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Is There a Better Way to Do Church?

by David Fredrickson

 

In the book of Acts we read of a church that had no New Testament scriptures, was considered a cult by the religious order and was led by a few fisherman, a couple of anti-establishment activists and a despised tax collector. Yet God’s power demonstrated through them was explosive and constant, producing significant miracles and resulting in thousands of conversions.


The spiritual leaders of the day seethed with jealousy and began plotting ways to stamp out the competition, but the ensuing persecution only strengthened the infant church and eventually became a catalyst for the spread of the gospel to other parts of the globe.


Yet by the latter part of the first century the church had already lost her first love. She had become distracted from her focus on Christ alone, and the fresh revelation of his person ceased. Her futile attempts to fill the gap with religious knowledge and/or dutiful service degenerated into pride and dead works. Finally, boredom and failure to squeeze life out of stale information and dead works led to the invention of “new” revelation straight from the pit. So a few decades after John’s gospel was written, heresy entered the church. Ignatius tried to stem the tide of false teaching by appointing bishops over the church and taking the ministry out of the hands of those under them. The heresy continued on, but the priesthood of all believers was dealt a telling blow.


A couple of centuries later Constantine sealed the deal by creating an unholy alliance between church and state. Pagan cult priests, called clergy “converted” to Christianity to enjoy the financial benefits paid to leaders of congregations supported by tax revenue previously designated for pagan worship. An ambitious building program was initiated which served to complete the separation of clergy and laity by making the congregation a non participatory audience listening to a lecture by a paid professional.


Centuries later Martin Luther recovered the truth regarding the priesthood of all believers. Sadly, the church never realized its full application, and the clergy/laity system remains with us today along with the apathy that always accompanies the spawn of religion.


Jesus said he would build his church on the rock that is the revelation of Christ and that
the gates of Hades will not overcome it. Yet most of what is called church today has been built by the hands of man on the sands of his own vision. Christ’s church is a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God. It is certain that what is built and owned by man is at best a hollow substitute for the heavenly reality.

Sadly, the majority of religious organizations today deemed to be most successful rise and fall based on the ability of a charismatic figurehead to draw people to themselves. Multi-million dollar facilities, slick marketing strategies and agendas promising something for everyone all combine to create a self serving kingdom built on the power of personality and the almighty dollar. They represent a worldly system that has substituted the kingdoms of man for the kingdom of God. Misnamed “church”, they have become the spiritual focus of many of the true ecclesia which has been called out of the very systems of which these organizations are part and parcel.

Just about everyone from Joe Pew Sitter to those regarded as church statesmen would agree that what most people call church today is in serious trouble. There is no need to review the long and familiar list of alarming statistics that point to the sorry state of an institution once regarded as the mainstay of American society. Countless programs, seminars, articles and books attempt to pinpoint the problems and offer solutions. Prayer movements, spiritual warfare soldiers and spiritual mapping enthusiasts double and redouble their efforts to ambush the enemy and pray down revival. Pastors are experimenting with the latest sure-fire methods for reaching the lost while keeping the saints happy.

The current economic crisis combined with the increasing dissatisfaction of “church” goers is challenging the survival of institutional Christianity. In response, thoughtful spiritual leaders have prescribed adjustments in focus and emphasis that must take place if the church is to be relevant and effective in our changing world. Most of the adjustments prescribed involve a paradigm shift in focus and emphasis. Yet it’s clear that a paradigm change is needed.

It should be obvious that the word “church” is a misnomer for the institutions that claim that distinction today. Even a casual reading of the New Testament scriptures make it clear that church is not an event one can attend nor can it be denoted by location or facilities. It certainly cannot be defined as an organization nor identified with any one human being or exclusive group of people. It is never defined as meetings or programs. One cannot join it or “leave” it. According to the scriptures, no man can own it or preside over it, no one can build it or make it grow, and no one can shut it down.

Yet most of these distinctions so foreign to biblical church accurately describe the religious institutions of today. Such organizations are a decoy to those that would find Jesus, and a substitute for genuine community. They leave many of God’s people confused, hungry and scattered. These people have no idea what it means to be the church or what authentic Christian community really is by definition or practical application.


The last decade has witnessed the exodus of millions of believers from religious institutions. That, coupled with alarming statistics covering various issues from divorce and pornography to the acceptance of heretical doctrines believed by a large percentage of Christians has forced church leaders to wake up to the obvious. Church, as practiced today, simply doesn’t work.

So for many, it’s back to the drawing board. Yet whenever the effort to understand the essence and function of "church" becomes so complicated that it takes numerous theologians and philosophers of spirituality to decipher it, one can be certain that the simple gospel has been missed altogether. Jesus came with a simple message that simple people could understand, live and share simply with others. Like the Scribes and Pharisees, religious leaders have tweaked, restated and added so much to it that it's morphed from vital relationship with God and one another to dead religion.

It would seem that the failure of Christianity to facilitate being the church has inspired a multitude of techniques and formulas to "make it happen." Having failed at that, new ways are invented to "do it." Today one can choose institutional, emerging, organic, simple or house "church" or any one of a plethora of denominations without coming much closer to understanding the essence of authentic church life.

It’s an exercise in futility to attempt to dissect something too unpredictable, large, fluid and powerful to fit into buildings, meetings, pet doctrines or the current fads. By so doing some have created enough confusion to convince any unprejudiced observer that Christianity is the most complicated religion on the planet, and its adherents the most divided.
There's no value in trying to find a better way to "do church" as it is not something that can be done, only lived. Jesus left us with one commandment, to love as he did. Living loved and loving others is the very essence of church. The profoundly uncomplicated description of church life in scripture could be summed up as a community of people living loved by God and finding themselves producing life in ways and means that he prepared for them ahead of time. Such communities would be as diverse as are people, cultures and conditions. They would be as flexible as necessary to accommodate the changes constantly affecting those three dynamics.


Imagine for a moment how church might function as a Spirit led community. When the church gathered the happenings would be as spontaneous as is the Holy Spirit who would be directing the flow specific to God’s heart for the individuals gathered. Jesus compared the Holy Spirit to the wind and then said the same comparison applies to those born of the Spirit. So the expression of authentic church life could never be as predictable and static as what is called church today. Special emphasis on certain aspects of spiritual growth or specific tasks would last until the season changed to another. Growth would be organic and love would define every dynamic.


There would be no need for fresh movements because participation and function would be fully dependent on the daily unfolding revelation of Christ and how he is moving in the hour. Perhaps this sounds painfully idealistic and unrealistic to some reading this. Yet compared with today, so does most of the New Testament.


It’s true that “church” structures which fail to facilitate individual giftings and community will hinder the forward movement of those that rely on them to meet their needs. And when church is mis-defined as an organization and/or a place one attends to get their spiritual fix for the week, the problem becomes even more serious. Yet attempting to remedy that lack by redesigning church still does not address the root problem.


Neither Jesus or the writers of the New Testament said much at all about church meetings or how to “do church.” What they focused on was life in the kingdom. That pretty much boiled down to relationship with God and one another and how that would draw others into kingdom life.


When Jesus addressed the need for new wine skins, It’s quite certain he wasn’t referring to new ways of “doing church” or new structures to “do it” in. Most likely he had in mind people prepared to receive the fullness of God through the indwelling Holy Spirit, a people who know little about “what” and “how” yet live deeply in Father’s love.

To state the obvious, it’s futile to spend time, energy and money attempting to revive or preserve that which has not been built by the hand of God. It is past time to turn from dead works, to repent from building our own kingdoms, from worshipping money and power. It’s time to humble ourselves before God and one another. We must confess that we’ve strayed so far from what Christ taught about his church and from what was birthed by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost that we’ve lost touch with reality. We must cease to interpret the scriptures to support our religious prejudice. We must repent from receiving the praise of men which has made it impossible for us to believe regarding those things that bring glory to God.


Any expression of genuine church life will spring directly from lives integrally joined with Christ through a process to which the cross is central. Why do we attempt to create new wineskins that lend themselves to organic function and growth and then expect God to breath life into them? We are the wineskin in need of having the old wine of selfish ambition squeezed out of us by the loving hands of Father through the work of the cross. Out of that process unique expressions of church will develop naturally that may not look like what we had pre-conceived, nor will they remain unchanged as we grow in Him.


It is futile to search for something that can only come about as the fruit of discovering some One in his fullness. Christianity has lost sight of the head of the church, a tragedy that renders any form of church irrelevant.

About 80 years ago T Austin Sparks put it like this:

“God's way of recovery, when His full and original thought has been lost and that heavenly revelation has departed and the heavenly glory has been withdrawn, is to bring His Son anew into view; not to bring you back to the technique of the Church or the Gospel or the doctrine, but to bring His Son into view..”

When something’s broken, it’s human nature to try to fix it. But church is people, and only a fresh revelation of the Lord Jesus Christ that brings death to all our own plans and efforts can restore life and direction to what he has birthed.


But Biblical relationship is costly as it’s based on the kind of love that moves one to lay down his life for another. Most of us are so busy saving our life that the thought of giving it away is consciously avoided. So the foundation necessary for authentic church life is missing.


Consider this from S. Kierkgaard:


Nothing displeases or revolts us more than New Testament
Christianity when it is properly proclaimed. It can neither win
millions of Christians, nor bring revenues and earthly profits.
Confusion results. If people are to agree, what is proclaimed
to them must be to their taste and must seduce them. Here is
the difficulty: it is not at all that of showing that official
Christianity is not the Christianity of the New Testament, but
that of showing that New testament Christianity, and what it
implies to a Christian are profoundly disagreeable to us.
Never can Christian revelation “please” us: in the depths of
our hearts Christianity has always been a mortal enemy.
History bears witness that in generation after generation
there has been a highly respected social class (that of
priests/professionals) whose task is to make of Christianity
the opposite of what it really means.


The good news is that Jesus Christ is building his church notwithstanding the confusion and distraction generated by religious substitutes. He is building a people both from within and apart from religious institutions who live to know him intimately. Their obedience is motivated by love for him and one another. His true disciples have died with Christ to their own worldly ambitions and pride of life. Their Christ like character enables them to walk humbly in the power of the Spirit to establish his kingdom on earth. Their identity does not lie with a denomination or religious institution. They network through relationships to build up the body and reach out to others around the world. They are done with all but that which exalts the King and reflects his kingdom.

A. Schmemann describes the motivating force of those who are given to the true mission of the church:


“A Christian is the one who, wherever he looks, finds Christ
and rejoices in Him. This joy transforms all his human plans
and programs, decisions and actions, making all his mission
the sacrament of the world’s return to Him who is the life
of the world.


Perhaps, then, we would do well if we quit trying to fix that which cannot succeed and redirect our lives to that which cannot fail.





Articles by David Fredrickson
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