The Ideal Church

There are serious problems with the Western Christian church.

I and my peers have grown up in established Protestant (Southern Baptist) churches. I have been an A/V operator, a Sunday School teacher, a deacon, a church orchestra (trombone) and praise-band (keyboard) player, and a youth worker for many years, and a lay youth pastor for about four years in the last church I was committed to. What I've observed in traditional-style churches in Ohio, California, Virginia, and Arizona include the following.

  • There is a terrific emphasis on evangelism, cast as a "duty" for all believers, yet very few respond to that "duty" at all, and fewer yet with joy.
  • When converts are made, they typically stay in the church for a few months and then disappear. No effort is made to find them.
  • Men are the group least engaged by the church culture, despite "men's ministries" that are designed to draw them back in.
  • Doctrinal or theological knowledge is shallow, and biblical illiteracy abounds. Church members speak and act on emotions, not reasoned understanding.
  • It is rare to find anyone committed to living according to Christian principles. It is easier to uncritically accept rules from church culture (e.g., Baptist "don't drink, don't smoke, don't dance") or extracted from Bible prooftexts (e.g., what is permissible on the "Sabbath" (Sunday)).
  • Few perform personal devotions (Bible reading, individual prayer). Hardly any families perform family devotions together.
  • Parents prefer to allow church Children's and Youth ministries to instill spiritual values in their children, and don't reinforce anything beyond behavior expectations at home.
  • Traditional church activities are decaying, such as Wednesday Night prayer meetings and Sunday Night discipleship training. Only the Sunday Morning "worship" service is uniformly observed.
  • There is an increasing rejection of Christianity in the civic culture, and increasing hostility from young people.

What I've seen in churches I've visited in Oklahoma, Texas, Connecticut, and Alabama confirm my observations. A number of years ago, after leaving my traditional "family church", and more recently after leaving the last church where I was the youth leader, I've visited many other churches in Tucson, of a variety of denominations (Southern Baptist, Independent Baptist, Conservative Baptist, Nazarene, Wesleyan, Reformed), many non-denominational ones, and a few "emerging" churches. I've also been involved (directly or indirectly) with several church-starts or plants, and observed the traditional assumptions that almost all of them adopt. So I can say I've got first-hand observational evidence of the "church culture" marked by the above problems.

I've been reading many books offering assessments or critiques of the situation in the contemporary church, and/or recommendations for how things should be done better. UnchristianAlready GoneTwo that have been most significant in forming my views are unChristian, by David Kinnaman of the Barna research organization, and Already Gone by Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis and Britt Beemer. Both books describe the phenomena of the enormous rate of young people leaving the church or being repelled by it, and what the church ought to do about this problem. These books are hardly unique in being "down" on the contemporary church; I've read many books, magazine articles, and web posts with variations on the subject from a variety of authors (from "church-growth" experts to Southern Baptist Convention officials) that confirm my independent observations and analysis. Furthermore, my experience as a youth leader also confirms it; despite my conscious efforts to buck the trends, of the modest number of teens I saw pass through the group, 100% have left this church, nearly all would call themselves "Christian", around 80% do not attend any church now, and the majority are not living consistently with the Truth.

Given this background, I am loth to commit to yet another traditional-style church that either denies the problems in the contemporary Western institutional church or misdiagnoses them. My analysis of the problems identify four characteristics of the effective church that I am looking for. These characteristics include (in order of importance):

Now, while my Ideal Church would fully implement everything I describe in the linked sections, I am entirely aware that (short of me calling the shots) it will never happen. What I am hoping, however, is that somehwere, even if it doesn't exist yet, there is a church that recognizes the problem and is willing to move away from the status quo:

Church Structure Spectrum

The hope is "X" can be moved from the right side to the left side of the spectrum. This would certainly take vision and patience to see much progress, and a great deal of mutual cooperation and people being willing to set aside cherished traditional expectations in order to serve the Timeless God and extend His Kingdom.

Furthermore, I'm not going to wait until my ideal church materializes, and I'm not going to try to create it myself without an explicit and unmistakeable divine command, but it is MY STANDARD while I remain in the Christian community by attending that all-important "worship" service at (one or more) local evangelical churches in Central Tucson [1] and participating in para-church ministries to perform the Kingdom work that institutional churches are either unwilling or unable to perform. And, if anyone out there knows about a church or start-up in Central Tucson that is moving in the right direction, or you are a pastor who either wants to transform his Central Tucson church or start a church along these lines, or you are a lay Christian living in Central Tucson and you want to join my prayer and search for such a fellowship,

Please Contact Me!

An Ideal Church: Prayer

Prayer MeetingWhen I was a child, the churches that my parents belonged to always had a Wednesday night Prayer and Bible Study meeting. I don't remember too much about them, I'm not even sure I was always there (or off in some children's activity, like Royal Ambassadors or Children's Choir). But we had them. It was traditional.

When I came to Tucson and joined First Southern Baptist Church, they had a Wednesday Night prayer meeting, too. I attended this activity for years, and remember that, after the Bible Study part (limited to 45 minutes to an hour), the men and women separated into rooms for prayer time. There were a lot of men, a significant portion of the membership, and a fair number were elderly. The time was not restricted, and it often went for more than an hour. The subject of prayer included sickness and jobs and "travelling mercies", yes, but it also included lost people and blessings for ministries and government officials and policies. This continued until not many years ago, when the church started an AWANA program on Wednesday night, and many of the adults that had been attending the prayer meeting became AWANA workers.

When we joined Central Baptist Church, they had a prayer meeting. A few people attended, including the pastor(s), some of those were elderly, it was open-ended and not time-constrained, there was no real organization, and the subjects of the prayers were predominantly the sick. Then the lay person who was really responsible for the prayer meeting moved away, and the pastor didn't see the value of continuing the prayer meeting. I attempted to keep it going, or tried to do a Sunday Night Prayer and Bible Study, but first all the men dropped out, and then all the older ladies dropped out, and there were too few to keep it going.

Since we have been visiting other churches, I have noticed that almost NONE have a regular weekly prayer meeting. Two or three of the tiny handful that do have the practice of a men's prayer meeting at one time (in the morning, presumably before the workday starts) and a women's prayer meeting at another time (in the evening, presumably after the dads get home and can watch the kids while the moms are away). When I ask about the prayer meeting policies, I get dismissive answers (clearly indicating that the pastor places no value on prayer meetings) or excuses, such as, "our older members find it too difficult to get out at night".

This seems to be a new excuse, as I remember older people at Wednesday night prayer meetings in my younger day. Travelling at night was not a problem back then, so why should it be now? Unless this is really a statement of priority, and what the older people are really saying is, "I don't believe the prayer meeting is worth the trouble and risk of getting out at night." Really, the same could be said about Sunday Evening services; at one time, all churches did them, and the older folk were present.

I observe another practice/excuse - "We don't need to have a church-wide corporate prayer meeting because we have a Prayer Chain". That is, a phone or e-mail network alerts people that they should pray individually for the listed concerns. I don't see how this can really work, because (a) people tend not to pray (or do anything else) without personal accountability, and (b) it looses the corporate power of prayer and the promise that our Lord Himself states in Matthew 18:19-20:

Again I say to you, that if two of you agree on earth about anything that they may ask, it shall be done for them by My Father who is in heaven. For where two or three have gathered together in My name, there I am in their midst.

Another practice I've observed in a few churches we've visited is that they have a "prayer meeting", but it is an hour or half an hour before the Sunday Morning "worship" service. In some cases, it is stated that the purpose of the meeting is to pray for the service. Well, that's not for the church, and most members will not be able to attend, and it will be time-constrained by the beginning of the service itself.

Now, it is a subjective assessment, but seems to me that there was a warmer spirit, more successful ministries, more people saved and baptized, fewer problems and obstacles when the churches I attended had prayer meetings, and things went downhill after the meetings ended or were cut back. In the case of Central, I witnessed occasional new-believer baptisms while the prayer meetings were going on; after they ended, not a single one.

Fresh Wind Fresh FireIn this same timeframe, I was driving back to Tucson from a TOW activity at Yuma Proving Ground. I was alone, I had the radio on, and the program featured an interview with Jim Cymbala of the Brooklyn Tabernacle. I was so moved, I got his Fresh Wind Fresh Fire book, in which he describes the path by which he led Brooklyn Tabernacle to become a prayer-driven church, and some of the fantastic things they witnessed.

Somewheres I came across a booklet that linked the Great Revivals of the past with a movement of prayer. I can't find it now, I must have loaned it to some pastor somewhere. It includes the story of some 19th Century men, impressed by God, who started praying in a New York City church. The prayer meeting grew, spread to other churches, and then other cities and states, and a great revival resulted. It also includes a description of the South Korean megachurches, and how a great prayer movement preceded their formation.

Experiencing GodLast year, my wife and I and another couple went through the Experiencing God course. I get the impression that this course, in a small-group context, is intended to help the individual discover God's will; however, the best examples that Henry Blackaby gives, both in the student book and the video "lesson", is how his church, Faith Baptist of Saskatoon, experienced amazing answers to prayer when they sought God corporately in church-wide, pastor-led prayer meetings.

[However, from what I've seen myself, if a church conducts Experiencing God as a church-sponsored class (like any other Bible Study), it is almost certain that, after the twelve weeks of the course are over, it will be over; it will be entirely up to the individuals whether they apply the principles or not (again, without an accountability function, most will not), and without pastoral leadership, there will be NO inclination to follow the example of Faith Baptist of Saskatoon in "experiencing God" as a church by seeking for God's will corporately in some form of church-wide, pastor-led prayer meetings. After all, Experiencing God has been around for some while, and at least in Tucson, there doesn't seem to be any increase in church prayer meetings or evidence that God is responding to their prayers and leading them into powerful expressions of His will for them.]

And then we have the examples from Scripture, such as Acts 4:23-31, in which the church responds to the persecution by the Jewish authorities of Peter and John with a prayer meeting, asking God for boldness - and the prayer was answered by an earth tremor, a filling of the Holy Spirit, and the boldness they asked for being granted. And again, in Acts 12, particularly verse 12, where Peter escaped from prison by an angel as an answer to an open-ended, persistent, church-wide prayer meeting. This story in Acts 12 sounds just like some of the stories from Cymbala's Fresh Wind book!

Now it's true, I don't see any commands or instructions by Christ or Paul that the church should pray. Maybe given their Jewish background it is assumed that the church would pray. Certainly by the examples in Acts, the church did pray. Together. And the bottom line is, unless we think we can get along without God's power, and we really don't need God's help in doing what He wants us to do, and we don't really need to know what He wants us to do outside of the (very skinny) Biblical instructions and our own denominational traditions, then we need to be praying together about these things. So, Step 1 in David Ormand's Recipe for a Successful Church is

Commitment to Corporate Prayer

  • Corporate - Members gather together at the appointed time. Prayer Chains are nice, but are NOT a substitute for church-wide corporate prayer.
  • Pastor-led - If prayer is going to be the cornerstone of the life of the church, then the primary authority of the church must lead it. Lay ministers can and should do many things, but the senior pastor must take the role of prayer leader.
  • Regular - It must be a scheduled, regular, weekly occurrence. Special seasons of prayer, say for upcoming events, are important, but they cannot advance the overall mission of the church.
  • Promoted - The members (and visitors) need to know that the prayer meeting is a significant, even foundational part of the life of the church. Hiding it in the bulletin or the web site is not enough. It needs to be promoted by the pastor from the pulpit, and attendance at the prayer meeting should be as much or more an expectation of members as attendance at any other service.
  • Unconflicted - There must not be any other activities that would prevent church members from attending the prayer meeting. Not children's activities; children and youth should participate (although infants will probably need a nursery). Not choir practice. Nothing "good" should give competition for "the best".
  • Open-ended - No time limits. Prayer is communication with God, and communication with the Creator and Director of the Universe must not be constrained to a schedule.
  • Intentional - praying for sick people and personal needs is all very well, and embodies our love for one another and our honour for other people who God created and Jesus died for. However, we are commanded to pray for our country and our leaders and our pastors and missionaries, and certainly we should be passionate about discovering God's will for our church and seeking His blessings for our ministries, and for the lost people He died to save and placed us here to reach. The prayer meeting must be more than an "organ recital".
  • Passionate - If a church really wants something, to know God's will and see His power at work, their prayers will be serious, more than traditional Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting prayers, more than formal congregational prayers in Sunday Morning "worship" service.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Apparently, there also needs to be some persistence in a church's program of serious prayer. I notice that Faith Baptist of Saskatoon fondly recalls Henry Blackaby's pastorate, but does not indicate any emphasis on their current prayer activities. I also note that Brooklyn Tabernacle schedules other activities during their famous Tuesday Night Prayer Meeting. It seems the Choir is their primary attraction now.

An Ideal Church: Intentionality

I've been in a lot of churches, particularly Southern Baptist ones. Growing up as an Air Force brat and moving around, I was a member of a lot of churches as a child and a youth. On two occasions of being "between churches" or "church shopping" with my family, we've visited a lot of churches in Tucson. As I travel on business or visit relatives, I look for opportunities to visit churches in other cities. So I've seen a lot of churches, and they tend to fall into three categories.

The most numerous are the traditional churches, which exists for the purpose of complying with a historic or denominational culture, usually embodied in a standard calendar of weekly activities and ministries performed in a standard way, and a standard order of services for Sunday "worship" service, in which the components are performed in a standard way. Then there are the churches with an agenda, with purposes at odds with serving the Kingdom of God; these may include preserving the power of some dominating individual in the church (usually the head deacon) or a family dynasty or a pastoral staff nepotism, or it may be an inward-focused social club. But finally, I have noticed a few intentional churches, which have a clear idea of how they are supposed to serve the Kingdom and have a (more or less) objective plan for accomplishing this.

The instance of this kind of church we most recently visited is "The Cool Church", or more officially, Tucson Community Church [2]. Their extensive visitor packet sets out their purpose - to reach the nonbelieving people of Tucson and disciple them - and the detailed structure of their strategy. Now, I need to mention that many, even most traditional evangelical churches would claim to have this as a purpose, but they don't have an objective plan for carrying it out; they will adopt denomination-recommended evangelism strategies (reported to work in a few other churches), and maybe they will put on special events (like city-wide "revival" meetings), but in general, the effort of maintaining the traditional elements of the church and meeting the expectations of the large portion (almost certainly the majority) of the membership who are tradition-minded, gets in the way. The same could be said for the term "missional" - there are many traditional churches that would claim the "missional" label, but their very structure prevents them from actually being so. I have not been in a Tucson church that claimed to be "missional" and could produce a clear strategy. I suspect that established, traditional churches, whether large or small, would find it extremely difficult to transition to being "missional" or intentional, and it really takes a fresh start, a church plant, such as The Cool Church is. I will also say that I don't agree with everything The Cool Church stands for - but that is part of the blessing of the intentional church; you can tell where they stand, and make an informed decision about them. I found this experience refreshing, even bracing!

Purpose Driven ChurchThe cardinal example of the intentional church is the Purpose Driven Church strategy, best represented by Rick Warren's Saddleback Church. When I was working in the youth ministry of First Southern Baptist of Tucson, the youth pastor had successfully rebuilt the ministry on Purpose Driven lines (that was the best, most fruitful year I have ever experienced in youth ministry). Saddleback Church was putting on a regular (possibly annual) Purpose Driven Church or Purpose Driven Youth Ministry conference, and we went with our newly-trained volunteers. So Saddleback and its youth ministry is one of those many churches I've visited. I got an up-close look at what an intentional mega-church looked like! It wasn't the size that was so impressive (I've visited other mega-churches before) as how all the members knew

  • What the church was supposed to do, and
  • How they were going to do it.

Now, I am aware of the controversy around Purpose Driven, and how some (tradition-minded) pastors identify PDC tactics inspired by Peter Drucker and other secular business strategists and therefore denounce it as being unscriptural and contrary to God's will. I don't hold with a few things in PDC myself; I think the "mission statement" part is unnecessary. However, it seems to me that any church that intends to be intentional, and comes up with a plan (however they do it) for

  • This is what God wants us to do
  • This is how we are going to do it
  • This is how we are going to to determine if we are successful
  • This is what we will do if we are not being successful

is going to look a lot like Saddleback. It also seems like what those pastors are tacitly preferring over the Saddleback model,

  • This is what we have always done
  • This is how we have always done it
  • If we just do what we interpret what God wants us to do, He will make us successful
  • If we are not being successful, we just need to do it harder

is pretty hard to defend.

[I've also learned that traditional and agenda-driven churches will often claim to be Purpose Driven, and adopt some of the superficial trimmings, like stating the Five Purposes in their bulletins or holding 101, 201, 301, 401 classes. It's hard to tell what they're really about without spending time there, asking the people what they do and looking for signs about what they really do. If a church has a clearly stated strategy (such as, in their visitor packet or the church website or on posters hanging on the walls), and members will enthusiastically confirm the strategy when asked, then the chances of this being an authentically intentional church are pretty good.]

Step 2 in David Ormand's Recipe for a Successful Church is

Commitment to an Intentional Strategy

1. What Are We Supposed To Do. In most cases, this isn't hard to figure out. Christ gave us the Great Commission very clearly (however much denominations, even my own Southern Baptist one, tend to twist it):

  • Make disciples (i.e., more than just converts, more than just getting someone to recite a "magic prayer")
  • Baptize them
  • Teach them to obey what our Lord commanded (i.e., the Great Commandment and the Second Commandment, Matthew 22:37-40)

Also Communion (probably more regularly than most churches celebrate it). And the Pauline instructions which are found at the ends of many of his Epistles, notably family relationships and duties.

In some cases, additional, special, and unique instructions and challenges for a church will be determined by direct enquiry from God in prayer, a la Experiencing God. Note that Step 2 here can't really work without Step 1; church-wide prayer is foundational to a successful intentional strategy.

Beware of adopting popular or contemporary definitions for terms in our church objectives. For example, "baptize" is a denominationally loaded term. Is it immersion or sprinkling at a font? Is it for infants or believers? Search the Scriptures, enquire of God in prayer, and consider denominational traditions without feeling bound by them. More seriously, what is "making a disciple"? Certainly there is an educational component; Jesus and the rabbis taught their disciples, and so should we, but "being a disciple" is more than having an education. Jesus set His disciples to obtaining practical experience and "on the job training". A disciple "knows", but he also "does".

Write it down

Capture the Mission of the Church in an objective, permanent medium. Don't rely on assumption or verbal training. Provide something that visitors and potential members can refer to in determining what the church is really about.

Get "Buy-In"

Every member should understand and agree to the Mission of the Church.

The best, most appropriate way to do this is to involve everyone in the process of discovery. In a church start-up, this is easier; the "core group" is fairly small and interested in the direction. The worst, least appropriate way is for the senior pastor (whether of an established church or the "church planter" of a new start-up) to determine on his own what the Mission of the Church should be and then descend, like Moses from Sinai, to deliver his determinations to the lay-people as the Oracles of God.

Repetition and Promotion

Constantly reaffirm the Mission. Keep it fresh in human minds that are prone to forgetting and corrupting things. Introduce it to visitors and candidates and new members... and nonbelievers. Make sure everyone, even the surrounding community, has the opportunity to know why the church is there.

2. How Are We Going To Do It. What methods will be employed to carry out the Mission of the Church? Again, this project should be a combined effort of the pastoral staff (even if a single "church planter" individual) and members who are Gifted by God with different specialties. Possibly the pastor(s) should set a broad outline for components of the strategy - Education, Ministry, Fellowship, Worship, and/or others as determined at this phase - and then step back and allow the other members to step forward with implementation, but be ready to fill in holes.

As with the first step of Establishing the Mission, the princples of

  • Write it down
  • Get "Buy-In"
  • Repetition and Promotion

apply at this phase as well, and for the same reasons.

David Ormand's Ideal Strategy Components

I'm not a "church planter" or a staff pastor, but if I were part of a fellowship or a "core group" or a strategy-implementation team, these would be my suggestions. And besides, I'm the one writing my thoughts here!

Education: The objective of Education is to impart the knowledge and the critical thinking required to manifest a Christian Worldview. Additionally, since the direct involvement of a church will be limited (e.g., once-a-week hour-long "Sunday School" classes), the church should involve families in the training process, not isolated age-groups. Training age-groups in isolation is a common denominational standard approach, but as the "Already Gone" phenomenon is connected with this practice, it should be avoided. At the same time, different age-groups have different learning capacities; Focus on the Family is a pretty good model for helping families with different age-group children. In fact, para-church ministries like Focus on the Family are likely to be a better resource for training methods and literature than denominational publishers, who have a record of producing shallow, "Bible Story" materials identified as a contributor to the "Already Gone" phenomenon.

Education therefore should be an age-appropriate, family-inclusive training on a variety of subjects ("All Truth is God's Truth"):

  • The Canon - important historical figures, the stories, the doctrines; the books, their order and origin
  • Apologetics - why we can believe that what we believe is true
  • Theology - Who is God, What is He like, and How does He do what He does - Salvation, Justification, Sanctification, etc.
  • History - Especially church history, but also world (and American) history to counter the agenda-driven material taught in secular schools
  • Science - what is it, how does it work, what are its limitations, and what are the real or full application of science to the study of Origins (Genesis) (Creationism/Evolutionism)
  • Logic and Critical Thinking - the proper use of propositions and conclusions, and how to spot logical fallacies and avoid them
  • Sociology - or, specifically, how to live Christianly in a fallen, hostile world, and how to correctly view issues such as marriage, family, homosexuality, liberty, tolerance, vocation, etc.
  • Religion - what do the prominent religions in our community believe and practice (e.g., Islam, New Age, Mormonism, Jehovah's Witnesses) and how to answer them

Ministry: The church should provide for the establishment of lay-led practical expressions of our faith. Ministries and programs might fall into a number of categories:

  • Relational Evangelism - Meeting people where they live, for the purpose of forming relationships that can lead to evangelism. Saddleback and some other churches in Tucson are pretty good about this: a Sailing ministry, a Surfing ministry, a Motorcycle ministry. I keep thinking about a Computer/Electronics Geek ministry...
  • Meeting Physical Needs - Maintaining a Crisis Closet, or partnering with the Rescue Mission or teen rescue ministry. Getting involved with para-church ministries would probably be better than forming church-unique ministries.
  • Practical Worldview - Living out one's faith in community. This could include starting accountability "clubs" in members' workplaces, and political activism, and cultural involvment in music, dance, and the arts.

Fellowship: Christian love must be more than casual friendships or shallow social connections (e.g., shaking hands with neighbors at some point in the "worship" service) or potluck dinners. Connecting with other believers may not be too hard in a small church or start-up, but as it grows, smallgroups or cell churches will be necessary. Accountability partnerships and adult-teen mentoring pairs are other expressions.

Worship: The notion that "worship" equates to the music in the weekly service should be absolutely discouraged! This is another of those terms with loaded "church culture" meanings. The church should explore together what "worship" means, and how to implement it - it will likely include such things as family and individual devotions, attending or hosting conferences and concerts, giving money to charitable causes and para-church ministries, even going to religious summer camps for families or teens! Worship should be more participative than spectative.

These activities should be promoted by the church (rather than just mentioned in the bulletin or on the website), and participation should be expected, not optional. Also, you might note that I did not include the usual "Evangelism" purpose in the list. This is because (a) I am convinced that a disciple, properly trained, will share his faith much more effectively than any church-wide "evangelism" program could, and (b) a member of a church where God is visibly at work in answers to prayers and changing lives will "witness" to what he has seen without being goaded by a church program. Not that a church "Evangelism" purpose would necessarily be bad, but I have too commonly seen it take over and become the One Purpose of a church.

3. How Do We Measure Success. I put my engineer hat on - for a process to be controlled and stable, there must be a feedback control network. If a church exists for a purpose or objective, rather than just for the sake of existing, then it needs to determine whether it is reaching those objectives. This means measuring success, or collecting metrics.

The usual metrics that a church collects are the number of attenders, the number of baptisms, and the amount of money given. If the objective is size, as is common in the evangelical world, these aren't necessarily bad metrics. If the objective is making disciples, these are useless metrics. Better metrics might be a grade distribution in training classes (Education), percentage of members involved in smallgroups or accountability partnerships (Fellowship), or percentage of members reporting a personal devotions pursuit (Worship).

Possibly, indirect metrics could be useful, such as number of new believers resulting from personal evangelism encounters. However, while this might be a good indication of the overall success of a Discipleship process, it could be subverted into a measure of the church's Evangelism, and then be used for the wrong corrective action in the next step:

4. What Corrective Action Shall We Take. From time to time, the pastoral staff or a process control team should review the metrics for trends regarding the methods for accomplishing the Mission of the Church. If trends indicate that a method is not working very well, then the team may follow up and investigate what might be happening. They may conclude that the method should be altered (perhaps a meeting time adjusted, or a leader moved) or replaced with a different method entirely. All these activities (interpreting metrics, considering corrective actions) should be done with much prayer for God's wisdom and perhaps (depending on the extent, such as a change to the published strategic plan) a larger group of church members should be involved.

An Ideal Church: Community Fellowship Groups

There is another characteristic of establishment churches that I believe acts against their being effective: they are commuter churches, NOT community churches. That is, the members live in places distributed fairly evently all over the city, and they drive for between 15 to 45 minutes to get to the church property where all the significant activities occur. Few to none of the members live in the neighborhood in which the church property is located; that is, within walking distance. What this means is, first, the members see each other only rarely and briefly, and for the greater part are unable or unwilling to form relationships any deeper than mere acquaintance, and second, the church is unsuccessful at attempts to "reach" the surrounding community, to get them to "come to church". I think there's a second-order effect, also; because the church doesn't really deal with communities, and the members are involved in the church remotely, the members are also conditioned to be unsuccessful with reaching with their own communities.

Originally, this made more sense - when First Southern Baptist of Tucson started in the 1930s, it was a group of Christians who united for the purpose of starting a Southern Baptist church in Tucson. Of course it was a commuter church; it was the first and only one. Besides which, at that time, Tucson wasn't that big, and the commute wasn't that far. At the present, there is another group of Christians trying to start a Reformed Baptist church in Tucson. By the same principle, it is of necessity a commuter church, but because the city is much larger and the members will be coming from a greater distance, the connection between members cannot be as deep as those 1930 FSBC members enjoyed.

In the 1960s, the Arizona Southern Baptist Convention recognized this problem, and started a short-lived program of starting "neighborhood churches". Central Baptist was one of these, in the neighborhood at 5th Street and Craycroft. Coming as they did at a time where UnChristian wasn't so much in effect and people looked upon churches with more favour than usual now, these neighborhood churches tended to survive and prosper. Over time, however, the members of those neighborhood churches moved out of the neighborhood, and ultimately, those little community-oriented churches became commuter churches, and finally, as those members aged, the churches struggled and many have died.

Some larger commuter churches have awoken to this problem, and have started creating "smallgroups" that meet in members' homes. From what I've seen, this is at least in part a recognition of the success of the college smallgroup ministries. Student ministries on university campuses have long set up Bible study groups in dorms and apartments, and so have the college ministries in established churches that intend to reach the university population. Other churches, I have noticed, want to get in on the "smallgroup fad", and relabel their Sunday School classes as "smallgroups", even though they are NOT in members' communities, they are still at the main church property, and therefore are still commuter operations with the same characteristic low-grade relational quality. But then, even the area smallgroups often tend to be commuter affairs, with other members driving some distance from other neighborhoods to attend the smallgroup at the hosting member's home - which of course circumvents most of the value of the smallgroup.

However, when I think "smallgroup", I envision a "community fellowship", in which the members live in proximity to each other and interact with each other more frequently than merely at group meetings. Because they live in the same neighborhood, they share neighborhood concerns, and local ministry opportunities, and... well, neighbors. I think "Clapham Group", the intentional Christian community that William Wilberforce was in, whose members encouraged him and each other to make their lives count. Unfortunately, the institutional churches have an expected format for "Sunday School class", and whether they merely relabel their Sunday School classes as smallgroups or actually set up community smallgroups meeting across the city in members' homes, the smallgroups have the same ineffective traditional format:

My Ideal
Traditional Format
Intimate, mutual interdependence; koinonia.
(Requires living in community, or at least geographical proximity).

One-hour-a-week "friends", shallow socializing, eating.
(Accommodates "drive-ins" from long distances)
Training in "how to feed yourself", for disciples to do their own studies and devotionals; provide, recommend, and critique resources.
Theological foundation - systematic, intentional [1].
Training in worldview application [2].

"Bible Study": shallow textual analysis, emphasis on "life application" and affirming denominational interpretations ("proof-texting").
Most "students" already know the material; not much "learning" occurs.
Report on personal studies, devotional habits, ministry activities, efforts towards holiness and integrity, struggles.

Pastoral Care
Hospital visits, emergencies, offering a shoulder, etc.
Distributed within the group; men (husbands, fathers) take the lead.
Smallgroup leader [3] trains, leads by example, and coordinates.

Mostly left to staff pastor and deacons.
Helping with a move, funeral meals.
Community season of prayer.
Search for God's direction, individually and as a group (a la Experiencing God.

Prayer list distributed, telephone "prayer chain"; a member utters a 3-minute prayer at the close of class.
Sick people, lost people, jobs, etc. (God as a "vending machine").
Family Life
Family-integrated; younger people learning from older people.
Training for parents to take responsibility for the upbringing of their children.

Age segregated.
"Gifted" teachers expected to impart spiritual growth to children, youth.
Emphasis on age- or life-setting related concerns.

My "ideal" looks a lot like what "church" is supposed to be, doesn't it? I think that's my point. I suspect that, to a great extent, the contemporary church is partly a continuation of the historical "rural" or "village" church, with the recognition of the centrality of the building and the parson, and partly a reflection of modern culture with its centralized government institutions. A decentralized church structure would likely be more effective in outreach, existing in all the communities of the city, yet providing centralized administration facilities for organization, accountability, education, and planning from tracked metrics. As well as a pan-city prayer meeting. Such a decentralized church structure would almost certainly be more resilient than a single-point operation in the face of persecution or other hardship, something that looks increasingly likekly given current political, cultural, and economic trends. But even if a church stopped short of adopting a "cell church" model, if it empowered community fellowships to fill more of the task of the Kingdom of God than the traditional Sunday School class, it would still be more effective than the typical case is today.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

1. Smallgroups should not be for doctrinal or theological training (church history, apologetics, comparative religions, etc.). Ideally, these would be classes offered by the church (with attendance expected). In lieu of this, or in support of this, smallgroup members should be encouraged/expected to study such materials independently, and report (accountability) on what they have learned.

2. Worldview training is a crossover subject. "What it is" should be a class (think "Truth Project"). "How to do it" is the proper domain of the smallgroup.

3. The leaders of the smallgroups would be "pastors" subordinate to the church leaders (senior pastor, elders, etc.) and part of the official, recognized pastoral team. They should be part of regular coordination meetings and training times, given responsibility and authority to carry out the smallgroup functions and held accountable (and maybe reporting metrics).

An Ideal Church: Preaching

PreachingThis is a topic that I'm conflicted on. Is the Sunday Morning "worship" service a necessary thing that must be retained in an "ideal church", or is it a good thing that would be advisable to retain, or is it a distracting and ineffective thing that ought to be discarded?

What I'm not conflicted on is the fact that pretty much all churches do it. Now, I can't speak for house churches, since I haven't visited any; I suspect that they would tend not to have a "formal" preaching service (although if their teaching time is anything like a smallgroup or Sunday School class, I would expect it to suffer from the same defects as the traditional preaching service, per below). But every single institutional church I've ever been in has a similar order of service in their Sunday morning (or Sunday evening, or Saturday night) primary meeting:

  • A music service, either traditional (piano/organ, maybe a choir) or contemporary, with a bunch of songs sung by the congregation led by a music leader (either from hymnbooks or an overhead projector), often special music by a choir or soloist

  • A "greeting time", where everyone is supposed to smile and shake hands with those near them (I think this is one of the dumbest behaviours adopted by the contemporary church - visitors either don't wish to be so recognized, or get ignored by the regular members who are much more focused on each other. Much better to have the "worship" service focused on worship and make meet/greet arrangements before and after the service, or have ushers/greeters deliver visitors to a regular member family who will give them special attention and answer questions and the like)

  • The Preaching Time (sometimes called the "Teaching"), consisting of an 30-45 minute lecture by a preaching pastor (either a topical, "life-application" message or an expositional verse-by-verse teaching through a scripture passage)

Historically, the "greeting time" is a recent development. Even I can remember the time before it became a popular (but usually ineffective "let's show visitors how friendly we are") practice. The music service is a cultural thing, with traditional or contemporary styles, and some traditions disallowing instruments and singing a capella; other traditions sing only Psalms, and still others don't have music at all. The one constant over all traditions and since early times is the preaching service. Everybody does it.

The first question is, is it a necessary feature of the church? I. e., is it a scriptural command to the New Testament church? If you do a search on "preach", you will find that almost everywhere, whether it is Jesus doing it, or Paul or the Apostles, "preach" is in the context of proclaiming the gospel message of salvation to groups of unbelievers. So in the case of Mark 16:15 ("Go and preach to all creation"), where Jesus is giving one version of the Great Commission, the intent is clearly in the sense of proclaiming to unbelievers. So when Paul is instructing Timothy to "preach the word" (I Timothy 4:2), is it in the sense of proclaiming the gospel message to unbelievers, or addressing a weekly lesson to the believers in the church? Presenting a lesson to the church is more in the line of "teaching", and per Matthew 11:1, where Jesus does both "preach" and "teach", both words are in the same verse, and therefore are not the same. And yet, Paul is "preaching" to the church at Troas (Acts 20:7), when Eutychus falls out the window; however, in the NASB, it is just "talking to them". So the most that can be honestly claimed from scripture is that some individuals (apostles, evangelists, pastors) in the church are gifted and obligated to proclaim the gospel message to unbelievers. This is obviously different than what we Christians are used to (culturally acclimated to) in our church buildings on Sunday mornings.

Now, I have read comments from a good many traditional-style pastors, theologians, and analysts insisting that "what is wrong with the church today is a failure of preaching". What they mean is, the kind of Billy Graham or George Whitefield preaching of previous generations. To the extent that the preaching of Graham and Whitefield was addressed to unbelievers, I agree - and therefore acknowledge that "preaching" is a good thing that ought to be retained in this role in the "ideal church". But of course, these traditionalists are actually referring to the preaching in church buildings on Sunday morning to gatherings of Christians and church members but very few unbelievers.

And that's where I have my problem. Another thing that I am not conflicted on, and supported by good evidence from Barna and church experts and denominational studies, is that Christianity is in decline in the West, in Europe and the United States. Preachers have been preaching for the past hundred years, and still the church is imploding. We are seeing an unmistakeable "Already Gone" phenomenon in spite of all that preaching... or perhaps, because of it. All the statistics of divorce, infidelity, homosexuality among Christians, in spite of all that preaching. Clearly, the preaching isn't doing the job. Why might that be?

I think it's entirely cultural. We Christians - Catholics, Protestants, and Evangelicals alike - have come out of fifteen centuries of church culture in which the primary feature was the Sunday Morning sermon. No wonder the theologians and pastors raised and trained under those cultural expectations have the opinions they have. No wonder that, faced with those dire statistics, their reaction is, "we just need to do the same thing harder and better" - which is, of course, insanity. It isn't only the leaders, either; Christians who have been raised and trained in this ancient culture have the expectation of a sermon on Sunday morning - even though to the vast majority it is only an occasion to applaud or critique the rhetorical gifts of the preacher, and a few hours later, any life-changing virtue of the message is forgotten.

The thing is, if these theologians and pastors would consider the ontology of the question - is the "preaching" on Sunday morning supposed to teach the Christians - then the question becomes, "is a once-a-week lecture the best way to teach?" If professional educators understand that a simple lecture is not necessarily the most effective way to teach, then why is the suggestion of doing something different so repugnant to these Christian leaders?

Per this analysis, the preaching service is largely ineffective. It is also distracting; too many Christians in the western culture identify their Christianity with Sunday morning "worship" service attendance. If they come, sing a few emotion-stirring songs, shake hands with their other once-a-week friends, and listen to a speech from the pastor, they've done their duty. Unbelievers who visit a church (that is, attend a "worship" service) come away with the same impression - Christianity is an hour of singing and preaching on Sunday morning. That's what the culture says.

It is in this sense that the preaching service is bad and ought to be discarded. My "ideal church" would be composed of Christians who understand - and have this understanding reinforced by the planning and teaching of the leadership - that Christianity is NOT identical with the Sunday morning service. It is connecting with Christ, maturing as a disciple, practicing practical love to each other and their unbelieving neighbors. They should understand that the church is a fellowship to help them achieve these things, that expects them to be achieving these things, and will not be satisfied by their mere attendance at a weekly Christian entertainment event! An event that they understand is ineffective and can distract them in their pursuit of Christ.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

So what am I saying? Am I saying, abolish the worthless Sunday morning "worship" service? Not necessarily. It may be necessary for a church to set aside the traditional-format "worship" service for a while, to get the members (and maybe the community) over the culturally-derived expectation for the service. I don't know if an established church could do that; quite likely, too many members would object, and leave if it were attempted. It would be hard for a church start-up to do that, when the denomination-approved method for starting a church is to put on a good show on Sunday morning to entice enough people to come and build up critical mass. But in my view, this situation just underlines the concept that our churches are based on something other than a passion for God and a reliance on His power. Starting a church (or revitalizing an established church) is something done in a prayer meeting, not a "worship" service.

Then, later on, a more traditional-styled Sunday morning service could be set up. Not for the members; this would NOT be a "worship" service directed at the members, who should at that point understand the purpose of the service. It would be directed at unbelievers, brought by Christians or their own curiosity. Unbelievers still operating under a cultural expectation of "church == worship service". Yes, it could be "seeker sensitive", since the purpose of the service is for seekers - but the preaching by the evangelist/prophet/pastor would be PREACHING - clearly and unashamedly proclaiming the gospel message of salvation. Then, as unbelievers are won by the power of the gospel and the testimonies of their disciple-Christian friends, they could be introduced to the real life of the church - which all the members would understand occurs outside the Sunday morning service.

Updates: 2021

1. I've since changed my position on attending services. As I see it, there's so little value in listening to sermons and singing hymns or religious songs and so little meaningful interaction with the other members, that there's hardly any point in going. To go further, if the pastor and membership are totally committed to practicing "church culture", which is not Christianity and is not commanded or even suggested in Scripture, then my attendance is actually enabling this behavior, or communicating the notion that I endorse it. So I've dropped off to attending only when something actually commanded is occuring - namely, Communion - and looking for other para-church venues for more fruitful spiritual interaction with Christian peers.

2. I was attending The Cool Church for a couple of months when I wrote this. Since then, it has disbanded. What I observed that while they had a great visitors' packet with all this intentional stuff, the actual execution of the intentional stuff was lacking or hard to track down. What it seems The Cool Church was really about was being a multi-site church (three or four locations around Tucson) so that the preaching and founding pastor, David McAllister, would get to preach his laid-back sermons to a large distributed audience via video-feed. He has since gone to found The Bridge Christian Church. The Bridge buys a lot of advertising around Tucson, at bus stops and large billboards, and they are once again a multi-site operation and Pastor David still live-feeds his sermons from the main site. I can't see any indication of any intentionality. The emphasis now seems to be "Church for People who Hate Church". In other words, marketing-driven church.