What Should “Church” Be Like? Answering the Question
My immediately preceding post here was a diatribe against what I call the “new paradigm” churches in America—mostly non-descript, unaffiliated, white, mostly suburban (attended mostly by white suburbanites even if the building stands in the city’s urban center), mostly seeker-sensitive, usually concerned with getting large numbers of people to attend, usually led by “hip” pastors (of whatever ages) who mostly preach good advice but not the gospel in all its dimension, often anti-intellectual in terms of promoting what I call folk religion, and, worst of all, indirectly if not directly confirming the white suburbanites’ middle class American values and attitudes. Finally, very often, in these churches, the people do not really know each other or are involved in cliques called “life groups” that are usually homogeneous in terms of race and ethnicity, educational levels, economic levels, and beliefs about “family values.” This new paradigm of “church” arose primarily out of the seeker-sensitive and church growth movements of the 1970s and 1980s.
Someone here asked me what I think makes a “church” a true Christian church or what a true Christian church should look like in terms of its ethos (not building or organizational chart, I assume). I will try to answer that as briefly as possible here. Ask me next week and my answer may be somewhat different.
*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*
Besides the New Testament, my own thoughts about “church” have been influenced by books and experiences. Two important theological books about church come to mind as especially influential for me: The Misunderstanding of the Church by Swiss theologian Emil Brunner and The Church in the Power of the Holy Spirit by German theologian Jürgen Moltmann. Brunner emphasized fellowship as the essence of the church while Moltmann emphasized the dynamic power of the Holy Spirit in leading the church into mission in the world.
I have been a member of twelve churches in my life and have attended scores of churches that I never joined. I won’t go into all of the explanations of that here. I’m not a “church hopper,” but I have moved a lot and have left several churches once I discerned they were not living up to even minimal standards of being truly the church in the world. Some were so dysfunctional that words on a page could not begin to describe them.
I was blessed and cursed by having grown up in churches that were extended families and where, in spite of some dysfunctions, God was busy, people loved each other, and going to church was almost always something I looked forward to. I don’t remember ever wanting to not go to church—as a child and as a youth. These two churches where very different in many ways but very similar in other ways. I’m not just being nostalgic for a “golden age” of the past. I know plenty of people who attended those churches when I did who still say they have never since found a church that measured up to those.
I am a moderate restorationist with regard to church. That is to say, I think it is the task of the church in every place and time to at least attempt to recreate, as much as possible, the ethos of the New Testament church. I disagree with those who claim that the primitive church was “just the church in embryo meant to change”—a belief that I see as a lame attempt to justify the later developments of traditions that departed very much from the NT church.
So, to get on with my answer to the question….
I believe a true Christian church should be one where God is very busy changing lives and influencing its social environment with compassionate actions.
I believe a true Christian church should be countercultural in the sense of resisting accommodation to secular and pagan culture while communicating the gospel in ways people of the culture can at least understand (but without letting go of anything essential to the gospel).
I believe a true Christian church should be an extended family where at least members and regular attenders know each other, share their lives with one another, share their property with each other (not as a common purse necessarily but with genuine generosity), and love one another in site of differences of race, gender, ethnicity, economic and social status, educational level, etc.
I believe a true Christian church should be one where the preaching and teaching covers the whole of God’s revelation including judgment, conviction, repentance, and conversion—including the call to take great risks for God’s kingdom.
I believe a true Christian Church should be one where the people know the Bible well and are led by the teaching leaders into deeper understanding of its implications for being in the world but not of it.
I believe a true Christian church should select as leaders and teachers only persons deeply committed to Jesus Christ as God, Lord, Savior, and Coming King. The leaders should be broadly and generously orthodox in terms of belief in the Trinity, the inspiration and authority of Scripture, salvation through Christ alone by grace alone through faith alone without neglecting works of love.
I believe a true Christian church should practice loving discipline of members and regular attenders who fall into sin and who do not repent and seek to change.
I believe a true Christian church should require members (including leaders) to avoid worldliness in the sense of ungodly entertainment, conspicuous consumption, immodest dress, membership in organizations that require beliefs and/or ceremonies contrary to the sole Lordship of Jesus Christ (idolatry), sexual immorality, divorce (except in cases of abandonment, abuse, or adultery), identification with hate groups and ideologies, violence (except for self-defense or defense of vulnerable people under attack), gluttony, and extreme individualism manifested in lack of faithful participation in God’s people and their mission.
I believe a true Christian church should never hide its Christian identity.
I believe a true Christian church should preach and teach the Word of God, the gospel, faithfully and in all its dimensions and aspects, live life together in love, worship God enthusiastically, train members and attenders in Christian discipleship for everyday life, reach out to help hurting and vulnerable people live human lives, care for the environment, expect miracles to happen especially in response to fervent prayer, pray for the sick and the hurting, hold members and leaders accountable to their Christian callings, speak truth to power prophetically, encourage members to seek and use the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and never be ashamed of Jesus Christ even for the sake of attracting visitors and others to fill empty pews or seats.
Finally, I believe a true Christian church should celebrate the sacraments of water baptism and the Lord’s Supper regularly.
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