Friday, June 16, 2006

Fixing Church

A few weeks back, I asked the question "Is Church Part of the Problem?" In it, I gave the idea that the main purpose of the church/local congregation should be to help its members grow in the image of Christ. The responses were interesting. The four people who responded (none from Otter Creek, interestingly enough) seemed to indicate that the time of meeting together in a "worship service" was NOT conducive to their growth as Christians, but in fact it was the time outside of those where real growth happens and real connection happens. Are we missing something here? Are we getting close to the definition of insanity in trying the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result? Am I asking questions because I don't know the answers myself?

It seems that the way we do "church" is a part of a problem. It's a part of the apathy of the Christian, which should be an offensive statement. Christians shouldn't be apathetic. In fact, Randy Harris once said that doubt is not the opposite of faith; apathy is. Now, I really appreciate what goes into doing a worship service on a Sunday morning, but I think congregations and their leaders and members constantly have to be asking themselves, "Is this accomplishing the goal of forming Christ in the people here or is it stagnating it?"

Now again, I could be way off base. I'm sure there are people who get a lot out of the corporate worship setting. And there is something about worshipping with 800 to 1000 people in one place and with one purported purpose. But if attending a worship service is our primary expression of faith, we've lost something huge. We've lost discipleship; we've lost being apprentices to Jesus. And that may be the most tragic betrayal of his life that I can imagine. People who claim to be his followers, but are just punching a time clock.

So, complaining is one thing. Action is another. How do we do it? How do we make church a valuable experience of discipleship? Maybe you think we're already there and disagree with everything I say. Maybe you think we're on the right track and just need to tweak. Maybe you think the whole thing needs to be blown up (not literally) and start from scratch with Acts 2 as the template.

What do you think?


Karen said...

Your points may very well be why I can look forward to Sundays with all of my heart, but still feel empty the rest of the week, when I have no contact with anyone from our body. We weren't meant to live like this.

Anonymous said...

Meeting on Sundays can be a valuable time of growth and I'm sure different congregations have different levels of success with it. I know that the Sunday morning assemblies at Otter Creek were quite often convicting and edifying. The message of the song selections, seeing the worship from my fellow believers, and the messages from Tim were all part of a time of growth for me.

That being said, I would have to agree with you that attending the Sunday assembly should not be the primary expression of our faith. I think part of the problem is that some christians don't really believe that they need Christ's help. Wealth, jobs, and being sheltered from society's problems can get in the way. Sometimes it takes walking deep into a valley to wake up. You know the valleys I've walked. I know they woke me up to discipleship.

I think what is needed are modern examples in each congregation. Let us feed the hungry, help the homeless, and befriend those that some among us may look down their noses.

I'm relunctant to hit publish on these comments. I don't want to appear like I think I've arrived. I know I haven't.

Rob Cox

Jeffrey said...

I too have been on a similar area of my journey in the past few years. I've come to value questions more than answers, so that's what I bring to offer here...some questions I myself asked in the earlier days of this similar thought process.

Is "going to church" even a theologically correct phrase? Didn't Christ instruct us to be the Church? Is that different, or can that even entail, "going to it"? Are local congregations more divisive then they are condusive to the Kingdom? Why do we feel like we can reduce Christianity, discipleship, missions, etc into a formula that applies equally to everyone? Wait a minute, doesn't it seem to be the institution of the church that is being built up and focused on, rather than the Kingdom of God? Hey, what the hell is the Kingdom of God? Isn't the unspoken requirement of being "involved" in a local congregation and the "yokes" they teach more reflective of the Law than it is grace? Hmm, I wonder if there's more to being the Church than merely going to it..."

obviously, that's but a few questions that rolled around in my head in those days. I'd love to hook up and hear more of your thoughts sometime Phil.

And i ditto Rob's comment, i say these things at the risk of sounding like "i've arrived". I haven't. I never will. I'm learning that I never stop learning, never stop being transformed, never stop being shaped into the image of Christ...

*sorry, deleted first comment cuz i forgot to get it in my cocomments :-\

Brent said...

On one hand, I feel that the best thing to do would be to start the whole thing all over again. However, I wouldn't choose Acts 2 as the preferred starting place. Why, you ask? Simply because this world is not the same as it was 2,000 years ago. To follow the past is how we repeat humanity's failures.

On the other hand, it may be best to force the issue of radical change. Things are changing in the world around us and if Christians do not adapt within society, the entire Christian institution will blow up (IMHO).


SistaSmiff said...

I think what a lot of people don't get about Christianity is that it's not about religion, but, relationship. For me, Sunday worship is important in that I'm uplifted and recharged. The meat and taters of Christianity for me is the daily relationship, though.

Tony Arnold said...

I am confident you will not be able to create a "church practice" that will make all Christians happy. But that doesn't mean we cannot improve on what we were doing right now.

The problem is who are "we"? We at Otter Creek could do it different than present, but we are already doing it different than others. The other "we's" are doing it different than "us", especially among other denominations or non-denominational churches.

So aren't we trying to not only define but change a subjective, moving target?

I will bring a quote to the discussion that I have quoted before on the blogs:

May we always remember that the Church exists to lead men to Christ in many and varied ways, but it is always the same Christ.

(Well, I thought it was the same Christ until Lee's class) ;-)


Brent said...

Good point, Tony, about the different vantage points of who "we" are.

I'm sure that different denominations and various groups within each denomination "do church" in ways that are not the same. One doesn't have to visit each church across America to realize that fact.

But I think that there are probably some common denominators that a majority of churches in America have with one another.

Many people are perfectly happy at their church home. They love it. They are comfortable there. They go there to see friends. They "feel close to God" when they assemble to worship. Is that the issue here?

Phil's question may instead be addressing the overall position of Christianity in the minds of Americans, not necessarily the individual experience.

I'm having a hard time putting this thought into words.....

I'll say this: It is time that Christians begin evaluating why they believe what they believe and why they act the way they act. Postmodernism is rejecting many of the presuppositions that most Christians have and don't even know they have. Apologetics which attempt to present Christianity as the true way to believe/think are no longer successful methods.

John Shelby Spong is much better at giving the reasons why Christianity must change or die. Read his books instead of listening to my ramblings.


Lee Hodges said...

Could it be that we are looking to much at what's in it for us and not the audience of ONE? The words we speak on Sunday need to be lived out the rest of the week. Our words of love and graditude expressed on Sunday is given hands and feet as we touch others the way He would. Its all about Him - seven days a week. I am not there yet, but that is my goal.

Thomas+ said...

Phil says "Is this accomplishing the goal of forming Christ in the people here or is it stagnating it?"

I don't come from Phil's tradition, but rather from the Anglican tradition. So, that probably forms or informs me when I say this.

The goal of worship is not forming Christ in the people. That would be a lovely side-effect, I think. But the goal of worship is blessing the Triune God. We offer sacrifice to him, and we magnify him. We obey his commands. We remember all that he has done for us in Christ. And, in this way, we bring him glory.

The center of Christian worship (at least for most Christians in most time periods) is the Holy Eucharist, the act of Communion. It is the moment when we celebrate the Passover Feast and eat and drink the divine mystery of his presence. We also sing and pray and confess and hear the word and respond to the word. And these things may form Christ in us. But, if Christ is formed in us, it is simply because he has graciously chosen to love us in this way.

So, I don't think I am answering a question. But, I am glad to throw in a few words.

Oh, and Brent, Spong isn't a Christian by any meaningful definition of that word. Might I suggest N.T. Wright as a better example of Anglican thought.


Brent said...


I have read quite a bit of N.T. Wright, mostly before he changed his first name to "Tom." (The Challenge of Jesus; Following Jesus; The Climax of the Covenant; The N.T. and the People of God; Jesus and the Victory of God; The Resurrection of the Son of God; Paul; Romans - Commentary in The New Interpreter's Bible; For All God's Worth; Twelve Months of Sundays; Mark for Everyone; Matthew for Everyone; Paul for Everyone; What Saint Paul Really Said).

Have you read anything by Spong, or have you just heard about him from others? Why do you state that Spong isn't a Christian? He claims the Christian tradition for himself and many in the Episcopal church regard him as Christian. How can one individual say that another isn't a Christian unless that other person doesn't say so him/herself?


Phil said...

And this is why I love the blog community. Within a couple of hours, you've got an Anglican priest and someone who's been hitting the Spong.

Thomas, I agree with you on the purpose of worship. I can honestly say that it's been a while since I've really experienced that, due to my duties in the tech booth on Sundays at OC. So I definitely agree with you on that purpose.

However, I still am of the opinion that the overall purpose for each congregation and leaders within those congregations is to help in the formation of Christ within each person who is a part of that. I think in doing that Christ is given glory. Not just through the sacrifice of praise, but the sacrifice of our lives in his service. Of course, not everyone who goes to a particular congregation is interested in that, as I'm sure those of you who lead churches know.

Purgatory Penman said...

I agree with your post and with those who commented. Church is more than Sunday assembly. The worship of the assembly should be carried over into every day of the coming week. Loving our Christian friends and getting together to enjoy their company demonstrates that we prefer to do things with friends in the faith.

Please read my Fathers' Day story on my blog. I haven't posted for two weeks since my transcriber has been ill. Hope everyone hasn't forgotten me.

philip said...

First time I've ever commented on a blog, so go easy...

It seems that we have multiple definitions of what the purpose of Sunday (or Saturday or whenever) assemblies. Is it to corporately experience the Lord's Supper/Communion/Eucharist? Is it to "worship" (i.e. singing, prayer, scripture meditation) as a body? Is it to receive instruction on how to BE the church every day of the week? From what I understand, early Christian assemblies in Acts consisted of lots of eating ("breaking bread") and prayer. Also mentioned is "praising" and devoting themselves to the apostles teaching. Combine this with the Last Supper, where there is mention of singing one humn, and you have a loose portrait of today's assemblies (minus the eating, grrrrr...)

Personally, I feel that the reason our churches seem to see a distinct lack of unbelievers being drawn in is not for a lack of pizza parties and slick worship services and cool youth group activities. God knows we have an abundance of those. It's perhaps as simple as: we don't know how to BE the church in a broken world (we're not being equipped adequately and/or we don't want to hear the "bad news" about radical discipleship in place of our comfortable American lives), and as a result, frightened by the world, we look to our local congregations to find our friends.

Shouldn't we be spending a LOT more time developing real relationships with our non-believing co-workers and neighbors, not just to get them to come to "Bring Your Neighbor Day", but because Jesus did that? And shouldn't part of our assemblies be receiving practical instruction on how to live in our broken world? Hmm. Still processing, thinking. Good thoughts, all.

john alan turner said...

What seems to be going on is the realization that we have a fine vision for the church (helping people grow in the image of Christ), we haven't got a very solid strategy.

As a church consultant I run into this in all kinds of churches. Few have a clear strategy to accomplish what they set out to do. As a result, there is a high level of frustration and a low level of discipleship.

Churches of Christ feel this accutely because we want Sunday morning to accomplish too many things. We want sermons that instruct AND evangelize. We want classes that instruct AND edify.

I believe true life change happens in small groups. Most people have come to believe that. If that's the case, then, it would be wise to ask: how does our Sunday morning assembly push people into small groups?

In other words, is Sunday morning another program? Or is it a step towards the goal, which is life change, which happens best in small groups?

Thomas+ said...

For Brent, because he asked:

On this blog I said “Spong isn't a Christian by any meaningful definition of that word.”

By “meaningful definition” I am speaking out of my tradition. My tradition says that, at the very least, a Christian would be someone who trusts in Jesus, the incarnate God who died on the cross and was resurrected (these being physical actions). We take that from the Bible which says (and here are just a couple of quotes, though there are many more:

That if you confess with your mouth, "Jesus is Lord," and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved.
Romans 10:9-10

14 And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. 15 More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. 19 If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.
1 Corinthians 15:14-19

Also, we have a history which includes the Nicene Creed as the essential statement of our faith, and it says concerning Jesus:

For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.

Jack Spong, on the other hand, in his “Call for a new reformation” says, among other things:

2. Since God can no longer be conceived in theistic terms, it becomes nonsensical to seek to understand Jesus as the incarnation of the theistic deity. So the Christology of the ages is bankrupt.

7. Resurrection is an action of God. Jesus was raised into the meaning of God. It therefore cannot be a physical resuscitation occurring inside human history.

So, based upon this, along with many other statements that he has made, it is reasonable and right for the Church to claim that there is a boundary, a rather wide boundary, to what constitutes “Christian,” and Jack Spong falls outside of that boundary.

If I call myself "Muslim" but disbelieve that Mohammed is Allah's prophet, then I am redefining the word "Muslim" for myself, and I would certainly not be recognized as Muslim by any who hold to a meaninful definition of that word. Spong is in the same position, claiming the word "Christian" but disbelieving the core tenets of Christianity.

And, yes, I had to read Spong in seminary. I was not suggesting you have not read Wright, just recommending him as a more Anglican writer.

Thomas+ said...

Now I have to take on john alan turner for a second, who said:

"In other words, is Sunday morning another program? Or is it a step towards the goal, which is life change, which happens best in small groups?"

Small groups are important. I find the informal ones are usually much better, but programmed ones can develop true community as well.

Does life change happen through small groups? It sure can. It also happens through pain, crisis, nature, dreams, bad food, good food, sex, pornography, alcohol, A.A., divorce, ski lessons, muggings, Bible reading, prayer, service, and a host of other things.

The Church can not focus on getting people to sit in someone's living room and share their feelings, or even study the Bible. That is great, but is not the purpose of worship. We gather on Sunday to proclaim Christ, primarily through the preaching of the Word and the celebration of the Sacraments. These give strength to the Church as we do the work of caring for the poor, loving our neighbors, raising our kids, getting sober, etc.

Once again, though, life change is not the point of worship. God is the point of worship, and life change is a wonderful outgrowth that may or may not happen.

So, great, small group it. I'm all in. But please, please don't denigrate the Word and Sacraments and say that they exist to get people into small groups, or even that they exist to change lives. Or, if you must say it, please know that there are 2000 years of men and women who would disagree.

Brandon Scott said...

Good thoughts, Thomas. I think there's more agreement with this post than we're all willing to admit...perhaps not theological, but in experience. For instance, Thomas--it's like what we talked about the other day with regard to form--you can have all the form but if someone comes not expecting to meet God there, then it can't help but impact things. I really dug what we talked about related to coming with a holy expectation. I've always agreed with Foster on that idea. I think it's critical. I also WHOLE HEARTEDLY agree about "worship" as written in your post today, Thomas. Worship is so much more than singing. But even that--when you boil it down, it seems to me to still speak to the level of expectation one brings. If we really came expecting these holy moments with God, it would be a different experience all together. all of can you guys debate these things without realizing the incredible watershed moment of Philip commenting. Philip, the guy who hates blogs! GO PH!!!!

Brent said...


I'm glad you cleared that up. I had made some assumptions from your comments.

You have clearly shown what Christians have done for centuries. They have drawn boundaries around what they deem to be a valid expression of Christianity. Beginning with church fathers such as Iraneus, those in positions of leadership have claimed to represent God. The Bible was used to bolster their viewpoints. However, those claims have always been (and remain still) based on decisions that men in power made with regard to Jesus of Nazareth and those writings claiming to have originated with his immediate followers.

The tradition of Christianity cannot be proven to have divine approval any more than any other tradition. People have claimed for millenia to be the voice of God and to KNOW the TRUTH. These individuals have created an institution that can no longer be trusted because God becomes lost amid all the muck.

Sure, Spong can be rather crass in his presentation. I don't agree with everything he states. However, he effectively shows (IMHO) how much of the Christian story and viewpoint begins to break down when you start to really look closely.

I'm glad that you have read many different authors in your studies. We can agree to differ on where we come out after going down the road of scholarship, tradition, and experience. However, most Christians only believe what they have been fed from the pulpits. I feel obligated to reveal some of the other viewpoints within Christianity.


Phil said...

Thomas+, I wonder if some of the different perspectives on this come from a difference in the sacremental aspects of things.

In your setting (Anglican), the sacraments seem to be of the highest importance. The worship, the Eucharist, and the others are the end themselves and in and of themselves are worship to God.

In my lower church setting, especially one established during the Enlightenment and more importantly the Second Great Awakening, the importance is much more on the teaching and the lay people's involvement. For me, what happens on Sunday morning does pale in comparison to what should be happening in my life and the lives of the congregants the rest of the week.

And if I'm misrepresenting you at all, please correct me.

Thomas+ said...

Hey, I want to respond to Phil, but first quick to Brent. Thanks for your post.

My only insertion into what you said would be a quick "and" to your post which said: "Beginning with church fathers such as Iraneus, those in positions of leadership have claimed to represent God."

I would say that Jesus claimed to represent, to be, God, and that the interpreters of Jesus did not begin with Iraneus, but rather with St. Peter at the day of Pentecost when, among other things, he said that there is no other name given under heaven by which people may be saved.

O.K., now to Phil. He said:

"The worship, the Eucharist, and the others are the end themselves and in and of themselves are worship to God . . .In my lower church setting, the importance is much more on the teaching and the lay people's involvement. For me, what happens on Sunday morning does pale in comparison to what should be happening in my life and the lives of the congregants the rest of the week."

Excellent points. I would only take small issue with the words "the worship, the Eucharist, and the others are the end themselves" The "end" is the person, the subject, that is the Triune God. The worship is not valid because of the form, or the congregation, but because of the God who commanded and infills the worship.

Now, to the idea that what happens on Sunday pales by comparisson to the rest of the week. On this point, we are not in agreement. I would most certainly say that the whole of life is called to be holy. That the whole earth is filled with the glory of God, and it is merely our eyes that do not see this. That there is, in fact, no "neutral ground," no true secular, no pristine logic or emotion which can be seperated from religion.

And, in part because of this, liturgy elevates life. It elevates life partly because life is so often lived as if there is no God. But the sacramental aspect of liturgy, especially Baptism and Eucharist (the two great sacraments) go beyond even this. They are the most real life gets. Why, because they hold the moments of most intimate contact between a seemingly absent God and his weary people. These moments may not "feel" this way, they may not "seem" this way, and one might not "think" that they are this way. However, regardless of our feelings, experiences, or desires, they are what they are. We are consuming the presence of Christ, whether we "recognzie the body" (as St. Paul said) or not.

So, the rest of the week is lived out of, and in expectation of, this act of worship. The rest of our lives, our personal spiritual lives, out family lives, our use of time and money and energy, are formed in us by the Holy Spirit through this divine liturgy, and the ongoing daily and seasonal liturgies as well.

Well, there it is. Thanks for hosting this, Phil. I wish my blog were half this interesting!

Brandon Scott said... worries, your blog is half this interesting. Wait..I mean...

john alan turner said...

This isn't my blog, so I don't want to take up too much space to respond. But you did call me out, so I'm here to take up my argument.

Your line of thought seems to be built upon a platform of Greek rationalism rather than an Hebraic understanding of covenant. It also implies that grace is imputed through righteous works (check the literal definition of sacrament -- especially as it was developed in medieval theology). Further, your use of the word "worship" implies that worship as it happens on Sunday is categorically different from worship as a lifestyle, a view that cannot be supported scripturally.

You say that life change is not the point of worship, God is the point of worship. I disagree. God is not the point of worship; God simply is. He does not require our worship to be any more God than he already is. He calls us to worship because he knows that as we engage in worship we will be transformed.

Life change is what it's about, because that is God's agenda for us. God is reconciling us to himself, making us compatible with himself, transforming us into the image of his Son.

That kind of change can happen through various means (providential circumstances, the practice of spiritual disciplines, etc.), but the most efficient way it happens is through authentic community. In our day and age, the best way to experience authentic community is through small groups -- whether formally structured or informal gatherings with other believers.

The Bible is a clear indicator that this is what God is up to: he is building a community of people who are rightly related to himself and rightly relating to one another.

If that is what God is up to, it should be what we are up to as well.

Thomas+ said...

John responded to me. Thanks John.

John said: “Your line of thought seems to be built upon a platform of Greek rationalism rather than an Hebraic understanding of covenant.” I understand what those words mean, but I have absolutely no idea what he means as regarding my post.

John said “It also implies that grace is imputed through righteous works” Grace is imputed through Christ, and Christ has decided to be present in the sacraments, as well as many other ways and places.

John said “Further, your use of the word "worship" implies that worship as it happens on Sunday is categorically different from worship as a lifestyle, a view that cannot be supported scripturally.” I don’t remember drawing an either/or. Worship is part of life, and the center of Christian worship is the sacramental act within the life of liturgy. Living a lifestyle of worship involves Acts 2:42, breaking the bread together in keeping with the apostle's teaching. So, they are not different, but cells of the same body.

Now the big one, the place where John and I seem to disagree, though that may simply be a function of pithy blogging.

John said “Life change is what it's about, because that is God's agenda for us. God is reconciling us to himself, making us compatible with himself, transforming us into the image of his Son.”

I believe that God’s agenda for us is to adopt us, hold us, and love us as his beloved children. If I never get any “better,” God’s agenda can still be fulfilled. Why? Because his agenda is love. He loves me as I am today, not in spite of my sins, or because he wants me to be better. He loves me because he is love. This love will hopefully transform me into his image, but that is not the agenda. That is not at all the point.

I refer you to the Prodigal son story, in which the prodigal comes home and the Father doesn’t even allow him to talk about change and service and all those great things. He simply loves him and throws him a parry.

I hope that the prodigal was changed by that encounter, as I hope we are all transformed into the image of Christ through the love that he has lavished upon us. However, if we believe that God’s agenda is for a “better me,” and we are searching for the most efficient way to be transformed, then we are living as works righteousness folk. However, my preference, and the witness of scripture as we read it, is the covenant of love, the covenant which says God has given us the right to become his children not through any work of our own.

john alan turner said...

I fear this is becoming a contest to see who can get in the last word. That being one of my major dysfunctions, I cannot seem to stop myself from playing along.

You say, "God's agenda is love."

I do not believe that is God's agenda. I believe that is God's character.

In other words, God does not love us in order to change us. He simply loves us, and because he loves us he desires to change us.

You also said that Christ has chosen to be present in the sacraments. That kind of statement is so broad that one would have to redefine "the sacraments" as "nearly everything".

BTW, I love the part of the prodigal son where the father throws his returned son a "parry".

That's actually an interesting (mis)reading that could be talked about some other time. For now, suffice to say I believe you and I are reading the same passages with different lenses and probably both reasoning from differing presuppositions. I believe, however, that neither of us will be saved because of how smart we are and that eternity will be an interesting time to sit and learn together.

rcp said...

It seems that the operative word in the worship discussion is "worship." If the object of worship is personal transformation, then that worship is focused on self and what can be gained for it. I think this is a prevalent characteristic of many contemporary understandings of "worship," which results in the need for a "worship buzz" in order to feel that some transformation has occurred.

It can become a chicken/egg discussion, I know, because to encounter the Living God in worship will often result in transformation, especially when done consistently over time. However, to make personal transformation the object of worship will often result in failure and disappointment. It is quite possible to leave a worship service and not be particularly transformed (again, time is usually necessary to guage such transformation). However, if worshipping God because he is God and is worthy of worship is the object of worship, one will never be disappointed. One may not have taken steps toward the transformation of self, one may not feel a "worship buzz," but God has been worshipped. Again, I think it comes down to that word: worship.

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