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).
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.
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.
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.
That’s why we need to look back to understand a few things. Today’s 21C version of the Church is vastly different from the revealed version in the book of Acts and the epistles (not to mention the first three hundred years of its history)…but WHY and HOW?
Where did the Church go wrong? What was the turning point, historically, for a vibrant, attractive decentralized Faith community (as revealed in the New Testament) to turn into an ecclesiastical, political and eventual corporate system? Well, the answer emerges fairly early in the Christian story. Somehow it doesn’t take long for man to mess up what God intended.
One finger points to Ignatius of Antioch, a late first-century/early second-century church leader who wrote extensively on congregational matters. Ignatius favored the idea of a single bishop (elder) to rule a church (some argue because he himself was a disgruntled elder). Essentially, he wanted to centralize a local church around one person and a group of churches around a single ruling bishop. A few followed his lead, particularly in Rome. For example, Evaristus (c. 105) reportedly divided Rome into parishes with a supervising priest while a hundred years later, Fabian (c. 240) further divided the city into districts (ruled by a single deacon). Still most Christian churches remained decentralized for the first three hundred years.
But then Roman emperor Constantine legalizes Christianity in Rome (Edict of Milan, AD 313). By the early fourth century, a centralized congregational frame was now widely accepted and, consequently, easily assimilated into a Roman political system. As a result, the fourth century “Catholic” church blossomed as “Christendom” (or Christ’s Kingdom). Pagan temples were converted into churches. Bishops, archbishops, cardinals and popes emerged. Tax exempt status was granted to churches. And the wall of separation between clergy and laity was erected. Nearly all these reforms stand to this day.
So the verdict is in…you can point the finger (largely) at Ignatius and Constantine. But I would respectfully protest that doesn’t make them (or their adherents) right to reframe and centralize Christianity around a single bishop, archbishop, pope or even city (Rome) any more than it was right for Israel to request a “king”. Ironically, “Catholic” (from Greek καθολικισμός, katholikismos) literally means “universal.” And yet today is known, rather oxymoronic, as the Roman Catholic Church.
For 1700 years, including 500 years of Protestant Reformation, we have missed the point and created a centralized religion.
In fact, I continue to contend the Original DNA was (and still is) a decentralized frame of congregational government. Power spread throughout. Everyone pulling their weight. Multiple leaders guiding the vision and values, doing the preaching and teaching, in a local congregation. No single individual in charge and no single apostle, priest or pastor more important. No denominational hierarchy or headquarters. Most Christians have never experienced such a church.
It’s definitely what we find revealed in the Scriptures.
As Peter wrote, we are ALL priests in God’s Kingdom. We all have a voice and vision. We all can evangelize, preach, teach, sing and serve. Or as Paul added, there are now no more barriers between race, gender or profession. We are ONE Body. The Church isn’t a place we go to. Church isn’t defined by an address, a time or a program and it’s certainly not a “personality-driven” enterprise (which is common in so many megachurches today) or “priest-/preacher-centered.” The Church is PEOPLE. Messy, imperfect and broken people who embrace Jesus and Holy Spirit empowerment. Maybe that’s why early churches were small–a couple dozen people at best–worshipping in a home rather than like we do today, in a Christian event, service or program.
Imagine if we could RADICALLY RESTORE the Church to its Original DNA! What if we reclaimed a decentralized Body, led by multiple pastors, gathering in homes but living their faith publicly, empowering every person to “go and teach” the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Why would this model be more powerful in a postmodern America? Here are a few reasons:
- Most non-churched/former churched Americans have a negative view of a church building and her leaders and a general distrust of institutional Christianity.
- Americans don’t mind gathering in private homes (for parties, reunions, etc.). It’s a comfortable place for conversation.
- House churches operate faster, leaner and better contextualized to individual neighborhoods. Change will be key to survival.
- The emerging persecution of Christians will drive faith communities underground. In persecuted countries, a decentralized frame succeeds.
In the coming weeks, I’ll continue to unpack these ideas. Just know that God IS working.
He’s always working.