Thursday, November 12, 2009

Church Search

I’m in between churches right now – between congregations. All summer and fall I’ve been casually attending the meetings of various friends. I can’t tell you how wonderful it feels to not be obligated to make an appearance at any one building on a Sunday morning. I might tell a friend I’m coming, or I might decide Saturday night. Some Sundays I sleep in. Sunday morning heathenism is rather refreshing.

Except it isn’t heathenism. A lot of what happens in those buildings on Sunday mornings is of heathen origin. But heathenism is a lot more than skipping a sermon and praise concert. It is a lifestyle of rejecting God, and that I certainly have not done.

I believe the Bible teaches Christians to gather regularly with each other. That isn’t something I have abandoned either. My recent experience is filled with times of fellowship and encouragement with other believers. We do ministry together, hold each other accountable for our walks with God, philosophically tackle the dilemmas we’re facing, study the Bible, and pray. During these times we also tend to eat, to play games, to laugh and tease, sometimes to work. Kids running around get swept up by disciples of Jesus, who – like Him – love children.

About a month ago some friends invited me to their church. I went that weekend. This week they asked me what I thought, and didn’t I like it (since I hadn’t been back). And I froze, because, well, I did like it. The people were friendly and the teachings were biblical and stimulating. But I don’t think I’ll join. This Sunday I did go back there, though. And my friends’ thirteen-year-old son confronted me, “I thought you said our church was just ‘ok’.”

Hard to explain. This particular church is on the good end of mainstream churches. They have good doctrine. A lot of their money goes to missions. Kids are with parents in church for most of the time, and youth aren’t separated from their families. The music isn’t too loud or too self-centered. With a congregation of about 50, the pastor and teachers can know everyone.

After pondering for a day or so, here is my answer to the thirteen-year-old friend: (it’s alliterative so I can remember!)
1) Plurality. There is only one pastor at the church. He’s the head man. I believe Jesus is the head of the Church, and that leadership beneath Him must be shared among more than one equal. Whenever real life cases are discussed in the New Testament, the word is used in the plural. (Elders) In this way they can model cooperation and problem solving. Congregations and pastors are kept mindful that Christ is the true head, and that the Church is His project. Also, when one is weak, there is another to be strong, the proverbial man to pick you up when you fall. Two are better than one and a cord of three strands is not easily broken. Pastoring is a lonely job, being at the top instead of a part of your congregation as friends and brothers. My Bible describes a different sort of dynamic, where pastors are respected for being respectable and where everyone is exercising his gifts for the good of all: pastors, prophets, discerners, helpers, administrators, on and on.
2) Property. This was quite confusing to my friend, who expects people to scorn his church for meeting in the club house of a condominium complex. Whether you own a building, rent it, or have borrowed money from a bank to claim that you own it, all represent instances where the Church of God has used resources God entrusted to them not to do what He has instructed: caring for the poor, widows, orphans, and missionaries – but to have a separate place to meet. I believe churches are meant to be gathered in homes. Limited in size, surrounded by hospitality and everyday life, the atmosphere of house church encourages the participation of everyone, the familial fellowship of believers, and the synthesis of sacred and secular.
3) Preaching. The New Testament describes and even commends preaching. Except almost always the lecture style sermon was delivered to an unsaved audience. It is a tool of evangelism. And evangelism is not the purpose of the regular gathering of believers. In fact, the church meetings described in 1 Corinthians are much more open and unstructured than what we usually think of as church. No one was scheduled to speak. Anyone (any man?) was allowed to bring a word, be it a prophecy, a teaching, a tongue – as long as he spoke it for the edification of the group. He may share a testimony of God’s work or an instruction or challenge the Spirit laid on his heart to give to his friends. A teaching might be towards an identified deficiency of understanding or may flow out of the studies individuals are making during the week on their own. Prophecy may correct the direction the congregation is going, may identify weaknesses and strengths among them, may warn them, or may give them hope and vision for the future. Some verses indicate that individuals may also bring songs of their choosing to the meetings of believers, with which to encourage each other.

Now that I’ve said those things, I do believe that there is a place for the lecture-style teaching we call sermons. I really enjoy Bible conferences, and am not opposed to worship concerts where the band has practiced and is intending to honor God. When I visit my friends’ churches, I usually view those services as conferences, and I look for the Spirit-driven gatherings elsewhere. At this stage of my life I’m not content with the small groups and Bible studies that have been getting me by. So I’m still looking, reading books and searching websites from people who are practicing what the Bible teaches about Church. I’m excited to see where that leads.

Some questions remain, stronger tensions between the familiar and the ideal: how is authority supposed to work in the church? Is it important? Is it a matter of exercising authority or of submitting to authority? How much should we submit? What shall Christians do for evangelism? Wouldn’t it be better to team up? But is it wrong to invite people in to hear the gospel, or should we go out to them? Are women to speak in the church meetings? If not, why on earth did Paul say so? - Just to prove I don’t think I know everything!

To God be all glory.


Doc Op said...

My wife and family attended a small house church for a number of years and are now back in a traditional church setting. When I read descriptions of Church life in the New Testament, it seems that there are some descriptions that righty apply to a home --and Paul (?) directly references a church that meets in a home. But there are also many descriptions of the church that cannot possibly speak to a house church, unless you think of a network of house churches. The plurality of elders and deacons, the size of the Christian community, even descriptions of Paul speaking to groups, are all indicative of large gatherings of believers. There are some things that happen much better in a house church, but there are many other things that cannot readily be done in that setting. (Our own house church was comprised of people from various church backgrounds, ranging from Mennonite to Methodist, Presbyterian to Baptist. I liked the fact that we didn't always see eye to eye, but it can be confusing when discussion is not directed by those with strong leadership skills (or shared theology). And some of our meetings were driven by people with neeeds (a good thing in measure) or by a lot of personal opinion, and "well I think it means this." (which meant we went all over the map.) We experienced good sharring, and prayer for one another, but not the best theological oversite.

So, in my mind, the best of world would include a smaller gathering (be it a house church or simply a small group within the church) and the larger assembly, with attendant oversight and discipline.

As for women speaking in the assembly, I have visited some old-order Mennonite fellowships where women really do not speak at all (except perhaps to direct children, but certainly not to chat) and where they follow an older custom of gender segregation in seating. (This would have been a common practice in many Puritan gatherings in the 1600s as well). As is, I am of an understanding that the admonition that women not speak in the church flows from a time when many churches followed the pattern of gender separation as practiced in the Jewish synagogues. While the admonition not to speak certainly seems to assume the concept of male leadership, it may also have applied to much smaller situation in which women were simply gabbing amongst themselves. In that context, the admonition makes sense, that women not gab, but take any questions about what they have heard, back home and to their husbands. said...

In some of the church organizations I have attended, there has been a conflict, not spoken, but there nevertheless between the authority of the ministry and the authority of the Bible. I like to think of it as a question. I don't remember if I ever asked this question of anyone, but I asked it and answered it for myself: do you attend church services because the Bible tells you to, or do you read the Bible because the Church tells you to? In other words, which comes first in authority, the Bible or the ministry of the Church?

For me the answer is the Bible. The Bible comes first. I can respect the office of a minister, and I do not expect ministers to be perfect, but if the minister says one thing and the Bible says something else, I will believe the Bible.

As I point out in my book, the Bible is God speaking, and God requires that we believe Him. That is an important part of faith, our willingness to believe God. And I have proved through fulfilled prophecy that the Bible is inspired by God.

You seem to be more attached to the Bible than to any one congregation, and that is good.

Learning from the Bible is a process of being willing to be corrected by God and believing God even when it is hard and requires us to make painful changes. But if we believe and obey God on a point of correction in the Bible, God will help us understand more and the process continues, one belief at a time. But if we reject what God says in favor of our own opinion or the tradition of men, God helps us no longer, and our understanding of the Bible comes to an end, which is a scary thought considering the consequences of that.

Lisa of Longbourn said...

Thank you both for your comments.

Doc Op, I agree that there are some passages that describe larger gatherings of Christians than fit in normal houses. Thank you for elaborating.

Obviously there are difficulties in house churches. Paul wrote to churches with such weaknesses and problems. However, since Jesus Christ is the head of His Church, and is doing the grace-work of making it resplendent in holiness, and because He seals each member of His Church with the indwelling Holy Spirit, I expect that the gatherings can be centered on what God would have us say and do and be. I dare Christians to believe that and to try it.

Penman, you gave a clear description of why it is important to have God first, rather than the plans and pragmatism of men. I like your illustration.

To God be all glory,
Lisa of Longbourn