church to a more mutual model.  Not the least significant is the arrangement of chairs.  Rutz believes the diagram below represents the best seating plan, at least at first.  Note that it is not a circle.

      _____________    _____________
||                                                             ||
||                                                             ||
||                                                             ||
      _____________    _____________

 

What comments do you have — on seating, on openness, on mutuality, on officials and staff pastors, on church real estate, on simplicity, etc.?

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What church is / is not

In the first century in Palestine Christianity was a community of believers.  Then Christianity moved to Greece and became a philosophy.  Then it moved to Rome and became an institution.  Then it moved to Europe and became a culture.  And then it moved to America and became a business.  – Priscilla Shirer

Since 2014 promises to be a year of further activity (read:  probable change) in terms of church practice for my family, I wanted to begin the year by weblogging some related thoughts.  What is church?

Perpetually, inwardly, I deal with questions about what church is, is not, should be, and should not be.  I rarely reach conclusions that have any perceptible results, but that doesn’t mean I am devoid of passion about the topic.  Nor does it mean there won’t be visible results in the near- or mid-term future.  This gnawing feeling inside¹ won’t allow me to stop ruminating, dreaming, working, studying (and sometimes wallowing in depression over the large measure of truth contained in the above quotation).

churchupkeepI do not want to be part of a church that is nothing more than a small-cap Christian business.  I have little more than historical interest in acculturated or institutional Christianity.  While I am sometimes stimulated by Christian philosophizing, such thought is not the end-all of church or of the Kingdom of God.  Being a part of an authentic, believing community, though?  Yes, that much is for me.

We do have a formal “church home” — a nice one, a local one.  Within it we find kindness, love, and seemingly genuine faith.  Although not enough time has transpired for us to develop much relationship or thoroughgoing trust, we have felt cared for, and our son has had some very positive children’s Bible class experiences.  We even experience some camaraderie in non-essentials.  This church is pretty good, in terms of its folks.  Not so much in terms of its assemblies or facilities, but the people are good, and they appear genuinely to love God.²

Time was when “church search,” for me, was partially synonymous with “search for place to ‘exercise my gifts'” — in other words, a church that had, or would make, a place for me to lead publicly in worship, teach Bible, etc.  I think my dad did me a disservice in this respect:  my expectations have long since been unrealistic.  You see, my dad, as a leader of leaders,  would make a beeline for good new people that moved to into the church I grew up in, seeking to get them involved in song leading, making devotional talks, etc.  But I have come to find that pretty much no other church does that.  You have to be around for years before anyone really sees you as anything more than a fill-in teacher or server-at-communion-table.

Selah

As the congregations of my personal history — eight states and a dozen churches — pass into memory, I realize that the likelihood of being used in church in areas of my giftedness is decreasing.  Corporate worship is almost always a source of discouragement, for one reason or another.  Mostly, I look for other things now.  Sermons and Bible classes and most programs come and go, and a few have impact, but rarely is there a lasting result.  More than any hope of finding a good set of programs or a good public teacher or energetic singing or heavenly hospitality or awe-filled worship, my concept of what church should be illuminates my search.

housechurch

For the past 4+ academic years, our home was a site for weekly “church.”  Of course, the church’s identity is not defined by gatherings, nor do I set up our own gatherings as particularly exemplary.  We excelled in our commitment to exegetical, excavationary Bible study and regularity of “attendance,” but there was a lot of room for improvement in the activities and flow when we were together.  Essentially, a group of growing-closer friends gathered in our living room and dining room every Sunday night for talk, a lot of serious study of the scriptures, some prayer and worship, food and drink, and communion.  The picture here is not us, by the way, but its scene looks much like ours.

I miss those gatherings, not having had them since we moved in the summer.  So far, we haven’t found any such group to invite ourselves to, and I think it’s time to do something about it.  We are going to try to find a few interested souls to invite to our place again.  We may now employ real-time video technology — not the same as being there, but nonetheless an opportunity to reach to and from distant dear ones.  We’re also looking into other possibilities.

Selah

Last night I sat at length in a discussion with my father, and it was good time spent.  While he and I experience here-and-now church somewhat differently, we share many values.  He sees the positive, although he is certainly aware of many shortcomings.  I identify more negatives and wonder why.

I have become what my wife labels a “pessimistic idealist.”  There is more than an ounce of irony in this pairing of words . . . and a pound of yearning. . . .

As I survey churches out there — and I suppose I’ve been in 60 or 70 different church buildings in the past 10 years — I am incessantly impressed with the inadequacy (at best) and lunacy (at worst) of what is going on in the name of church.  Meaningless weekly rituals, multiple high salaries, huge edifices, jargon and marketing, copy-catting and kowtowing.  It’s enough to drive one mad.  OK, maybe that was a trifle over-dramatic.  But it is enough to send one packing.

I think of people from my past who have fallen away — and in some cases, “the church” (whatever the particular iteration or facade) is to blame.  One friend’s son is no longer a person of faith, and it is said that the latter “does not suffer fools” very well.  He sees the lunacy, the ludicrousness of certain practices and verbiage — and will have none of it.

Even the best churches are weak in bona fide ministry, while the playing of the church “game” is alive and well.  Sure, many good things are being done — food pantries and clothing giveaways, “friendship evangelism,” financial planning workshops, marriage seminars, etc.  Some must have inspiring, God-directed, participatory corporate worship, although I haven’t regularly experienced it in years.  Some congregations sponsor personal work in prisons and free counseling.  Let’s say there is some relatively solid, biblical teaching to be heard in, say, up to 20% of the protestant churches.  There are good things, and these are to be affirmed and reappropriated.  A soul-trickle moves toward the Christ, here and there.  Still, if we gaze intently at today’s churchianity opposite biblical principles and injunctions, common practice is found wanting.  Church must not be a thought-maze, an institutional monument, or a social club.

In spite of the dismal portrait I view through gray lenses, I am also fueled by my sense of the ideal, as I read of the original Intent.  This ideal tethers me to an oscillating, now-clear, now-wispy vision of something better, something more closely tied to the incipient Christian community.  The fiery will of God and the blood-bought souls that He loves demand species of word, work, and worship that glorify His dominion.  He rules in the here and now, and that rule must affect how we worship and live and serve.  Both the vertical and the horizontal must be constantly affected — no, directed — by God Himself.  I must not float in the vacuousness of the status quo.

This will not be the last blogpost of 2014 that deals with what church should be, although I should spend more time being church in my spheres than blogging about it.  Shouldn’t we?

For the present, below are links to some concise reading — food for thought and possible action.

Roger Thoman:  What Church Is Not

Pat Sipperly:  Christian Home Church

==================

¹ I’ll not label this feeling “the Holy Spirit,” but I’d be at least as justified in attributing such a “calling” to God as so many churchpeople are in attributing — from the microphones of many church stages — various things to God.

² Aside:  in six months, we have had only two couples over for dinner, and no one has invited us into another home.  Time was when a church as nice as this one would have been chompin’ at the bit to welcome a new family like ours by having them over for dinner.  This church is more than a little depressed, though — due largely to corporate downsizing, its size is 25% of what it was 30 years ago.  I surmise that these fine folks are a tad reluctant to invest in people who move in, for fear that they’re going to move away.  This fear is understandable.

Other categories

Music may be fairly aptly categorized as either dance-based or song-based.

Personalities may be fairly aptly pigeonholed as introverted or extroverted, or as left- or right-brained.

Churches might be put in either conservative or liberal “slots.”  

These categorizings may or may not be helpful in communicating and understanding.  In the church arena, I think another pair of categories is at least as helpful as conservative vs. liberal/progressive.  What if we thought first of churches as falling somewhere on the institutionalorganic spectrum?

Not that I’ve really ever had first-hand experience with an established church group on the organic side, but I keep flirting with the notion.  The ideals espoused in the following blogs are representative of things I espouse, too.  None of them are too long; I hope you’ll read them.

http://guymuse.blogspot.com/2013/10/what-does-scripture-actually-say-about.html

http://www.simplechurchjournal.com/2013/11/when-to-take-new-disciples-to-church.html

http://realchurchlife.wordpress.com/2012/09/07/organic-church-preachers-teachers-and-big-meetings/

http://www.simplechurchjournal.com/2013/12/lord-help-me-set-aside-everything-i-know.html

Spaces — natural and humanly fabricated

What inspires you?  What are some good spaces for worship?  A chapel or church building?  Your living room or car?  A mighty stone artifice . . . or a meandering path through the woods?

I’m inclined toward the natural.

    • Around a fire
    • While mowing the lawn
    • While peering out the window into the trees and sunny rays, in a retreat center, after a walk in the woods with a friend
    • While gazing at 14,000-foot mountains

Give me the simple, the natural.  Inspire me with the primitive, New-Covenant church dynamic, and serious Bible study, toward those goals.  Aim for less churchyness and more relation to the common human experience.  Give me more opportunity for pure adoration of God, while subtracting the distractions of heavily institutionalized forms and structures.  Yes, of course, one can worship indoors, in the midst of a congregation — and I do, regularly.  But worship often surfaces without impediment or affect when one is smack-dab in the middle of the “works of His hands.”  I was reminded of the difference between “natural” and “man-made” last week, when trying to delineate for my son 1) the things God has made directly, and 2) the things He has given humans the ability to make with our hands and His materials.

A scoutmaster/photographer/believer/friend recently called attention to the wonder of the mushroom in the forest.  Another friend now raises alpacas in an RV park/campground run together with her husband, having left suburban life and “real jobs” behind.  I sometimes wish I could see those sights and do those things.  (Thank you, Mike and Janet, for these two calls to God’s nature.)

A college friend and I have gone in somewhat different directions.  We both still honor God, but we seem to adhere to, and/or appreciate, different emphases in Christianity.  He is into reading the so-called “church fathers,” and I, while respecting historical perspective and instruction, am not inspired by them.  Many of their heresies are legendary, and it is good to realize that Christianity has needed correction since its second decade, if not its first.  (Witness the letters known as Galatians and 1 Corinthians, written in the late 40s and mid-50s, respectively.  And witness the general human tendency to mess things up.)   This seems a likely truism:  the more time elapsed since Jesus and His apostles, the more likely that ideas and practices will have run amok or at least gone afield.  “Church fathers” in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, then, are more likely to be more off-base than those in the 1st century.

This latter friend, who is into the likes of Tertullian and Eusebius, also referred to a recent visit to the “sacred space” of a Catholic cathedral, and when I read that, there was a muffled thud in my heart — no resonance.  At best, I am disinterested in such spaces; for me, they smack of excesses and wrong-headed direction in heretical forms of Christianity.  Old cathedrals may be studied by art history and architecture buffs with interest, but they are unnatural and forbidding to me, when considered in the context of God’s kingdom.

A new friend recently spoke of nature’s “cathedral.”  She, perhaps even more than the three of us, loves the outdoors.  I inferred that she is moved most to worship God within scenes of tall trees, creeks, woods, mountains . . . and she made me aware of a Chris Rice song called “My Cathedral.”  Here is an excerpt from that song:

So let me often wander
In robin songs and thunder — 
Surrounding me with stained-glass leaves that change with every breeze — 
And out here in the stillness,
I’ll find my house of worship
With column trees and canopy of stars.

(Complete lyrics may be found here:  http://www.chrisricelyrics.com/lyrics/run-the-earth-watch-the-sky/my-cathedral-lyrics.html.)

I’m also reminded of another Rice song that folks seem, unfortunately, not to have been singing for the 16 years it’s been in existence:  Hallelujahs.  

A purple sky to close the day;
I wade the surf where dolphins play.
The taste of salt, the dance of waves
And my soul wells up with hallelujahs.

A lightning flash, my pounding heart,
A breaching whale, a shooting star
Give testimony that You are, 
And my soul wells up with hallelujahs.

O cratered moon and sparrows wings!
O thunder’s boom and Saturn’s rings!
Unveil our Father as you sing, 
And my soul wells up with hallelujahs.

The pulse of life within my wrist;
A fallen snow, a rising mist. 
There is no higher praise than this,
And my soul wells up — O my soul wells up — 
Yes my soul wells up with hallelujahs

Chorus

Oh praise Him, all His mighty works!
There is no language where you can’t be heard!
Your song goes out to all the earth:
Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah!
O hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah!

Within these songs lives a truth:  that we may readily be inspired to worship God based purely on His pure creation.  In highlighting nature’s clear call to our spirits, I do not devalue indoor assemblies of Christians.  Far from it — I spend a lot of time in chairs/pews and expect to do so for the rest of my life, although I wish we’d move outdoors more often.  🙂  In fact, our family recently had occasion to gather with a lakeside group.  I like it that Jedd can experience this kind of church carpet:

churchcarpet

Nature is not the only source of inspiration, to be sure, but it is a strong one.  I’m grateful for the heart and work of Chris Rice (and the Woolstons and Brackeens, and the Sardinas, and Mike Asbell, and others) in pointing me once again to the “sacred space” of nature.  Surely, this is space in which worship may naturally occur in overflow.

Thoman: the ski club analogy

Roger Thoman, an author and thinker and catalyst for “simple church” and house church ideals, suggests an important analogy:

I love to ski. I am passionate about skiing.  I enjoy skiing anywhere there is a slope and some snow.  I may be involved in a ski club, I may go to a ski school, I may have skied at many different places. But none of this replaces what it’s all about:  just skiing.  If I tell people that I ski here or there, or that I’m part of this or that club, it’s not because I’m enamored with the club, the school, or even the ski resort.  These are all peripherals to the real experience that I love, what it’s all about:  skiing.

In the same way, none of our churches, nor “how we do church,” should be equated to living the Christian life. They are peripherals to the Christian life.  Church gatherings support us in living the Christian life.  But they are not “the life” itself.  It’s great to gather and be part of, but let’s get skiing! It’s living for and with God that we are excited about, that we are talking to others about, that grips us with passion and excitement, that we are focused on.  Just living full on for God. Just doing it. Going after it.  Faithing it.  Loving it.  Losing ourselves in it and Him.

Aren’t churches and gatherings important?  Yes, but let me be repetitive:  they are peripherals to the Christian life.  The church will always gather in a variety of ways.  But imagine when the church gatherings are made up of a group of Christians whose primary focus is living full on for God.  Imagine what church is like, whether we gather in a home or in a stadium, when all the full-on-passionate-alive-people-for-God gather together.

Church is more than a club, and church gatherings are more than a club meeting, but surely Thoman is right:  the Christian life is not to be summed up in what happens during Sunday meetings.  Still, this is quite a special season for the Christian believer.

  1. Today, if you believe Jesus was martyred on a Friday (or even if you think it could have been on a Thursday), take advantage of some contemplative, worshipful “Good Friday” program offered in your area.  After all, it is not the resurrection, but the death that constitutes the atoning sacrifice for you and for me.
  2. Tomorrow (Saturday), think at least once about the intervening time between Jesus’ crucifixion and his rising.  What was that time like for the Christ, for the Father?
  3. Sunday, by all means, “go to church” and thereby be a part of the proclamation of His death and resurrection until He comes again.

But, come Monday, don’t be satisfied with attendance and involvement in “church work.”

Local

Years ago, I delivered a full-length sermon (one of only 4-5 for me); it was titled “The Universal Church.”  Within that message, I stepped on the toes of several more conservative siblings by suggesting that there was sectarian thinking within our local church and within our (“non-denominational”) denomination as a whole.  We needed to think more universally.

Every few years, I pull out the old cassette (I know, I know … what’s a cassette? at least it wasn’t on 8-track), figuring I’ll be embarrassed at what I said back then.  Actually, not.  While I would like to retract a couple of sentences and re-word them, I still believe what I said to the Cedars Church in 199x.  Although we have our closest relationships in local churches, our “membership”–if indeed such a thing is a valid concept at all–should be conceived of more globally and, well … scripturally.

We experience church primarily on the local level, but my parents taught me that traveling was an opportunity to visit other churches outside our geography, and this practice helped me see things more broadly.  Vacations were never an opportunity for slacking and backsliding, and visiting in new places expanded our thinking, both spiritually and practically.

I thought this journey-and-visit practice was mostly out of fashion, but only this summer, as we were visiting the church of a friend, his mother mentioned the same idea.  During one phase of my life, the dedication shown in visiting other churches grew passive, but these days, it’s being revived a bit:  now, more frequently and with more purpose, I am again taking the opportunity to visit other churches.  The summer provided some beneficial times with four churches in NY, one in OH, and one in NJ.  Of course, there can be some “duds,” but none this summer!

Only last Sunday, as we visited with Sojourner’s Mennonite Fellowship (we are guests with this group a few times each year), we were not only made to feel welcome again, but actually felt we were a part of the group, participating actively in what went on congregationally.  Shared “Kingdom matters,” prayed concerns, intoned spiritual truths (read:  energized singing!), and other aspects added up to an inspirational time for our family.  Once, I sensed that Karly had stopped singing, and I wasn’t sure why.  As the song was winding down, I looked over at her, and could see that she was emotionally moved.  Something about lustily singing “Brethren, We Have Met To Worship” with this group was especially meaningful.

Almost paradoxically, I have found that in thinking more universally, local experiences may have a deeper spiritual impact.

So, I’m certainly not suggesting here that local, congregational connections should go away.  In fact, my heart is very much inclined toward local–especially smaller–groups.  But for sake of discussion:  if believers were not official, card-carrying members of a single, local church, what would be the negative results?

  1. Less $ in the local church collection coffers, which leads to
  2. Less money for salaries and building mortgages and upkeep (by far the largest items in most traditional churches’ budgets), which leads to
  3. Fewer church staff positions, and fewer owned buildings, which leads to
  4. More monetary resources for other missions, the poor, etc.

Ahem. That ended up being a positive outcome.  Sorry.  Let’s try again.  If believers were not official members of a single, local church, what would be the negative results?

  1. People who are less committed to perpetuated, legacy-based church programs (could we say “people who are less ‘churchy'”?), which leads to
  2. Fewer such questionable church programs to take time and resources, which leads to
  3. More time and energy for connecting with family and neighbors.

Shoot. Ended up being a positive thing again.  I can really do this.  One more try.  If believers were not official members of a local church, what would be the negative results?

  1. People who are not involved in a church “community” or “family,” which leads to
  2. People who withdraw more and more into self-centered lives, which leads to
  3. Materialism, and other evidences of selfish decision-making, which leads to
  4. Marital strife and breakups, neighbor squabbles, consumerism, and other societal/moral ills

It is important to be connected to a congregation of some sort.  It draws us out of ourselves, helps us “belong,” gives us purpose outside of our own, little worlds, and calls us continually to something higher.  The size of the group isn’t necessarily important.  The connection is.  And that is why God intended a communal aspect of church.  While faith is personal and not inherited, Christianity is not solely an individual enterprise!

I would further suggest that having connections on multiple levels is important for fully actualized discipleship.  Local small groups and churches are significant, and so is a more universal sense of tie-in to the Kingdom “at-large.”