This paper was written as a final assignment for my M. Div. program at Fuller Theological Seminary, for the class IS502 – The Practice of Christian Community.
Three years ago, as part of my application to the M. Div. program at Fuller Theological Seminary, I crafted a short description of my perceived calling and purposes for my pastoral vocation.
My goal, plainly put, is to feed God’s sheep. I plan to do so by:
(a) Rethinking church structures and emphases. Like a good trellis, such structures serve the life of church participants, enabling them to become aware of and equipped to fulfill God’s individual and corporate call on their lives.
(b) Focusing on preaching balanced, complete, and timeless Biblical truths, with emphases on practical solutions for modern social, intellectual, and personal challenges.
My primary gifts and profound interests in analysis, preaching, teaching, writing, and mentoring/discipleship can serve these ends.
Having increased my understanding of the value of Christian community as part of IS502, I do not think that I would adjust this statement, since it already contains a phrase dedicating space to the idea of corporate calling and church structures. However, the resulting, specific structures and praxis of what that entails have been informed and expanded in my own views of what specific practices and emphases should be employed.
One particular and important shift in my own approach to church structure and practice that occurred as a result of this class was the idea that we ought to take a step back from the structures and practices we might employ in designing church, and explor the progenitive means and ends what precede these structures.
For many Christians, and church leaders, we practice corporate activities the way we do because we’ve inherited them – that is, we rely on tradition. The problem with this, as Van Gelder intones, is that many emphases and practices emerged in previous generations in response to the needs and crises of the times, which may not be applicable in our own times, though the general Biblical aims of the Church remain unchanged:
Denominational traditions and beliefs guide the choices and shape the lives of millions of Christians, but often church members know little about how and why they came into existence. Most of these behaviors and beliefs originated within historical ecclesiologies developed through the centuries. They resulted from efforts to apply biblical understandings about the church to specific historical settings. In the process, different churches stressed different issues or came to different conclusions about the same issue.
In light of the probability that our structures and emphases need to be rethought in light of contemporary needs as well as the timeless responsibilities given to the church by Christ and his apostles, I’ve reonsidered both my list of ends and their priority in light of modern and American culture.
Primarily, I understand the timeless commissions of the church to include (a) evangelization of the world, and (b) the discipling of believers to maturity – that is, as is being nicely emphasized in modern discipleship literature, creating “disciples who make disciples.”
What is obviously missing from my short list of timeless mandates is the development of the Christian community, a.k.a. the Church. But while unity of the body is emphasized in scripture, it is less obvious to me that the scriptures overtly emphasize the development of community as a goal for church leaders, at least not at the same level of importance as those two activities mentioned in the great commission. However, I admit that as a means to those two ends, the development of Christian unity and relational bonds seems necessary, if not an additional primary goal.
With these three mandates (evangelization, discipleship, community), it may help to address contemporary challenges before we get specific about practices and priorities. What ails modern society, and what malformed values are both the church and society mired in? I would suggest the following challenges:
- Loneliness and individual social alienation stemming from hyper-individualism, materialism, and political polarization
- Doubt stemming from the rise of rationalism, militant atheism, and generations of narrow hyper-conservative Evangelicalism that has alienated society by emphasizing being ‘right’ over ‘compassionate’
- Ignorance of the spiritual experience, stemming from both a utilitarian view of faith (the goal is to become a ‘good person’ doing ‘good works’), as well as the intellectual approach to faith favored by Evangelicals (compared to the more radical and experiential emphases of the fastest growing Protestant denomination in modern Christendom, Renewalism (Pentecostalism and Charismatic)).
My other primary ‘aha’ this quarter was the elucidation of specific values that need to be inculcated in our churches in order to create community, including gratitude, promise keeping, truth telling, and hospitality. So when considering our means to our ends, we are not just considering structures, but the critical values and emphases that need to fill the content of our practices. This goes beyond merely using ‘bible content’ for our practices.
I hasten to add that I value consistent reminders and support for maintaining the inner life of individual faith, which means regular instruction and emphasis on the basic disciplines of the faith, primarily consistent, recurring Time Alone with God (TAG) and in relational community participation.
The structures that I would like to employ, with some modifications, are the following:
Sunday gatherings have been and will continue to be the bread and butter of Christian community, reflecting the often underappreciated wisdom of Hebrews 10:25
Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching.
However, I have come to reconsider the myopic focus of Sunday services, which is primarily dedicated to the sermon, which is by its nature a monologue (Runia mockingly called our common sermon practice as “a monstrous monologue by a moron to mutes”). As many critics have charged, this ‘educational approach’ to corporate life is not only isolating, it informs but does not train us, which perhaps is the main goal of the ministry of leadership in the church:
Their responsibility is to equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ. (Ephesians 4:12)
While some have attempted to adjust this monologue by making it a dialogue between preacher and congregation (so-called “interactive preaching”),   I think it better to engage the congregation in dialogue with one another. This is critical because for many Christians, the Sunday Service is the only exposure they get to the body of believers, not participating in the other structures such as small group. As Williams writes:
The first [priority] is a cultural shift away from passive instruction to participatory learning, from paternalism to partnership, from monologue to dialogue, from instruction to interaction.
With that in mind, I have instituted a time of discussion directly after my sermons, in which groups of four or five answer the provided questions, which are designed for personal disclosure in light of the sermon content. While this does not address the problem of teaching v. training, it does provide the following benefits as a facilitator for community. Post-sermon discussion gives
- visitors a taste of the relational dimension of the community of faith, enticing them into a depth of relationship around spiritual truth that is likely an oasis in the desert of the superficial conversations most have in public life
- new church members the opportunity to build relationships within the church
- growing and mature members opportunity to share their own wisdom and lessons learned from God, and to begin to form discipling relationships
While this innovation addresses the desperate need for relationship at an introductory and superficial level for most congregants, it doesn’t necessarily meet the need for ministry training and discipleship.
If Sunday Sermons are the bread and butter of church life, small groups are the meat and potatoes. Since the time of John Wesley, and perhaps since the Reformation, Protestants have emphasized the priority of regular small meetings for scripture study and mutual edification and relationship among Christians. For many churches, they provide the locus for deep friendships and discipleship. However, this structure is not without its need for improvement and innovation. Weaknesses of many of our current small group implementations include:
- Lack of structured and purposeful discipleship
- Lack of integration with church vision and goals
- Insularity and cliquishness, coupled with a lack of evangelical outreach
With these weaknesses in mind, I have gathered and imagined a series of improvements to our small group system, which I plan to roll out as an innovative five part bible study (my ‘big project’) over the next year. The features of this include:
- Closed, fixed duration small groups for maximizing relationship building and commitment, repectively
- Inreach and outreach periods to provide opportunity for life-giving expression of faith
- Discipleship oriented leadership
- A breakthrough weekend to break emotional barriers
- Output work products and skills to be demonstrated for concrete, measured accomplishment
The term ‘missional’ with respect to small groups can mean many things, but in my context, it means that each group must end with an externalized expression to either the church or unbelievers – that is, it fulfills a mission to reach others with the life of the gospel and the church.
These ministries are typically staffed with volunteers, but to my mind, the lack of disciplined training and discipleship in these structures is a significant missed opportunity. As with Sunday service attendance, for many, this may be the only and best opportunity for relational development within the body, and it is a shame to not structure it with the maximization of spiritual development in mind.
This portion of the Sunday service should not be overlooked, but instead, viewed as a critical part of creating the heavenly community. In corporate worship, both the presence of God and the experience of being part of a larger community and narrative is experienced in a powerful, emotive encounter. Members of the worship team(s) need to be encouraged and instructed in the importance of vibrant and heartfelt, spirit-led worship.
Again, the other missed opportunity here, as in all three of these foundational ministries, is the chance to build relationships through group study, training, and mentoring. Rather than merely a weekly practice, why not study Christianity and the arts, attend vocal training together, learn about sound and lighting, and share one another’s burdens as other small groups do? Especially since, if members are volunteering for worship ministry, they are probably not also attending a regular small group.
2.3.2 Youth Ministry
The training of youth in the faith is a perennial challenge and opportunity for churches. Like the main Sunday service, our ministry to youth may suffer from being mere teaching instead of training – or worse, mere contentless baby-sitting and pizza parties, which acknowledge the adolescent need for plain fun and friendship, but miss the huge opportunities characteristic of each developmental stage, including identify formation and the acquisition of adult tools of ethical and world-view formation. In a world that increasingly pits reason against faith, promotes materialism and atheism, or provides a plethora of multicultural faith options, it behooves us to not only inculcate our beliefs and values to our youth, but to train them in precisely how to reason and think in order to make those determinations for themselves.
In some churches, the rejection of mere babysitting does not lead to structured and developmentally appropriate training, but instead is replaced with the opposite, and perhaps even more damaging extreme of forcing youth to evangelize, professing a faith that they not only do not have, but due to the ‘identity moratorium’ characteristic of youth, goes against their developmental needs. This danger, along with the tepid entertainment model described above, are probably equally responsible for the large percentage of youth who abandon their faith in college.
Again, the other missed opportunity in this foundational ministry is the chance to develop skills and mentoring. For example, why not provide all children’s volunteers with training in CPR, child care, parenting, dealing with strong-willed children, and other helpful life skills that they can take away from their volunteer activity, rather than feeling like they gave their time but received little in return? And I repeat, if this is their main and perhaps only church group, why not make it a missional small group? It does have a mission, an important one!
2.3.3 Deaconate Ministries
Deaconate duties, including facilities maintenance, greeting, visitation, and even security are often treated as the ‘easy, unskilled’ volunteer tasks at a church. But again, why not make this team a community of learners and disciplers? Such teams could be trained in basic self-defense, disaster preparedness, and safety, as well as provide training for the rest of the congregation, or as an outreach to the community, all the while building kingdom relationships.
2.4 Christian Education and Sunday School
While the need for developing relational community is of primary importance in the communal structures of church life, there is still a need for regular, disciplined instruction and training which may require a higher level of commitment, time, and personal application than mere Sunday sermons or small group participation. More highly academic, deep, and disciplined classes such as programs for new believers, or instruction in Christian living, or leadership training may still find positive use in our churches. However, I think these may be secondary in importance as compared to the prior establishment of the other structures outlined herein.
The common, sacramental practice of communion has not sat well with me for nearly my entire Christian experience. There is a range of theologies regarding communion, from trans-substantiation to the abiding presence to a mere common meal, remembrance of Christ’s work and celebration of the resulting Church in a non-sacramental way, and I heartily favor this latter interpretation. A closer examination of communion seems to reveal that the New Testament church practiced it as a regular meal of fellowship, not a liturgized sacrament, and it is arguable that even Jesus’ inculcation at the last supper was not meant to be taken sacramentally or liturgically.
With an eye towards real communion and relationship and faith building in mind, I would prefer a quarterly pot luck supper at which personal testimonies are given (a wonderful practice, as discussed by Lillian Daniel).
Over the centuries, the Church has explored many schemes to bring the gospel to the unsaved, and many with success. One such formula is a combination of unselfish community service, integrated with regular evangelical outreaches. This formula seems perennial and wise, though it can go awry for a few reasons, whose consideration will aid us in doing a good job. Those errors include:
- Conditional Service: Providing service with the expectation of some sort of returned favor, such as church attendance. A better approach is to serve without expectation of returns.
- Unstrategic Service: While service with expectations of response is disingenuous manipulation, mere service without Christian character or content can be a waste of resources for a church. Rather than meeting every need available, a church ought to meet needs according to the vision and mission given to it by God – that is, to focus on communities it intends to reach with the gospel, in ways that are both meaningful and build relationship. Such relationships are the seedbed for fruit in later evangelism – and this seedbed is not meant to be viewed merely in this utilitarian way, but with a genuine development of concern and appreciative friendship.
- Service Without Evangelism: The gospel truth among many liberal mainline denominations has degraded to a point where the message is one of mere doing good, with no regenerative message of repentance and faith towards God. Since many of the members are unregenerate, they are not even yet part of the kingdom of God, nor can they see it. Their efforts, therefore, while laudable from a humanitarian point of view, do nothing to further the gospel and the Kingdom of God.
- Evangelism Without Service: This is the condition of some conservative churches, though perhaps not as many as supposed by the critics of the church – it has been shown that religious conservatives give more of their time and money to both Christian and secular charities than any other analagous cultural subgroup. However, when this does occur, it can be a symptom of a non-relational, utilitarian approach to community and evangelism, lacking both the initial relational seedbed, and often, the infrastructure to instruct and embrace new converts within the church.
- Evangelism Without A Culture of Relational Discipleship: As alluded to above, many churches have spent little time with practices that build relationship among current members, and even less on systems of mentoring. If new believers are created by evangelical outreach, these fruits may then rot as they find no relational or practical support for their nascent faith.
With these cautions in mind, I propose that a once or twice annual corporate evangelistic outreach to the community is necessary to reap the harvest of seedlings that are being created through previous efforts of service and friendship by the church in the community. As discussed, however, the infrastructure of existing relationship and relational and discipleship practices should be prepared and in place long in advance of such efforts.
2.7 The God Who Interrupts
Beneath this detailed structural analysis and innovative planning is the assumption that our intelligently designed structures and practices will lead to success. And while chance does favor the prepared, there is no substitute for one critical element – the devotion and attention of leadership and laity alike to the real person of God, who, like the wind, goes where he wishes and acts without considering our planning (John 3:8). As it is written:
A man’s heart plans his way,
But the Lord directs his steps. (Proverbs 16:9)
We must pay attention to the Sovereign, who at times reveals his presence and plans through unexpected events, visitations of awareness, and gentle and timely promptings. As soon as we begin to trust in our own plans and designs, we may drift from the understanding that it is the living God we are seeking, and who we need to act in and through our work. This requires our cooperation and flexibility, as well as our eager expectation that God will meet us in our doings. We must not forget to stay in prayer, watching at His gates daily (Proverbs 8:34).
The implementation of church structures and practices must be preceded by examination and understanding of, not only the timeless practices of Christian growth, both individual and communal, but of the values that shape and fill the content of our teaching and practice, as well as the particulars of our cultural context. That context includes the imbalances of both our religious and larger societal cultures, as well as the human and spiritual needs we face in our individual locale.
Certainly, a shift to a more relational model for community, as well as one that is focused on equipping congregants to live Christianly and live in deep relationship, are a critical and needed foci for improvement and change in our practices. Superficial use of our existing corporate structures is a tragic missed opportunity for development, and a waste of our precious, limited time. Our practices need to support individual spirituality, promote and facilitate relationship and training in godliness and real-world skills, and be designed with the well-defined stages of human development, from youth through old age in mind.
A well-considered, prioritized, strategic and patiently implemented set of values, content, structures, and practices can lead us to spiritual health, effectiveness, and joy beyond the sometimes paltry experience of faith and community that is the sad norm in much of the Church today. May God help us to make such changes quickly and effectively.
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