Somebody said the other
day, 'We have to find a new way of 'doing church' because only
the charismatics are now really prospering' How about this?
Before some of my more conservative friends throw their hands up
in horror, I think that they should think on a little. Yes, your
city church may have over a hundred members with no compromise
over preaching time and no compromise in the gospel message. But,
to be perfectly frank, you are probably not typical. The writer
of this article is certainly not advocating going charismatic
'hook, line and sinker' with the introduction of twangy electric
guitars and all the rest of the often lamentable paraphernalia!
Of course not. Yet the man who made that comment does have a
point which we ignore at our peril! I write as a preacher of vast
experience of getting out into tiny country churches and chapels
all around the UK, but especially here in South Wales.
You know, the way we 'do church' is not really set in stone. There are, after all, no clearly laid down New Testament guidelines on the 'order of service'. Also, where in the Word of God do we find mention of 10.30 & 6.00 services on the Lord's Day with, perhaps, a mid-week fellowship meeting? We soon begin to see that a lot of these things are the result of tradition! Again, where do we find a biblical reference to the fact that our regular meeting together should take place in a building with a steeple on the top and pews and pulpit on the inside? We talk about the need for 'church discipline' and while one cannot entirely reject this, do we not mean not 'church discipline' (if we, hopefully, accept that the Church is a spiritual body of an ultimately invisible nature to us, though not to God) but rather ecclesiastical discipline, with hints of hierarchical control and suspicions that, as in many walks of life, the powerful and pushy are attempting to flex their muscles over those they consider weaker?? Do we accept the 'priesthood of all believers' or do we not? These are all points to ponder as we consider our concept of 'doing church'.
Certainly there is much truth in the understanding that the many churches and chapels in our land were built at a time of great religious optimism, but perhaps not great religious foresight. Realistically, in a world in which, sadly, people no longer feel that they need the church, many of these meeting places are going to close. Yet often local Christians will feel very guilty when this happens, yes, even when they know full well that less than ten people had attended that hall for many years, and its closure will not stop them being Christians! Yet quite often tiny congregations will keep themselves poor by maintaining a 'building fund' or 'restoration fund' for some elderly building which, while ornate and beautiful, is also cold, draughty and seen as unwelcoming by outsiders!
I am afraid that there is a sad tendency for small rural fellowships of Christians to see the survival of that particular fellowship as crucial to everything which happens in their lives whilst being comparatively disinterested in fulfilling the Great Commission! As long as a preacher is booked for every Sunday in the year, many of these tiny places of fellowship see themselves as being successful and still 'flying the flag!' Unfortunately they are inclined to lose sight of the fact that these chapels were never intended to be an end in themselves, but rather, to be a launch base for evangelistic activity.
So we know that the New Testament encourages us to meet together and to encourage one another, but it really says little more than that, the rest has come from our traditions. But there are many ways in which we can do those things. In an average week on the internet, I come into contact with many Christians. Recently, a man from India who had found our web site struck up an E Mail discussion with us. Through this event, both this man and myself received tremendous encouragement. He praised our evangelistic effort, telling us how much he was learning through reading the articles on our web site. This was obviously encouraging for us. But, in turn, this man and his wife, fulfilling the somewhat lonely life of being an evangelist in India, were very encouraged by our interest in them and by our decision to make more of their labours in the Lord known to our site visitors. We were actually 'fellowshipping' despite thousands of miles separating us! Yet, it was no less 'fellowshipping' because of that geographical difficulty! Indeed, more meaningful fellowship, one feels, than the hurried few words over a cup of tea after a typical church service (that is, in those very few fellowships which now even bother to make a cup of tea after the service in order to encourage fellowship!!) Do I sound cynical? Well, the experiences one has had, I'm afraid, are enough to make any a little cynical!
I'm afraid we need to face the fact that the 'there is always a church on the corner if they need God' days are just about over!
Today's utterly secular, materialistic, sceptical and financially motivated society don't know the first thing about God and they are never going to go into a church for help when encountering problems - sure, they often did a hundred years ago, but that was a society which did at least have some knowledge of God. If we are going to be faithful in the Great Commission we need to make much more of an effort to find people where they are and to initially approach the Gospel on some common ground. After all, this is what the apostle Paul was clearly prepared to do. This is why I believe that the new idea of holding a Christian service in the middle of a shopping mall on a Sunday morning (now becoming a busy shopping day) is excellent. Here many will be reached who would never - in a million years - wander into the chapel on the corner! Yet, despite this, many Christians have opposed this approach. This opposition appears to be borne of this 'we can only do church in a building with pews & steeple' sort of mindset. Sometimes I almost despair of a few of my fellow believers!
There are many such areas in which we can interact with people where they are; everybody is concerned about violent crime. Here is an area where Christians can approach people 'where they are' - the media do not have the answer to crime - we do! The same can be said about the lack of security modern people often feel despite their affluence and their constant searching for what will satisfy! C.S. Lewis had the answer to this; its because people were made to 'run on' God! Put something else in the 'tank' and it may be fine for a while but it does not work in the long run. These are some of the areas. Here at Museltof, we are involved in internet evangelism, here is a prime example of meeting people 'where they are'. All around the world, though admittedly mainly in the west, people now often spend their evenings surfing the net. Its becoming much more of a favourite activity than eating out or going to the cinema! And yet despite the success of internet evangelism, I continue to be dismayed at how many Christians think it is not quite 'nice' for evangelism.
I saw a typical reaction just recently. I was talking to the wife of a Christian who is very sick; after assuring this lady that my wife and I would continue to pray for her husband, I then ventured to ask whether she would like us to request prayers for him through our Christian web sites. I told of our many visitors, undoubtedly not all Christians, but many among them. We could mention him. The reaction was a stunned silence! Finally this very sincere lady told me that she would 'get back to me', but I don't think that she will.
If the charismatic movement is especially successful in one area, it is in a determination to meet people 'where they are'- this much we have to hand to charismatics! The tragedy is, of course, that such large areas of that movement have become involved in flawed doctrinal teachings.
So do we say that the era of the influence of the 'church on the corner' is about to go? Not at all; it went a long time ago! And its high time that we faced up to it.
Of course, we do not condemn going to church; it is probably the ideal and where Christians can meet in that way, it is fine. We went wrong when we started to somehow assume that that was an end in itself! The next thing which inevitably followed was that fulfilling the Great Commission came to be seen as something of an optional extra - the main thing was getting to church! There is no doubt whatsoever that elements of legalism are sometimes involved in this. A number of years ago I knew a man who attended a place of worship regularly while he had enormous spiritual problems which frankly needed in-depth counselling with a minister. My feeling was that until this took place it might not even have been advisable for him to be attending a place of worship because of the effect he was having on others - but the man would keep saying things like, 'As long as I keep coming to church, I will be fine. Getting to church every week is what is most important!' Frankly, he was wrong. 'Going to church' was some sort of ritual which he believed would help him, despite the presence of many problems in his life. This approach is not dissimilar to that of certain terrorists who have believed that as long as they celebrate Mass regularly they don't have to change their lifestyles!
Let us all pray that God will give us the vision and wisdom to see the way forward, holding on to the essential things of the Gospel (which must never be compromised!) and God's Word (again no compromise!) while seeing that there are things which we could change if we are really going to bring the Gospel to this land!
(© This article is Copyright Robin A. Brace 2002. If you want it on your own website please do the honourable thing and come to us for permission first. It is forbidden to excerpt this article without our permission)