Recently I read an article that hit a nerve with what I've been thinking about and wrestling with for a long time now: church is messed up.
Is this really the pinnacle of our expression towards God? Is this really the best way to get equipped, refreshed, challenged, comforted, nurtured, listened to and provided a place to serve?
Because if it is, then I think I want out. Why is there the pattern of one person up the front who does all the talking, while a lot of people are disengaged and their opinions are silenced? What fear drives most Christians to not invite their friends to church? Why do we put up with the status quo when we know that many of us are dissatisfied and longing for something else?
Sometimes it feels like a club where only some are invited – not nominally, of course, because "everyone's welcome" – but really the invitation only exists for those who can hack it.
This article might not resonate with those who are content with church, or with those whose best friends go to the same church as them (or with pastors!) – but there are many of us who are yearning for something more; something fresh, something expressive, something dynamic.
We learn the most when we are challenged and outside our comfort zone; we grow the most with God when we have to rely on Him. We become stale and stagnant when we become comfortable and removed of diversity, difference, and challenge.
Sometimes church feels like a safe place to meet other people to tiptoe through life with, so that we can arrive safely at death.
Some of us are longing for meaning, purpose, connection and change. There are many people in our community who are not just longing for these things too, they're also craving light in the darkness and hope for their troubles... maybe on a lighter note they're also thirsty for friendship.
Does this cartoon resonate at all?
And yet we justify our formulas and templates of "doing" church rather than "being" church.
A possible experiment
So here's a possible experiment: Get out!
Get out of church, with all its accoutrements and obligations and self-serving programmes. I mean, stay in church – connected and part of its lifeblood – obviously, don't leave the bride as she's walking down the aisle. But do give up the idea that the current way we do church is all there is, or all it could be. Instead, be open to trying something new, something different.
Most healthy churches have small groups. Why? Because people are the essence – not buildings – and they provide a platform for relationships, intimacy and connection. They allow you to grow, be challenged, make friends, lean on people when things get tough and help others when they're going through hard times.
But we're missing lots of the puzzle. As Michael Frost said, "the wheels of church crank faster and faster and faster the more committed you get to it." But where are the wheels taking us?
Let's give up church (for three weeks)
My sister's church in Vancouver does something that I think every church should adopt as the status quo. They do a four week rotation:
1. Teaching: someone brings a study (from the Bible, obviously). But don't let one person do all the talking (ahem, pastors) – have a discussion. If one person is to do the teaching component, let other people share, ask questions, offer insights and reflections. We have brains with opinions and insights too, you know. Allow a space for the teaching to be challenged and discussed.
2. Food and vulnerability: Share a meal and share some depth. Get real and find out where people are at. Perhaps someone shares a testimony; perhaps someone shares how they're coping with life (or not); perhaps someone discusses the little things they're celebrating – all over a meal. (As Michael Frost said, "Jesus gave us something to remember him by [eating & drinking]... and we turned it into little cubes of bread [and sips of grape juice]"). This is a time to get to know one another and a place to be real. Don't forget to pray for one another.
3. Something social: Do craft, go bowling, catch fish, go camping, climb a hill with a picnic and a bottle of wine. Basically: make the most of life! Have fun and be refreshed. But invite other people not from church – bring them into your group, and make sure they feel included, encouraged and loved.
4. Do something for the community: Preferably people you already have a connection with – or will have an ongoing connection with. Maybe it's someone in your group who needs a fence built. Maybe it's your neighbours who need their kids looked after for a night. Maybe you get together as a group to make dinners for solo mothers from work. Maybe you put on a street party to get to know your neighbourhood.
Service is at the heart of the gospel, and the way into people's hearts. Why don't you give half of your current tithe to a fund for this? Imagine what you can do as a group with a fund like this – you might be surprised who God puts in your way to provide for – rather than a new sound system and better lights for your church (sadly, quite common).
Sound straightforward? That's because it is. A new kind of church doesn't have to be daunting or complicated, it just needs to be a place for Christians to be salt and light in the community – not a building that hosts a social club for people who listen to Switchfoot.
My recommendation to groups would be to go in order of 1, 3, 4, 2 and then you could also add in a number 5:
5. A combined service: This isn't in the Vancouver model, but this could be a night where all small groups get together to share what God has been doing; to stay connected as one; and celebrate what's been happening through the larger body.
My sister's church does this for their small groups – a safe way for a church to get started. But why limit it to small groups? If your church has the capacity for 4 small groups then why can't this happen when "church" is supposed to be happening instead? Do you get it?
If 75% of the congregation are being "the church" in the community on a Sunday, while 25% are in the building getting the teaching component, does this diminish the role of "the church"? Does it lessen the power of the gospel? Or does it enhance it and multiply it to places of need?
Teachers and pastors might have an aversion to this because of the diminished atmosphere and ambiance in the church building. But wouldn't it also provide a more intimate setting to have discussions and insights offered in bullet point #1?
Are you wide awake or are your eyes just wide open?
You know how some things just stay with you? Well, years ago Mic Duncan said a quote I'll never forget – "I speak in churches and people are sleeping. But when I speak to missionaries they're wide awake."
Think about that. Are you wide awake when it comes to church?
Again, from Michael Frost: "If you were to influence a group of model car racers, what would you do? Put a sign on your church – 'This Sunday, model car racers welcome'. Or tinker with the program to have a testimony from a model car racer? No, the only thing you could do, would be to buy a model car, grow a mullet and join them."
You wouldn't preach at them from a distance – instead you would get to know them and love them as yourself – using words only if you had to.
Same with surfers,musicians,cyclists,workmates, neighbours, and yes, nudists.
Do you get it? We are the Church.
Get out of the building and be a group of Christians who meet in your town – known by your neighbours, alongside those who are suffering, connected to your communities. The gospel doesn't belong in the building, it belongs in the community – let us be ones who carry the light.
Check out anewkindofchurch.com to continue the discussion.
Matt Browning is a storyteller and lover of ideas. He is currently setting up Shake Up - a social enterprise for youth unemployment in Rotorua, New Zealand – taking youth who are dropping out of high school or coming out of youth prison, and hiring them full time so that they can get the experience needed to be hired in the future.
Matt Browning's previous articles may be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/matt-browning.html