Forty years ago, I specifically remember telling a friend that I was thinking of starting a new church, and he responded, “Why in the world would you need to start a church? There are plenty of churches around, and most of them are only half full. Just tell everyone to go to the church closest to them.”
From his perspective, the reasoning seemed very logical, but to me, it didn’t make any more sense than telling everyone they should go to the nearest restaurant to their home and eat there. It doesn’t matter whether the patrons preferred the ambiance, quality, amount, or ethnicity of the food, protein is protein, and carbs are carbs.
I did some mental calculations in preparation for this blog, and I have either visited, attended, advised, or consulted with over a thousand different churches in my lifetime. They have varied from rigorously liturgical scripted services to a storefront that had an impromptu hemorrhoid healing time during the service. Yes…they asked for everyone who needed hemorrhoids healed to come up front and stand in a huddle! No comment. I have worshiped with tens of thousands of people in stadiums as well as in dark stained glassed cathedrals with more dead people buried beneath the floor in crypts than alive people sitting in the pews.
In one service, some individuals started a dance line where you would put your hands on the shoulders of the person in front of you and they began dancing to a Latin beat around the room. One by one, people joined the line until my friend and I were the only ones still standing in the rows. I told my friend I wasn’t going to join, but then several women grabbed me and, before I knew it, I was in the line…not quite moving to the same Latin rhythm as most of the rest of those in line. In another church (of about 40 people), during my first time visiting, I was called out in the service and told I must come to the front and lead the entire congregation in a song…acapella! Talk about embarrassing and humorous!
I am not making any of this up. Reality is too funny. So why do we have so many churches?
First, let me say that I am having fun with these churches, but not making fun of them. They were all different for good reasons. They were not necessarily wrong in their different forms. From my perspective, there are at least nine factors of the church milieu that play a part in forming a congregation to be what it is, whether it started 200 years ago or last week. Governmental policies, theological beliefs, cultural norms, community needs, physical context, congregational spiritual maturity level, leadership gifts/personalities, supernatural sensitivity, and denominational history all play a part in what forms a congregation to be, look, act, and value what it does.
Last week we discussed the different ways we grow. I suggested that we are all wired differently to value certain things. This surely impacts the people who are attracted to these churches. The way individuals view governmental policies, their own Biblical/theological beliefs, ethnic/cultural background, social needs, spiritual maturity, physical attributes, personality/gifts, supernatural sensitivity, or their own church/denominational background all influence the church they prefer and possibly the one in which they would grow best.
The most common metaphor used to describe the church in the New Testament is that of a body (1 Corinthians 12.12-27; Romans 12.4-5, Ephesians 4.15-16). Notice this would imply the church is a living organism comprised of living members or parts (i.e. us as humans). If the church is a living organism made up of living parts, then it is always growing changing, recreating, or dying. Therefore if a church stops being a living and evolving organism, it will start to atrophy slowly.
We have witnessed over these past 2000 years that churches are born and serve the great purpose of equipping followers of Christ to mature in Christlikeness and make a godly impact in their world for a generation or two. However, given the priority that is placed upon each of these nine factors, the church in each generation and location has looked different from those preceding it. And by necessity, it will look very different from those in the following generations and locations.
Over time, churches become institutions and organizations rather than living organisms. Their goal becomes one of preserving the organization, rather than changing individuals and the world. To avoid this, I have often suggested that churches should have an expiration date like most organic products. After 20, 30, or 40 years, the assets should be turned over to another church to do it again; this time differently, because by then the world around them has changed dramatically.
I have a lot more to say…but that is probably enough for now to get me in trouble.