Category Archives: Christianity
It’s time to preach a hard truth.
It’s becoming clear the lecture is dying as an effective communication strategy in today’s postmodern cyber culture.
No, it’s not extinct yet but the writing’s on the Facebook wall.
The sermon (as lecture) had a great 500-year run, thanks to academic reformers like Martin Luther, Huldrych Zwingli and John Calvin who refocused Protestant worship from the experiential Eucharist to the authoritative Scriptures. The sermon-lecture found particular efficacy in the Enlightenment era when Great Awakening preachers like Jonathan Edwards, Alexander Campbell and George Whitefield roused their flocks using rhetoric and reason. And once technology permitted sound to be amplified and images televised the sermon was staged and spotlighted. From Billy Graham to Bill Hybels, from Mars Hill to Saddleback, power communication and “personality” preachers wired countless churches.
Of course, none of this matters to a postmodern culture that’s grown frustrated and disconnected by the conventional, traditional and typical church.
Millennials (b. 1982-2004) are voting with their feet. One study suggests three in five churched Millennials graduate high school and church on the same day. A recent blog ignited social media fire (and ire) for daring to outline “why Millennials are over church.” Some of the more insightful reasons included “nobody’s listening” and a desire for mentoring instead of a sermon.
But these sentiments aren’t just from Millennials. Gen X (b. 1961-1981) has also lost heart with the Church. Call them “church refugees” or “dones” or whatever, but these 40 and 50-somethings are equally troubled and tired. Church has become painful, irrelevant and disconnected. “It’s just a concert and TedTalk anymore,” one Gen Xer opined about his church experience.
When Gen X began its exodus in the late ‘80s, churches merely shrugged. It’s just how that generation handles stuff. They’ve always been anti-institutional. Then the Millennials commenced their departure (early 2000s) and everyone was puzzled. This wasn’t supposed to happen. Millennials were the church’s “baby on board” bunch. We created amazing children’s and youth ministries just for them. We cajoled and coddled them, even bribed them with candy, Bible Bucks and other prizes.
Now they’re leaving? Shocking.
So WHY are they leaving? Simple. They struggle to hear us anymore.
In my book Sermons Reimagined: Preaching to a Fluid Culture, I explain the problem is rooted to communication. Post-modern generations (Gen X, Millennials, iTech) simply can’t “hear” or “understand” the Message because they process and communicate information differently than older generations (thanks to changing technology). This cultural shifting is nothing new. Approximately every 500 years, culture evolves when new “mega-techs” re-orientate cultural interactions.
2000 AD – present
Mega-Techs: Printing Press, Mechanized Clock, Telescope
Mega-Techs: Internet, Television, Cellular Phone
Closed. Print. Passive. Control.
Open. Image. Experiential. Choice.
|Content: Organized, Never Changing||
Concepts: Organism, Always Changing
Reason: Scripture as Textbook
|Revelation: Scripture as Letter|
|Generate answers: get to the point||
Create questions: embrace the process
|Lecture, Sermon, Monologue||
Experiences, Interactivity, Visuals
For many postmoderns—Christians or not—going to “church” is eerily like going to another class lecture (boring!).
Postmoderns want to talk about Faith. We want to talk at them.
Postmoderns want to experience Truth. We want to define Truth through principles, propositions and points.
Postmoderns want to see God working. We want them to hear God’s Word.
It’s no wonder we’re losing touch and becoming irrelevant. We’re like an 8-Track cassette: great music but packaged by obsolescence.
It’s why the sermon is dying.
The lecture is over.
(this blog was originally posted to REFRESH THE CHURCH on 2/27/2017)
What do you remember about your childhood church?
I remember much. And I’m beginning to miss it more and more. I grew up in the church of the 1960s and 1970s. My church was a small congregation in small-town Montana. The church has never grown larger than a couple hundred, but her influence has been wide. She produced dozens of pastors, missionaries, elders, deacons, Sunday School teachers and other leaders.
What do I recall about my childhood home church?
I remember the smell and feel of a hardwood pew (where I literally cut my teeth). I remember the clink of glass communion cups and the taste of homemade unleavened bread and sometimes stale grape juice. I recall the sounds of a dueling organ and piano, the Doxology hymn after the offering and the prayers of nervous elders around the Communion table.
I remember stained glass windows that told stories of the Faith. I remember hymns that communicated deep doctrinal truths with passion and purpose. The Church’s One Foundation. In The Garden. Softly and Tenderly. The Old Rugged Cross. Power in the Blood. Revive Us Again. When We All Get To Heaven. We had no band. No lighting cues. No fog machines. No hi-tech visuals. No sound system. Just a guy or gal waving her arm to lead us in a hymn’s tempo, whether 4/4, 3/4 or 6/8. I remember a time when worshippers sat reverently and sang loudly (in parts). Back then our worship leader used to chide that we couldn’t sing “Standing on the Promises” as long as we sat on the premises. Today we stand to worship (and sometimes are chided if we don’t) while many (especially men) don’t sing at all.
I remember congregational readings and prayer times, when we openly shared our troubles, triumphs and trials. In my childhood church everyone had a role. Some ushered. Some gave devotional thoughts. Some served the Communion. Some passed the offering plate. Some prayed. Some read Scripture. Some played the instruments. Some led the songs. Some gave announcements. Some shared a special song, poem or art. Even the kids were involved. I once did a “chalk art” drawing on stage while my preacher waxed eloquent about heaven. I was eight years old.
I remember monthly fellowship dinners where the whole church gathered to feast, but to also share stories, build community and enjoy life. I remember old ladies with perfect attendance pins (some years in the making), sermons on sin, Hell and judgment, two-week Vacation Bible Schools and revivals, all-night prayer vigils and the annual Christmas play (to a packed house). I remember hanging with my preacher in his office, his home and even on the job (he was a part-time radio broadcaster). We played a lot of ping pong and shuffleboard.
I remember, as a preteen how the boys and girls were separated for a few years (Junior Boys and Junior Girls) to learn from same-sex teachers. I remember “sword drills,” Bible baseball and other games to encourage Scripture memory. I learned how to use a concordance, pray for others, study the Word and share my Faith. And unlike today I learned without bribery, Bible Bucks or other gimmicks to incentivize my motivations. To paraphrase a popular hymn: “My faith was built on nothing less than my preacher’s notes and Standard Press.”
Above all, I recall feeling safe in my church. No matter what life brought me, I knew the saints had my back. My preacher knew my name. My teachers knew my cares. Church was a place to gather, connect and commune. We were family. The parking lot was still full long after church let out. Few beat it to the door because there were plenty of people looking to talk to you. Visitors were welcomed and often invited to join for Sunday dinner. We didn’t give visitors a gift. We gave them our lives.
I’ve seen “church” change a lot in my lifetime, but I miss “church” as it was. Today’s church seems so plastic, processed and produced compared to my church back in the day. Today too many Christians want quick, convenient and entertaining, but at what cost? Discipleship has been reduced in some churches to a Sunday TedTalk. In other congregations, especially of the non-denominational evangelical stripe, the only person who prays in the service is the pastor. The Lord’s Supper or eucharist has become a drive-by, occasional event. Worship a concert. Fellowship an accident. Evangelism something someone else does.
Some might view my reminiscing as criticism, but that’s not true nor my intent. It’s mostly just observation. If you’re younger, I understand. All you’ve ever known is the church of the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s. But the “church” of those decades was in transition and transformation. It’s wasn’t the “old school” church that those of us 50 and older grew up experiencing.
Personally, I’m not against change. In fact, I think there’s been many good and healthy changes in the Church since my youth. I appreciate worship that’s more culturally-sensitive and emotive. I appreciate that sermons are more applicable. And I’m grateful for the plethora of resources, helps or ministries for just about every need or problem.
Nevertheless, we have lost some great traditions. We’ve cut loose some wonderful ways we once connected. We’ve forgotten some beautiful strategies for sharing, growing and maturing Faith. I know we can’t go back. And we shouldn’t. Today’s church operates within a completely different cultural context and it’s not possible or reasonable.
If there’s one thing we do need is a return to SMALL. Bigger hasn’t been better for the Church. The bigger we’ve gotten the more we’ve lost the personal touch. Unless we can reimagine “mega” into smaller communities (where everybody knows your name), even the large churches will eventually stagnate and decline. It’s critical the Church recaptures authentic community that provides every person a place, role and purpose.
This was the practice of the early church: small, home-based communities of probably no more than a couple dozen. For centuries the Church operated small and contextualized to a particular neighborhood or town. Discipleship was in upper (living) rooms. Worship was interactive and everyone contributed. Evangelism happened by riverbanks, side roads and in prison cells. The disciples were sacrificial in their giving and no one had a need.
It sounds a lot like the church of my childhood.
Can you imagine a church like that today? I can.
For the DNA of the Church hasn’t changed. It’s the same yesterday, today and tomorrow:
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread (Lord’s Supper/Eucharist) and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts (Acts 2:42-46).
The most influential person in history wasn’t born with a silver spoon in his mouth. He didn’t grow up in the lap of luxury banking on some family fortune. He wasn’t educated by the elite, groomed by the fashionistas, manicured by the media or mentored by the successful. His birth made no headlines. His biography was brief.
And yet this man remains the most quoted, respected, honored and successful person in history. He is loved by celebrities, kings, presidents, potentates, tycoons, poets and academics. His legacy is felt in the minstrel’s music, the painter’s brush and the poet’s line. All other great men and women pale in comparison to this one single life.
This influential leader was born in a relative’s outbuilding in a small, obscure town under foreign oppression. His desperately poor parents were troubled by scandal and tortured by a political paranoid. They even relocated temporarily to another continent to escape death. The boy grew up in a sketchy town widely known as the butt of a joke, hanging with people considered ignorant, average and common.
Maybe that’s why the hoi polloi loved him. He gave them help and hope, love and liberty, respect and restoration. He was their type of guy. Working class. Middle class. Redneck and blue collar.
Surprisingly, this influential teacher was largely rejected. Many in his own family avoided him. His peers criticized him while opponents attacked him. Ultimately, he was deserted by even his closest friends. He’s not what anyone expected. He didn’t fit their mold. He didn’t work their system. He didn’t play by their rules. He never labored abroad, earned a degree, won awards or wrote a book. He never sought fame, power or riches. Most of his influence and impact would happen after he was gone.
In life he proved a controversial failure. He never built a successful brand or business, nor owned land or property. His resume was a litany of losses. His references suspect. His authority questioned. His ideas challenged. Thousands abandoned him. He angered the religious establishment, confused the governmental powers, discouraged the seekers and disappointed his disciples. He was labeled a loose cannon, rebel and heretic. He was called a liar, deceiver and fool. Even his closest followers denied, doubted and betrayed him. Unlike other revolutionaries he never raised his voice or the sword, used threats or bribes, censored critics or complainers. This man of sorrows, with a life tattooed by failure and rejection, was charged for crimes he didn’t commit, sentenced to a death he didn’t deserve and executed by those he didn’t offend.
And yet, he still changed the world forever.
On his deathbed, only a scattered few paid their respects. He died in his prime…mostly alone, surprisingly despised and roundly rejected. He was crowned with thorns, nailed naked to wood and hung beside crooks. He was smeared, sneered and speared, then hastily buried in a borrowed tomb. His only property left to gamblers. The few that still followed locked themselves behind doors, fearing they were next.
Jesus did everything wrong. He loved the wrong people. He taught the wrong things. He performed miracles on the wrong day. He picked the wrong disciples. He angered the wrong powers. He was born into the wrong family, under the wrong circumstances, and grew up in the wrong place. He had the wrong education, the wrong plans and suffered a wrong ending.
And yet every wrong made it all right.
After all, you can’t keep a good man down…especially if He’s more than a man.
Jesus did what no man can do: He rose from the dead. In doing so, he proved His Divinity. He also revealed the last can arrive first, the least can end greatest, the insignificant can become important, the weak can be strong, the small can grow tall, the old can be new, the wrong can be right and the dead can live. He showed you don’t need breaks, luck, license or blessing. You don’t need the right name, face, place, race or gender. You don’t need to build a media empire, carve a social standing or amass a business fortune. You don’t need the biggest church, the largest budget, the most programs, the best facilities or the sharpest staff. You don’t need an agent, promoter or publicist. You don’t need magic tricks, incentive plans, investment strategies or clever programming.
You just need to follow this Man. And that’s not easy. You might lose everything. You might be hated, mocked or criticized. You might even get crucified.
It’s no wonder that two thousand years later Jesus the Christ remains the most influential, respected and loved person. Everyone knows his name, even if they utter it in curse. His disciples cover the planet. His teachings blanket the world. His impact surrounds the earth. Jesus’ birth and death are revered holidays. We mark history by his life. We quote his sayings, reproduce his teachings and model his behavior. His followers have erected hospitals, shelters, and food banks. They’ve started countless missions, ministries and movements in His Name.
Nobody ever did what this Galilean guru did. Nobody will do it ever again.
His solitary life changed everything. And so can you.
Perhaps you feel like a failure. Perhaps you are deeply wounded. Perhaps you are weak, sick or dying. Perhaps you doubt God’s goodness and power. Perhaps you question Jesus’ love and grace. Perhaps you’re addicted, victimized or abused. Perhaps you feel lost, forgotten or hopeless. Perhaps you wonder how you’ll survive another day or next year.
Life is hard. Thankfully, Jesus came to earth to show us how to LIVE.
And this Messiah modeled success in failure, confidence despite fear, victory over temptation, joy within tragedy, and life from death. By all human standards, Jesus should be at best a historical footnote. A nice story of a good guy who tried hard and failed.
But the Christmas gospel is more than a nice story, it’s a testament to how Divine Power mixes with human frailty, fault and failure. It’s about angels on high and dirty shepherds, a Bethlehem star and a stable of manure and hay, and Holy God inhabiting infant flesh. It’s about LIFE abundant. The real good news is that Jesus didn’t come to make you good or nice or religious. He came to bring you LIFE no matter what.
No matter where you started. No matter where you are now. No matter where you’re going.
No matter what…Life! And life beyond measure…a wonderful life!
No doubt the real reason wisemen still seek Him.
Outside my window I see change is in the air. Leaves are turning various shades of orange, yellow and red. The temperatures are dipping. The days are getting shorter. I know that winter is coming (again).
In geology there’s a well-worn mantra: “The key to the past is the present.” Essentially, you can create an historical storyline by observing the present world (rocks, strata and fossils). Unfortunately, rocks don’t come with tags so occasionally misinterpretations happen.
When it comes to tomorrow, futurists bend the rule slightly: “The key to the future is the past.” In other words, what will happen tends to reflect patterns already observable. Master futurists are skilled historians who read the rings of societal changes to project, postulate and predict. Weather forecasters rely upon historical patterns. Baseball analysts predict players’ production using past statistics. Sociologists weigh generational cycles to suggest how current and future cohorts might behave.
Just like we know winter is coming when autumn chills and leaves fall, a futurist stands upon the past to predict the future.
In the past quarter century there’s been a clear shift from linear to loopy thinking. This is particularly evident when you look at history, which naturally tends to repeat itself in very general ways. For example, a year of life contains four very distinct seasons: spring, summer, fall and winter. The specifics (weather, events) might differ but, in general, these seasons are immutable.
In church history we see similar patterns emerge. We see some seasons where the Church is emerging, like leaves in spring. Or seasons where the Church enjoys cultural blessing, influence and power (like summer). Or seasons where the Church hunkers down to survive the dark days of winter. Or still other seasons where there’s decline, but still colorful autumn moments.
Since AD 33, when the Church was born, it has experienced seasonal changes roughly every 250-300 years. An historical analysis also reveals a troubling truth for the Western and Northern Church. It’s not one that’s popular or talked much about, but if history is an indicator, then “winter” is on the way. The darkest, coldest and most desperate season for the Church will be the next 200-300 years in Europe, Russia and North America.
Of course, “winter” isn’t anything new for the Church. It was born in winter, but eventually experienced a spring, summer and fall. Here’s a simply stated history of the Church:
AD 33 – 325 (WINTER): The early and post-apostolic church faced horrific persecution, heresies and struggles. In many places it operated underground.
AD 325 – 451 (SPRING): The church centralizes and nationalizes under Constantine. Two Councils of Nicea (325) and Chalcedon (451) are the bookends to this ecclesiastical “spring” serving to prevent heresy and produce creedal Christianity.
AD 451 – 800 (SUMMER): The church spreads influence (and power) beneath emerging papal Catholic Christianity, most notably Gregory the Great.
AD 800 – 1054 (FALL): Charlemagne is crowned Holy Roman Emperor, as Church enjoys cultural favor. Unfortunately, the good times don’t last. In 1054 A.D. the Eastern and Western church divide in what’s termed “The Great Schism.”
AD 1054 – 1225 (WINTER): After the Eastern and Western Church split, there’s a period commonly referred to as the Dark Ages that produces cultural and biblical ignorance.
AD 1225 – 1517 (SPRING): The crusades and rise of the university spark a cultural spring. Thomas Aquinas, Erasmus and the Renaissance (rebirth) create a new day for the Church.
AD 1517 – 1730 (SUMMER): Using Gutenberg technology, the Protestant Reformation reshapes Christianity and produces modern denominationalism.
AD 1730 – 1995 (FALL): The Great Awakening and Rise of Evangelical and non-denominational Christianity. In a post WW2 culture, the church shines through foreign missions, parachurch ministries, megachurches and “industrialized” and cultural Christianity.
In 1995 the first deep frost of post-modern culture descends. Few see it, but everyone felt it (and many ignored it). On April 4, 1994 Netscape was founded. Within a year, the Internet or World Wide Web (www) became a buzz trend. A new digital alphabet also emerged. JPEG. GIF. MPEG. MP3. MOV. PDF. Within a decade a cyber culture changed the world deeply wounding institutions grounded to analog, print and industrial technology.
If the past is our guide, the next 200-300 years will signal desperate and difficult times for the Northern and Western Church. Could we experience another Dark Ages? Or face persecution like the early and post-apostolic church? The evidence suggests that winter is on the way for European, Russian, Canadian and American churches. On a global front, the Church has moved south and east. Some of the largest churches in the world are now in Africa and Asia. Meanwhile the American Church has followed in the steps of Europe and Canada. Less people identify themselves as Christians (a.k.a. the “nones”). Fewer people attend church (a.k.a. the “dones”). Christianity’s ability to influence national morality is diminishing. In fact, the most radical “alternative” lifestyle in America today is a conservative evangelical Christian.
Every season brings change.
But change isn’t easy. Change hurts, halts and humbles. Change redirects, reorients and replaces.
That’s why we can’t get too comfortable. Change is going to happen. Culture is always evolving, shifting and moving. Churches must relevantly interact with their culture or become obsolete. In fact, every church building has a date of origination that communicates hidden messages to their communities. A building advertises values and vision. It reveals priorities, prejudices and promises. A facility is the face, the first thing a visitor “sees” of physical importance. Have you noticed how the steeple has gone the way of the stegosaurus? At one time steeples were the first physical things someone saw from afar, announcing a church was ahead. Church bells marked the time, announced services and even warned the community of danger. Today, steeples and bells are irrelevant. Change happens.
The question isn’t why things change, but will you change? Currently the Church faces the greatest cultural shift since the Renaissance and our darkest days might certainly lie ahead, at least here in America. We got pretty comfortable in our tax-free, non-profit status. And we embraced Gutenberg and clock technology (two inventions that reimagined modern culture). We like our time and space. In fact, we’ve largely defined “church” as “time” and “space.” We even say we “went to church” (translation: we attended a certain space in a particular time).
But like any new season, change is blowing. In the past quarter century a whole new cyber, digital postmodern world has emerged that’s spelled C-H-A-N-G-E to all institutions, organizations and communities.
What’s this mean? What will the Church look like in 25 or 50 or 100 years?
- Worship will likely move from a “service” to an “experience.” Postmoderns thrive on sensory situations and embrace spiritual spaces that make them “feel” closer to God. As rising 3D technology, holographic visuals and virtual reality capture our cultural eye, people will naturally gravitate toward experiential discipleship, ministry and worship. If your church services are “sit and soak” then you’re on a death march to irrelevance.
- Preaching will likely become more interactive and brief. Because postmoderns process information visually that means the monologue is history…at least long audio-driven sermons. Think YouTube and Twitter. Think Ted Talks or Sight Bites. Think Dr. Oz or Bill Nye the Science Guy. Messages must also create friendships. Pastors must embrace a major paradigm shift and move from “me” to “we” through designed messages that get people talking with each other.
- Churches will likely become spiritual health centers. Some futurists predict by 2020 most people won’t attend a church. In fact, many former church buildings are now coffee shops, homes and bars. The frame exists, but the purpose has been reimagined. Tomorrow’s church will likely be a 24/7/365 spiritual health center. We need to re-purpose our facilities away from performances and events to opportunities that stretch spiritual muscles and grow disciples.
Our culture has changed and the church also needs to reimagine itself (not just reform and restore) to embrace and enjoy this new 21st century landscape. Not everyone will like the changes. We’ll no doubt fail as we find our legs in this new world.
Winter might be coming for the American church, but don’t forget that some of the best cultural events happen during this cold season. Thanksgiving. Christmas. New Year’s Eve. The Super Bowl. Valentine’s Day. Yes, it can be a brutal season. But it can also be a blessed season…for those who ski, sled, skate, snowshoe, snowboard, snowmobile, and ice fish. The early and post-apostolic Church thrived under persecution. Even in the Dark Ages, God was working some great things.
Winter is on the way…no doubt they will prove the worst and BEST days for the Church.
Today the Barna Group released it’s annual report on the State of the Church. And while many will rightly focus on the positives (like most Americans still identify themselves as Christians), there is continuing evidence for general stagnation and decline.
A glaring example is how the report shows only 1 in 3 USAmericans (31%) are now “practicing Christians.” That might sound still pretty good until you read the fine print: Barna defines a “practicing Christian” as someone who attends church only once a month and also says faith is “very important.” I’m not sure many church leaders, pastors or professors of ministry would agree that someone who makes it to church once every four weeks is “practicing” his or her Christianity very fervently. And it’s difficult to understand how that same person could also conclude faith is “very important.” It’s contradictory, even oxymoronic. The real truth? In many communities, particularly in the Northeast and Northwest, less the 10% now attend church every week.
But I think there’s a deeper insight to this troubling statistic: the continuing disconnect of the modern church with wider culture, including self-professing Christians.
After all, this study reveals, most people still think church is a “good thing.” Most Americans even shrug and say, “Yeah, I’m a Christian.” But this post-Christian, post-modern perspective reflects a growing type of Christianity that’s more individualized, eclectic and subjective. Many of these “Christians” self-identify also as the “nones” (no faith affiliation) and “dones” (formerly churched). They still go to church on occasion, perhaps even once a month, but they’re no longer engaged in churchianity.
Many USAmericans now choose to attend sporadically because it’s no longer the best thing personally. As one Millennial recently confided (and this is someone who grew up in church): “Sunday morning church is a waste of my time. I’ve got better things to do.” When probed as to why the Sunday morning church experience is lacking, this Millennial offered several reasons: passivity (“I have to sit there and be quiet; I prefer to be active”), lack of connection and community (“I really don’t know anyone nor feel anyone cares about me”), the lack of ritual (“I like to take Communion and my church only does that once a month, so that’s when I go”) and the sermon (“I want to talk about Faith not be lectured and told what to believe or how I should live my faith”).
Now before we cast stones at this Millennial “Christian,” let’s not miss the bigger point: This individual is very open to Christianity but not churchianity…and there’s a difference.
Churchianity is “come and soak.” Christianity is “go and become.” Churchianity is “going to church” while Christianity is “being the church.” Churchianity is all about numbers: attendance, offerings, facility and staff size. Christianity is about making disciples anywhere and everywhere. Matthew 28:18 is the Great Go-Mission not the Great Come-Inside.
Churchianity is stage-focused and lecture-driven. Christianity is people focused and experience-driven. Read the book of Acts. In this historical account there are clear clues, descriptions and explanations for how to “be” and “do” church. I know this is difficult to comprehend but Christianity doesn’t need a building, an order of service, a liturgy or a preacher or a worship team. The most authentic expression of ekklesia (gathering or “church”) is a small home group. There’s only one instance in Acts where thousands were saved on one day (Acts 2) and they all went home afterwards all over the ancient world. The modern church has reduced discipleship to 25 minute lecture inside the context of an event. Any commanded rituals like baptism or the Lord’s Supper are rushed, reduced or resisted.
Churchianity is representative and top-down. Christianity is democratic and bottom-up. The last will be first. The least will be honored. The small will be big. Water will be wine. You don’t need to be baptized by an ordained pastor or priest. Church was never meant to be merely a concert and Tedtalk (as one of my students opined). I Corinthians 14:26 reveals an interesting insight into what church meetings looked like: What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up. In the early church everyone prayed (not a few), everyone contributed (not a few), everyone shared Divine insights (not a few). The Lord’s Supper was a communal meal. Churches were ruled by a plurality of elders not a single person. Today’s church looks nothing like the original small, interactive, experiential New Testament church.
The problem is today’s Christian (former, inactive, occasional) is rejecting churchianity. They are rejecting the form. They are rejecting the wineskin. They are rejecting discipleship by lecture. They are rejecting another “service” where they sit there for an hour and watch others perform.
Ultimately I believe a church (a gathering of believers) should be judged only against the Original DNA, as revealed in Acts 2:42. Essentially, believers gathered to learn the apostle’s doctrine, to pray, to fellowship and to partake of the Lord’s Supper/Eucharist. This model was clearly Jesus’ intent. It’s how he discipled. It’s what he did when they met together.
We can evaluate every church (and services offered on Sunday) by four simple standards:
- DOCTRINE: Does a church meeting include teaching of the apostles’ doctrine? One Body. One Spirit. One Hope. One Lord. One Faith. One Baptism. One God and Father (Ephesians 4:4-6).
- PRAYER: Who prays at a church? The preacher or the people? Is there opportunity for everyone to pray? Is prayer a promoted value or just supplemental to open and close?
- FELLOWSHIP: Do people genuinely know each other? Does the church create connections, conversation and community in its worship experiences and activities, events and gatherings?
- COMMUNION: Does our church practice the Lord’s Supper every time it gathers? By the end of the first century, the early Church set aside every Sunday morning to gather and participate in this commanded ritual.
If the church where you pastor or attend answered NO to any of these questions, it’s time to refocus the PURPOSE of your gatherings. It’s time we stopped the exodus.
After all, as this Barna report reveals, what we’re doing is no longer working.
And it hasn’t for years.
The seminary, Christian university and Bible college is in trouble, so says my friend and church analyst Thom Schultz in his latest blog “Trouble at Christian Colleges.” Attendances are in decline. Revenue streams are drying up. Entire schools are folding. Over the past two years I’ve visited dozens of private Christian schools in my work. I’ve heard the stories. I’ve seen the struggles. I’ve watched layoffs, downsizing and forced retirements. I’ve even experienced it myself. It’s hard to be a Christian college professor today.
As a professor of ministry for nearly 25 years (15 years full-time), I think Thom largely hit the proverbial nail on the headmaster. I was blessed to be part of Christian higher education during its glory days. I love to teach and still miss the classroom greatly. It was a special blessing to disciple students in ministry leadership. I have hundreds of former students, most who serve successfully and lead powerfully in local churches, parachurch organizations, schools, businesses or other Christian institutions. I am still blessed to teach online at one of the best Christian universities in the world and adjunct courses at other schools whenever possible.
Nevertheless, I will confess I left the academy somewhat disillusioned by the institutional machine of modern Christian education. I served as a professor or staff in four schools, from a small Bible college to one of America’s largest Christian universities. Each had unique blessings, special challenges and proven successes. It was clear the larger the school the more she focused upon non-academic stuff, particularly sports programs and the never-ending campaign to erect the next building (supposedly to attract more students, which didn’t always happen). As a professor, I was discouraged to discover that faculty development, evaluation and improvement was minimal (with spotty training to help me improve as a teaching professor). Outside of semester student evaluations there was little constructive feedback and few budgeted resources to improve pedagogy. It wasn’t necessarily my dean’s fault either. These fine individuals were overworked, underpaid and doing the best they could.
My biggest disappointment is how schools, even those camped in the same denomination, are highly territorial. Outside of sports competitions (which naturally create an adversarial relationship), many Christian colleges operate inside their academic bubble high upon their institutional islands. There’s little cooperation or collaboration. Every school tries to reinvent the wheel, completely dismissing affordable and helpful resources easily obtained through sister colleges. Outside of annual meetings and conventions, where sister school faculty, staff and students, might occasionally rub shoulders, there is little camaraderie.
So I understand why students (and faculty/staff) move on. There are lots of learning options today, particularly digital formats. I personally believe the future of higher Christian education and ministry training is online. It’s faster, less expensive, more convenient and, in my experience, even more productive. Information is cheap in today’s cyber economy. You don’t need to pay big bucks to a school to learn something. Online education is the perfect fit for the emerging iTech generation. It’s even more fun (and lucrative) for the professor. You can’t hide in an online class and enrollments have to be sectioned small (under 25 students). Online courses require a higher degree of student commitment, involvement and attitude. Learning happens within the student’s (not the school’s) cultural context. In recent years, online learning has become popular, but few Christian schools have the expertise, funding and infrastructure to do it right, so most muddle along in mediocrity.
So WHY the “trouble at Christian colleges?”
First of all, most Christian colleges, seminaries or universities must jump through a variety of hoops to remain accredited by state, regional or national entities (essential to granting degrees). The U.S. government in recent years has pressed for clear evidence that a school is doing it’s advertised work and producing graduates. If an institution doesn’t pass the fed’s performance demands then student loans and other federal aid is at risk. Meanwhile legitimate concerns the U.S. government might soon become hostile to private Christian institutions are rising.
Second, Christian colleges, seminaries or universities focus on the theological not the practical. Many ministry graduates lament about how ill-prepared they were for real ministry, but it’s not because ministry professors didn’t want to include leadership classes. Rather, the lack of leadership training is again connected to accreditation standards. Many larger Christian colleges and universities pursue regional accreditation in order for their courses and degrees to better transfer to other state institutions. But regional accreditation cares little about ministry leadership training and demands four-year degrees to be loaded with general education courses (many of which, like math and physical education, have little value to a ministry student). And then Bible and theology departments demand their lion share of the ministry curriculum, chewing up dozens of hours. I remember a robust conversation with one Bible professor who defended his ministry epistles class as a required course. It was his only opportunity to teach “ministry,” he said. He was a good guy but his ministry experience was seriously limited. Consequently, my students lost three hours of practical education in order to take his required Bible class.
Third, smaller Bible and Christian colleges (and their ministry students) face a different problem: professors that have little to no experience teaching a particular subject. It can happen at larger schools too. I taught several classes over the years for which I had little to no experience, little to no educational background and little to no expertise, but somehow the class still got pushed on my plate. One semester I taught “women’s ministry” to a room full of ladies (I was totally out of my element). In another I taught physical education (because I was the young athletic professor, I guess!). Even if a professor has knowledge in a subject, including personal experience, it doesn’t mean they should teach it. Teaching is much more than transferring content.
Fourth, since the 1990s, many Christian colleges have watched their local church support dollar disappear. Fewer churches back a seminary or Bible college anymore with their mission dollar. Many larger churches openly say they won’t hire a Christian college graduate (unless they’re willing to intern for peanuts first), preferring to groom their pastors from within. When I attended Bible college in the early ’80s well over 50% of my tuition was paid by local church donations. Today, in many Christian colleges, church support has dipped below 10%. Most private Christian schools are now tuition-driven and that’s a problem for ministry students who rack up huge educational bills only to serve in a field with sub-standard salaries.
So there’s a lot of issues facing Christian universities, seminaries and Bible colleges today.
With that said, I want to categorically state that formal pastoral education remains valid, critical and necessary. Historically, the three most educated people in town were the doctor, lawyer and preacher. The Ivy League schools were originally created to train the clergy. So I don’t agree with some who argue a formal Christian college education isn’t important. Too many churches today, particularly of the megachurch type, are pastored by individuals with little to no theology or Christian ministry training (and their messages, teaching and leadership shows it). The Church is a spiritual enterprise not a business or school. The greatest issue facing the church in the 21st century is biblical ignorance and the Academy can solve this issue.
Naturally, critics of higher Christian education like to point out how Jesus’ disciples were “ignorant” and “unschooled.” However, such criticism only reveals a lack of biblical and historical understanding. In reality, the average Jewish boy wasn’t as ignorant or unschooled as you might think. A synagogue education (boys only) required memorizing the Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy). Jewish homes were spiritual centers and “houses of the Book” served Jewish children with education in secular studies. Furthermore, when it came time to take Christianity into a pagan and educated Greco-Roman culture, God chose the highly-educated Paul (not to mention Apollos and Dr. Luke) over fishing-buddies-turned-preachers Peter, James and John. Early Christianity (AD 33-400) was served well by the academics who kept heresy in check, defended the Faith and carved fresh paradigms for leadership and ministry. Catechumenal schools, cathedral schools, monasteries and eventually the university guided the Church through twenty centuries.
Yes, Christian universities, Bible colleges, seminaries and other religious institutions are in trouble, but its largely due to its inability to think outside the modern-Enlightenment box. Our ministry schools, like the the churches they serve, must reimagine themselves. The future of the Church demands a highly-educated critical thinker, culturally-astute collaborative leader and dynamic communicator. Historically, the Academy has led both the Church and culture through massive societal change and it’s no different now.
Now is not the time for the Church to jettison the Academy.
But it is time for both institutions to partner to find fresh working solutions, innovative new paradigms and creative programming in order to reach postmodern generations.
In the future I intend to share a few of my bubbling ideas on what tomorrow’s Christian college, university and seminary might look like, but my time is up.
I’m a Christian. I’m a follower of Jesus Christ. I believe there is One Holy Universal (or catholic) Church. You’re either part of it or you’re not. There are no denominations in heaven. Christ is not and cannot be divided by our creeds, our labels, our slogans, our buildings, our programs, our clergy, or any other human strategy.
Nevertheless, I fully recognize that we all grow up “divided.” Every Christian grows up with a theological bias, born of our unique spiritual heritage and special cultural contexts. We all learn the Scriptures from good men (and women) who have taught us “part” of the Whole. Nobody has “Perfect” theology. Nobody. And when it comes to HOW we practice Christianity, there are countless (and good) flavors.
To be honest, I love them all. I love the emotional fire I feel in a Pentecostal church. I appreciate the commitment to social justice by the Methodists. I value the emphasis upon holiness by my Nazarene friends. I love the liturgy and commitment to Eucharist in a Catholic Mass. I appreciate the deep commitment to intellectual Christianity by the Presbyterian and the biblical passion of the Baptist. I have found solace in the spiritual disciplines of the Quaker, the Mennonite and the Amish. I’ve experienced nearly every form and type of modern Christianity and find myself in all…and, paradoxically, in none of them.
Personally, I grew up in the network of churches that emerged out of a 19th century “Restoration Movement.” These independent Christian churches and Churches of Christ have had a significant impact on the wider American church landscape. In the mid-1800s and, most recently, in the 1990s, no church grew faster than Christian churches (except the Mormons). And these non-denominational churches still enjoy attractional success. In fact, per capita, there are more Christian church megachurches than any other denomination. I love the independent Christian church commitments to the historic Faith and the emphasis placed upon the sacraments of Communion (weekly) and Baptism (essential). The movement’s greatest contribution is an oft-quoted proposal, erroneously attributed to Augustine, that all Christians should unite around the essentials (“matters of faith”), allow diversity in non-essentials (“matters of opinion”) and show love (“in all things, charity”).
With that said, even the Restoration Movement–which again claims to be non-denominational–eventually carved an ad hoc division or denomination within modern Christianity. All churches do. Every denomination is a separation from the rest in creed or ecclesiastical practice.
What some in my Restoration Movement family forgot is that we are still an outgrowth of Protestant Christianity. Our forefathers–Thomas and Alexander Campbell, Walter Scott, Barton W. Stone, James O’Kelly–were Presbyterian and Methodist churchmen. Consequently, we carried a lot of “Protestant churchianity” forward into our “nondenominational denominationalism.” In many ways, these independent Christian churches became part of the ecclesiastical machine. It wasn’t the intent of the founders but, in time, it happened. It always does.
In light of what’s happening in wider postmodern culture, I’ve come to the radical conclusion that it’s time for a RADICAL REIMAGINATION of the Church. We must recapture and reinstitute the Original DNA and Purpose of ekklesia. We do not gather to sing (although we can), we do not gather to hear a sermon (although that’s a good thing), we don’t even gather to give offerings (although that’s to be encouraged). We do not need a building or a facility in which to meet (although that’s acceptable). True ekklesia happens anywhere at anytime with anyone. The Restoration Movement attempted to restore the “ancient faith and practice” and succeeded to a degree, but yet remained committed to the Catholic and Protestant wineskin of “church in a box” (a gathering more defined by where we meet [space] and when we meet [time]). In this Constantinian wineskin of churchianity nickels and noses become the greatest barometer for success.
In contrast, Acts 2:42 gives the four reasons for a Christian ekklesia:
- to learn the seven-fold apostles’ doctrine (“one Body, one Spirit, one Hope, one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism, one God”)
- to experience radical Christian fellowship (connection, conversation, community)
- to pray in unison
- and to communally break (the) bread of Eucharist or the Lord’s Supper.
NOTE: If a Sunday “service” doesn’t include these four elements, it no longer reflects the Original DNA. For example, in most churches today the people don’t have a prayer. Only the priests and pastors (and other important guys on stage) pray. This is not what Jesus desired nor instituted.
The early Church operated “house to house” and was flexible and fluid to cultural change, even persecution. There’s nothing wrong with church buildings (again, a Constantinian 4th century innovation), but God does not live in buildings and neither should we center our ecclesiology around brick and mortar. The Body of Christ is PEOPLE not programs, it’s about FACES not facility, it’s about COMMUNITY and COMMUNION not a building, attendance mark, offering count, staff hire or service time.
The Church is alive and well on a postmodern planet earth.
But I believe it’s clearly time to radically restore Her to the Original DNA and reimagine Her within fresh paradigms that fill new cultural wineskins. The old wineskins just aren’t working anymore. Times have changed but Jesus has not. So don’t be surprised when He works his greatest miracles using new wine and fresh wineskins.
That’s why everything still boils down to a simple proclamation: I am a Christian. I am a follower of Christ. And I will die for this Faith before I let this faith die in me. I will not let a creed or doctrine, denomination or religious personality, define me. Jesus alone is my frame. And His Mission to go, preach, teach and disciple is my mission. I will pray like He taught me to pray. I will sacrifice my time, talent and treasure for the Kingdom. Jesus the Christ will be my First, my Last and my Always.
Here I stand, I can do nothing else.
Let the Reimagination Movement begin.
The Church has been alive and well for 2000 years.
In some matters, nothing has changed. In other ways, everything has changed. The Church has been reformed, restored and reimagined. She has survived underground and emerged in fresh cultural contexts. She has experienced persecution and sanctuary, seasons of ignorance and periods of enlightenment. The Church has produced some of the greatest leaders, theologians, philosophers, scientists, artists, musicians and writers.
It’s been quite an ecclesiastical ride. And it’s far from over.
Originally the name “Christian” was a derogatory and derisive name for those who dared to follow Jesus the Christ (or Messiah). A cross was a method of capital punishment (not jewelry or a logo or a religious icon). Christianity wasn’t safe or secure or sandwiched in a box for Sunday mornings only. People died when they lied about their giving (Ananias & Sapphira), endured all-night teaching (Eutychus) and generally lived in conflict, fear and anxiety once converting to this Jewish cult known simply as “The Way (Acts 9:2; 19:9; 19:23; 22:4).”
Christianity in many places was illegal or, at the least, censored and considered offensive to cultural norms of tolerance and religious diversity. They were accused of cannibalism, treason and insurrection. After all, Christians had the audacity to proclaim there was only “one Way, one Truth and one Life” in which to live…guaranteeing eternal life. They claimed their Master died, resurrected and ascended to where God lives. It’s no wonder they were considered fools, idiots, delirious and crazy.
Individuals convicted for practicing Christianity were stoned, boiled in oil, pulled apart by the limbs, tossed to lions, burned alive on stakes, impaled and thrown off buildings. Still, these martyrs gladly died for this Faith and this Galilean guru. And still do to this day.
Against such conflict and odds, this “cult” known as The Way still flourished and grew daily (Acts 2:47; 5:12-14). For 2000 years its been condemned, criticized, censored and castigated, and yet still draws, changes, empowers and frees. American “churchianity” will (and is) fading, but authentic Christianity never will.
Trust me, the CHURCH is alive and well on planet earth. It just might not look like the church of your youth, your ideas, your cultural context, your expectations or your religious traditions. Jesus is still the same (yesterday, today and forever), but He’s not much for old wineskins, religious boats and safe places. Jesus travels light, dangerous and free.
And so do his followers. We must never become so content, comfortable or conformed to this world that we lose sight of our Master. Many ancient churches, particularly in North Africa, used an ostrich egg as a metaphor for their Faith. Ostriches have poor memories but amazing, 360 degree, eyesight. They can literally put one eye on an object while looking with the other somewhere else. With their nests, they retain one eye always on its location (or they’ll forget it’s whereabouts) while the other looks for danger. The early churches saw this as a perfect metaphor for their cultural Christianity: keep one eye peeled for trouble and the other on locked on your nest. Don’t forget where you came from, but always be aware that nothing is sacred or safe or secure. Jesus is alive and living things are dynamic. We will also have to move, change or reinvent to keep up with Him.
I love the Church. I love the American Church.
But I believe she’s losing sight of the nest.
She’s forgetting her Original DNA (Acts 2:42). She’s fallen in love with American strategy and models. She’s become a business, a show and a school. As one of my students well-noted about his megachurch: “It’s just a concert and a TedTalk every Sunday.” The American church is losing the efficacy of her Sacraments and the glorious Communion of Her Saints. She’s enamored with the gods of buildings, attendances, service times, lecture-sermons, offering counts, personality pastors and multi-site marketing. It’s Church in a box and for many the air inside has grown stale, stifling and suffocating. Consequently, all across America, the Church is going from movement to monument to mausoleum.
Essentially, too many American churches have forgotten altogether our Original Purpose: to seek the weary, bind the broken, heal the sick and comfort the dying…saving them from their helplessness and hopelessness. That’s why the Church exists. We are “Jesus” to our family, friends, coworkers and neighbors.
Yes, that Church is still alive and well on planet earth! Even in America. But you have to look for it. You have to look beyond the facades, the facilities and the faces of consumer churchianity.
I love the Church! I love the American church.
God is up to something in our country. Something big. Something bold. Something better.
Maybe in 50 years our children’s children will look back at the American Church of the late 20th and early 21st century with a smile and curiosity.
And possibly a tear.
After all, change hurts.
And new births are messy.
But it’s coming. Like it or not, tomorrow’s Church in America (and elsewhere) won’t look like today’s model.
As for me, I’m going to continue love Jesus and His Kingdom. I’m so grateful to part of God’s work on earth. It’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me.
It’s only a few days after Easter and social media still buzzes with good reports of Easter Sunday gatherings. Pastors from around the U.S. are gleefully citing higher attendance, baptisms and the good feeling that Resurrection Sunday always brings.
Personally, I celebrate with these pastors and their churches.
We all need some “wins” in the ministry and Easter is one of those few Sundays when we feel like we’re making a difference. There is a noticeable “bump” in the attendance. There is an increased interest in getting baptized on this special day. There are fresh faces in the house. And there are plenty of warm fuzzy stories of lives changed by Resurrection Sunday special moments.
But if you peel back the veneer, if you step back and take a hard look, if you simply and honestly consider the reality of the moment, something troubling emerges.
Easter Sunday is a very special, once-a-year day.
But next Sunday is rapidly approaching and that attendance “bump” will be strangely gone again like shaved ice on a Phoenix summer day.
What’s truly happening in the USAmerican church? Why is Easter the only day left when churches can openly brag on higher attendances? I mean, even Christmas is no longer getting that “bump.” In 2016, Christmas falls on Sunday. Mark my words now: LESS people will be in church than normal this Christmas than usual. Why? Because Christmas is viewed as a family day. It’s not a day to “go to church.” And, for the most part, they won’t. What will swell this Christmas will be Christmas Eve attendance.
The problem with the Easter “bump” is the false assumption that this bolstered attendance is rooted to “outsiders” suddenly flocking back to church. The higher attendance, according to conventional wisdom, is the Easter pews and chairs are filled with seekers, unchurched, non-churched or otherwise non-affiliated. It’s not true. And its not hard to confirm that fact. Just ask your children’s ministry department to see how many “new” families registered their children on Easter. Just ask greeters who regularly man the front doors. Just look at how many checked “more information” on the communication cards (most of whom are church shopping and you’re the latest flavor).
The Easter “bump” is in reality a special “attendance phenomenon” when the ENTIRE congregation finally gathers together in one place. It’s nearly all FAMILY (local church members) showing up at once, accompanied by visiting out of town Easter guests (many of whom are already church-attenders themselves).
After all, depending on your location in the U.S., weakly (pun intended) attendance in the average church runs a wide swath between 5-35%. That means 65-95% of a local church Body will miss on any given Sunday, some more than others. Many people only attend 1-2 times a month. And the older the average age of a church, the higher the percentage for a “regular” (weekly) attender. The Gen X (b. 1961-1981) and the Millennial (b. 1982-2004) generations are staying away from church and largely attending irregularly.
Consequently, Easter Sunday is when everyone who has an affinity towards Christianity, including those who attend occasionally, make church attendance a part of their holiday celebration. For those who grew up Christian or have Christianity in their family line, Easter Sunday means going to church, so off to church they still go. It’s not that they’re not going to church (they still do occasionally), but that they don’t miss on Easter.
And what will these “irregular regulars” find?
Ah, here is the problem. They tend to find the same thing that drove or bored them into spotty attendance in the first place. A lack of community. A nice religious show. Irrelevant traditions. Long lectures (sermons). I spoke to a young (Millennial) woman on Easter Sunday night about her church experience. Although a Christian college graduate and a pastor’s kid, she struggles to find church relevant to her life these days. What turned her off the most was the pastor’s sermon: an 11-point, 45-minute lecture on “resurrection.” In her mind and experience with “church,” nothing had changed. Sadly, she confessed, she won’t be back. If these “irregular regulars” do find the Easter experience enjoyable it might warrant a return visit in a week or two. But, at best, it only produces someone who attends a bit more than they did. And if there’s any true “win” from Easter Sunday that might be it.
Therefore, if there’s something that should make pastors and church leaders stay awake at night it’s the slow recognition that their “attractional” and “missional” programming no longer retains the REGULARS, let alone attracts the SEEKER.
Something is wrong in the American church. And, face it, Easter Sunday isn’t attracting “seekers” anymore. Even worse, the “irregular regulars” are now struggling to hang in there. It’s one more proof that churchianity is dying in the USA. Authentic Christianity remains, but you won’t find much of it in the chair on Sunday mornings. Authentic Christianity operates 24/7/365. It’s not confined to a service time, a program or a budget.
That’s why the Easter “bump” can be an ecclesiastical illusion. Yes, it makes us feel good, and it should (and it’s okay to celebrate the win).
But if next Sunday everything is back to normal it’s a troubling sign.
And that’s not good.
NOTE: Every church is guided by traditions that guard the doctrinal nuances of a denomination, religious body or congregation. Most of these traditions are post-apostolic and culturally sensitive in origin and practice. Many are innocent and acceptable. But occasionally some traditions emerge that contain no biblical or historical support. In fact, when deeply considered, these traditions, rituals and spiritual acts can actually detract, delay, detour or distort authentic Christianity. It doesn’t take a Bible major to understand these traditions aren’t Scriptural, but many Christians still trust their efficacy and practice them with little thought. In this series of articles I’ll investigate several such traditions that have emerged in the past 150 years of Protestant evangelical Christianity.
Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation left behind two great, albeit oppositional consequences: literacy and divisiveness.
We could read and fight…especially amongst ourselves.
A tour of any USAmerican town will produce countless church options. Roman Catholic. Greek Orthodox. Episcopal. Lutheran. Presbyterian. Mennonite. Quaker. Methodist. Baptist. Assembly of God. Nazarene. Evangelical Free. Church of God. Church of Christ. Christian Church (Disciples). Seventh-Day Adventists. Christian Missionary and Alliance.
Like the old parody on Scripture states, “Repent and be Baptist, for all have sinned and fallen short of the Assembly of God.” Of course that begs a new question: Which brand of Baptist? There’s only 94 flavors (and counting). American. General. Regular. Southern. Conservative. Fundamental. Free Will. Independent. And those are just the main ones. As for Pentecostals, the Holy Spirit knows no denominational boundaries. From Assembly of God to Church of God of Prophecy to Calvary Chapel to Hillsong, it’s like Burger King: you truly can have your charismatic gifts your way.
The problem is Jesus’ last recorded prayer on the planet was for his kids to get along. He prayed for unity: “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me (John 17:20-21).”
So where did we get all these church monikers? Before we consider Scripture, let’s look at church history.
In 325 A.D. the Council of Nicea convened to create a standard Christian creed. The Nicene creed was slightly expanded and formally adopted five decades later at a second council in Constantinople (381 A.D.). The modified version contained a new phrase: a belief in the “holy catholic church.” The word “catholic” means universal (Greek: kataholis or “according to the whole”). Of course, later this “universal” church Romanized, creating the first ecclesiastical oxymoron: Roman Catholic.
Some Protestant church names reflect their founding fathers. Lutherans (Martin Luther). Amish (Jackob Ammann). Mennonites (Menno Simons). However, most monikers are rooted to a theological idea or practice. Presbyterians are “elder-led,” as the Greek word for elder is presbuteros. Methodists followed the spiritual “methods” promoted by George Whitefield, Charles and John Wesley. Baptists rejected infant baptism and subscribed to “believer’s baptism” only.
Some church names happen by strange incident. The Church of England was founded after Henry VIII couldn’t get his marriage annulled by Rome. It still operated like a Catholic Church but with Protestant spunk. The Anglican name carried considerable consequences during the Revolutionary War, so the “Church of England” in the United States was changed to the “Episcopal Church.” The “Free Methodist Church” originated in 1860 so you’d think “free” might refer to a northern preference for anti-slavery when, in fact, it was mostly a theological slap to Methodist churches who charged for pews. Quakers (Friends) got their nickname when founder George Fox was called before a 1650 tribunal for blasphemy and created a “trembling.”
Many church names are culturally or geographically sensitive. First Baptist or First Christian? These names were given to the first Baptist or first Christian church to arrive in town. In the 1800s, churches used the same tactics as banks to name their congregations. First National Bank. In Cincinnati, there’s Fifth Third Bank, a 1908 merger of the only surviving “fifth” and “third” banks. In most smaller towns, there never was a “second” church and so the number “first” was stuck to many churches. In the 1900s churches started naming themselves after their street, suburb or town. Ten Mile Christian Church. Deer Flat Methodist Church. Cornwall Church. Meridian Friends.
In the television age, church names became more visual. The Vineyard. Oasis. The Pursuit. Real Life. Others use biblical visual monikers like Christ The King Church. Solomon’s Porch. Mar’s Hill.
The irony? These “brands” reflect American consumerism, denominational heritage, geographical pride and legal necessity more than biblical ordinance. In the Scriptures you won’t find any particular church with any specific name. That’s because there were no denominational headquarters. No letters of incorporation. No promotional branding.
In the book of Acts, Christians are called “Christians” originally in Antioch, but this is several years after Pentecost (Acts 11:26). Plus, it’s probable this label was a derogatory nickname (like “Mormons“) because it’s so rarely used. In fact, the only other times in the New Testament “Christian” is used is within a derisive comment by King Agrippa to Paul (Acts 26:28) and when Peter admonishes his readers to “bear the name” with gratitude (I Peter 4:16). This suggests that even if “Christian” was originally derogatory, the name was later, perhaps begrudgingly, embraced as a badge of honor.
The most common first-century name was clearly “disciple” or “learner“ (Acts 6:1-2,7; 9:1,10,19,26,36-38; 11:29; 13:52; 14:20-22,28; 16:1; 18:23,27; 19:1,9,30; 20:1,30; 21:4,16). The use of “disciple” is interesting as it defines not just WHO but WHAT a follower of Christ does: learn. A learner is someone who’s continually growing in insight, attitude and lifestyle. A disciple is a student, pupil and learner “following” his or her teacher. Maybe that’s why another more ambiguous early moniker is “follower” (Acts 5:36-37; 9:25; 17:34; 22:4; 24:14).
A second common label throughout the book of Acts is “believer” (Acts 1:15; 2:44; 4:32; 5:12; 8:15; 9:31,41; 10:23,45; 11:1-2; 15:1-3, 5, 22, 23, 32-36,40; 16:2; 17:6,10,14; 21:25). This general moniker occurs widely throughout the New Testament, including 1 Corinthians 6:5; 1 Thessalonians 1:7; 1 Timothy 4:12; James 1:9; 3 John 1:10). In a couple instances the word “family” is an added description (Galatians 6:10; 1 Peter 2:17; 5:9).
Collectively, in Acts, the primary term used to describe or brand these followers, believers or disciples is “the Way.” Paul is described as persecuting those who belonged to “the Way” (Acts 9:2; 19:9; 22:4; 24:22) and clearly defined them as a sect of Judaism (Acts 24:14). Perhaps this label is rooted to the descriptive path of being a true disciple of Jesus who taught He was “the Way” (John 14:4-6). Later disciples Priscilla and Aquila taught Apollos “the way” of Jesus (Acts 18:26; 19:20).
Another collective and general term is “church” (ekklesia or “assembly”). Surprisingly, the word “ekklesia” appears only twice in the gospels (both times in Matthew’s gospel) and are direct quotes by Jesus. “Church” is also a popular expression in Acts (23 times) and 1 Corinthians (21 times) and Revelation (19 times). The word “ekklesia” literally means “called out ones” and was a political term for Roman assemblies. When an emperor or high-ranking Roman official traveled through a town, the people would “ekklesia” (assemble) to pay homage by shouting “Caesar is Lord.” In first century Palestine, a political hot spot was Caesarea Philippi. Perhaps one of these ekklesias had just happened when Jesus turned to his disciples and asked “Who do people say that I am?” Upon Peter’s confession that He was the Messiah or “Lord,” Jesus announced it was upon this rock-solid profession that He would build his ekklesia or assembly (Matthew 16:13-18).
To summarize, the terms “follower,” “believer” or “disciple” are the tags revealed in Scripture to describe adherents to the teachings of Jesus Christ. “Christian” is also acceptable. However, there is no other “party” or “denominational” or “sectarian” name. In the Kingdom of Christ, there are no Baptists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Catholics, charismatics, Pentecostals, Methodists, Adventists, Quakers/Friends, Amish or Mennonites. You’re either a “believer, follower, disciple” or you’re not. Too many Christians tragically follow in the “way” of their denomination, geographical location or a marketing plan rather than simply following in “the Way” of Jesus.
It’s also a concern when we redefine “church” into a place or time (the subject of a future blog). “Church” is not a facility, a service hour or any other place we go to. A “church” happens whenever two or more believers gather (assemble) at any time in any location. Furthermore, the True Church cannot be denominated by creed and all who follow “the Way” (teaching of Jesus Christ) are included. In fact, the only creedal statement that distinguishes a follower of Christ from all others is found within a Pauline desire for unity (Ephesians 4:4-6):
There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
I believe this early doctrinal statement is most likely the curriculum plan the Way employed “to equip people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ (Ephesians 4:12-13).”
Christians generally believe one day all labels, monikers and names will dissolve into ONE Name and one day all denominations, sects and brands will become ONE Body.
But I ask why wait?
If those who follow Jesus the Christ would simply follow Him without personal agenda, denominational/pastor loyalty, selfish desire or divisive spirit…then perhaps Jesus’ prayer might be fulfilled even yet…even still..today.
At least that’s my prayer.