It has been over 2 months since I have stepped into a physical church building. I missed it at first because it was a habit. I've gone to church every weekend for almost my entire life (I took a small break from God in college). 22+ years of spending every Saturday in a sanctuary really ingrains the habit into you! It is a part of my own culture; my comfort zone.
My time at home has caused me to seriously reflect on my church-going experiences. I will be honest, even in the months leading up to quarantine, I was struggling to find a place to attend services. I bounced around for almost two years- encouraging people to find a church family, yet not really having one myself.
I still don't really have one- not in the traditional sense. I don't know where to specifically invest my money or invest my time even after we are allowed to leave our homes.
I've been thinking about this a lot. Am I a bad example to others because I'm not consistently attending the same church (in-person or online) routinely? Here I am writing about the value of faith and a relationship with God- even writing a book on Amazon encouraging people my age to go to church- and I'm not going myself. How hypocritical... but I know I am not the only one facing these feelings.
It is "trendy" right now to go against organized religion. Even some of the most popular church congregations are labeled, "non-denominational". Traditional churches have given themselves a bad name because of their high (though not always Biblical) standards, rules, politics, and traditions. Religion is becoming a thing of the past- instead, we use words like faith, energy, or spirituality to describe what we believe in.
I am not wrestling with the concept of the church merely because it has lost its popularity in society. I think there are many benefits to organized religion. The greatest benefit I can see is being able to fellowship with people who have a similar world-view to ours. While I certainly advocate for friendships with a wide variety of people and viewpoints, I also think it is important to find "your tribe" or people who understand clearly your perspective. The second greatest benefit of organized religion is certainly financial. If I have a group of likeminded people willing to pool their money with mine towards a cause we all agree on, I can be much more effective in spreading the gospel to the world.
Is church Biblical? Absolutely. Yet the more I read the Bible, the more I must admit that the way we go about church isn't quite what we see in the New Testament. Although the church did consist of meeting together, music, and fellowship- it appears that the New Testament church was much more simplistic than church today. Perhaps the biggest difference I see in churches today vs. in the past is the heavy dependence placed upon the views and words of people and policies- not the Bible itself.
Think about it- when a church member has a question about God, are they most likely going to pick up a Bible and seek after the answers or are they going to call the local reverend? I am not saying it is "bad " to speak with a pastor. Ideally, the pastor will point you to scripture- but is that actually happening? Or what about when a member does something that "goes against" the policies of a church? For example, in the Adventist church, it is frowned upon to eat pork or drink alcohol. Although I understand that such policies are founded upon Biblical principles, I question the delivery. Suddenly when it is revealed someone in the church drinks alcohol or eats pork we are faced with the dilemma of how to handle such a revelation. What if they are a church officeholder? Who is going to talk to them about their actions? After all, we can't allow them to "taint" or "misguide" the rest of the congregation. I see the purpose behind handling things in such a way, yet something is unsettling about it for me. Everything about the church as an organization starts to feel a lot more political or business-like. The church of the Bible was not a business operation- it was much more relational.
Acts 2:42, 46 And they were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer...And day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart.
What a simple service! We can find aspects of church from other parts of the Bible as well. For example, Ephesians 5:19 points out the value of music and praise. Corinthians speaks on giving money towards a cause for God. We also see a "sermon" being put on by Paul and the apostles. Every element of what we think of as traditional church is listed, and yet I still can't help but question the way we carry out these things. So often I hear that we should do things this way or that way, "because that is how it has always been done". Is that really a good reason?
I am asking you if we should rethink how we do church. Although many of the aspects of New Testament church exist in congregations and services today, I notice three key areas we could re-evaluate.
1.Presentation - Our church gatherings aren't supposed to be a show. It isn't a concert, a Broadway production, or even something like a wedding. I remember visiting a church once where there was a closet of suit jackets for loan. If someone came to church without a suit jacket, they were given a jacket to borrow before they were allowed to go into the program. Someone would literally ask you to leave if they didn't like your outfit!
Another time I attended a church where the lights, music, and special effects were so overwhelming that I couldn't think straight. Did I love the music? yes. Was it exciting? yes. Did I learn or think anything about God? Not really...
From what we see in scripture, less is more. You don't need a special outfit or a huge production to worship God with your friends and loved ones. We get so wrapped up in the theatrics and setup of it all that we forget to focus on what the purpose is. If we leave church feeling more excited about the fact that the program ran smoothly rather than about what the actual message was- we might need to rethink how we are doing things.
2. Sermons - I will not argue that scripture clearly supports having a message shared during gatherings, but I'm a bit concerned with what sermons have become in this modern day. The next time you listen to one, I want you to count how many times you actually need to use your Bible. How many Bible texts are referenced? Is the majority of the sermon stories and jokes from the speaker's personal life, or is he/she actually explaining scripture? I have no problem with stories and jokes (I think they are helpful when relevant) but they should not make up more of the talk time than the actual Bible does.
I am also curious about why church has become "Sabbath/Sunday School" and then a separate "Sermon". It seems like including discussion in the actual central program could do a lot of good. As we see Sabbath school attendance on the decline, I really enjoy programs that have started incorporating discussion into the main service. Church attendees often have thoughts and questions that go unanswered. Perhaps you're thinking, "Well that is what Bible study/Sabbath school time is for!" Yet I see no good reason for the sermon to not also be Bible study time. Acts gives evidence of discussion-based services rather than one person taking the spotlight. Yes, Paul gave a sermon all by himself until midnight, but we are not Paul! We are not Bible apostles who walked and talked and saw God. We must be mindful of the fact that the Bible is the only true source of information on God in our modern age. Our own hearts and minds can be deceitful without proper anchoring. I've seen too many pastors make it all about them rather than all about scripture.
3. Leadership- Perhaps at the heart of the issues that I take with modern church functioning is a heavy focus on reputation. This is especially apparent when it comes to the selection and appointing of people in leadership. I will speak from personal experience with the Seventh-day Adventist Church. We pride ourselves in being "the remnant" church, and with that label comes a high standard to live by. We have a long list of fundamentals that are expected to be known and displayed by anyone who wants to get seriously involved in our ministry endeavors. Again, I understand the mindset behind this, but I question if this is Biblical or something we have developed for ourselves. The more we rely on policy and human standard to orchestrate how we do things, the less we rely on God. We must be honest and recognize that sometimes our church leaders are chosen because of political gain. Who do they know? Who is their family? Who gave a lot of money to the church last year? Funny how those are the people we start hearing about getting ahead despite many other qualified people showing interest in church positions.
What would an ideal church look like? Naturally, it doesn't exist- but I would urge readers to consider this: Some day, when we are all worshiping together in heaven, what will that service look like? As we think about what church with Jesus in heaven would be like, I hope we will incorporate that vision into our programming here on earth. In the meantime, I fully intend to return to church as COVID19 improves. Perhaps I will mention these ideas to my local leaders- perhaps you could too.
I really like the photo below. To me, this is a true vision of church atmosphere- interactive, collaborative, and simple.