In Search of Church: A Journey, Not a Destination

Dead-Ends, Detours, and Desiderata

(Draft: March 27, 2003; Last Revision: July 3, 2003)

Join the conversation here ...

Table of Contents

  1. Running On Empty: Being and Belonging
  2. Comfortably Numb: Disillusionment and the Downward Spiral
  3. Hope and Dreams: The Prodigal Homeward Bound
  4. Circle of Friends: Towards An Eclectic and Everyday Ecclesiology
  5. Walk On: Conversation Partners for the Journey
Click here for paginated version.

For some time now, I've been hoping to set in writing some of my experiences of and reflections on church life. Because of my perfectionist and obsessive personality, I've never felt I had read enough, studied enough or prayed enough about the matter to feel comfortable in sharing this with anyone.

However, I realized that it would be arrogant of me to ever think that I could arrive at a point where I could be so sure of my viewpoints as to be irrefutable. So, here's a preliminary stab at it. Just keep in mind that this is a "work-in-progress" and that some of my ideas are still in a state of flux. In particular, those looking for a detailed exegetical and theological study will just have to wait or go elsewhere.

The reader will quickly see that I am indebted to a lot of others who have written on this subject, and I cannot claim much in the way of originality. Indeed, you will notice that I have a lot of hyperlinks to other sites and articles. I know it's overwhelming and time-consuming to click your way through all of these, but these links are an integral part of my narrative, which is why I chose to present my thoughts on the web. Some of you (outer-directed readers, to use David Riesman's term) may find the hypertext format frustrating:

These new and alien narratives seem to require readers to both immerse themselves in the narrative webs of possibility and to extricate themselves from it, in order to grasp at a sense of the narrative as a totality, as a structure of possible structures ... This dynamic of reading differs from conventional reading in that it seems to demand that readers physically engage in a game of interaction with the text as an author-constructed structure of links, paths, and yields and, at the same time, rely on their own, reader-centered judgments about meaning, significance, closure and, even, connections in the narrative. The demands particular to interactive narratives and to reading in any new environment lacking established reading and interpretive strategies seem to demand that we evolve into inner-directed readers, or readers who move beyond simply realizing an author's virtual text and resist authorial prescription to arrive at readings of our own.

J. Y. Douglas, Gaps, Maps and Perception: What Hypertext Readers (Don't) Do, Perforations 2:3.

I offer these brief reflections then, as a modest contribution to the dialogue. Above all, this is my story; yours will no doubt be much different. There is a feedback button at the end of this paper for readers to contribute their ideas. In keeping with the dynamic nature of the web, this paper will be updated from time to time as new ideas come to mind, or old ones get fine-tuned. Therefore, please come back and visit the site often!

Those who are impatient or too busy can skip directly to the main section.

Running On Empty: Being and Belonging

Looking out at the road rushing under my wheels
I don't know how to tell you all just how crazy this life feels
I look around for the friends that I used to turn to to pull me through
Looking into their eyes I see them running too

Running on-running on empty
Running on-running blind
Running on-running into the sun
But I'm running behind

Jackson Browne, Running on Empty

I've already shared my conversion story elsewhere, so I won't repeat it here. You should read it to get some idea of where I'm coming from. Here, I shall attempt to fill in some gaps where I think they're relevant.

Growing up as an Asian, I struggled at times to find acceptance amidst subtle and sometimes hostile racism. Though I quickly assimilated the Western culture around me (to the point of almost losing my roots, or so my parents feared), I was always reminded of my "otherness". However, I tried not to get absorbed with this, and instead, I redoubled my efforts at school to make friends.

My first experience of church came one summer when my parents, concerned that my siblings and I were losing our heritage, sent us off to Chinese classes being held at a church. Well, it was a package deal, for not only did I have to endure the language lesson, but I also had to attend the Sunday School, and the worship service. I don't remember much about Sunday School - other than rambunctious kids - but I do remember the worship meeting. I remember the stained glass windows and religious art; the hard pews that hurt my butt after awhile; the funny outfit that the preacher wore, all black except for the white collar; and the sombre, funeral-like atmosphere. Sitting with strangers around me, I felt very alone.

Though we were not that close of a family (like most Asian families at the time, there were no explicit expressions or displays of affection) I felt relatively secure and happy. However, as I neared the end of my high school years, things began to unravel. Without going into all the details, our family increasingly became engulfed in conflict, mistrust, and alienation.

There are times when all the world's asleep,
the questions run too deep
for such a simple man.
Won't you please, please tell me what we've learned?
I know it sounds absurd
but please tell me who I am.

Supertramp, Logical Song

At the same time, my reading exposed me to the terrible and tragic episodes in human history, including all the evil done in the name of God. Between the turmoil at home and the turbulence in the world, I became very disillusioned and depressed. I felt no sense of connection to anyone or anything, and yet I hungered to belong, to find security and significance in the vast void of the cosmos. I was homeless and homesick. "I don't know how to tell you all just how crazy this life feels ..."

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Comfortably Numb: Disillusionment and the Downward Spiral

When I was a child
I caught a fleeting glimpse
Out of the corner of my eye.
I turned to look but it was gone
I cannot put my finger on it now
The child is grown,
The dream is gone.
And I have become comfortably numb.

Pink Floyd, Comfortably Numb

Having found Christ (or should I say, having been found by Him), I was filled with a desire to serve Him. I felt so elated and excited, "so alive for the very first time" as the band P.O.D. puts it. However, the problem was that right from the start, I felt out of place in church.

For one thing, the church life I was experiencing didn't seem to jive with the dynamic story I read in the book of Acts. (Yes, I'm aware of the danger of romanticizing the biblical account of the early church in a simplistic, idealistic manner.) I found the "worship service" very rigid and pre-programmed, down to the very songs we were going to sing. The choir seemed so "stiff" and polished. The preaching came across sanctimonious and forced. I felt I was in a theatre watching a performance.

Secondly, not too many people made any attempt to know me as a new believer and member. Even after my baptism, very few people came up to me to offer words of encouragement. Despite my regular attendance at most of the meetings (including Sunday School, Sunday evenings and Wed. night Bible study and fellowship), I never really was able to connect with anyone, to feel welcome and part of "the family". The church library eventually became my "refuge" ...

I was one of the few Asians in this church, and though I never sensed any racism at all, I still wondered whether this "otherness" was why I felt like an "outsider". In frustration, I left that church after 2 years when a high school friend invited me to visit her church.

Well, this church had a much younger membership, and seemed geared towards "bananas" (westernized Asians) like me. And indeed, I did feel more welcome and accepted. However, I soon discovered that the church's focus was "entertainment evangelism", and that biblical teaching was secondary (and sub-standard!). As a result, I felt a lot of tension, because I was dying from the steady diet of shallow teaching I was receiving, and yet I was enjoying all the fun I was having there. Just before leaving that church, in the course of my reading, I stumbled across an autobiography of George Mueller that would lead me to my next church experience, amongst the "Brethren".

My involvement with the Brethren showed me how entrenched dogmatism and traditions can become in the life of a church. And I also observed the attempt to manufacture a supertfical sense of unity and community based on rigid conformity. Indeed, to dare question any of the Brethren's sacred cows is to find yourself cut off and shunned, even by so-called "friends".

And so it was, that I suddenly found myself in another "search for church". But I was getting fed up by this point. Maybe the problem is with me I thought. But was it wrong to expect that the church should be like a family as the NT teaches? Why can't Christians honestly ask questions and strive to learn together? I'm NOT looking for a "perfect church", just a group of believers who were commited to genuine Christian love and community, and lived it out. Was I too naive and idealistic? Can you say "cognitive dissonance"?

Before long, I gave up on church. I no longer cared. I decided all this talk of love, and church as a loving family of brothers and sisters sounded nice in theory, but doesn't work in practice.

A winter's day
In a deep and dark December
I am alone
I am a rock,
I am an island

I've built walls
A fortress deep and mighty
That none may penetrate
I have no need of friendship, friendship causes pain
It's laughter and it's loving I disdain
I am a rock
I am an island

Don't talk of love
Well I've heard the word before
It's sleeping in my memory
I won't disturb the slumber of feelings that have died
If I never loved I never would have cried
I am a rock
I am an island

I have my books
And my poetry to protect me
I am shielded in my armor
Hiding in my room, safe within my womb
I touch no one and no one touches me
I am a rock
I am an island

And a rock feels no pain
And an island never cries

Simon & Garfunkel, I Am a Rock

The downward spiral eventually hit rock bottom when I discovered my ex-wife was having an adulterous affair with another man. At this time, I was actually part of a small group at the invitation of the parents of my oldest son's friend. Wasn't I fortunate to be part of a group of brothers and sisters during this darkest moment of my life? Well, they did pray for me. And one of the sisters did drop off a meal once. That's nice. But why didn't she invite me over to share a meal with her and her family instead?! For what I really needed was some fellowship and some support. It's no fun to be eating dinner alone!

I ain't lookin' for praise or pity
I ain't comin' 'round searchin' for a crutch
I just want someone to talk to
And a little of that Human Touch
Just a little of that Human Touch

Bruce Springsteen, Human Touch

So I would struggled through each week with no contact from anyone in the group. Then the next small group meeting would come around and they would ask me how I was doing. In reply to these "happy-clappy" people who have "perfect" children and beautiful homes (decorated with Martha Stewart flair), I wanted to sing sarcastically these words from REM's "Shiny Happy People":

Shiny happy people laughing
Meet me in the crowd
People people
Throw your love around
Love me love me

In fact, it was a non-Christian family that took the boys and me under their wings and showed us practical love and support. We were invited for dinner (and sometimes breakfast and lunch too!) a few times a week, and also to weekend activities. The boys and I became a part of their family. And unlike the Christians in my small group, they were more than happy to listen to me and talk with me!

Well, the final straw came when I was encouraged to seek counselling from one of the pastors of the church that the small group was a part of. So I made an appointment to see him after the worship service one Sunday. Well, he came up to me and immediately flagged someone over, introducing him as the small groups coordinator. He then prayed for me, and encouraged me to get "plugged in" with a small group. Before I could tell him that I was already part of a small group, he had walked away. Total elapsed time: maybe 3 minutes. How much shall I make out the cheque for?

Ships that pass in the night, and speak each other in passing,
Only a signal shown, and a distant voice in the darkness.
So on the ocean of life we pass and speak one another.
Only a look and a voice; then darkness again and a silence.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Tales of a Wayside Inn

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Hope and Dreams: The Prodigal Homeward Bound

You don't know where you're goin'
But you know you won't be back

Big wheels roll through fields
Where sunlight streams
Meet me in a land of hope and dreams

This Train
Carries saints and sinners
This Train
Carries losers and winners
This Train
Dreams will not be thwarted
This Train
Faith will be rewarded
This Train
Carries broken-hearted

Bruce Springsteen, Land of Hope and Dreams

Well, thankfully, I had one dear Christian brother who faithfully prayed for me daily as I was going through my "dark night of the soul" episode. He would sometimes come over after work, close to midnight, just to pray and talk with me. And there were times I would call him at 2:00 in the morning when the loneliness and and pain was too much to bear. If not for his faithful support, God only knows where my rebellion would have led me.

four billion people surround us
so many souls lose their way
all that we have is each other
and that's all I've ever wanted

Jann Arden, Sleepless

The healing process was long and painful, as God dealt with all the anger, bitterness and hurt in my heart. But I awoke one morning at the dawn of a new year with a renewed sense of His sovereignty and His love. I penned a poem and some reflections on my hopes and dreams. Later that year, God demonstrated his love and mercy towards me by bringing a wonderful woman into my life. The rest is history. ;-)

However, there was a slight problem. My wife was a member of the same church that was affiliated with the small group that I used to be a part of. The same church that the loving and helpful pastor (with his 2 minute prayer) was a member of. Ah, God does have a sense of humour!

Well I decided to be forgiving and reluctantly agreed to attend with my wife. I soon committed myself to serve and be involved with my new church family. But I knew I would never survive long in a traditional Asian church (been there, done that), especially one with a very hierarchical leadership structure. Sure enough, trouble soon reared its ugly head ... In the two or three years I was there, my wife and I had given much time and energy to serving in various capacities, and my wife had made some good friends there. One of the brothers (who eventually became one of the elders) expressed dismay at how I was treated by the leaders, but when I left, he backstabbed me. Only one of the pastors was able to discuss the matter calmly with me (and he suddenly "resigned" shortly after my wife and I left). One of the elders called me a "heretic" to my face in my own home.

I was deeply wounded by the experience, but by the grace of God, I was preserved from bitterness. However, this experience confirmed my growing conviction that traditional church life and leadership structures needs to be re-examined and reformed. The whole clergy-laity dichotomy and the professionalization of ministry seemed totally at odds with the NT picture. Furthermore, the fact that one could be part of a church for years, and not know over half the people seemed wrong. And the fact that the leaders had little or no relationship with most of the flock was clearly an abberation.

After leaving quietly, we tried a few churches, including a house church in Washington (which we're still in contact with), we realized that there was a community of believers right in our own neighborhood! We did not have a favourable impression on our first visit, as hardly anyone spoke with us after the meeting, despite the fact that in such a small church, visitors stood out clearly.

Nevertheless, we felt that it was where God was leading us to, so we went back. My wife is not one to passively sit and whine, so we took the initiative to attend house groups, and with my wife's gift of hospitality, we went through the church directory and began inviting people over for lunch. Through the conversations, we were able to get to know others better. So, we feel somewhat connected now, at least with some of the people.

And if she asks you why, you can tell her that I told you
that I'm tired of castles in the air
I've got a dream I want the world to share and castle walls
just lead me to despair

Don McLean, Castles in the Air

So why the nagging longing for something more? What am I looking for anyways? When we come together as a body, I am seeking an authentic engagement with my fellow believers and an authentic encounter with God. I want to be a part of a community characterized by: healing, hope and helping hands, open and honest communication, and genuine compassion and commitment. I want to be accepted as I am, without having to wear masks to fit in.

I don't want to be seen as a computer geek
I don't want to be seen as an intellectual freak
I don't want to be seen as a divorced man
I don't want to be seen as a chinaman

just see me as your brother, as somebody
as part of the family
one of the weaker members of the Body
just see Christ in me

It seems that many are content to come to church on Sunday and be "pew potatoes" and then disappear for the week. We talk of "love" and "community" and yet, some of the brothers and sisters go out of their way to avoid eye contact with me. It has become obvious that some of the saints have no interest in even knowing our names.

Most Christians prefer to cocoon and "focus on the family" without too much involvement in others' lives. My wife painfully remembers how she was often ignored and felt left out in church life when she was a single adult. In his challenging and provocative book, Rodney Clapp assets that "[a]llegiance to the kingdom precedes the family. It does not destroy the family ... The family is not God's most important institution on earth. The family is not the social agent that most significantly shapes and forms the character of Christians. The family is not the primary vehicle of God's grace and salvation for a waiting, desperate world." (Families at the Crossroads: Beyond Traditional & Modern Options, [IVP; 1993]) He further argues that the home is not to be a safe little "haven" from the world, but rather, a "mission base", and goes on to give some practical suggestions as to what that might look like.

Further, we claim to be open to the presence of the Spirit in our gatherings, yet we insist on a "programmed" approach", week after week. If our "structure" is inhibiting spontaneity, are we not willing to change? Surely the relationship between the form and function of our gatherings is one of fluidity and flexibility, not fixedness and fossilization! Freedom (to be creative) and Fidelity (to the scriptures)!! Sorry about the alliteration! ;-)

Well, I could gripe some more, but the reader is surely sick of my whining by now! Especially when I'm not without blame. Bottom line: I'm tired of "castles in the air" ... I want some reality in our church life together!

I give you a new commandment-to love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. Everyone will know by this that you are my disciples-if you have love for one another.
(John 13:34,35; NET)
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Circle of Friends: Towards An Eclectic and Everyday Ecclesiology

We were made to love and be loved
But the price this world demands will cost you far too much
I spent so many years just trying to fit in
Now I've found a place in this circle of friends
In a circle of friends we have one Father
In a circle of friends we share this prayer
That every orphaned soul will know
And all will enter in
To the shelter of this circle of friends

If you weep, I will weep with you
If you sing for joy the rest of us will lift our voices too
But no matter what you feel inside there's no need to pretend
That's the way it is in this circle of friends
In a circle of friends
We have one Father
In a circle of friends we share this prayer
That we'll gather together no matter how the highway bends
I will not lose this circle of friends

Douglas McKelvey & Steve Siler, Circle of Friends

As one scans the ecclessiastical horizon, one sees many movements afoot in an effort to make the Church more relevant and attractive to an increasingly indifferent and fickle society. Of course, there are churches that don't see any need to accomodate change; they will remain faithful to their received traditions no matter where the winds of change may blow. Examples of staunch Traditionalists include KJV-Only fundamentalists, exclusive Brethren, and exclusive-psalmody covenanting presbyterians. For many churches in the reformation stream, worship in church is to be strictly governed by the "regulative principle".

On a similar note, others - let's call them the Reformers - feel that the church has been compromised by pragmatism and relativism, and call for a return to a more biblical model of the church. Mark Dever, for example, lists "Nine Marks of a Healthy Church".

Some churches - let's call them the cautious Renewalists - attempt to make minor tweaks and incremental changes, such as introducing more contemporary music or changing the name of their church (e.g. from Westlake Presbyterian Church to Westlake Christian Community). There is generally a reluctance to rock the boat for fear of alienating their members (especially those who are the main financial supporters!).

Of course, there are the seeker-sensitive mega-churches (the pragmatic Marketers, exemplified by George Barna, Bill Hybels, and Rick Warren) who attempt to provide a "complete package" experience to lure people in (often unintentionally stealing sheep from neighboring churches). My personal view on the mega-church movement is that it is misguided and ultimately ineffective in accomplishing what church is all about. Its approach to church as a business organization and its focus on meeting "felt needs" doesn't seem to square with the NT teaching on church life. Others have written incisive critiques already, and I refer the interested reader to them:

In his book, Natural Church Development, Christian Schwarz strongly critiques the megachurch approach and offers an alternative method based on worldwide research of many churches. It involves a lengthy survey/questionnaire along with tools to analyze the data. He argues that healthy churches exhibit these eight characteristics:

  1. Empowering Leadership
  2. Functional Structures
  3. Gift-Oriented Ministry
  4. Holistic Small Groups
  5. Inspiring Worship
  6. Loving Relationships
  7. Need-Oriented Evangelism
  8. Passionate Spirituality

While Schwarz's approach can be helpful, I still think that it suffers from similar problems as the megachurch approach. Again, it is beyond my interest and scope to look at this any further.

Typically lagging behind in the cultural and intellectual scene, Christians have only recently become enamoured with "pomo", i.e., postmodernism. In academic circles, Stanley Grenz, Robert Milbank, Graham Ward, Nancey Murphy, Mark Taylor, and John Caputo are some of the names associated with a postfoundational and postmodern re-writing of theology. Others are not so kindly receptive to such postmodern revisioning of theology, and I confess that I share some of their concerns.

At the popular level, many Christian leaders are embracing these postmodern times as an age of great opportunity. Instead of denouncing postmodernism, we should attempt to understand it and engage it, they insist. In fact they argue, postmodernism can help Christians expose and exterminate the "viruses" of modernity in our presuppositions and worldview.

Next then on my taxonomic scheme are what I call the postmodern Re-Visionists, often identifying themselves as the "Emerging Church". Some of the leading proponents include Leonard Sweet and Brian McLaren, and there are a growing number of books and websites as well:

The Millenial Matrix

While a detailed critique is beyond the scope of this essay, I shall offer a few brief remarks. I'm thankful for any movement or call for renewal that challenges our comfort zone. However, I'm suspicious of any movement that is reactionary, that seeks to critique church from the perspective of societal trends or cultural trends. At best, the Church often looks foolish trying to be trendy. For example, many are now regarding postmodernism as passé. At worst, it risks betraying the Gospel.

Some have charged that, although these churches claim to remain true to the Scripture, it seems that in practice, pragmatism takes precedence over clear biblical injunctions. The ethos and strategies of many of these self-avowed postmodern churches more often than not, seem to betray a capitulation to the culture, instead of being a counterculture. And as with any movement, there will arise some gurus who will teach you the successful techniques and strategies for "postmodernizing" your church.

However, I do not think we should dismiss these "emerging churches" outright; we can at least emulate their passion and applaud their willingness to seriously engage the culture, instead of hiding our heads in the sand or militant separation. If they can jolt those who are complacent to re-think their entrenched traditions, then they serve a vital purpose. At least they are not afraid to try something new! And of course, not all emerging churches are the same, so it is unfair to paint with too broad of a brush. So let us be open to their ideas and re-examine our prejudices.

Here are some examples of emerging churches:

Finally, there are the idealistic Restorationists, who come in different "flavours". One group contends that in order for the Church to be effective, it must restore the pivotal role of the Apostle for today. Peter Wagner is perhaps the best known champion of this viewpoint. Some of the books that promote this "New Apostolic Movement" include:

I personally find much of their argumentation unpersuasive, and see some dangerous precedents at the practical level. However, I have neither the time or interest to pursue this any further.

The other group calls for a return to NT church practice, and is often associated with house churches. (Historically, we can also consider the so-called Restoration Movement, which eventually resulted in groups such as the Churches of Christ, the Christian Churches, and the Disciples of Christ denominations. See Jon Zen's helpful analysis in "Desiring Unity, Finding Division", Searching Together 15:3,4.) Keep in mind that there is no such thing as a homogeneous "House Church Movement", and that it is not just another form of small groups. I am using the term to refer to a local body of believers (typically numbering no more than 30) who meet as a fully functioning church in a home. As I have some actual experience with "house churches", I will offer some of my insights as to the pros and cons of church life in a home setting.

While meeting in an informal home setting can help to break down artifical barriers commonly found in a more "institutional" setting, and while meeting in a home helps remind us that the church is a family, there is no inherent advantage per se in meeting in a house as opposed to a rented gym or dedicated church building. (Though some would argue for better stewardship because of much lower overhead.) There is no guarantee that just meeting as a church in a house will automatically bring about intimate fellowship.

In a nutshell, the NT restorationists argue that modern "institutional" churches have deviated from the NT "pattern" in the following areas:

15 Theses for A New Reformation
The Traditional Church vs. The NT Church
(of course, over time, zealous restorationists often become staunch traditionalists!)

We can summarize these differences and disagreements by looking briefly at the the 6 P's that characterize most churches: Place, Professionals, Preaching, Programs, Performances, and Pews. (Note: the larger argument is whether apostolic church practices in the NT should be viewed as descriptive or prescriptive. This is an important issue, but one that I'm not able to address right now.)


Most traditional churches meet in dedicated church buildings, which are sometimes large and lavish. For many Christians, there is a "special feeling" of being inside a religious building. Howard Snyder, in his book, The Problem of Wineskins, wonders if Christians suffer from "an 'edifice complex'".

From a stewardship perspective, one wonders whether the large sums of money required to build and maintain a building that is only utilized for a few hours or a few days a week is wise. (See my paper on "tithing" for some further comments.) Snyder goes on to say in the aforementioned book that church buildings are "a witness to our immobility" and "a witness to our inflexibility".

The structure of a church building, along with the standard furnishings (especially the pulpit and the pews), portrays church life as a spectator event. And the fact that most church buildings are designed to hold several hundred believers is not conducive to fellowship and interactive participation. Furthermore, the permanency of our religious edifices is not congruent with the portrait of the ekklesia as a pilgrim people.

In short, many Christians are still fixated on Old Covenant perspectives on sacred places (a religious edifice), people (ordained clergy) and time (Sunday is more holy). This often results in a false dichotomy between the sacred and the secular in our daily lives. Instead of a mindset that views church life as a "7x24" commitment, people feel they can put in their 2 hour appearance every Sunday and fulfil their Christian obligation.

While church buildings are not inherently evil, they often do inhibit rather than enhance body life. For a smaller building, the disadvantages can be overcome, as will be explained later. And of course, meeting in a home is not sacrosanct either, as I've already mentioned.

"I may not know much about God, but I'd say we built a pretty nice cage for him."
- Homer Simpson; cited in Christianity Deconstructed (Part 1)"


There are few more reliable constants running through all human society than the special place every human community makes for the professional religionist. ... The professional religionist, whatever his intentions and whatever his theology, is a standing temptation for his "flock" to fall back into spiritual second-handedness.

John H. Yoder, The Fullness of Christ: Paul's Vision of Universal Ministry, pp. 1, 104.

The standard procedure is this: a young man (or woman; in the following, "he" is used for convenience) decides he has a "calling to the ministry", so he goes away (often at a great expense) to study at a seminary. After graduation, he then starts applying for a pastoral opening. (Sometimes, he can return to his church back home and become an assistant pastor.) Meanwhile, churches that need a new pastor form a search committee and advertise a job opening in newspapers and Christian magazines. A suitable candidate is then interviewed, asked to meet the congregation, and to preach a few sermons. Then if the committee decides to "hire" the pastoral candidate, salary negotiations ensue. Finally, he is officially "installed" as a pastor in his new church home. (Oh yeah, he's first "ordained" to the ministry if he hasn't already been.) Thus, young Reverend Johnny (or Jill) begins his professional clerical career, hoping some day to arrive in the coveted office of Senior Pastor at a growing and successful church.

According to "insiders" who have gone through the system, there are some weaknesses of this system:

Please note that I'm not attacking the many faithful men who have followed this system. (Nor am I against serious study of God's Word; far from it!) In fact, my heart goes out to the many pastors who suffer burnout year after year because of unreasonable expectations put upon them, because of the unbiblical clergy-laity divide. Paul Stevens wisely counsels: "What we should embrace is a-clericalism - one people without distinction except in function, a people that transcends clericalism." (The Other Six Days; pp. 7,8), and Gordon Fee adds, "This is not to downplay the role of leadership; rather it is to recognize in the New Testament documents leaders are always seen as part of the whole people of God, never as a group unto themselves." ("Laos and Leadership Under the New Covenant", in Listening to the Spirit in the Text, p. 134)

In the church, says Ward, status is earned by knowing; what is required for leadership is the possession of a "magic bag of merits." These magic bags of merit are systematically dealt out only to a relatively few players in the game. The dealers are the theological seminaries. Once a magic bag of merit is in one's possession, it can be traded for honor and prestige (plus a salary) at the friendly local church, and thus one maintains oneself, career and salary, more in terms of what one knows than what one is.

T. Ward, "Servants, Leaders and Tyrants", cited in Harvie Conn, Evangelism: Doing Justice and Preaching,/p>

For many years, we have collapsed the concept of wisdom, truth, and authority into one man - the pastor. Then we also made him the source of all ministry - pastoral care, evangelism and teaching specifically. How many leaders have died under that weight?

Nick Pettingale, The Church In A Changing Culture

Perhaps a careful re-assessment of church leadership is in order. Here are some further resources:

But a couple of things bother me about the current preoccupation with leadership. First, our obsession might just be one more case of churches mistakenly confusing a 'means' with the 'end'. Second, our understanding of what Christian leadership must be has to be based on something much more than the modern business management model put forward by the current spate of seminars and books.

Michael Fischer, "A Gospel of Leadership", the eBriefing, No. 298 (July 2003): 4.

There are certain ways of 'making it' as a leader in Christian circles. There are certain, almost expected, ways for church leaders to attain a desirable level of respect and honour.

Let me guide you through the process, step-by-step:

  1. Establish a teaching ministry where there is distance between yourself and the people that you're teaching. The distance gives your hearers the impression that you have a complete grasp of your subject, and that you don't need their help in practising what you preach.
  2. Allow yourself to be made an example for others in terms of your successes-how people have come to the Lord through your ministry, or whatever success it is.
  3. Gladly accept honoured treatment from other Christians-when they are introducing you as a speaker, for example: "So-and-so spent fourteen years doing such-and-such, during which time his congregation grew significantly in numbers and maturity. He's well-known as a speaker, and has vast experience in the area about which he speaks to us this evening."
  4. Make the most of honourable titles, depending on your particular tradition- Father, Reverend, Worship Leader, Pastor ...

I wonder if this process is not out of the ordinary among Christian leaders. And I wonder if Jesus Christ is displeased.

In chapter 23 of Matthew's Gospel, Jesus' intention seems to be to train and prepare his disciples for life as the new leaders of the people of God. In verses 1-12, Jesus contrasts the leadership style of the Pharisees and Scribes with the style that he has in mind for his disciples.

... The New Testament does envisage leadership and order within Christian churches, but it never uses terms like "dynamic anointed leadership," or "the Very Honourable Right Reverend." It uses terms like "servant", or "elder", or "shepherd". It's a way of reminding ourselves that all of us are under the leadership of one Lord, Jesus Christ.

We need a radical view of leadership-one like what Jesus provides in Matthew 23, and embodies in his own life of service. But let's make sure we don't take this too far and disregard the value of leadership altogether. The issue, of course, is not whether we should honour Christian leaders, but that leaders should not seek honour in the eyes of men and women. Leading matters, but it is conducted by loving servants, rather than lording professionals.

Matthew R. Malcolm, "Worldly Woes for Christian Leaders", the eBriefing, No. 298 (July 2003): 5, 6.

Pulpit (Preaching) and Pews

The pulpit is central for most traditional churches, and the sermon is seen as the high point in the worship meeting. Christians will often go to a church solely on the basis of a good preacher (which, incidentally, does not always equate to good preaching). I would be the last to question the need for sound teaching in the church, but is the weekly sermon the best and only means of communicating God's truth? Is a one-way monologue (often by the same person week after week) an effective pedagogical method of imparting instruction? (I'm not disregarding the role of the Spirit in both the speaker and the listeners.) In the NT, there seems to be room for a variety of gifts for communicating a word from God:

Why then, are we so hung up about the traditional sermon? The NT seems to allow for variety, depending on the nature of the message and the gifting of the speaker. Some may bring a very systematic teaching, while another many bring a word of exhortation, and another may bring a testimony of how God has been working in their life. And what about responding to the message (cf. 1 Cor.14:29)? Are we allowing enough freedom and flexibility for this sort of interaction to take place?

But it is clear that speaking words of edification in the local church is not limited to one "minister." Where is any opportunity given to others to speak unto edification in our services? What grounds are there in the N.T. to limit public speaking to the elders, especially the "pastor"?

Jon Zens, "Building Up the Body - One Man or One Another?"

Most churches solve this problem with small groups, but this is at best a bandage solution. For one thing, not everyone attends them, so they will miss out, and we will be impoverished without their contribution. The fact remains that Paul's instructions about spiritual gifts are given in a corporate context (i.e., the gathered assembly), and while our gifts are obviously not just for the meeting of the whole body, this is the primary focus. On this note, I also lament the lack of cross-generational interaction in our church gathering. The older believers have so much life experience and wisdom and yet they are often overlooked. Likewise, are we not missing out on the "out of the mouths of babes" insights from our children?

Not only are pews unbearably uncomfortable, they are a hindrance to fellowship, dialogue and active participation. In his aptly titled book, Passive in the Pews, Darryl Erkel writes:

Our pews imply that those sitting in them are to silently and passively observe the ministry of a select few. The very fact that the pews all face toward the front, rather than in a circle, demonstrates that Christians are not to interact with one another during the "service", but to merely watch the performance of others (e.g., the pastor, minister of music, choir, etc.). Think about it: when you are staring at the back of someone's head, are you really interacting with that person?

Books and journals on traditional homiletics abound. Here I will give some further references to provocative alternative views that should generate some lively discussion!

David Norrington, To Preach or Not to Preach? Paternoster Press, 1996.
His thesis is that the modern weekly sermon is neither biblical nor effective as a primary vehicle for teaching God's Word. He argues that preaching is an occasional as opposed to regular occurence in the Bible.

Darryl Erkel, Problems and Limitations of the Traditional "Sermon" Concept
Argues that the modern sermon concept owes its origin to Greek rhetoric, alongside other post-apostolic developments, such as the rise of a clerical caste.

Brian Anderson, Discovering Interactive Teaching
The author argues against the monologue form of the traditional sermon, and suggests an interactive model more reflective of the participatory nature of NT church life.

Steve Atkerson, Interactive Meetings
Examines 1 Cor. 14:26ff and other NT passages and concludes that interactive, participatory meetings are the norm.

Drew Zahn, Sunday Nights at the Round Table
A traditional church's experiment with a "table talk" format for discussing various issues and the positive results of this: "Interactive format provides sermon feedback, builds community."

Stuart Murray, Interactive Preaching
A persuasive argument for interactive preaching, drawn from the author's own experience.

Craig Evans, "'Preacher' and 'Preaching': Some Lexical Observations," JETS 24:4 (1981), 315-22.
A scholarly study of the Greek words relating to preaching.

Jeremy Thomson, Preaching as Dialogue: Is the Sermon a Sacred Cow? Grove Books, 1996.
A thought-provoking critique of the monologue sermon, with practical suggestions for increasing the interactiveness of preaching.

The media masked the message - and it still does
"You know something? After pondering this through I am starting to think that the best way to communicate with people is sit and listen to them, person to person, friend to friend. That is one media that has the potential for love to be involved. Funny thing is, Pastors talk about this method of communication all the time. But they return to their main job of preaching from the front - with multimedia."

(For some specific examples of alternatives to the traditional sermon, please click here)

To reiterate: I'm not saying there is place for preaching. I'm simply saying that we shouldn't restrict ourselves to the traditional 3-point sermon that is so common in most churches. Also, too often the content of sermons are merely moralistic or devotional: verses are hijacked from the biblical-historical context to suit the preacher's pre-determined agenda. I have heard preachers who were very eloquent orators, told very warm stories and funny jokes, but totally abused the text. In fact, the text was often used merely as a springboard, and no attempt was made to actually teach what the text means. In contrast, Paul's ethical teaching flows from an indicative-imperative pattern reflecting the "already, not yet" eschatological framework of the NT: his call for duty is always grounded in doctrine (the gospel and all that it entails).

Programs and Performances

... all functional mechanisms, the institutional nuts and bolts, the whole ideological superstructure are just religious appearances. But that is not church.

Jacques Ellul, Perspectives on our Age, ed. by William Vanderburg, trans. by Joachim Neugroschel

Adding to the notion that Christianity is a spectator event is the pre-packaged program that makes up a typical worship meeting. There is a lot of pressure on those who are on the stage to offer polished performances. If the audience is happy with the performance, then they might drop more coins in the offering plate.

What should you do then, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each one has a song, has a lesson, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation. Let all these things be done for the strengthening of the church. (1 Cor. 14:26; NET)

What if someone in the audience is moved to suggest a song or hymn that seems to flow with the ethos of the meeting? Can he stand up and lead the rest of the congregation in singing it? What if someone wants to read a poem he or she composed? Oh yeah, sorry, that's not scheduled in the bulletin.

Unfortunately, as it has become with most things in the modern church, music has become a victim of the church's loving embrace with modernist philosophy. Worship music has become formulistic, predictable and secure in its execution -- making the typical "worship experience" very stale, rote, and anesthetic ...

... unified awe-experience of God cannot be segmented from the rest of a person's life; it cannot be a sacred moment reserved for church auditoriums and Christian concert halls; it must be part of the very marrow of life. Tearing the emotive experience of God away from life is akin to tearing away a joint ligament from its bone: the limb remains intact visibly, but its functionality is all but ruined.

from Deconstructing "Praise and Worship": The Myth of the Sacred versus the Secular

On a pragmatic level, minimizing structure would allow for more spontaneity in our meetings, and lessen the tendency towards stagnation. Can we not trust the Spirit to move us to be more creative in our meetings? I know it will not be easy for Christians to move from a passive to a participatory role in our gathering together as a Body. But we must come prepared to give (to each other as well as to God) as well as receive (from each other as well as from God). "This human movement from charisma to routinization reflects our desire for permanence and control. We are afraid to live in God's presence and so dwell in the midst of religious ceremonies. Moreover, because we want certainty, we create the very structures that make life safe and predictable, but closed off to the transcendent. ... " (Charles Ringma, Resist the Powers with Jacques Ellul).

The whole show seems to have an impetus of its own, regardless of the people who are supposed to be the 'participants'. Most of what goes on concerns a person or a group of people up front. I feel like a member of the audience, sitting in my lonely wooden pew watching a show which is not especially engaging. From time to time there are things I would like to say or questions I would like to ask, but there seems no place or opportunity to do so. Too often I take my passions and pains home with me, and nobody else in the 'community' knows they exist.

Mike Riddell et. al., The Prodigal Project

Jesus is the true worshipper (the leitourgos, if you will, of Heb 8:2) who ministers in THE sanctuary on our behalf (just as he is our temple, high priest and sacrifice). It is no wonder that the NT so avoids the language of worship in regard to church, as it avoids the language of temple (1 Cor 3 notwithstanding), priest and sacrifice. It's just the wrong set of categories. In Hebrews it is most striking. In the context of Jesus' heavenly ministry as worshipper, high priest and intercessor, the earthly character of our gatherings is to be 'spurring one another on towards love and good deeds' (Heb 10). Even though the writer is shortly to discuss the heavenly gathering around the throne (in Heb 12), he at no point implies that our earthly gatherings are in some way a copy of this. And for good reason -- the copy of the heavenly tabernacle was the *OT tabernacle*, as given to Moses, and this is what Christ has fulfilled in glorious reality. To in any sense then speak of our current earthly gatherings in terms of temple, priest or worship is gravely to misunderstand our eschatological situation in my view.

Now, I'm not saying that church is a purely 'horizontal' affair, or that it is not a very serious business, and where God is present (this is the whole point of 1 Cor 3 and the need to build carefully). Yet I think those who distinguish between the 'horizontal' ministry of edification and the 'vertical' practices of praise and worship, have missed the point. False dichotomies abound. The argument of 1 Cor 3 is that what we do (in sowing, watering, building etc.) is done before God; that he provides the growth, that he is present by his Spirit, and will call us to account for good or bad work. 1 Cor 12-14 makes the related point, that it is by the gifts of God (manifest by the Spirit) that we edify one another etc.

Tony Payne, Is the church a house of worship?

I believe there are many insights to be gleaned from NT restorationists, but in practice, house churches often tend to be isolationist, reductionistic, and myopic. They can often degenerate into nit-picking over the "how-to's" of meetings, and fail to accomplish their high ideals. Nevertheless, I believe the "network-of-house churches" model can be a powerful and effective way of being and doing church as a communal and missional body. However, we must remember that it's not external forms per se, but rather, living out the implications of the Gospel in a corporate context that is important.

For more details on house churches, the reader is invited to check out:

Here are 4 examples of how the house church model has been implemented:

Practical Possibilities

There have been many times when I felt like giving up on church, when I felt like joining the exodus of other disillusioned souls, who find "themselves in the gap between the ideals of the New Testament and the realities of actual groups of Christians. After languishing for a while, they chose to get out and find a better way. ... if the church is a body, then we owe it to the disillusioned member - we owe it to him or her - to listen. To really listen. ... Yet people who leave churches are rarely listened to. Instead they are preached at and frequently, judged." (William D. Hendricks, Exit Interviews: Revealing Stories of Why People Are Leaving the Church).

So how can we bridge the gap between ideals and reality? Well, I don't have any magical 12-Step formulas or techniques; all I can offer are some suggestions, some food for thought.

We can start with an obvious yet profound remark of Marva Dawn: "My whole point is that to be a Christian community together we need time together. Observing the Sabbath gives us the intentional time for deepening the bonds of our community and enfolding each of us more foundationally in the values that we share." (Keeping the Sabbath Wholly, p. 118). We can talk about "community" all we want, but unless we are willing to sacrifice our time and energy in making our talk our walk, it will never happen. We are either far too busy or far too selfish. Perhaps some of us need to adjust our priorities in light of eternity, or to simplify our lives. Though my theology of the Sabbath may differ slightly from Marva's, I wholeheartedly concur with her emphasis on Sabbath living and intentional time together as a Body.

... we've become appointment-driven, overscheduled, and overwhelmed. Clocks and calendars ought to be tools to help us plan our lives, not instruments that run our lives. ... We are not leading our lives, but merely following a dizzying timetable of duties, commitments, demands, and options.

Jay Walljasper, "Ourselves, Our Schedules", Utne, Jan/Feb 2003

I have already alluded to the individualistic and self-centered focus of modern North American Christianity. We all agree and acknowledge this, and would heartily add our amen to the sentiment expressed by the title of Craig Van Gelder's book, The Essence of the Church: A Community Created by the Spirit, yet our approach to church life doesn't seem to reinforce this communitarian emphasis. According to Richard Hay, "All actions, however ostensibly spiritual, must meet the criterion of constructive impact on the church community. ... It is crucial, however, that the work of community-building be a shared, participatory enterprise ..." (The Moral Vision of the New Testament, p. 35). On a similar note, Gordon Fee argues that the "'fruit of the Spirit,' therefore, while effected through individual participation, has, primarily, to do with the life of the community - as does Paul's ethics in general." (Paul, the Spirit, and the People of God, p. ix). Are our structures and strategies planned with "maximum community impact" in mind? Or is "efficiency and expediency" our motto? Are we so task-oriented that we have neglected the relational dimension? Do our church meetings give room for engaging the horizontal dimension as well as the vertical dimension?

Fellowship in the early Christian Church meant serious commitment, following the one who said he lay down his life for his friends. Genuine community, then, means being continually, strenously devoted to one another in the congregation ... it means sharing deeply in each other's needs and carrying one another's burdens.

True weakness - that is, a genuine fulfillment of the Church's true vocation as a power - is found, for example, in vulnerability to our brother's and sister's needs (Rom. 12), openness to each other's rebukes (1 Thess. 5:12,14), genuine hospitality to the needy (Matt. 25) and to other saints (2 and 3 John).

Marva Dawn, Powers, Weakness, and the Tabernacling of God, p. 95.

Here are some articles about time:

Note: I fully realize that in reality, with the pressures of life, the demands of work and family, etc., issues of time management are not to dismissed lightly with merely a call to simplify our lives or re-assesing our priorities. It is often an on-going struggle.

In our frantic and frenetic pace of life, we fail to take time to make intimate friendships, and instead opt for causual conversations and shallow relationships. We live isolated and fragmented lives. "Church life" is divorced from the rest of our lives the other six days. If we are to be serious about authentic community, then we must adopt an "everyday ecclesiology". We must find ways to break out of the sacred/secular way of living. Our church life must not be seen as an isolated "event" that lasts for a few hours on Sunday, in a special building. Our church gatherings need to be more "everyday" as well, in the sense of being more down-to-earth. Our approach to Christian living must be more integrative and intentional. In his book, The Connecting Church, Randy Frazee proposes a tri-focal solution for developing authentic community: Common Purpose, Common Place, and Common Possessions to address the barriers to community: individualism, isolation, and consumerism. He recommends moving beyond superficial social relations to a "circle of relationships that produces a sense of genuine belonging" (emphasis mine).

In his recent books, The Safest Place on Earth: Where People Connect and Are Forever Changed and Connecting: Healing for Ourselves and Our Relationships, A Radical New Vision, psychologist Larry Crabb argues that many of the emotional problems that his patients see him for are better solved in the context of spiritual, healing communities (i.e. the church) rather than psycho-therapy. In an age where "psycho-babble" has become the lingua franca of society (and alas, the church as well), Crabb instead encourages intimate friendships, building genuine community, and spiritual formation. Though I found things to disagree with, I agree that the church needs be a place of healing and hope. (Unfortunately, all too often, the church is a place where people are hurt and harrassed. I've heard some tragic stories, some of which are available on my Battered Sheep web site.)

That cry from your heart is your longing to be part of a true church, to participate in spiritual community ... You yearn for a safe place, a community of friends who are hungry for God, who know what it means to sense the Spirit moving within them as they speak to you. You long for brothers and sisters who are intent not on figuring out how to improve your life, but on being with you wherever your journey leads. You want to know and be known in conversations that aren't really about you or anyone else but Christ.

A spiritual community, a church, is full of broken people who turn their chairs toward each other because they know they cannot make it alone. These broken people journey together with their wounds and worries and washouts visible, but are able to see beyond the brokenness to something alive and good, something whole.

Larry Crabb, The Safest Place on Earth: Where People Connect and Are Forever Changed, pp. 19,32; emphasis mine

The Concentric Church

Our community life then, must be marked by on-going commitment, genuine compassion, and open communication. How can we say we "love one another" if we don't even know each other?! How can we be committed to each other if we never talk to one another, except perhaps on Sunday? We must get beyond the merely polite greetings if we are going to be obedient to the "one anothering" commands of the NT. We must stop seeing each other's worth on the basis of potential friendship or personal benefit. Are we mature enough to get out of our clique mentality? Are we looking for opportunities to get involved with each other during the week in practical ways? Can we not find ways to serve one another (e.g., helping with a construction project) and share our time, possessions (e.g. garden tools), meals (we all got to eat!) and lives with each other? It will not be easy to build genuine community, but if we trust in the "empowering presence" of the Spirit (to borrow Fee's phrase), and are truly committed to loving one another, then we can experience "Life Together" in Christ.

We've locked the church up in buildings, but the real church doesn't have walls. Church is all about relationship. We just need to read the New Testament where the followers of Jesus, without purpose-built buildings, went about being church with great authority. Church is about those who have relationship with Jesus Christ encouraging, challenging, caring and loving each other.

If we are to begin to understand and appreciate how and where God is at work in his world today, we need a revolution in thinking. We need to see the church the way it is expressed in the New Testament--the church according to Jesus.

Human Building Blocks

As to the nuts-and-bolts "How-To" of meetings, we should be more receptive to new ideas and new ways of doing things. The point is that our meetings should enhance our experience of fellowship with God and with each other; therefore, we should not be overly obsessed with details, as if a properly orchestrated meeting is an absolute necessity. Within broad biblical guidelines, we can adapt our meetings according to the leading of the Spirit or the particular emphasis for that meeting. For example, one Sunday the Spirit may lead us to pray more and sing less (this is perhaps better than having a separate prayer meeting and having only ten percent of the congregation out). On another Sunday, perhaps the teaching may go on longer, say for 40 minutes.

We can steal ideas from the Emerging Church and alt.worship folks where appropriate without having to feel we're part of that movement. Want to experiment with candles and ambient lighting effects? Utilize more art and multimedia? Want some quiet time for contemplation with Coltrane playing softly in the background? Let's be creative without being contrived! Variety, anyone? (for some ideas, see The Prodigal Project by Mike Riddell et. al.) If such an eclectic approach makes us eccentric, so be it!

Place and space can enhance or inhibit the practice of community. An awareness of the significance of proxemics should cause us to re-think the layout of our meeting place. Spatial dynamics can affect the communication process: pews are prisons, an impediment to intimate participation and interpersonal relationships and should be replaced with chairs arranged in a circle. This arrangement more accurately reflects the family image of the Church, and the body as One in Christ. By placing a table (with a loaf of bread and a jug of wine or grape juice) in the center of the circle, the symbolism is further enhanced: Christ is the center of our meeting. The portability of this arrangement reminds us of our eschatological character as a Church: we are heavenly citizens living as pilgrims on earth, sojourners on the way to the Father's house (John 14:2), with Christ "tabernacled" in our midst through the Spirit.

This naturally leads to a discussion of the Lord's Supper, and its significance in the gathered community. That an act expressing unity has been the cause of so much debate and division is tragic and scandalous. It is my humble opinion that a lot of the argument over the nature of the Lord's Supper (e.g. the Real Presence) and the liturgical aspects (e.g. the sacramental power of the priest) is misguided and owes more to speculation than plain biblical exegesis.

We use eating as a medium for social relationships: satisfaction of the most individual of needs becomes a means of creating community. ... we have met not merely to feed, but to commune with fellow human beings.

Margaret Visser, The Rituals of Dinner, pp. 1,2.

In re-thinking our traditional observance of the Lord's Supper, I invite the reader to ponder these questions:

  1. why do we observe the Lord's Supper as a short ritual, tacked on to the end of the worship "service" when in the NT, the Lord's Supper was celebrated in the context of an extended, full meal?
  2. why do we focus primarily on the commemorative (past) aspect of the Lord's Supper, when the NT seems to portray a past, present and future dimension? In particular, does our practice of observing the Lord's Supper reflect eschatological hope and joy? Do we eat and drink in eager anticipation of the messianic banquet?
  3. why is the mood of the Lord's Supper funereal instead of festive? Do we remember a dead or risen Lord?
  4. why do we partake of the Lord's Supper with our heads bowed down and eyes closed, when it was meant to foster social bonding and create community? Patricia Kerr writes: "If the Lord's Supper tells of the continual love hospitality of the Trinity, it also invites us to look around. ... We are not strangers; we are family. .. fellowship can only be tasted to the fullest when we relate to the Host and to the other guests as well." (Hospitality as the Christian Individual and Corporate Relational Reality that Reflects God's Character, MCS thesis; Regent College; 1994)
  5. does our practice of the Lord Supper reflect the significance of table fellowship that Jesus practiced? Why do we focus exclusively on the vertical dimension to the neglect of the horizontal dimension?
  6. is there a missional aspect of the Lord's Supper that we are failing to notice or appreciate?

I will refrain from detailed commentary on the above points. The only thing I will say is that the content and the context of the Lord's Supper is a meal, an "everyday" act of eating and drinking. To be sure, the common meal that the early believers shared together as the Lord's Supper was invested with deep significance. However, the bread and the wine were not viewed only symbolically (the "elements" as we call them today), but as real food and drink to be enjoyed as well, along with the other foods served at the meal. Though this is not in any way denying that the bread and wine serve as signs pointing to the realities they signify (i.e. the sacrifical death of Christ, and the consequent blessings thereof).

I realize how much we have lost by our present celebration of the Lord's Supper. The practice of communion today usually reflects more of a vertical relationship with God than it does a horizontal relationship with our brothers and sisters. The early Jerusalem suppers and the subsequent widespread practices of agape meals fed everyone, including the poorest. They may have, in fact, kept the destitute, the ptochos, alive on a daily meal of at least bread or porridge. Paul tells the Corinthians (1 Cor 11:17-34) that unless they all eat together-meaning a whole meal-they really are not eating the Lord's Supper, only their own suppers. How often we solemnly take our morsel of bread and sip of wine on a Sunday morning, and then go home to our own satisfying Sunday dinners with family and perhaps some friends of our own social status.

Reta H. Finger, "Sharing Community", The Other Side 35:4 (Jul/Aug 1999).

One concluding reflection. Though writing with the U.S. in mind, the title of Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation would apply to us Canadians as well. Even if we don't frequent fast food outlets, mealtimes at home can often be a rushed affair instead of a leisurely enjoyment of the food and company. Thus, even at home, we often eat as if we were eating at McDonald's. It seems that the same can be said of our Communion practice: that it has been McDonaldized. Our practice of the ritual has been designed for efficiency. Instead of keeping the symbolism of the one cup and one loaf, most churches use manufactured wafers (or pre-cut pieces of bread) and little thimbles for the grape juice or wine, conveniently stored in trays with holes. Ushers methodically dispense the "elements" to the passive folks in the pews, where they are consumed in seconds. Then there is the McDonaldization factor of predictability and homogeneity. Well, you can be sure that the above procedure will be replicated every time Communion is observed; therefore, we are able to achieve controllability of the ritual.

Conviviality is one of the most fundamental aspects of eating together, and I'm hard pressed to think of something sadder than eating alone, without that social rite. Breaking bread is an enrichment, and it's very important to keep alive the social aspects. When people don't eat together, they lose that element of the event. They lose an important aspect of the eating process.

Eating together and drinking together at the end of the day is a kind of sign of friendship or communion, and when that doesn't exist, it's a sadder, less cohesive society. And that can be seen perhaps here in America.

- Carlo Petrini, founder of the Slow Food Movement
Endangered Species: Slow Food: An interview with Carlo Petrini (NYT; July 26, 2003; p. 9)

Celebrating the Lord's Supper as a full meal offers a prophetic critique of the commodification of food, and the individualistic consumption of food. First of all, it takes extra time and care to prepare a dish to share with others. In this, we recall the self-giving sacrifice of Jesus. Second, one is presented with a rich variety of foods, perhaps reflecting the different ethnic groups in our assembly - yet we are all members of one Body. Praise God for diversity-in-unity! We all contribute to the common meal, and we all participate in its enjoyment together. As we eat and converse about Christ and our common life in Him, we (re)connect with each other's lives. There is unpredicatibility as the Spirit moves in our midst; perhaps there will be some who will find reconciliation with each other. Perhaps another's story will provide a needed word of inspiration and encouragement. Someone may share a nourishing morsel from God's Word. There will be laughter and tears. Sharing a meal thus breaks down walls and builds community. And in keeping with the other common designation of the Lord's Supper, we give thanks (eucharisteo) together for the goodness and grace of God our Creator, Sustainer and Redeemer for His bountiful provision. In his fascinating book, The Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection, Robert Capon writes: "Why do we marry, ... why give ourselves to music, painting, ... or cooking? Out of simple delight in the resident goodness of creation, of course; but out of more than that, too. ... We are given appetites, not to consume the world and forget it, but to taste its goodness and hunger to make it great. ... Love is the widest, choicest door into the Passion ... The bread and the pastry, the cheeses, the wine, and the songs go into the Supper of the Lamb because we do: It is our love that brings the City home."

Perhaps the Danish film, Babette's Feast, pictures some of what I'm saying better than my words can. Though the film is ripe with meaning, I will restrain myself to just one or two comments. In the closing scene of the film which centers on Babette's lavish meal, we learn that the two sisters and the rest of their little congregation have resolved not to talk about the food. Yet, as the meal begins and their taste buds come alive, there is a transforming effect: confessions are made, reconciliation is sought, and an open enjoyment of each other is manifested. As well, memories are recalled and shared. "Grace came to them in the form of a feast, Babette's feast, a meal of a lifetime lavished on those who had in no way earned it, who barely possessed the faculties to receive it." (Philip Yancey, What's So Amazing About Grace?, p. 26.)

Here are a few sources for further study:

We are not only the gathered community, but we are also to be the scattered community, to fulfill our missional calling. Traditionally, we have tried to lure the unsaved to our church services so we can preach to them. But church meetings are primarily for Christians for doxology (corporate worship) and discipleship (equipping and mutual edification). Instead, we are called to be light and salt in a dark and decaying world - in our neighborhoods, workplaces and wherever else we find ourselves.

An effective outreach center is our own homes; Wolfgang Simson envisions homes as mission bases for reaching the world in his book Houses that Change the World. Whatever its shortcomings, I think part of the success of "The Alpha Course" is its informal setting in a home and the sharing of a meal/dessert. The informal and open environment is very conducive to building relationships and inviting honest dialogue. Of course, this concept is not new to "The Alpha Course"; many churches have used the "cuisine and conversation" approach as well. I had envisioned a similiar approach to outreach by opening my home for dessert and discussion about current events and cultural issues. In this manner, one can present a Christian perspective on a particular subject in a non-threatening manner. The point is that it is an "everyday" non-threatening manner. The huge popularity of cafés does not just reflect merely the need for a caffeine fix; rather, people are hungry for conversation and social interaction in a relaxed and informal atmosphere. In particular, many cities now have used this as a springboard for community dialogue purposes, in the form of Philosophers' Café.

The point is that an "everyday" approach to evangelism, not a contrived, manipulative attempt to boost church attendance figures, should be our approach. It is natural to invite friends and neighbors together for a BBQ; it is natural to have them over for a few beers to watch a video together; it is natural to want to know our neighbors better and to learn what struggles they're facing. And it is natural to share our life stories - and this opens the door to share The Story, the good news of Jesus Christ and how that Story can give meaning to our stories.

There is much more that can be said, but this essay is getting too long already, so here are some references on evangelism for further study:

I have elsewhere expressed my concern about the biblical illiteracy of many Christians, e.g., in my article, On the Confusion Caused by Popular Books. I recall that many years ago, as a young Christian, adult Sunday School classes and mid-week Bible studies were still in vogue. Today, many churches have dispensed with both. The Bible study groups I experienced were centered around a passage-by-passage study of an entire book of the Bible. Today, they have transformed into small groups. Instead of just the Bible, we now need thin little study guides with warm anecdotes and silly questions. These so-called study booklets unwittingly encourage eisegesis rather than careful exegesis!

So the average Christian is left to absorb whatever biblical knowledge he can from his weekly intake of sermons. I've already noted the limitations of the traditional sermon for didactic purposes. How then can we increase the biblical literacy level in our churches?

First of all, new converts and young Christians that join our assembly should go through a "catechism" class that will teach them the basics of the Christian faith: how to read God's Word accurately (hermeneutics), survey of the Bible, prayer and spiritual disciplines, theology, etc. Hopefully, more mature believers will also model what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. We send our kids to school for at 13 years of structured learning, and yet in the church we fail to systematically teach God's truths. While Christianity is more than a set of doctrines, propositions and intellectual arguments, neither is it just vague, warm, and fuzzy notions.

Too many sermons are simply moralistic pep-talks devoid of biblical content other than superficially. Further, there is a huge gap between the academy and church; increasingly, biblical and theological studies are becoming complex and interdisciplinary, drawing insights from linguistics, literary criticism, cultural studies, sociology, etc. And yet, the average Christian is content to dwell in ignorance and just read the pablum that makes the "Top 20 Christian Bestsellers" list. How can we bridge this gap and help all believers to think biblically, that is, to have a Christian worldview for all of life? Again, I will argue that we need to make learning an "everyday" part of our lives. That we need to be wholistic in our Christian walk, and view all of life through the lens of scripture and a theologically informed mindset. We need to bring "theology to life", as Robert Banks has helpfully articulated in his book, Redeeming the Routines: Bringing Theology to Life:

In the midst of our daily activities, whatever they happen to be, we should find reverberations of eternity - of the kingdom of God, of the qualities, ethos, and values of heavenly life - coming to us. ... Such sacramental moments can happen in the home, at work, or out in the open.
Our communal life with other Christians should also have its feet on the ground. Gathering with them ought not to revolve around so-called spiritual concerns alone, but embrace every aspect of our lives.

This has been my recurring plea throughout this paper, the need for an "everyday" approach to ecclesial life. For church is not a place or event, it is the new community created by the Spirit. It is a cruciformic community, not shaped by sentimental feelings, but by the self-giving love of Christ. But it is also an eschatological community, so that by the power of the Spirit, we can live the (future) Resurrection life NOW in the present age - in our "ordinary", everyday lives.

More as a novelist than as a theologian, more concretely than abstractly, I determined to try to describe my own life as evocatively and candidly as I could in the hope that such glimmers of theological truth as I believe I had glimpsed in it would shine through my description more or less on their own. It seemed to me then, and it seems to to me still, that if God speaks to us at all in this world, if God speaks anywhere, it is into our personal lives that he speaks. ... We sleep and dream. We wake. We work. We remember and forget. We have fun and are depressed. And into the thick of it, or out of the thick of it, at moments of even the most humdrum of our days, God speaks.

Frederick Buechner, The Sacred Journey, pp. 1,2 (emphasis mine).

It is evident that the first thing to do is to be faithful to revelation, but this fidelity can only become a reality in daily life through the creation of a new way of life: this is the "missing link." ... The creation of such a style of life is a work which is both collective and individual.

Jacques Ellul, Presence of the Kingdom, pp. 145-147 (emphasis mine).

How all of this can be implemented will require further reflection and discussion. I have already mentioned Randy Frazee's book earlier, which contains some practical steps a church can take to realize more community life in a traditional church setting. For those inclined to the house church model, Robert and Julia Banks' The Church Comes Home offers suggestions based on their extensive experience in house churches. The important thing is not to blindly copy what seems to be working in other churches. Every church has its own unique DNA, so we need not be so rigidly conforming in our approach.

In closing, let's stop dealing in abstract notions of church and focus on the everyday realities of life and how that can to be organically woven into our ekklesia as a seamless fabric. Let's lay aside the fossilized forms and stifling structures and put on new wineskins. Let's set sail to new territory, with the unpredictable winds of the Spirit leading us where He will.

The believers came together around Christ and his story. They also came with their own. They came to (re)connect their own stories to his, and to each others'. That was the gathering. They taught, prophesied, shared, ate, sang, and prayed their stories - their lives - together around Christ. The Spirit made the conversation possible. All the people shared the Spirit through whom they met God and one another face-to-face. They urged one another in conversation to grow into the full measure of their freedom and dignity.

The sermon and the service have hijacked conversation. There are conventions for talking and listening, but next to none for true dialogue. Preaching does not allow it. Worship services do not allow it. Theological debate does not allow it. Each has its semblance of conversation. But the rules of each game militate against an open-ended meeting of hearts and minds free from the controlling agendas of keeping the systems in place.

What kinds of new conversation do I envisage? First of all, not the neutral posturing of traditional exegesis and theology, nor the pseudo-interaction of preaching and church service, but people engaging with one another around concern and desire grounded in their everyday experiences. At heart is a rhythm between ancient narrative and modern story; between insight and healing. The agenda is as broad as life. The mood may be analytical and incisive, light and irreverent, deep and therapeutic. Maybe all, some or none of the above. At its heart are people wrestling with the Spirit and one another to know the truth, grace and freedom of Christ in all the particulars of who they are and what fills their lives. I think of them as grace-ful conversations. Conversations marked by grace. Conversations full of grace. Conversations that bring grace.

Mark Strom, Reframing Paul: Conversations in Grace & Community; pp. 18,19.

Is there a "circle of friends" out there with this vision, who understands what I'm looking for? Who sees church as not an event or religious club, but as a family who share their lives together in an everyday, ordinary way? It seems to me that if we are to move forward as a local body of believers and truly experience Christian community, we must get beyond meetings, programs, and external forms (as important as these are). Rather, we must seek a new way of being and doing church that is not cut off from the everyday flow of our lives.

I believe in the Kingdom Come
Then all the colors will bleed into one
Well yes I'm still running

You broke the bonds
You loosed the chains
You carried the cross
And my shame
You know I believe it

But I still haven't found what I'm looking for

U2, I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For

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Walk On: Conversation Partners for the Journey

You're packing a suitcase for a place none of us has been
A place that has to be believed to be seen
You could have flown away
A singing bird in an open cage
Who will only fly, only fly for freedom

Home ... hard to know what it is if you've never had one
Home ... I can't say where it is but I know I'm going home
That's where the hurt is

I know it aches
How your heart it breaks
And you can only take so much
Walk on, walk on

U2, Walk On

For the greater part of my Christian journey, I've had very few people to share these thoughts with. Few seem interested in serious dialogue about biblical and theological matters. After awhile, I began to think that all of this was just a sentimental pipe dream on my part.

If change is to come, it will come from the margins ... It was the desert, not the temple, that gave us the prophets. (Wendell Berry)

"Those who are afraid of the future cling to past traditions. Those who anticipate the future use the past as a starting point for the new." (Charles Ringma, Resist the Powers with Jacques Ellul)

The sad reality is neither good intention nor smart strategy will change a heart, let alone a church. But, this hope of church in malleable motion should remind us of Christ's desire and ability to renew our own faith. ... Too often, the very people who see the need for church to transform refuse to welcome change into their own hearts.

Without constant revolution, a church is destined to die. But, the moment that zeal for authentic Christianity returns, at the point of new connection to the miracle of grace, the dreams written off as "childish" will flood our hearts with sudden healing. As children of God, we can set aside our hurts, methods and stereotypes.

J. Stephen Jorge, "When A Church Needs Change"

I understand that attempting to challenge deep-seated traditions and cherished beliefs will often be met with much resistance and fear. Often, hurt and division are the inevitable result. Yet it bothers me deeply that Christians are unwilling to discuss areas of disagreement with an open mind. How can we hope to achieve consensus and avoid conflict if we aren't willing to invest the time and energy to work out our differences together? Charles Ringma rightly notes that "In the desire to make the church safe, Christians have eliminated the critic and the prophet. As a consequence, the church is bland and irrelevant. ... Change is always necessary lest things stagnate. Therefore, the power of the question lies in its ability to move us beyond the present into new ways of being and acting." (Resist the Powers with Jacques Ellul)

People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never share...
And no one dare
Disturb the sound of silence.

Simon & Garfunkel, Sound of Silence

My observation is that most Christians are too busy to take (make) the time to seriously interact with each other, and with God's Word. They don't want to go through the lengthy and tiring process of wrestling with a text or subject matter in order to arrive at a better understanding. Some feel there is no need for such a pursuit; they're indifferent to this view or that. Perhaps some think they can figure it all out on their own.

How much longer can we and our communities prosper with so little warmth and trust? What are the chances of vocal warming?

John Locke, The De-Voicing of America: Why We Don't Talk to Each Other Anymore

Dialogue ... is about a shared inquiry, a way of thinking and reflecting together. ... Dialogue is a living experience of inquiry within and between people.

... dialogue is a conversation in which people think together in relationship. Thinking together implies that you no longer take your own position as final. You relax your grip on certainty and listen to possibilities that result simply from being in a relationship with others - possibilities that might not otherwise have occured.

William Isaacs, Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together, pp. 9,19.

The greatest barrier to good conversation is that as a culture we're losing the capacity to listen. We're too busy. We're too certain of our own views. We just keep rushing past each other. ... [an] important element of conversation is a willingness to be disturbed, to allow our beliefs to be challenged by what others think.

Margaret Wheatley, "The Power of Talk", Utne, Jul/Aug 2002; excerpted from her book Turning to One Another.

See new site for ongoing conversation!

Again, part of the problem is that our church structures are not designed for interaction and mutual learning. Why not read, as a church, one of the many books listed in this essay, and then discuss it? Why not come up with creative ideas for implementing changes where necessary? Yes, this will take time and effort. It'd be much easier to let one person or a committee make some recommendations, and for the rest to vote on them. But does this reflect well on the church as a discerning community? Can we know the will of God or not? Don't we have the "mind of Christ"? (For more on this, see the special issue of Searching Together, Autumn 1984, on "Discernment, Dialogue and Decision-Making in the Church".)

Brethren who will not communicate with one another upon spiritual subjects are as traders who shut up their shops and will not buy or sell. Too wise to be taught and too idle to teach, they live isolated lives ... without joy to themselves or benefit to others. We shall all be beggars together if we shut ourselves like hermits and cry every man for himself. ... Let us hold mutual discourses upon our experiences, make pleasant exchange of our knowledge and aid each other by our gifts.

- Charles H. Spurgeon

I was pleasantly surprised the other day, when out of the blue, my oldest son began spontaneously sharing his thoughts about church. I'm not sure what moved him to share his ruminations with me, but I asked him to set his ideas down in writing. Here's what he said:

I feel as if the church has become different than Jesus would have envisioned it. I feel lots of churches have become too used to having extras that help us in our worshipping. But the Christian faith is very simple and we really only need to bring a Bible and an open mind. All else is superfluous.

Having more material resources DOES NOT determine the quality of the church. A group of Christians on a deserted island with nothing but some Bibles could form a better church than many we have in North America. Another big point is the question of why are church expenses so high? What do we need?

We also need to change the structure of the church. For example, we really don't need pews; I think sitting on the floor would do just fine. As well, I think our church time should be 20-25% teaching and 75-80% SHARING. Often, a Christian has some sort of problem as they enter the church, and during the sharing time, they cannot say it due to time constraints and the fact that they feel obligated to be quiet as to not disturb the flow. As well, there are many older and more experienced people there, so they could give valuable advice, perhaps because they have firsthand experience. After all, why do we give some people the title of "deacon" and "elder"? Because we feel they help other people because they have experience.

On a related note, almost everyone should stay upstairs in the worship service. Then the younger people will gain important knowledge and learn about what it's like to be a Christian as an adult. Another thing is that some people are more cold and impersonal to others, maybe because they don't know them too well. The elimination of pews would certainly help. How about sitting with people you don't know as well?

In summary, I believe that the church is somewhere you learn and help someone else learn. You don't need anything to do that. God loves the poor Christian with nothing as much as the rich Christian with lots. Throughout history, Christians have lived with nothing and still were excellent in their faith, even better than some Christians today. Perhaps we need to HAVE LESS in order to GAIN MORE.

my son Jonathan, age 14

Well, I have at least one conversation partner! But it would be nice if more Christians were as passionate about church life. Because of my prior bad experiences with churches, I've been very reluctant to openly share my ideas for fear of rejection or ridicule. But I've reached a point where I can't hold them in any longer, so I've gone out on a limb and exposed my deepest burden to whoever should read this. My prayer is that some of you will walk beside me and be my conversation partners. Even if we can't meet face-to-face, I would appreciate meeting in cyberspace (in fact, I've met many "soulmates" this way!).

Once I was on my own
And falling
Once I was all alone
And calling
For someone, anyone today
To help me just a little on my way

And then I took a look around
And I saw the love that surrounded me
I knew that it was up to me
To cast off all the fears that bound me

Jackson Browne, Cast Off All My Fears

May we strive to make our church a community where everyone will be able to sing with deep sincerity the the second stanza of the above song. Then we shall all be free to be who we truly are in Christ, both individually and corporately.

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can.
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.

J.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

Appendix: Some Thoughts on My Present Church

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