Doing Church in a Different Key

“The church status quo is dead.”  This summer I finally stated out loud what I had been thinking for a while with my long time friends Alan and Jane.  During our Seattle visit we were sitting on their patio having a wonderful salmon dinner with their adult daughter Laura.  We always end up talking the theology of doing “church” with their church as the case study.  They lay out the heart aches of being church leaders and I lend my pastor perspective-usually pushing the envelope too far.  But I don’t think they realize our discussions help me coalesce and state what has been swirling in my brain.  That evening the conversation orbited around the notion the the way we have been doing church since Alan and I were teaching Sunday school together just isn’t working.  That’s when that provocative statement popped out of my mouth, “the church status quo is dead”.  No one recoiled in horror, no one protested “that’s going a little far”, just nods of agreement.  What had been a growing suspicion became a statement I’m willing to stand by.

Today Alan and Jane are in the middle of their five day visit with us and this morning we finally got around to the theology of doing church (their church is such a great case study by the way). “The status quo is dead” is now one of our postulates and as we talk about what isn’t working I try to find ways we might approach it all differently.  When we got around to their youth group I had an insight.

One of the dynamics of their group is that a significant portion of the kids’ parents aren’t involved in church.  They invited the parents to various programs, but there hasn’t been any response.  In fact we also talked about church programs in general; the same five to ten people do all the work, and begin to feel overwhelmed, and discouraged with meager results.  My first response about the parents was, “Invite them to dinner”.  Jane thought for a moment.  I don’t remember her exact reply, but it was obvious she was thinking in terms of a program.  That’s when I realized I pictured something different.  I was envisioning a group of people around the table in someone’s home, with some of the non-church parents sprinkled in; laughter, conversation, and caring along with the meal, an opportunity for hungry and thirsty hearts to be refreshed.  Maybe it could be a once a month event, where the loving arms of Jesus would wrap around people who really needed it, whether or not they ever got involved in church.

Then I realized something else.  Programs are the primary way the North American church expresses Christ’s love; it’s how we think, how we are set up.  Programs have been an efficient way to schedule, organize and allocate resources, and reach relatively large numbers of people. But my insight today is that programs also place a layer of detachment between us and the hungry hearts yearning to experience God’s love, whether they know that or not.  Instead of thinking in terms of programs we need to think in terms of relationships.  I believe that’s a big difference between Christian summer camp and church.  I saw more lives profoundly transformed lives in my few years at camp than all my many years in church.   Our method of camping ministry was driven by building authentic relationships.  My time in the church has been dominated by putting on programs.  The most profound experiences of Jesus are found within the context of “real” Christian relationships.

I think what Alan, Jane, and I are coming to is that we change how we do church by taking bigger risks to be relational.  Sure, maybe inviting non-church parents of youth group kids once a month sounds like a program.  But that’s only a tool to grow relationships where Jesus is present, leading to experiences of kindness and joy, hurt and forgiveness, wounds revealed and healing received.

Instead of asking what kind of program do we need to help people, we need to first be asking, what will most effectively build Christ-like relationships with people? We need to be willing to take bigger risks to build relationships.




5 thoughts on “Doing Church in a Different Key

  1. Good Heavens, Tom, you can’t do that!! Why, why…it would look like the First Century Church! Meeting in somebody’s home, sharing a meal, followed by a little worship and communion. See who needs prayer, pray for them, and then everyone goes home.

    I like it.

  2. Eugene Peterson agrees with you. I remember the first time I heard him talk about this it made me sit back and take notice of what we do and why we do it. I agree, we don’t need ‘programs’, but fellowship. Through fellowship we truly learn one another’s needs and can grow to meet them.

  3. True story. We love our church, but rarely attend programs. Small home groups have been the mainstay of Bethany for 30+ years. Sharing food, wine and conversation with neighbors works best for the Beaumonts. That being said, I have heard great things about Alpha — but of course, we have never attended.

  4. Not only do churches in the US think in terms of programs, it’s that way here in Europe, too. There are, however, many new, hope inspiring initiatives going in the direction you envision. As I have stated before, relationship is a risk- you become open not only to all those fine things about relationships but to hurt, too. In close, everyday relationships, you get down to the nitty-gritty of things. Forming and maintaining good relationships is hard work and it’s for the long haul.

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