• Fire & BrimstoneWhat has caught my attention most in this Imprints class is how it gets juxtaposed against the other experiences of my week, sovereign correlations that help develop each other by contrast or almost-eery coincidence.

    Due to the Mother’s Day holiday, our Imprints class skipped a week. That left me with 2 weeks to ruminate on the small groups concept. Seemingly coincidentally, I had several conversations with Christian-thinker friends of mine. During the fortnight, the pastor of my alma mater’s campus church (for the past 18 years, plus 7 as youth pastor) resigned his post, giving impetus to such conversations about how churches are structured, where personalities and administrations play into them, and the evolution of the church (or lack thereof).

    All my life, my dad (pastor of a sub 100-attendee church for 16 years) and others have spoken against the mega churches, the large congregations, and assumed impersonal approach. Some have even dared to pull the “wide is the road to destruction” bit to suggest that God wasn’t behind the growth (this despite claiming God’s hand on my fast growing college). At the same time, they continued their hell and brimstone sermons and spiritual exclusivity, chalking up their respective churches’ lack of growth to the growing distance between the world and true faith.

    The infrastructure of the larger churches in my parents’ independent Baptist fundamentalism was built upon a dynamic speaker/preacher and a litmus-tested supporting cast. The congregation achieved approval from the leadership based on conformity to dress and similar codes, as well as attendance to all church functions. My dad encouraged feedback during Sunday school and his midweek lesson, and most of the larger churches considered their similar sessions as their personal connection. But in many of those churches, Sunday school was still a mostly-anonymous assembly of the most obedient and/or pious adults.

    So, built on this foundation, my dad and his commiserates were correct in pointing out the ineffective structure. Ironically, within this same movement, pastors were ranked by “their” number of attendees, members, baptisms, etc. and honored for their churches as their personal works. Ads for their churches and related ministries in their trade publications (just like their secular counterparts) included their picture and/or the picture of the edifices they’ve built “upon the faithful preaching of God’s Word.” Just about any/all Copernicus thinkers were shunned out of fellowship as novices, liberals, and/or wolves.

    Enter here three comments from Woody’s Intro to Blue Ridge discussion. He recalled that his pastor told him that an Acts 2 church is not feasible in our current American culture. The other statements: “a church that is not growing is a dead church,” and “the church must grow larger and smaller at the same time.”

    When the church’s main focus narrows upon small groups and the intrinsic multiplied leadership, when the ministry cares more about inclusion than exclusion for its identity, and when its systems emphasize vulnerable discipleship instead of public conformity, a church can’t help but attract new body parts and places for them to work. At that point, a large congregation proves the best congregation, as individuals can focus on ministries they enjoy rather than posts the church needs filled. The more the sub-ministries, the more specialized their service can be.

    This doesn’t require ecumenical merging or the synthesis of differing doctrines. You don’t have to compromise the Bible to do this. You just have to focus on what the Bible clearly states and let the foggy parts wait for heaven’s clarity. Does anyone honestly think there are denominations in the underground churches of Asia? Do they argue over translations, skirt lengths, and down beats? I highly doubt it.

    United by their common experience, they throw themselves into studying the fundamentals of the faith—surprisingly without fundamentalists affirming them for it. Their church looks like the Acts 2 church, sharing of homes and meals and fears. The churches of my experience shared the Roberts Rules of Order and the [revised] 1611. You could harbor any secret sin, as long as you wore a jacket and/or tie to take the offering. When approached by the pastor or sainted Deacons about revealed sin, people would leave the church. This happens in all churches, probably, but more so in ecclesiastical ecologies in which you are either a pastor or a person needing a pastor. The system wasn’t built on relationships or accountability, because the pastor can only do so much.

    And every year–often several times a year—the church would lay the inconvenient guilt trip of revival services as a hoop through which to jump and the hope for energy-building in the church. A different speaker, acquired for the variety and presumed specialism, would preach the same Gospel and identical don’ts but with more fire, 8-verse alter calls, and different illustrations (though the same jokes). [You could even find Billy Sunday impressionists to come ignite Old Time fire into the pews.] Inherent in this, though rarely voiced, whispers the indictment that the church wasn’t getting the job done the rest of the year.

    I’m all for emphasis periods and special functions. We’re human churchgoers who need the occasional zap in the hind quarters. But what if the church were built upon a variety of worship and study formats? What if Christians were weekly vulnerable to close friends and encouraged by confidants who knew their individual needs? What if the assembly were comprised of ever-changing molecules forming a distinct cell in the universal body of Christ? What if Acts 2 was more of God’s vision for the church than the Old Testament Levites-and-sinners one?

    You wouldn’t need revival brimstone, trained evangelist clones, or any other superstitious legalism. And I wouldn’t be nervous to bring my parents with me to my new church that doesn’t either.

    This entry was posted on Saturday, May 27th, 2006 at 11:00 pm and is filed under Ponderlust. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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