I am often torn in my thoughts about the current downward trend of the church in America. I wonder if it is a good thing or a bad thing. In part I am absolutely terrified for the results of this problem as we could be looking at a lot of people who simply will not believe in Christ because the church will become ineffectual in its ability to reach others for Christ. On the flip side. I often want to burn what we have to the ground so we can start over rebuilding the church in America on a better foundation than it currently is built on at present. No, I don’t think the current foundation is Jesus Christ, I am firmly convinced that most churches are built on a religious and Americanized Christianity which is far from having anything to do with Christ.
My personal journey down this path was started after my second church booted me out. I had an awful time doing one thing in particular which was enforce membership rules for the Assemblies of God. My problem was simply that I felt that I was asking certain people to leave the church based on Assemblies of God rules but they were basically kicking out people who were still brothers and sisters in Christ. My deeper problem became was how would I justify that before the throne of God on judgment day. Did God ever give us the right to cast someone out of the church simply because they didn’t measure up to certain ‘club’ level standards? My answer was no but I found myself causing a lot of grief and pain as a pastor for simply doing my job enforcing the rules but in the end I felt enforcing a lot of the rules was more about maintaining the club rather than the Christ redeemed church.
When I finally was booted and turned in my Assemblies of God card, I headed into a number of crisis points in my life. I was questioning my faith and certainly my involvement in church in general. I eventually came out of all that and almost immediately was thrust back into the role of pastor by being chosen to be the pastor of a small congregational church. I also was having a crisis of how to administrate that church with my new understandings of church and its purpose. I eventually realized that a true church accepts all Christians and the real problem was not how to keep people out but how to keep people in.
In the terms of Daniel Dennett’s video, I had to reconsider the two membranes of my church. The one that was between me and the congregation and the one that was between the church and the outside world. Both of them had to be revised for me and part of that was taking into account that Jesus did set up some standards for following him but did those standards thus apply to local church membership. The question was one of what part of faith was joining a church and what part was an individual walk with God? The question for me personally was what was my role in that?
The first question I asked was, what is the minimal things one has to believe and do to be a Christian? What is the shortest list possible? I found two things: 1) Believe that Jesus has risen from the dead and 2) Confess him as your Lord. (Romans 10). This to me really brought home the point that while both of these things are much larger than they first appear and certainly are much more deep than the simple statement indicate, there was a very short list of what it takes to be a Christian. That lead me to the other concept of what basic doctrine should a church have then to be considered Christian. Once I got down to it there were four factors I felt needed to be maintained. 1) The Bible as inspired and authoritative, 2) The Trinity, 3) Salvation through the work of Christ and 4) The Return of Christ. This too is a short list but contains the most significant factors. What this creates is a membrane for the church that allows for more people to pass into the church and become a part of it and yet becomes in its own way hard for them to truly stray so far that they leave unless they give up the most basic Christianity.
Now I also at this point I made a commitment to the idea that a person being part of the church is a spiritual dynamic not a physical one. Just because there butt was in the pew did not make them a part of Christ body and more than not being there made them not a part of the body. What Christ considered to be part of his church was his business and not mine as the pastor.
This brings up the other membrane between the clergy and the congregation. I had some issues with what I had always been taught. In particular two things bothered me. 1) The notion of professional distance and 2) the notion of silence.
The first is the idea that you can never really be friends with members of your congregation because it affects your judgment about their spiritual state and leads to favoritism. However, I saw that because the standards to be part of the church were a shorter list there was really less for me to have favoritism about. There is no moral code in my current church so I can’t yell about a person smoking, drinking, to tithing or even attending. I can’t look at those factors when considering if someone is a proper member of my ‘club’/church. My role becomes more of a faith builder in the areas above. My role is to preach the word, teach the word and pray. I then leave character development and spiritual growth in the hands of God. I can only plant, water and harvest; It is God that gives the increase and I can’t do his job. My job is to create the conditions for spiritual life, not create that life as I don’t have that power. In truth to try to take God’s role in this simply does far more damage than good.
The second problem that I had was the notion of silence. That is to not inform the congregation of the full truth of something or to keep information from people until they are ‘ready’ to hear it. I now reject both ideas. The proper time to preset something to a person with questions is right away. If you don’t you run the peril, thanks to the New Transparency, that they will access their other sources of information for their answers without your input. This goes for preaching and teaching as well. If you don’t deal with an issue a text presents, then trust me there is someone out there who does and your people will find them. Your real challenge is communication in that you need to find a way to communicate at a level where people will understand and yet you’re not leaving anything out. It is not for you to judge when someone is ‘ready’ for information, if they are asking a question then they need it whether or not they are ready for it.
The effect this has had for me has been good for the most part. The membrane between me and the congregation is there, but it is quite permeable. To love my people requires strong relationships and thus friendships are formed. Not professional but then again I can’t say professionalism has always been a good thing for me. More often it has had a chilling effect putting frost on the field so to speak. Now, there is also a down side to this though.
The downside is of course that you have to trust people to make their own way with God in large part. You have to watch the butterfly struggle to get out of the shell a lot more. This of course does not suit people who like their pastor to always hold their hand and tell them what to do all the time. It does not help the lazy Christian who wants the preacher to always spoon feed them the word and pray for them because the pastor ‘has more power with God’ than them. The thing is in the new transparency it isn’t going to just require a smarter and deeper clergy for the church to survive and thrive; It is also going to require a deeper and smarter congregation. To do this means taking a lot more risks and sharing more openly in the light of what is happening in our world. The head in the sand church will not survive the new transparency, only the one who also develops it own greater transparency will do so. I am not the ethic and moral policeman of the church, that role properly belongs to the Holy Spirit. My role is the word of God and prayer and that is it.
Now that does not mean I don’t take the traditional jobs of the pastor. I do marriages and funerals. I am there to visit the sick (when they let me know they are sick) and help the poor as best I can, but part of that is helping the congregation see the need so they can act as much or even more than I can. This is the idea of understanding that sometimes the best person to minister to a situation is not me and being part of Christ body means that we all are ministers of love and grace and not just the preacher.
There are some more practical issues to consider but that is the subject of the next post.