Category Archives: Church buildings
Today is the last gasp of a retail Goliath.
Either Sears ponies up $120 million dollars and supplies a clear plan for restructure, or the store will be sent to bankruptcy and formally liquidated. It will be the end of a megastore that ruled American commerce for 132 years.
Sears was originally founded in 1886 as a watch company and within two years launched a catalog that attracted both attention and customers. Like Amazon.com would do a century later, Sears eventually began selling “everything from sewing machines to sports equipment” through its mail-order catalogs. America was largely rural and Sears revolutionized how retailers operated. They succeeded by engaging modern middle class desires, mainstream print media and mechanized business formulas.
Sears revolutionized how retailers operated. They succeeded by engaging modern middle class desires, mainstream print media and mechanized business formulas.
Sears didn’t open its first physical store until 1925. Let that fact sink in. For forty years the company operated purely from a mail-order model, but now began to reinvent. In 1927, they launched the Kenmore brand, followed by All-State insurance (1931) and the famous Christmas catalog (1933). Everything they did, worked…and the company was highly profitable. At the end of World War 2, Sears was topping $1 billion in sales.
By then suburbia was bubbling in post-war America. Sears led the way and built new stores all over America (1946). They pioneered credit cards and innovated fresh brands like DieHard batteries and Craftsman tools. Sears could do no wrong. In 1973 they built the world’s tallest building: Chicago’s Sears tower. At their zenith they boasted over 3000 stores, many anchored to a new shopping destination called a “mall.”
But in the 1980s the Sears brand fumbled. Despite their anchor store status, Walmart emerged as the new retail giant. People liked “super store” variety but with affordability and convenience. In 1991, Sears finally lost their “top-selling retailer” mantle to the Arkansas superstore. Three years later Sears sold its namesake tower. In 1993 they stop producing their catalog and moved the Christmas catalog online (1998). In the early 2000s Sears merged with Lands End (2002) and Kmart (2005) but profits continued to slide. Sears was in a free fall.
In the past four years, Sears has been selling everything just to keep the lights on. Nothing’s worked. In the fourth quarter of 2016 Sears lost $607 million. Christmas never came for Sears that year. Nor Kmart. Nor other juggernaut stores like Macy’s and JC Penney. The mall they anchor is also dying a slow death. Toys R Us is history. Claire’s jewelry boutiques is in bankruptcy. Even Walmart has faced difficulty.
The new retail Goliath is cyber store Amazon. It’s now the most valuable company (and brand) in the world, overtaking Microsoft computers. Originally specializing in books, this online retailer now delivers groceries (something Sears originally did) and a zillion other things. Amazon gift cards are popular Christmas presents. The online retailer continues to rake financial fortunes as it pioneers future home deliveries through automation (robots, drones, driverless vehicles).
It’s a jungle out there and it’s called Amazon.
What can the church learn from Sears’ story?
1. Reinvent or die.
For most of its celebrated history, Sears innovated and led but when it relaxed, focusing more on maintenance than mission, it lost traction. In a 21C culture that’s fluid, fast and flexible, churches need to continually respond, reinvent and reimagine “wineskins” (but not the Wine). The Message or “gospel of Jesus Christ” never changes but the models, strategies, styles and frameworks do.
Too many churches fear change, particularly in technology that creates fresh social interactions. We live in a visual culture–an experiential society that learns through screens, podcasts and videos–and yet remain wedded to passive, lecture-driven communication formats.
2. Watch the lure of success.
Pride comes before a fall and Sears is a classic tale of hubris. Too many churches build towers rather than bridges, monuments rather than movements and legacies rather than living vision.
I had a Millennial couple recently join my home group. Afterwards, the young man enthusiastically shared how he finally felt he had found a real “church.” I asked him if he attended a church (like the rest of our group does every Sunday) and he said no. The reason? He struggled with how much money the church spends on its facilities. It turned him and his wife off. They felt it was wrong. He’s the son of a missionary, by the way.
3. Know your culture.
The same year Sears sold its tower (1994) Jeff Bezos launched Amazon.com. Three years later Sears finally entered dot.com world, but it was too late. Sears was tied to a dead man’s name. Amazon was the biggest river (and soon store) in the world. Too many churches overlook, dismiss or oppose cultural changes when they need to interpret, understand and embrace the opportunities change creates.
Since 1960, the modern culture has been on life support. Christendom, founded 1700 years ago, is equally fading into history. In a post 9-11 and Great Recession world, the Industrial Revolution is over. We now live in a post-modern, post-industrial, post-Christian world…but the Church is still operating like it’s 2005 or 1995 or 1985 or 1975.
Want to study the “generations” and how technology has changed our world and what the Church must do to reinvent? Book Rick to come share with your church, conference or training event in 2019!
Ultimately every living thing dies.
It’s the way of the world. Just ask Kodak (another one of those giants who failed to reinvent).
Fortunately the Church is Eternal and Living.
The Wine is always fresh. Sears simply teaches us that wineskins do fissure, fracture and fail if we don’t pay attention.
Church, we truly need to pay attention.
The world is changing, Church.
Blockbuster Video is down to it’s last store in Bend, OR. Toys R Us closed it’s doors in June 2018. Meanwhile, Sears and KMart continue their selloff. Everywhere you look there’s change and if we can’t adapt in this new culture we’ll fare no different than Kodak, Betamax or Tower Records.
Maybe that’s why this New York Times article caught my eye: “Sorry Power Lunchers, This Restaurant is a Co-Working Space Now (July 9, 2018).”
I was particularly attracted to this quote by the Millennial co-founder of Spacious, Chris Smothers:
“Actively consuming isn’t what we want to do with the space in our neighborhoods anymore…Retail spaces are designed for you to come in, make a transaction and get out, and that’s why you feel weird in a coffee shop all day, because all of these spaces are designed for you to leave.”
As I read that last sentence all I could think about was what “church” has become in the past thirty years, especially those of the evangelical non-denominational type.
After all, thanks to the “megafication” of the Church in the 1980s and 1990s, churches of all sizes and stripes reimagined their Sunday mornings into an event (featuring a full-band worship and culturally-relevant sermon). These events were specially-hosted inside an auditorium that’s “designed for you to leave.” Pews were out, theater chairs were in. The larger churches, with multiple services, are particularly prone to this mentality. It’s why we build performance halls, hire specialized staff, study people flow and focus on traffic patterns. We need to get people in and out…fast.
I call it “drive thru” churchianity. We’ve designed “church” as a space to come…and leave.
This shift, led by a Baby Boom generation returning to their spiritual foundations in the 1980s, turns out to be nothing more than adoption of consumer culture. We built our churches on biblical purposes that were guided by business principles. It’s why we focus on body counts, offering totals and ecclesiastical CEOs. We mass disciple like we mass market. Our facilities look like warehouses, our services like concerts, and our programs like fast food menus. This attractional model certainly was successful with boomers and many Gen Xers, but has fallen flat with Millennials.
Millennials aren’t looking for a passive show. They seek an active experience. They want to interact, collaborate and share. They were early adopters of social media, from Friendster and MySpace to Facebook and Snapchat. And now these same Millennials are reinventing the workplace, especially through companies founded by Millennials (Spacious’ co-founder Chris Smothers is 30 years old, by the way).
But I still can’t get that quote out of my head: “designed for you to leave.”
Is that what we did to the Millennials? Is that the type of Christianity we gave them? It seems so. We designed a faith experience that was easy “to leave.”
Maybe it was the gimmicks we used (and still use) to motivate Millennial faith development. Instead of leading them to memorize God’s Word, attend Sunday School or bring their Bibles because it would be helpful and beneficial to their faith as adults, we bribed them with candy and prizes to invoke their participation. As a result we gave them a faith that was easy to leave. After all, if the prize is no longer “helpful and beneficial,” then let’s move on.
Maybe it’s how we programmed Millennial youth ministries. In the 1990s, we shifted from a discipleship (Sunday School, small group, retreats, personal discipling) to an entertainment model (Wednesday night worship and preaching, festivals and large youth conferences) to better reach this postmodern generation. Consequently, we reduced Millennial’s biblical learning to clever PowerPointed messages packed with hip clips from movies, grooved by youth culture lingo, and delivered by cool dudes (and dudettes) with grunge fashions, body piercings and tattoos. As a result, we gave Millennials a fashionable faith that wore terribly thin when reality bites.
But it’s not just the Millennials who have headed to the door. Gen X is just about “done” too. For decades they’ve waited in the wings for their opportunity to lead, suffering through various battles and changes that Boomer elders engineered to create the ideal church. But now, as aging Boomers overlook Xers for younger voices (especially to hire), Gen X has grown apathetic, disillusioned and tired.
A lot of Gen Xers and Millennials now stay away on Sundays and prefer to find faith community in small Bible fellowships, spiritual mentoring and Christian service. Faith, they have found, is better lived out on Tuesday nights, Thursday afternoons and Saturday mornings. If they follow a particular pastor or church, it’s done so through live stream, vidblog or podcast.
Remember, if we created spiritual spaces that are “easy to leave” then we shouldn’t be surprised when people no longer come.
What’s happening in the urban restaurant industry is something churches should heed and consider. Essentially, Millennials aren’t taking lunches like their elders and the lousy noon time crowds have dried up the profits for local eateries. Enter Spacious. It’s a company that reimagines a restaurant into a working “office away from the office” space for individuals and small groups. Now these struggling restaurants are booming with Millennials sweating away on smartphones and laptops.
Church, did you hear that? Once struggling restaurants are attracting (and growing) with young people because they moved from a delivery and sales model to a communal, interactive experience.
You see, Faith was never intended to be a ninety-minute once a week presentation (which is one of the reasons postmodern generations find the Sunday-only event so spiritually anemic). Rather, authentic Faith is best experienced within a dynamic collaborative “working” environment. Which begs a question: What if Sunday morning looked more like a gym or practice field (with coaches and mentors) than a concert and lecture hall? What if our worship experiences resembled what Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 14:26:
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.
Paul’s description reveals the collaborative, interactive and experiential nature of the first century church. It’s a far cry from what we see delivered on most Sunday mornings. After all, Church was meant to be more than one person from a stage with a microphone.
But there’s another kicker: What if a church reimagined itself into a collaborative space the rest of the week too? It’s a shame that we have buildings that sit empty Monday through Saturday, except to house the staff and an occasional meeting or extra service.
It’s critical that we get more “spacious” in our gatherings to reach postmodern audiences.
The Church of Christ is alive, moving and interactive.
And that’s attractive to any generation.
Today is a significant day in Christian history.
On October 31, 1517—500 years ago—a German monk sounded a clarion call to reform the abuses of the medieval Church he loved. Martin Luther purposely chose All Hallow’s Eve, the night before All Saint’s Day (a revered day in his Roman Catholic tradition) to hammer 95 thesis statements into the wood of a Wittenberg church door. Luther’s act inspired the Protestant Reformation and ignited countless other movements—from the Great Awakening to the Jesus Movement—in the next five centuries.
I am personally a product of a nineteenth century “restoration movement” (Thomas and Alexander Campbell, Barton W. Stone) who sought to restore the Church to ancient principles and practices. I have a deep respect and admiration for my ecclesiastical forefathers who worked tirelessly to restore biblical Christianity. Unfortunately, even this great fellowship of churches eventually adopted secular models over sacred expression, whether in church leadership or worship service or preaching style.
In other words, the “Restoration Movement” didn’t restore the Church, at least not fully. Rather, and to be brutally honest, it became a “nondenominational” denomination in its own right. And today this once dynamic movement has stiffened into a monument in many places. Too many of my dear brothers and sisters prefer to divide over non-essentials, battle over unnecessary causes and alienate over pet interpretations.
So today, in honor of Martin Luther, I pick up my own hammer and offer more than a reformation, renewal or even a reimagination. What we desperately hunger for is a true and complete biblical restoration of the Church.
And I think this (RADICAL) RESTORATION is easily captured in 9.5 statements:
THESIS ONE: The Church of Jesus Christ is Essentially One. We are not the only Christians but we must seek to be Christians only. When the Church operates in the unity that Jesus prayed (John 17:20-23), we are an unstoppable, unbelievable and undeniable Force for good and God.
THESIS TWO: The Church is the Kingdom of God on Earth. The Church is not a “plan B” or some ecclesiastical or eschatological after thought, as many preach and teach today. The Church is God’s Best Idea (along with a Messiah). It is the Kingdom predicted by Daniel (Daniel 2:44-45), revealed by Jesus (Mark 9:1, Luke 17:20-21) and promoted by the apostolic Church (Acts 8:12; 19:8; Colossians 4:11; 1 Thessalonians 2:12; Revelation 12:10-11). It is a Kingdom of Salt that seasons, a Light that reveals, a Joy that pleases, a Grace that releases, a Power that energizes and a Hope that inspires.
THESIS THREE: The Church is Bigger than it’s Monikers. There is no “one true” denomination and no particular human expression of “church” that is better than another. At best we all see things dimly, in glimpses and partially (1 Corinthians 13: 12). In Heaven there will be no Catholics, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, Amish, Seventh-Day Adventists, Quakers, Charismatics, Reformed, Evangelical, Fundamental, Progressive, Conservative, Liberal or “non-denominational.” In Heaven, as it was in the beginning of the Church, there will only be one label for all: Christian (Acts 11:26).
THESIS FOUR: The Church was created for Radical Community. The Church is about circles, not squares; community not cliques; interaction not isolation. In Christ we all have a place at the table of Communion in the Eucharist that binds all Christians together. The Church is described as a Body (1 Corinthians 12:12-31) and Bride (Revelation 19:7; 21:2). We are a creative, connective and collaborative Family (Galatians 6:10). Consequently, we lead with forgiveness (2 Corinthians 2:10), love with purpose (1 Corinthians 16:14) and learn in community (Acts 2:42-47). Our gatherings must be immersed in interaction. No one should visit a Christian gathering without being tattooed by a relationship.
THESIS FIVE: The Church is guided by Matters of Faith not Opinion, Interpretation or Tradition. The Apostle Paul has given us the only creed the Church of Jesus Christ needs (Ephesians 4:4-5): we are one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father. Everything else is interpretation and opinion, including end-time positions, views on God’s sovereignty, spiritual gifts, musical style, day of worship, organizational values, leadership roles and any other divisive human tradition. It’s fully time the Church ceased dividing over matters of opinion and focus fully on matters of faith. We need to simply agree with a statement attributed to Augustine: “In matters of faith, unity; in matters of opinion, liberty; in all things, love.”
THESIS SIX: The Church is a Body not a Building. For the past seventeen centuries the Church has confined itself within basilicas and cathedrals, halls and chapels, sanctuaries and auditoriums. The vocabulary of the modern church now erroneously reflects “time and space.” Many Christians will say they “go to church,” but this contradicts, even betrays, the inherent power and purpose of authentic ekklesia. In reality, Christians are THE Church. As the Body of Christ, we are a Divine Organism not a human organization. We are faces not a facility. When the church devolves into a business, school or any other cultural institution, as it has clearly done in recent years, it creates handicap and dysfunction. It’s why the early church operated from homes not a “temple” or a “house of worship” (Romans 16:5; 1 Corinthians 16:19; Colossians 4:15). God doesn’t live in our building (Acts 7:48-49), but within our hearts (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). Consequently, the building should never be labeled a “house of God” or “temple” and neither is it a facility Christians attend.
THESIS SEVEN: The Church is composed of baptized believers only. In our baptism we are “born again” into Christ’s Kingdom (John 3:5). Baptism is our “Red Sea” experience (1 Corinthians 10:1-2), our Divine garment (Galatians 3:27), our spiritual cleansing (Acts 22:16; Titus 3:5) and salvation (1 Peter 3:21). And while visitors, guests, seekers and other interested persons are always welcome to journey in our Divine story, all those who follow Christ must identify fully with His death, burial and resurrection through baptism (Romans 6:3-4). It is a Christian’s mark–a circumcism of the heart (Colossians 2:11-15). This is especially critical and necessary before anyone is allowed to participate in the Lord’s Supper, as Communion or Eucharist is not something for outsiders, the ignorant or unrepentant (1 Corinthians 10:16-17; 11:27-29).
THESIS EIGHT: The Church gathers for discipleship, fellowship and worship. The ancient and Original DNA for why the Church gathers is found in Acts 2:42: They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Essentially, we gather to learn the ancient teachings of Jesus and the apostles, to experience connection and community, to participate in the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist and to pray. It’s clear from other New Testament passages that these gatherings included congregational singing (Ephesians 5:19), testimonies (1 Corinthians 14:26), corporate prayer (Acts 4:24-31; 12:12) and even meals in these home fellowships (1 Corinthians 11:20-21). It also infers each “gathering” was small, from a few to perhaps a couple dozen believers. Consequently, these micro-congregations were discipleship-driven, fellowship-based and worship-focused.
THESIS NINE: The Church is led by “apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers.” Apostles are those commissioned and sent on a mission (i.e., missionaries). Prophets are those who lead the church forward through prophetic message and/or leadership. Evangelists are those who share the “good news” (gospel) of Jesus. Pastors are those designated to oversee and shepherd a group of believers (a.k.a. elders, overseers). Teachers are those called to instruct and equip. Spread throughout the Body of Christ are lay leaders or ministers (males and females) who administrate, serve, repair, maintain and direct specific acts of ministry, a.k.a. deacons or deaconesses (Acts 6:1-6; Romans 16:1; 1 Timothy 3:8-13).
THESIS NINE POINT FIVE: The Church was originally commissioned as a decentralized Body of believers. The centralization of the Church, nearly four hundred years after it’s Pentecostal launching, was never God’s desire (who initially had twelve tribes led by multiple judges, priests and prophets) or Jesus’ model (who discipled twelve men rather than one). The Original Expression of church leadership was clearly decentralized through multiple apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors or elders, teachers and ministers. Everyone in a church enjoyed opportunity, influence, power and control (1 Corinthians 14:26). There were no reverends, vicars, rectors, parsons, priests, bishops, cardinals, popes, lead pastors, senior ministers, executive ministers, associate pastors or any other leadership label that centralized power to a few individuals. Rather there were only general responsibilities to equip [Christ’s] people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all [emphasis mine] 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).
In conclusion, I am not naïve in the knowledge that some or all of these statements will provoke controversy, argument or even division, for no great reformation, revolution or restoration was created without conflict, criticism and complaint. Nevertheless, I can no longer be silent on a clear and simple reading of Scripture, the long testimony of the historical Church and a leading by God to invite all those who love the Church into a conversation on where we’re at and where the Church is headed. In fact, I would ask that you read the Scriptures linked to each point, please.
If I have erred or unintentionally misrepresented myself, the Church or my Christ, I humbly seek correction. I will never claim infallibility nor boast in my positions. I simply and humbly lay them before each man and woman to consider.
Nevertheless, I will desire, until my dying breath, to initiate a UNITY of the Church of Jesus Christ on planet earth and promote a committed and purposeful invitation to simply be Christians. We do not need denominational labels, human creeds, mission statements, auditoriums, chapels, cathedrals, pews, stained glass, stages, lighting, sound, fog machines, PowerPoint, Apple products, videos, performances, hip sermons, coffee bars, offices, bulletins, websites, special programming or any other human invention. They are tools, but they are not necessary tools. Nor can we allow the traditions of man to supersede clear biblical teaching. If the Scriptures say to do it, just do it.
Ultimately, we need only three things, as Paul so eloquently revealed to his Corinthian readers: FAITH. HOPE. LOVE. Faith is our confidence in what was and now is. Hope is our fuel for what will be. And Love is the bond to everything else. It’s why Paul identified LOVE as the GREATEST of the three. For without Love, our Faith is reduced to dogma, tradition and isolation. And without Love, Hope can become abstract, fuzzy and blinding. Ultimately, Love is the “greatest” because it’s the glue that binds Faith and Hope together.
So whether you agree or not with my 9.5 Theses is irrelevant to me.
I will still LOVE all people fully. I will remain FAITHful continually. And I will HOPE incessantly.
Here I stand, I truly can do no other.
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.
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.
Sometimes I fear we’ve got it all backwards. I mean, what if we’ve been missing the point for centuries? What if we’ve wandered far from God’s true Desire and Design for His Church? It’s certainly hard to believe. Most Christians, including many church leaders, have little idea about their history. We just blindly keep doing what we’ve been doing out of tradition.
One of my favorite leadership books is The Starfish and the Spider by Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom. It describes the difference between centralized (spider) and de-centralized (starfish) organizations. In nature a spider and a starfish look similar, but they possess great difference in how they’re organized. A spider’s power is centralized. Lop off a spider’s leg and it’s disabled. Cut off a spider’s head and its dead. Starfish are different. It’s power is spread throughout the body. Every ounce is alive with reproductive potential. Cut off a starfish leg and it’ll grow it back. In fact, some starfish will remove their own legs to reproduce!
Brafman and Beckstrom use starfish as a metaphor to highlight how de-centralized organizations survive and thrive. In reality, de-centralized organizations, tribes, communities and businesses have always been among us. However, the rise of the Worldwide Web has flattened and decentralized nearly everything–and this cyber culture is unlike anything that’s ever existed in human history. For up until the 1990s, centralized organizations, including national governments, have ruled. Egypt was centralized around a Pharaoh. Babylon around a king. Rome around an emperor. The Catholic Church around a pope. The Indian tribes around a chief. For thousands of years, the world has operated from its middles. The power was focused. Consequently, all institutions found centralized frames beneficial, whether in commerce, media, education or religion. We were a world of bosses, CEOs, principals, presidents, directors and head honchos.
But the emergence of a web world changed everything.
Today anyone can be a content creator. YouTube makes everyone a filmmaker. Twitter makes everyone a commentator. eBay makes everyone a seller. Consequently, the middles are collapsing. Middle class. Middle management. Mainline churches. Mainstream media. What’s exploding are “starfish” organizations, gatherings and communities. From Sturgis to Burning Man, from ISIS to the Tea Party, from Drudge to Huffington, from Facebook to Pinterest, from Craigslist to Amazon, from A.A. to Celebrate Recovery. Furthermore, every web-connected person on the planet can now access information. Online learning continues to grow. Web meetings and e-conferences are routine. TedTalks is the new classroom.
The GOOD NEWS for the Church, particularly the American Church? A decentralized frame has always been God’s desire for His People. In the Old Testament, the nation of Israel disintegrated within generations of centralization (around a king). Prior to “king” Saul, Israel was a decentralized spiritual community. Leaders abounded, but no one leader controlled. Even under Moses, the community was led more by its priests and judges than its prophet. It wasn’t until Israel asked for a king, centralized religion in Jerusalem (thanks to King David) and put God in a temple box (thanks to Solomon) that everything went south.
So it’s not surprising when God relaunched His New Covenant Church in the first century, it was decentralized. Every congregation met in homes, was led by a body of elders and served by deacons and deaconesses. In the book of Acts as well as the epistles, we catch glimpses of decentralization. For example, Paul wrote to the Corinthians and Romans how the Church is like a body (with Jesus as the head).
The first step to radically restore the Church is to confess we’ve got our frame wrong. It’s like God gave us the blueprint and we built the house our own way regardless. It’s not that buildings, lead pastors, priests, popes, or programs are bad and that God can’t use them. He does. It’s just not how He planned it.
God designed the Church to operate as a STARFISH and we converted it into a SPIDER.
It’s time to RESTORE authentic Christianity and reclaim our STARFISH design. A Church of the people, by the people and for the people. And the real good news is I believe the American Church will lead the way.
After all, at the heart of decentralization is autonomy, freedom and democracy.
And that is the American way.
NEXT TIME: WHAT A DECENTRALIZED CHURCH LOOKS LIKE
Recently, church researcher Ed Stetzer cited four “surpising” future trends for the church. I have no disagreement with him, though it was a pretty safe list…and hardly surprising (despite the baited headline). Most of his four trends revolved around the “end of nominalist” Christianity. Essentially the cultural Christians will go the way of the dinosaur, checking “none” as their religious preference. Since we’re pretty much seeing this now, it’s hardly a future trend…nor all that “surprising.”
Most futurists who peer more than five years forward are prone to error and therefore are excused for their safe prophetic announcements about anything “future.” I hope you’ll do the same for me. Nevertheless, I feel somewhat confident that four (truly future) trends will mark the U.S. church in the next quarter century…and I suspect these will also truly surprise many:
1) The end of the lecture (a.k.a., sermon) on Sunday morning. I have a new book set for release in January detailing this huge change for the emerging, postmodern Church (now rising in American culture). Currently, the vast majority of churches (most still run by baby boomer modern ideologies and practices) remain woefully wedded to a rhetorical strategy to communicate and disciple: a 30-50 minute spiritual/biblical monologue or lecture. Protestants think this is the way it’s always been, but that’s not true. The Reformation in the 1500s elevated Scripture and the homily (now called a “sermon”) was expanded to become an academic tool to persuade, explain, reveal and proposition. The Catholic and Orthodox churches, far more ancient, still prefer the short 10-minute homily. So what’s going to replace this Sunday lecture? I believe it’ll be an interactive, visual experience where the preacher operates more as the guide from the side than a sage from the stage. It’ll be the only way to recapture postmodern attention and affection for Christianity (and has proven popular already). The generations born since 1960 have largely left the Church, including the Millennials (which enjoyed the greatest season of children’s and youth ministry the modern Church ever produced). Sermons, like college lectures, will go the way of the dinosaur. They simply do not communicate effectively in a YouTube, Twitter, Google world.
2) The end of the church building as a primary gathering spot. This is a tough church pill to swallow, given the 1500 year history of tax-exempt status for churches (originally started by Constantine in his state religion reforms of 325 AD). But as western and northern governments, including the U.S. government, becomes more antagonistic towards Christianity, these tax exemptions will be questioned, debated and eventually lifted. In America, crippled by debt, church property becomes a source of revenue long considered off limits. When tax-exempt status is removed, many church buildings will head straight for foreclosure. Currently, banks are holding countless church loans in default because no financial institution wants to call a church’s loan, but don’t expect that to happen much longer. Many current church buildings will become community gathering spots. The older the building the more attractive it’ll be for conversion into a private home, bar, restaurant, coffee shop or retail store. Larger buildings will serve local governments or convert to community centers, office space, learning halls and gyms. Persecution will drive USAmerican Christians back into their homes. Small will be the new big.
3) The end of denominationalism and ecclesiastical labels. Future Christianity will have various expressions (charismatic, conservative, liberal, etc.) but the modern labels (Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Assembly of God, Baptist, Nazarene) will disappear. Postmoderns view truth in two categories: Absolute and personal. Moderns were grooved by Renaissance mechanism and Enlightenment rationalism to put everything in a box and objectify truth, including Christianity. But emerging generations don’t think outside the box…they think without boxes. Consequently, postmoderns value the journey, the experience and the conversation. Authentic Christianity will truly rise and replace cultural churchianity in the coming years and replace the labels attached by modern church leaders in the past 500 years.
4) A new age for the northern and western Church that’s marked by biblical ignorance and intense persecution. Every 250 years or so, there’s a turning or a season (just like spring turns to summer and summer turns to fall). As a student of church history, it’s easy to see these seasons (and I’ll write about them in the future), but roughly every 1000 years there’s a period of darkness, ignorance and persecution for the Church. The first-century church was born into this “winter” season (AD 30-325) and experienced a second “cold” season during the Dark Ages (c. AD 1000-1250). We’re now set for a third ice age for northern and western Christianity. Consequently, the Church will be most vibrant in the East (China, Korea, Thailand) and South (America and Africa). Actually this last trend is already happening.
In the end, I do agree with Stetzer’s final conclusion:
The lasting effects of these shifts will force churches to make a critical decision. They will either become a cultural church that allows the societal trends to dictate their ever-changing beliefs. Or they will become a counter-cultural church that faithfully adheres to Scripture and proclaims the gospel in a carefully considered way. The latter church will offer real hope in the midst of an adversarial culture and is the only real future for the American church.
The Bottom Line: The Church of tomorrow will need to be Christ-centered, culturally-relevant, intentionally missional and strategically fluid to find traction in our postmodern culture. And I’m betting it will be smaller, leaner and more irresistible (Acts 2:42-47).
I hate to be called out. Nor do I prefer to call out somebody else. Call upon me, fine. Call me late for supper, okay. Call me out, no. I got called out when I was in trouble, like when I led a 2 a.m. practical joke at my church camp. I thought it would be funny to turn every piece of furniture upside down in the chapel. To my surprise, the dean found no humor in my nocturnal shenanigans and called me out for latrine duty. Calling out can sometimes stink.
Occasionally a teacher has called me out for purposes of embarrassment. You know the type. They ate gravel for breakfast, hate the world and now sense it’s their divine mission on planet earth to ensure you are fully aware of your stupidity and the human tragedy you’re allowed to consume oxygen. Calling out can sometimes shame.
A calling out often means a fight. When you got “called out” by an angry peer it meant it was time for a clock cleaning. The code was to take your fisticuffs outside. Grown men still call out other grown men to beat the snot out of them. Calling out can sometimes hurt.
Two thousand years ago, Jesus called out some Galilean misfits. Some fished. Some taxed. Some didn’t do much of anything that we know. But these twelve disciples turned the world upside down in broad daylight. They weren’t the sharpest tools in the shed but they built upon the foundation for a Kingdom that is eternal. They were called out to battle Roman political powers and Jewish religious tradition. In the process, they were shamed and hurt, even to the point of martyrdom. They were average Joes who stood up to high priests, magistrates and even emperors.
They were the “church” and acted like it.
Some churches aren’t doing such a hot job today. In nearly every denomination, tribe or fellowship, there is stagnation and decline. A January 2013 cover story for The Lutheran lamented how the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America is fading fast. Nearly one in three now average less than fifty people and overall attendance plummeted 26% since 2003. In one decade, the ELCA has closed or merged churches at an average rate of 100 per year or two every Sunday.
In my tribe (independent Christian Churches) we boast over 126 emerging and megachurches, with the top eight drawing 100,000 people every Sunday! Impressive, but of the emerging and megachurches reporting for 2011, growth averaged between .8 to 4.4% over 2010 figures. Okay, maybe not so impressive. In fact, several reported outright declines. A closer look reveals even numbers can betray our largest megachurch: Southeast Christian in Louisville, KY. In 2011, this congregation’s weekly attendance is 20,786 (up from 19,534 in 2010) and they baptized 1,618 (up from 1,250 in 2010). Respectable numbers and growing, right? Actually no. In reality, Southeast grew less than 1% between 2010-2011 (adding 1,252 people). When you crunch numbers, you uncover a different story. Yes, they added 1,252 to attendance but baptized 1,618 and that constitutes an actual DECLINE in growth of 366 people! Additionally, it’s safe to assume hundreds of others also joined this fine congregation as baptized members. Consequently, Southeast’s fractional growth, though an increase, is actually a decline overall, and not retaining even what she baptizes.
In comparison, the first century church grew exponentially faster, by hundreds and thousands. The church of Jesus exploded around Jerusalem, spilling into Judea and Samaria and finally reaching distant locales like Antioch, Thessalonica and even Rome. After Acts 4:4 and a vague reference to “about five thousand men,” we have no attendance figures. We just knew they grew daily (Acts 5:14). Today’s churches like to count people. The first church made people count.
What’s the difference between the first-century “church” and the 21st century Church? In one word: walls. The first-century “church” wasn’t trapped in a facility and physical address. The “church” was a gathering of people not a building where you worshipped and studied the Bible. Somehow, in twenty centuries, the word Jesus used to charge His disciples has changed.
In the New Testament, the Greek word translated “church” is ekklesia or ekklesia. It’s where we get the word “ecclesiastical.”
Jesus only used ekklesia twice and solely by the Jewish tax-collector Matthew. In 16:18, Jesus told his disciples that Peter’s confession, that identified Him as the Messiah, is the “rock” upon which his ekklesia is built. Later in 18:17, Jesus outlines “church” discipline and again uses ekklesia. No other gospel writer uses ekklesia, including the Greek historian Luke (who does use it the most [23 times] in the book of Acts). Paul will employ ekklesia 21 times in I Corinthians and John will pen the word 19 times in Revelation (18 in the first three chapters alone!). But not one time is the word ever used to describe a facility or address. The “church” was an assembly of believers: a Body not a building, an Organism not an organization, a People not a place.
The word ekklesia originated in the Greco-political culture. It’s not even a religious word. An ekklesia described a “gathering of citizens called out from their homes into a public place for an assembly.” Literally, an ekklesia or “church” means “called out ones.” In the Roman world, ekklesias were common, especially when the emperor came to call. His highness would ride into town on his white steed with all the majesty and pomp, followed by his army. When the people gathered around him (a.k.a., ekklesia), they would shout to his deity and profess, “Caesar is lord! Caesar is lord!”
In Matthew 16, Jesus steals this secular metaphor and recasts it for his disciples. The Messiah, Jesus taught, is the Christ (with a nod to Peter for his confession) and He is the Lord of lords and King of kings. Jesus taught this lesson at Caesarea Philippi (vs. 13), a Judean political center for Rome. Ekklesias were routine in Caesarea Philippi, and it’s possible the disciples even experienced one just prior to this moment. Perhaps some potentate from Rome had just ridden into Caesarea Philippi and an ekklesia broke out. “Caesar is lord! Caesar is lord!” the people cried. Then Jesus pulls his disciples away from the ekklesia and inquires, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” After a few Sunday School answers (John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah), Peter professes essentially “Jesus is Lord!” Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God (vs. 16).
Bingo. Jesus then explains Peter’s confession is the massive foundation stone (Greek: petra) upon which He will “build [his] ekklesia.” Despite Roman Catholic teaching, Peter (Greek: Petros for “little stone”) isn’t the rock: Jesus is the Rock! Jesus then references how the “gates of Hades” (erroneously mistranslated by King James translators as “hell”) will not overcome this Ekklesia. Hades was the place of the dead. In other words, not even death would keep Jesus’ Ekklesia from growing. It’s no wonder the phrase “Jesus is Lord” became an early Christian idiom and an intentional cultural dig to those who practiced emperor worship. Caesar isn’t lord. Jesus IS Lord. He’s the Lord of all lords!
John will expand this idiom in his Revelation of Jesus. A work deeply soaked with the conflict between Roman religious and political powers that seek to destroy the Ekklesia of Jesus (church of Christ). In Revelation 13, two beasts emerge to battle the Ekklesia. The first is political and the second is religious. John writes to seven ekklesias located in Asia Minor and paints a picture of ekklesia in Revelation 19:
11 I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and wages war. 12 His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns. He has a name written on him that no one knows but he himself. 13 He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God. 14 The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean. 15 Coming out of his mouth is a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. “He will rule them with an iron scepter.” He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty. 16 On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written:
king of kings and lord of lords.
17 And I saw an angel standing in the sun, who cried in a loud voice to all the birds flying in midair, “Come, gather together for the great supper of God, 18 so that you may eat the flesh of kings, generals, and the mighty, of horses and their riders, and the flesh of all people, free and slave, great and small.”
For churches or ekklesias in the first century John employed highly intentional language. Just like earthly kings rode into towns and commanded worship, so does Jesus. Those who obeyed the “calling out” to meet the king would be part of his Ekklesia or “church.”
So where did we go wrong? Mostly, we allowed comfort and convenience, sprinkled with good intentions and slightly twisted Scriptures, to change the term. For in time, the Greek adjective kyriakos (meaning, “belonging to the Lord”) was incorporated by early Christians to also innocently describe their faith communities. Since they met in homes these became known as a kyriakos oikos or “house of the Lord.” Over the centuries, particularly after the Edict of Milan (A.D. 311) under Emperor Constantine, the word further morphed from a description of the people assembled to the place of assembly. The house of the Lord (kyriakos) became the common idiom for Christian gathering rather than a public assembly (ekklesia). As Christendom moved into Germany and Britain, the word kyriokos evolved further into kerke or churche and eventually just church. Nowadays, a church is a place of worship and people who attend are church “members.”
Today, most people talk about “going to church” on Sunday. Church is a building, a worship service or place defined by space and time. It’s religious jargon and it’s completely wrong. The Church—the assembly or gathering—isn’t a private “in house” event (walled by time and space). The Church is the Body of Christ gathered publicly to proclaim, “Jesus is Lord!” It’s beyond the walls; it’s in the streets, at the malls and among the culture.
The reason why the Church faces either its greatest days (or worst) depends solely on whether we restore the Original DNA of ekklesia. The idea of kyriokos (especially as a place) is a perversion the modern church has swallowed hook, line and stinker. If God wanted his people to build facilities, they could have done it. In fact, Rome probably would have preferred it. Rome was quite tolerant of religions and most of them built shrines that dotted the Empire (they had no issue with Jewish synagogues). But the early Ekklesia was fluid and fast. Like water it seeped into places that organized religion and facilities couldn’t go. Particularly, the first- and second-century Ekklesia operated stealth, underground (in places of persecution) and secretly. Early Christians were accused of cannibalism, among other wild rumors. Their fellowship was closed, it would seem, but in reality it was an open culture. Christians were everywhere, but you had to know one and follow one to become part of the Ekklesia. And thousands did.
That’s why I’m calling out the kyriokos (time and space church) to rediscover its Original DNA: ekklesia. We weren’t meant to sit and soak in buildings but move among the culture. Just know that it’s going to hurt…a lot!
Here’s a radical idea: sell your building and property (just like first-century Christians did) and give it to the poor in your community. Instead meet in homes and, when possible, in public squares. Perhaps Jesus’ words to the rich young ruler should be ours, for I suspect Jesus cringes when we build yet another facility “in His Name.” Churchianity builds buildings. Christianity changes lives. His Ekklesia was meant to be “out” not “in.” Like the rich young ruler, we’re proud that we “know the commandments” and practice them, but still Jesus says we “lack one thing”: absolute submission (Luke 18:19-22).
You want to restore biblical Christianity? Good. But let’s also restore biblical ecclesiology, too. Let’s restore Ekklesia (as called out ones who gather publicly) and honor Jesus’ G0 Mission (Matthew 28:18-20). Imagine what Christians could do if we no longer had facility mortgages. Imagine the funds available if we no longer spent them on “come to our building” programs. Imagine even a return to biblical staffing—volunteer only—and the end of “professional” ministry. I know, now I’m meddling, but full-time paid staff is a business idea, not a biblical one. Imagine no longer being able to count how big your church is, because people gather in homes rather than “houses of worship.” Imagine the community service you could do in neighborhood and city. Imagine the Ekklesia gathering publicly at ball games, concerts, malls, fairs, parks, festivals, service clubs and other social settings, not to lead worship and preach at people, but to serve as Salt and Light, inviting them into home fellowships and deeper community. Imagine the influence of an Ekklesia that seasons culture rather than assaults it with religiosity.
To quote John Lennon, I may be a dreamer but I doubt I’m the only one.
In a postmodern American culture, an Ekklesia community would be highly attractive. It already is. Ekklesias occur every day in coffee shops. Johns and Janes gather for a cup of joe with Joe and Jolene. And where two or more are gathered, in Christ’s name, there is Ekklesia. That my friends is the CHURCH Jesus imagined and the early Ekklesia practiced daily.
I don’t want to intentionally hurt or shame, but I’m calling out those stuck in churchianity to intentionally gather for True, biblical Christianity.
Restore the Original DNA. Reboot Ekklesia.
Just know it won’t happen as long as you’re bound to a building. The True Ekklesia is far bigger and better. Until you’re free of the facility, you’ll never experience or enjoy authentic Ekklesia.
I’m not calling out the church for a fight…but a Future!