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Wednesday, July 27, 2005

What Is Simple Church? (part 2)

In part 1, I explained a bit about how I came to ask some tough questions about what we do in "church" and whether it is really what God had in mind. In this conclusion, I'll detail a bit more some of the things that came to my mind in response to some of those questions. This is by no means exhaustive, and some of these topics will be taken up in later postings here, but it's at least a start.

While I don't recommend doing this for everyone, I chose to take the approach of stripping away everything that I had associated with "church" and with "ministry" and build from the ground up the things that Scripture and the Holy Spirit seemed to indicate were important.

In searching the Scriptures, I quickly saw something in 1 Corinthians 14 that intrigued me. Verse 26 says that when we come together, everyone has something to contribute for the edification of the Body. Everyone? How can that be? Imagine during a church service in most of our churches if someone felt a word from the Lord to share. What opportunity would they have? Maybe a short time of "structured" sharing that is "policed" by the leaders. Or, worse yet, no opportunity whatsoever. So, the word that came to my mind immediately as an essential element to gatherings of believers is that it needs to be "participatory". It needs to be able to be open enough that everyone has the chance to contribute.

Additionally, in order for everyone to have the chance to participate, it seemed necessary that the gathering be small enough and informal enough for this to take place. This reminded me of "small group fellowships" in which I had participated in the past. Could this be what Paul was viewing in his thinking?

Another verse that jumped out at in me in 1 Corinthians 14 was verse 30. In this verse, Paul says that if someone is speaking, and a revelation comes to someone else, the first speaker must be silent and let the second speak! This definitely cannot happen in our structured church services, can it? But consider the casual conversation that takes place in any informal gathering. One has a thought about what someone says, and they are able to interject it. Was this what Paul was teaching?

In addition to seeing the benefits of informal, open, participatory gatherings, I also thought about the whole "church building" idea. There is no indication in the New Testament that these new communities of believers (especially the Gentile communities) built new buildings in which to meet. I could write volumes on this, but consider even the way in which this puts financial constraints on churches. If we assume that we need a special building, we build something that is only used for a few hours a week, yet costs thousands (or millions, even) of dollars to build and maintain. It has been estimated by some that as much as 85% or more of the money that comes into churches goes toward mortgage, maintenance, utilities, etc. Is this a wise use of funds??

Whether or not people come to meet in my home, I have my electric bill to pay. So, it doesn't cost anything additional to me for people to meet in my home. I'm not incurring a completely separate set of utilities just to have a place to meet. What purpose does the building serve except to confuse the issue of what the "church" really is? Jesus said that where two or more are gathered in His name, He is in the midst of them. What more do we need?

Then there was the whole idea of paid staff. In years of being paid to "do" ministry, it has occurred to me that while receiving that paycheck, I was in bondage to the very ones paying it. Ministry, while perhaps noble-intentioned, became a "job" for me, and became something that I needed to hold onto in order to pay my bills. Consider a pastor who is paid by the church to preach. If he feels led to preach something that "steps on toes" in the church, he puts his income and job in danger. And so, he feels trapped. I know, because I've been there! And I've seen others go through it, too.

In addition to the dangers of being controlled by the ones paying the pastor's salary, there is the expectation that it is the pastor's job to do all the ministry. Instead of growing in their faith and sharing the gospel themselves, people often feel like they just need to invite their friends to church and let the pastor "save them" through his preaching. I actually was part of a church that printed up "tracts" to hand out to people. This is not uncommon for jump-starting evangelism. However, these "tracts" were merely invitations to the church with service times and maps!!! That is not evangelism!! In 1 Corinthians 14, do we see an indication that one person was to do all the speaking and preaching? No! In fact, it is expected that multiple people will speak during the gathering!

So far, I have shared the following elements of "simple church":

  1. No formal building (and therefore no huge expenses)
  2. Open, participatory services where all can contribute
  3. No paid staff (cutting expenses even further)

Additional thoughts that troubled me had to do with our relationship with Christ, our possession of the Holy Spirit, and yet the very stifling of those very things in the Body of Christ. In other words, Peter calls us a "kingdom of priests", referring to the fact that we have direct access to God through Jesus Christ. Additionally, since Pentecost, believers have been filled with the Holy Spirit -- something that was only "hit-or-miss" in the Old Testament! So much of our structure and formality comes from the Old Testament. The building = the tabernacle. Pastors = priests. The people came to the tabernacle, because that was where God dwelled. But where does He dwell for believers now? IN US!! We have no need to "go" anywhere to meet with God. That's the beauty of Jesus' promise to be "in the midst of them" when we are gathered in His name. The people went to the priest because He represented God to them. He was the mediator. Who is our mediator now? Jesus Christ! Together, we can all come to Him directly without someone having to stand between us and Him.

If we really believe this, then we can believe and trust that the Holy Spirit is able to accomplish what He wants to accomplish in our gatherings. We have no need to "control" the flow, or "structure" the service, or limit God in any way.

Now, I know there will be many objections to this. And I have heard many, if not all, of them already. I will likely address some of those objections in future posts. But I ask you, before you strongly object, to ask yourself what the foundation of your objection is. We are so easily trapped by tradition. We don't even know it! Traditional views of things that we assume are biblical and godly, but sadly often are neither. I grew up assuming that to be a strong, good Christian, you needed to "attend church" and get involved in that church. But to what end? Now, I realize that so much time, money, and energy is spent on just keeping the machine rolling. Time that could be spent ministering to one another and edifying one another. Money that could be spent on meeting people's need -- feeding the poor, etc. And energy that could be turned outward into evangelism.

I could go on and on about these issues. But let me conclude this two-part post with a description of a recent gathering we had to illustrate just how this all plays out. This is actually not necessarily one particular gathering time being described, but sort of a combination of events that have happened in several gatherings.

As is our usual custom, we met in the evening for a potluck supper. There were only about 8 of us, and each one brought something to contribute to the meal. As usual, we didn't even coordinate the meal ahead of time. Yet nothing was lacking. Some had brought main dishes, others brought salad or vegetables, someone brought drinks and dessert. The Holy Spirit can even coordinate our physical food!

After thanking the Lord for the privilege and opportunity of gathering in His name, we enjoyed fellowship around the table as we ate. The conversation ranged through all kinds of topics -- some blatantly spiritual, others more "how was your week" type of talk. There was laughter, there was discussion, there were side was all very informal, just like a big family dinner (and that is, in fact, what it is)! At one point in the time of fellowship, someone in the group quietly slipped another person some cash. It was a response to knowing a particular financial need. The person receiving the cash warmly embraced and thanked the other, while consciously not drawing attention to the gift. No one else even knew this took place. (I only know this because I was the recipient of that gift in this particular situation.)

At some point, with no announcement but as everyone seemed to have finished eating, the group naturally moved to more comfortable seating in the living room. The conversation never really ended, but we gradually ended up transitioning (again without any human direction) to a central conversation where only one person was speaking at a time. Someone had a guitar, and he began singing a song at one point. Those of us who knew the song joined in. Anyone who didn't know the song just worshiped as they listened. When the song ended, someone began to pray. It was a simple, heartfelt prayer. Others responded with affirmation during the prayer. The prayer led to another song that came from someone other than the man with the guitar. It just came with no introduction, no announcement. The song followed up on a thought that had been expressed in prayer, and again, those who knew the song joined in.

A period of silence followed as no one was prompted to speak, but then someone broke the silence by saying, "This week, the Lord was showing me something in the Word that I would like to share." And they began to share very simply the truth that God's Word contained. While they shared, someone else had a correlating thought and piped up with that observation. There was even some discussion about whether or not the view presented was completely valid. Gradually, the group came to a consensus on the topic, and were able to encourage one another with their observations from the Word in support of what was being shared.

Again, someone expressed a prayer to the Lord, and while praying felt led to pray for a particular need in the group. Others joined in again with affirmation, and hands were laid on the individual with the need. At one point during this time of prayer, yet another song came forward. This one was short, just a few lines, and only the one singing knew it. But we all were able to agree with the words being sung, and it seemed to represent many of the prayers being spoken.

At some point, the flow began to settle down. There was more silence. Almost as if on cue, we began to open our eyes and smile at each other. Some wiped tears. Others continued to silently pray. With no formal announcement, it was understood that our gathering was coming to a close. With more words of encouragement, we embraced each other and spoke praise to God for once again moving through us.

Gradually, people gathered their belongings and made their way to the door. Someone offered to host the gathering at their place the following week, and one-by-one the group dispersed. Yet another gathering of the Body of Christ had taken place, and all were edified and built up. I still had a wonderful peaceful feeling as I drifted off to sleep that night. Nothing was lacking this time. There was no emptiness. I had once again experienced the beauty of being a part of the Body of Christ. I think Paul would have been pleased. I know God was!

Until next time,

steve :)

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