With Every Head Bowed and Eye Closed . . . Rethinking Church

Our assumptions about church are as rooted in our Christian tradition as in local context.

Who told us to call the elders a “board?”
Why do churches have business meetings?
Why do congregations get to vote?
Who told you to pray the salvation prayer, bow your head, close your eyes and fold your hands neatly?
Why do you interpret some parts of scripture literally and others figuratively?
Who said that we need to sing at a gathering or have a lengthy sermon?

The answers to these questions are not in the Bible. We may find a loose precedent for these practices, but the real sources are traditions and cultural context. And when traditions are well-watered and bloom, they become our assumptions.

The truth is many of our traditions and assumptions will simply go undetected. God is fine with this. We are placed at a certain time and place in history so that we can seek out God and know him. The problems arise when God wants to do something new and he challenges our assumptions and traditions. Which will we cling to? Will we find that we have been in love with the religion of Christianity and not God himself?

God has been revolutionizing the church recently in the area of leadership. Our corporate culture and church traditions dictate that someone has to be in charge of a congregation. Nevertheless, God has been contradicting the wisdom of our age and producing leadership teams and networks, even distributing leadership to an entire group of Christians. The problem is that many of us do not want the ball. When we see the ball dropped in our lap, our tendency many times is to find the leader and hand it off. Having the top dog or “shepherd” is comforting to us. We don’t have to hear from God, he does. We don’t have to study the scriptures at length, he does. We don’t have to take the heat when we make a bad decision, he does.

Closely related to the issue of leadership is that of teaching and leading a gathering. In smaller church networks there is a tremendous opportunity to open the floor for discussion and dialogue. The teachers may be as numerous as those present in the room. There is no need for one teacher to hold center stage and to dominant the discussion. Are we ready to share that responsibility?

The nature of the Holy Spirit is another assumption that must be challenged in many Christians if the emerging conversation is destined to bear fruit. I cannot even fathom what the Holy Spirit is capable of, but I know for sure how underestimated he has been thus far in my life. For example, do we really expect the Holy Spirit to show up when we gather together to pray and study? Do we expect healing, direction, and deliverance from sin? I never have until recently, and even now my expectations are just a shade from rock bottom. If the emerging church is moving away from centralized leadership and we want to avoid all hell from breaking lose in the church, then we need to open ourselves to the Holy Spirit. If a gathering of Christians senses a Holy Spirit deficiency, then stop and listen. Let’s vow not to take another step forward until we get it right. If the Spirit is not free to move and work, then what do we expect to have when we gather together? A self help group?

Assumptions about worship have been extremely hard for me. As a former worship leader I have assumed that you need to have music in order to have a church service. A frantic half hour of singing must proceed any kind of exposition or teaching. Even in small home meetings I have found the need to play some songs before anything else happens. In fact, my dependence on an order of worship has completely supplanted the place of the Holy Spirit. God wants his church to move beyond an order of service and our classic dousing in worship songs. God wants to use music, but he will surprise us. I have found that sitting and listening to God at the beginning of a gathering is the best route thus far. Sometimes God wants to kick things off with a prayer, a teaching, or a testimony. The music may happen, but our agenda has to be flexible. I just cannot find another way to make it work. One helpful model for has been the liturgy of the Episcopal Church. Though it suffers from a highly programmed order, it reveals a new way to conceive of worship that is relevant for emerging gatherings. First of all, worship is action, prayer, singing, and meditation. The silence is just as important as the loudest song. In addition, the songs are spread out throughout the service. I’m not advocating this form as much as I’m trying to open the eyes of traditional evangelicals to another possible way to think about worship. God may choose a format that is different from anything we have ever known, my challenge remains: can we let go of our assumptions?

Another deadly assumption is how we evaluate success. Do we look to sheer numbers, as in attendance and number of recent converts as the marker for success? Should we look at our stated goals and mission document? I think the answer lies somewhere close to finding out: a. our calling and b. whether or not we are fulfilling it. How to do this? I’m not sure, but I’m afraid it goes back to learning how to hear the Holy Spirit. Do the numbers matter? Maybe they do. But sheer numbers does not indicate success.

Marketing and programming can be fairly effective in drawing a crowd. That is not to say that the message is not true to the Gospel. My point is that man can engineer some pretty tricky ways to pull off some big results that may be far from what God intends. God can surely still use these congregations and not all large congregations are the result of clever marketing (take Calvary Chapel for instance). But we should not say a Calvary Chapel is great because it’s big, and big means it’s blessed. We should say it’s great because the people are obedient to God’s call and are pursuing God with everything they have.

I hope this doesn’t sound too preachy. If so, the truth of the matter is that I’m preaching this to myself more than anyone. My audience here is my circle of friends who are struggling with many of the same issues. There are far too many assumptions and traditions to cover here, but these seem to be the key issues facing emerging churches in America that need to be confronted head on. I pray that we will have the courage to be obedient.