Moving beyond church services

My latest column at Christian Week:

Dallas Willard, author of books about Christian spiritual formation, writes, "We must flatly say that one of the greatest contemporary barriers to meaningful spiritual formation in Christlikeness is overconfidence in the spiritual efficacy of 'regular church services,' of whatever kind they may be. Though they are vital, they are not enough. It is that simple."

This drives pastors crazy because we know it's true.

Regular church services are most of what some churches do. Close to half of my week as a pastor is spent preparing for services. Most congregations structure their buildings around space for services. When we say that we're going to church, we're really talking about attending a service. If we cut back what we do as a church, the last thing we'd ever cut is our regular church service.

For a long time, many of us thought that the world needed better church services. We produced services with better music, drama, and practical sermons. We built our entire evangelistic strategies around getting people to come to our church services. It hasn't worked.

We have tried to build better services, but they still haven't come. In 1946, 67 per cent of Canadians regularly attended a place of worship. Today, that number is 20 per cent.

We are even losing evangelicals. In a 2003 survey, 59 per cent of evangelical Christians agreed with the statement, "I don't think you need to go to church to be a good Christian." A British Columbia former pastor defended himself on this blog against charges that he hates church. "I don't hate the church," he wrote. "I happen to think it has some inherent problems and is somewhat sociologically irrelevant. The music is horrible and the ministers speak too long, but I love the church. I do not know if I will ever attend church on a Sunday morning on a regular basis again."

It's not that church services are unimportant. They are, as Willard says, vital. The problem is that we may rely too much on one main service a week, and not on other practices that are at the heart of what it means to be the church. In the process, we are not attracting unbelievers, and are not having the impact that we could even among those who attend services.

I'm still thrilled when unbelievers attend church, but I've stopped making it my goal. "The Come-To-Us stance taken by the attractional church is unbiblical," write Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch in The Shaping of Things to Come. "It's not found in the Gospels or the Epistles. Jesus, Paul, the disciples, the early church leaders all had a Go-To-Them mentality." The church, they argue, should be missional, engaging the community outside the walls of our church building, including those who are never going to join the church.

Some question if we really have to choose between being missional and attractional. There's surely nothing wrong with being attractive to unbelievers. I've come to realize, though, that most people are not staying away from church because of the seating, parking, preaching, or music. We're not even on their radar. Perhaps our efforts will be better spent on equipping ourselves to be salt and light, living the gospel in our schools, homes, and workplaces, rather than hoping people will come to us.

The attractiveness of Christianity is ultimately not found in a church service. It's found in a group of people who are living the gospel. Churches can be more than a service. They can be alternate communities that exemplify the Kingdom of God and its values.

Part of the appeal of the early church must have been the way that slaves and masters, Jews and Gentiles, and men and women overcame social differences and worshiped together. One could only explain this kind of countercultural community of love and forgiveness by the gospel. You can explain good music and preaching lots of other ways, but there's no way to explain people who are living the gospel apart from the gospel.

Many churches are exploring how to move beyond a once-a-week event, and instead live as an alternate community shaped by the gospel. Thank God for that.

The Sunday experience

This post is from the defunct blog "Dying Church"

To me, the whole Sunday experience is an area that pastors and leaders need to reevaluate. I became tired and weary of trying to evoke a spiritual response from people in this manner. It's no accident that most Sunday services in churches around the world are held in buildings where there is a stage that the pastors lead from and the congregation sits in rows and pews like an audience. Sunday morning is a performance and no different than your local community theater (except often the quality isn't as good). Put simply, if you are a decent speaker and you have a good worship leader you can get people to do almost anything. It's really like shooting fish in a barrel.
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Social concern is not secondary

We've been chatting a lot this past week about social justice. One commenter wrote this at Paul Martin's site:
What is better? Bread that causes you to never hunger, or bread that fills you only for a time?...BOTH are important, but feeding the soul with the bread of heaven is the far greater of the two. If you are doing both great. If you are emphasizing the physical needs over the spiritual you are not doing what Jesus did.
Of course, this raises all kinds of questions and issues. When it's put crudely, social action is seen as something "even atheists can do" and therefore vastly inferior to evangelism. If you have a choice between offering someone a cup of cold water or telling them about Christ, the argument goes, let them go thirsty - if you have to choose. Social action is seen as a secondary duty. But maybe we're not exactly framing the question properly. Maybe better questions are ones like these: What does the gospel mean for whole people, not just souls trapped inside a body (which is a lousy way to see people anyway)? What does the gospel mean for societies and structures? Or is it all about spirits and heaven one day when you die? Tim Keller gets it right in his book Ministries of Mercy. He argues that Christianity leads to a completely different type of social action than anyone else can do:
Only the ministry of the church of Jesus Christ, and the millions of "mini-churches" (Christian homes) throughout the country can attack the roots of social problems. Only the church can minister to the whole person. Only the gospel understands that sin has ruined us both individually and socially. We cannot be viewed individualistically (as the capitalists do) or collectivistically (as the Communists do) but as related to God. Only Christians, armed with the Word and Spirit, planning and working to spread the kingdom and righteousness of Christ, can transform a nation as well as a neighborhood as well as a broken heart.
Exactly right. Keller later argues that social relief work is not secondary. "Jesus uses the work of mercy to show us the essence of the righteousness God requires in our relationships...The striking truth is that the work of mercy is fundamental to being a Christian." Keller later quotes Robert Murray McCheyne, a preacher from 150 years ago. McCheyne says that when Christians ignore the poor, he worries about the poor - but he worries even more about the Christians. Speaking of Matthew 25, he said:
You heave a sigh [for the poor], perhaps, at a distance, but you do not visit them. Ah! my dear friend! I am concerned for the poor but more for you. I know not what Christ will say to you in that great day...I fear there are many hearing me who may know [now] well that they are not Christians, because they do not love to give...Oh my friends! enjoy your money; make the most of it; give none away; enjoy it quickly for I can tell you, you will be beggars throughout eternity.
Social justice and social action are not secondary. They are fundamental to the gospel and what it means to be Christian.

The People formerly known as The Congregation

This post is from the defunct blog "Dying Church"

Bill Kinnon writes:
We are people - flesh and blood - image bearers of the Creator - eikons, if you will. We are not numbers. We are the eikons who once sat in the uncomfortable pews or plush theatre seating of your preaching venues. We sat passively while you proof-texted your way through 3, 4, 5 or no point sermons - attempting to tell us how you and your reading of The Bible had a plan for our lives. Perhaps God does have a plan for us - it just doesn't seem to jive with yours. Money was a great concern. And, for a moment, we believed you when you told us God would reward us for our tithes - or curse us if we didn't... We grew weary from your Edifice Complex pathologies - building projects more important than the people in your neighbourhood...or in your pews. It wasn't God telling you to "enlarge the place of your tent" - it was your ego. And, by the way, a multi-million dollar, state of the art building is hardly a tent. We no longer buy your call to be "fastest growing" church in wherever. That is your need. You want a bigger audience. We won't be part of one.... You offered us a myriad of programs to join - volunteer positions to assuage our desire to be connected. We could be greeters, parking lot attendants, coffee baristas, book store helpers, children's ministry workers, media ministry drones - whatever you needed to fulfill your dreams of corporate glory. Perhaps you've noticed, we aren't there anymore.