In previous posts (here, here, here, and here) we came to the conclusion that Christ-followers should be deeply in love with people. This love should drive us to fully enter into the cultures we live in with non-judgemental acceptance. The result should be that others fall in love with Christ and also become fellow agents of His love.
So we’ve talked a ton about how individual Christ-followers engage culture; but this whole series began with a question about how people in a contemporary church system engage culture. So lets now examine contemporary church systems.
Most church systems I have seen/experienced look like this:
The primary activity of the congregation is some form of large group worship service. Style and content of service doesn’t matter in this discussion. It could be an attractional-relevant-contemporary service focused on seekers/the unchurched or an old school Catholic mass focused on rituals…doesn’t matter.
This larger gathering is primary because it’s where most (not necessarily all…just most) of the visitors come for the first time; it consumes a majority of the congregation’s energy, resources, and focus; and it is usually where the primary measures of success (attendance, giving, new members joining, Baptisms, etc…) are drawn from.
After becoming part of the large group worship service attendees are asked to do at least three things (not necessarily in this order):
- Attend some other form of more intimate, focused, and/or personal discipleship program (think small groups, Sunday School, Wednesday night Bible Study, etc…)
- Get involved in helping the primary gathering to run (either through child care, acting as an usher, joining the music team, or something of that nature) or take on a leadership position in the body (be a Sunday School teacher, small group leader, deacon, or some other place of service).
- Participate in large group, structured outreach activities. These can be community fairs, softball leagues, youth outings, or a variety of other activities sponsored by the congregation.
Sometimes other activities are inserted or the secondary circles are arranged differently. Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven model, for example, adds a fourth circle that would be labeled “Missions”; or the Simple Church model would put these circles in a line. As a gross generalization though, this is how most church systems I’ve seen operate.
This type of system requires a large investment of resources and energy from congregation members, especially if they are in upper levels of leadership. Members lives are dominated by the system because there isn’t time for much else. Other involvement is pushed out, and the system becomes the only culture members participate in.
This type of institutional system based on activities and attendance always becomes its own culture. Because relationships are built and developed through shared experiences and the majority of a member’s experiences are happening within the system, most of a member’s close relationships are inbred (with people inside the system). Through these friendships shared stories, a unique language (such as inside jokes and catch phrases), and common behaviors form; thus defining the church as its own culture.
This is key. Our systems push the church into becoming the dominate culture in a member’s life.
Side Note: Sadly it often goes even a step further. Members get so wrapped into the system their relationships with God unintentionally become linked with the components of the system. Being a Christ-follower comes to mean going to the large worship service, attending discipleship programing, leading ministries, and participating in outreaches. They replace grace and love with rituals and rules…and then one day…like I did…they look in the mirror and see the Pharisees instead of Jesus.
That is another conversation for another time… Back to church and culture…
Every system needs input to grow. Feeling this, although their lives are dominated by the system, congregants are asked to also build relationships with people outside the system so they can invite outsiders (seekers, the unchurched, lost friends, “those sinners”, insert-favorite-term-here) into the system. This becomes its own program in a way. It is another box to check off.
But here is the problem…as members try to “reach out” to those outside the system they come as people from a different culture. In essence they are emissaries from the “church culture” to the world inviting outsiders to join their church culture.
“Good” congregations feel the pain of the transition. They sense how difficult it is for an outsider to cross the cultural divide; so they try to dress up their church culture in the clothes of outsiders.
This is done with the best of intentions. There is no malice. As one mega-church attractional multi-site pastor put it recently, “We want to remove every sociological barrier that keeps people from getting to the cross.”
What I want to argue is that people “getting to the cross” does not happen in the context of a “church culture” (which the pastor I cited above appeared to assume). Coming to know Jesus should not demand that people leave their current culture. We need new systems that empower us to live in culture instead of our current ones that pull us out.
For starters, “getting to the cross” should happen in the context of individual loving relationships.
The church must become something other than a system of programs to attend. We must begin to ourselves as a group of people on mission with God together who live within culture and support one another in love.
What does this look like?
I don’t have the perfect answer. I think we each need to figure it out where we are. I can tell you that this past Monday night the Thingy (a church Wendy and I are a part of) was supposed to meet at 7pm, but I got calls from over half our membership explaining they couldn’t come because people (unchurched, seekers, anti-church friends or simply family) they were investing in needed them. We canceled our gathering with joy.
If I judged our success by the attendance at our meeting, or the quality of our teaching, or our weekly giving Monday would have been a monstrous failure that threw off our stats. But because being a member of the Thingy is more about the lifestyle we live in the community around us than about where we sit for an hour a week, Monday night was a huge victory. After putting my kids to bed I sat at my kitchen table and prayed for my team, overjoyed at what the Lord was doing.
It’s not perfect, but we’re seeking something different.
How are you challenging your system?