When I went to Bible College (I have a paper that says I graduated), I took a class called, New Testament Church. The course started with a simple thought experiment that led us to multiple readings through the New Testament, to compile a list and verify our conclusions. We started with a simple question, what makes a church, a church? From there we went on to explore, “what are the practices of the Church as described in the New Testament?”. What we came up with, and it must be right because I got an “A,” was that there are actually very few “necessities” for a group of people to be called, “the Church.” As for essential practices, we settled on two categories: ethics and observances. Our fear of sounding denominational kept us from using a better word for “observances,” which would be “sacraments.”
The thing this course highlighted, that we all quickly set aside on a high shelf to ignore, is that very little of the ethics or practice of the contemporary Church would resonate with the first century followers of Jesus.
A friend of mine told me that one of the ways he knew it was time to retire from full-time pastoring was when he was stopped, in a hallway of the church building, between morning services, by an older woman who was there for the service with her mother. “Do you think,” she asked my friend, “that we could do something about the volume level of the music for the next service?” The answer he gave was softer than the answer he wanted to give but it was one of those moments when he knew the clock was quickly ticking towards retirement.
None of us became pastors in order to navigate the mysteries of public opinion on sound levels. As a wise old soundman once told me, “no two ears are the same, even the two on your own head.” But opinions we have and the thing is this – it is often our opinions that divide us, our preferences, and not the way of Jesus and the small list of things that actually matter.
It’s often how many songs we sing
or how long the sermon is
or what the temperature of the room is set at
or how often we take communion
or just how communion is taken.
Often, in North America, the health of a church is measured by attendance numbers, “conversion” numbers and financial (giving) numbers.
While I am a big believer in metrics and measuring things, I also have been around long enough to know that some wildly toxic church cultures have nailed all the above metrics and monetized their approach to doing so and marketed it to the masses so that we might reproduce their “success.” Are you feeling what I’m trying to say?
The last four years in the North American church has caused me to deeply question our “conversion” metrics. Our denomination asks me for a yearly count on these metrics. They separate conversions and baptisms. I think that’s wise. I can tell you if someone has been immersed in water. It’s going to take me a few years to tell if someone has been converted. The overt politicization of our faith here in America has been revelatory. The recent viral video of a mega-church engaged in chanting together on a Sunday morning a popular Right-wing slogan that is openly or commonly known as a euphemism for “F*ck Joe Biden” should alarm everyone who follows Jesus. Not for President Biden’s sake or because of Democrats or politics in general, but because a group of Christians are gleefully chanting something known to be so anti-Christ.
I remember when I was told I shouldn’t say, “Shoot!” as a Christian because it was just a euphemism for “Sh*t!” And I was told a Christian shouldn’t say, “Jeez!” because it’s just a euphemism for “Jesus!” and taking the Lord’s name in vain. And now we’re euphemistically (and gleefully) chanting, “F*ck Joe Biden” between Holy, Holy, Holy and How Great Thou Art.
That’s messed up, y’all.
And for me it calls into question exactly what we’ve been converting people to.
Which brings me back to Church and how we do it.
If the way the kingdom comes IS the kingdom that’s coming, what does the WAY we do Church say about the kind of kingdom that’s coming?
Is it largely sitting and watching?
Is it largely monochromatic?
Are spiritual gifts primarily for supplying workers for the Christian Industrial Complex?
Is the Beloved Community engaging the World the same way I’ve been accused of – only working one day (and not even a whole day at that!) a week?
I’ll confess again that I listened to more sermons in a week than is probably good for a person. In my defense (*I need to defend this?*), I believe preaching can be a beautiful form of art and I try to engage with it as such, both as a practitioner and a listener. Something I’ve noticed is that messages by pastors of really large churches today, often contain a significant component of – let’s call it ‘consumer assurance.’ The preacher will spend time in their talk assuring those listening that really great things are happening in their church, together they are doing more, together they are winning, and the listeners listening and attendance and faithful giving is accomplishing extraordinary things.
I’m not judging those who do this. I am saying that it’s something new. Something I did not hear preachers of large churches preaching 30 years ago (yes, we had recordings back then) or read preachers preaching 50 years ago or more.
Church has changed. What I’m wondering is, has it changed in a way that is taking us closer to the TELOS of our Story as we’ve known it – OR – are we operating from an understanding we have some new or different TELOS than Paul and the Gospelers?
This week I want to expand “pastoral ministry Tuesday” to the whole week and talk about being the Church and what I think the future might look like for those who want Jesus but are already over the Christian Industrial Complex and what comes with it.
Help me out by telling me what you see as our essential ethic and what are our essential practices or sacraments as the Church Jesus builds?