Saturday, December 10, 2005

Church Outside-The-Box

I realize that my paradigm of 'Church' is unconventional - unorthodox even. My brothers and sisters of the more liturgical traditions may disagree with several of my thoughts about the logistics of 'Church' and even some of the conservative ones may take issue with how I describe the structure and concept of it. I honor my fellow brethren around the world who love the Lord and express their worship and faith in Jesus differently. As a disclaimer, I will say unapologetically, that I express these things from an American context and its application is imagined in a Western world.

I said in "525,600 Minutes" that "I have forsaken the religious routines of a spectator faith and I've exchanged them for an exciting journey of exploration and uncertainty, following Jesus into the unimaginable places He was already at - the gay community. I have the privilege of participating in my faith - this walk with Christ where I am no longer paralyzed by my own self." Today, I would also add ". . . and no longer paralyzed by the religious structures that dictate what my walk with Christ is supposed to look like." Is this a rebellious attitude? I don't think so . . . .

There are alot of church models out there trying to reshape the way 'church' looks so that attendance numbers increase on Sunday mornings or even on a week night. Sunday services are more 'seeker-sensitive'. Dramatic presentations are used more often. Eye-catching media flashes on screens to illustrates stories, Bible references, and sermon points. Teen dance routines and singing young children entertain the congregation audience. Fog machines are used to fill sanctuaries with laser lights shooting through darkened rooms. Technology is used to present an upgraded God to people tired of an out-of-date church. Even multi-service churches have a variety of styles for people to choose from: the liturgical, the charismatic, and the contemporary. There are churches with Sunday service and small groups during the week. There are churches with mid-week services. There are churches that meet in buildings, storefronts, homes, coffee shops, parks, school campuses, work offices, and bars. There are churches that meet in the morning, evening, or 3 a.m.

Known religious researcher, George Barna, reports his findings based on decades of studying the Western Church in his recent book "Revolution" that millions of people are leaving the traditional Sunday service local churches but are not leaving their faith in Jesus. I think church leaders and church planters are desperately trying to address the reality of a mass exodus away from the Western church by thinking of ways to attract them back. They are trying to think outside-the-box in their presentation of "church" to address the spiritual needs of a shifting postmodern culture that is hyper-individualistic, highly relational, and at the same time relationally-broken while experiencing a societal generational transition.

In my opinion, we are not thinking outside-the-box enough. We cannot merely change the location of where we "do" church, change the style of worship "at" church, or change the demographic of who the church reaches out to. We can't simply change the structure of how we do church to make it a place conducive for relationships. We need to allow our relationships the freedom to dictate what "church" looks like. The shape of our relationships should shape the way we express ourselves as "Church". As long as we refer to Church as a place to go and a thing to do rather than as a Way of life and being, we aren't thinking outside-the-box enough. As long as worship is a creative event that begins and ends (our "worship time" or our "worship service") rather than it being a lifestyle of expressing Spirit and Truth, we aren't thinking outside-the-box enough. Mass numbers of people are leaving the Church but not Jesus. Things are changing. We can't simply re-package "church" to trick them into coming back. The very idea of Christendom's "church" needs to be reimagined into something that allows this generation's Jesus followers to live out their most cherished value - relationships.

What if we lived out our faith in such a way that expressed ourselves as the Church in our very own sphere of relationships? In "Organic Church" by Neil Cole, the greek word 'oikos' used in the New Testament means "household" which refers to one's sphere of influence - family, friends, co-workers, and neighbors. Our 'oikos' describes our relational communities. What if we re-conceptualized our understanding of "Church" as not simply where we gather but instead as who we are? What if we were an 'oikos' church - that is, a relational Church - a community of God's people "called" to live "out" Kingdom values in this world? What would it look like if we were the Church among people rather than taking people to a church?

What if we were "Church" within the "structures" of our simple everyday relationships? What if we no longer needed the buildings, budgets, and big shots? What if the stewards of God's Church - the apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors/shepherds, and teachers (Ephesians 4:11) were simply accomplishing their function in each relational oikos across a region?

What if we didn't dictate what this had to look like? What if we simply encouraged people to seek Jesus personally for those answers of what "Church" looks like in each person's individual relational context by allowing Him to shape their lives through reading the Bible themselves, intimately praying, and responding to whatever He tells them? Perhaps each community would be a "Band of Brothers and Sisters" with both believers and also those in the process of believing. This would be a group of friends naturally connected with each other, encouraging and supporting one another, and in the midst of it all, Christians intentionally living out the Kingdom values - being salt - within their normal relational communities. What if being "saved" didn't require an extraction from their natural group of friends into a foreign and sterile "church" laboratory? What if Christians were in conversation with their friends about Jesus and the Kingdom, and when one of those friends experienced a realization of faith in Him, was simply baptized in the presence of all the other friends? Perhaps all new believers can simply be referred to Jesus through the Word and prayer for an understanding and model of the Way to live. Perhaps it's enough to rely solely on Jesus for leadership and direction while each of us took the initiative of planting seeds of the Kingdom - living out the Good News of the Kingdom of God among our friends (oikos). Perhaps it's enough to love God, love each other, and love His Kingdom.

What if we raised the bar of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus and lowered the bar of our assumptions regarding what "Church" looks like?

When we are told not to "give up meeting together" (Hebrews 10:25) does that describe a church service? Do we need a "service" to "live the Way" He called us to live? Can we live as the Church without being told the logistics of it? We have one Head - Christ Jesus. All the rest of us are on equal ground - all necessary, all significant, all with a purpose and an individualized and personalized function and responsibility ~ the priesthood of all believers (1Peter 2:5-9).

I don't presume to proclaim the way Church must be - only what it could be. People may reject the Western church but they aren't necessarily rejecting the Person of Christ. He is still touching the hearts of millions of people regardless of what church attendance records indicate. We can choose to participate in what He is already doing by stepping outside-the-box of how we think Church is supposed to be like.

If the Harvest is plentiful, why are we still in the barn?


Anonymous said...


You hit on something, Christianity is a lifestyle, once a Christian it’s in the on position 24/7. As you mentioned, relationships are very important because God declared “…you will know me by how you love one another.”

It is very much imperative how we love and respect one another than the appearance of a house of worship and the rituals it encompasses. A sister in Christ said in a sermon, “… you haven’t been to Church, you are the Church!!!”

One of the greatest struggles Church bodies have in our modern age, is how to stay relevant. A Jesuit Priest, Father John McNeil once wrote, that Christianity works from the bottom up, not from the top down. Essentially, giving people a spiritual feeding every week has to empower them to face the issues of their lives and develop relationships with each other and the Lord almighty.

What it all means, there comes a time where tradition no longer serves its purpose. That’s the reason Christ was born in the first place.

Eugene said...

I agree. What the Church really needs is to disassociate the word "church" from a building where people gather once or twice a week for formalized services. Not that such churches can't continue to exist for those who connect best with that particular form, but it seems like our vision for the Church has become severely restricted by that definition.

A church is, first and foremost, a community of believers; the external forms that a particular church adheres to are purely optional. (I'd argue that the ritual of communion is worth maintaining in any case, but communion can take place in just about any context, with or without a formalized service or a church building or even an ordained minister.)

I'd also assert that a genuine community of believers needs to be a place where people are free to disagree without fear of reprisal. There is a point beyond which it's impossible for two people to claim that they worship the same God, but the list of truly essential Christian doctrines is considerably shorter than most churches seem to be comfortable with.

Eric said...

Hey E,

i reread your post last week on 'Community' and i think you hit it on the head as well when you said, "It should probably be noted that when I speak of Christian community, I'm not just talking about meeting for church and Bible study and maybe the occasional potluck. I'm talking about being actively involved in the lives of a group of people and staying committed to that group through hardship and conflict."

So what i'm suggesting in this post to people is that we are functioning as the 'church' as we are actively involved in the lives of a group of people and committed to them. I'm suggesting that this group of people aren't simply us doing 'church' but rather we are a community of friends - some believers, some not yet. I'm suggesting that this occurs everyday as part of our normal lifestyle - living out our faith in front of our not yet believing friends. And as we engage them in the conversation about Jesus, when they eventually realize that they believe, we don't extract them and put them into a foreign group of Churchians to learn how to be a believer (and thus distancing them from their original oikos), but rather, they remain in the very oikos that stimulated the believing process and that the believers there model what it looks like to be a disciple for the new believers - their friends.

this is the Church in the world but not of the world. this is the Church in the Harvest, teaching the Harvest while still in the Harvest field.

Steve said...

Eric... very well said. Thanks for sharing.

I like your thoughts and I am trying to figure out this whole mess as well.

On one side you have the traditional church and now we have the Emergent churches... and all-in-all we are just repackaging the same thing over and over again. We need to truely think outside this damn box.

I like the book "Your God is Too Small" by J.B. Phillips. We limit God, we limit the church, we limit and try to define each other... it's easier to control things if I can compartmentalize and marginalize them. You know I am not sure quite what I meant by that but it flowed out of my head and reads pretty well... maybe it is important. But probably not.

Appreciate you Eric.

Anonymous said...

Hey Eric--Thanks you so much for you blog on this issue. I think that you would love the Nooma called Sunday....check out, it totally relates to this. I believe that Church is people....people learning to be more like Jesus and learning to go the places he would go and those those that HE would love(EVERYONE).

Living in the Bible Belt of West Michigan can be hard at times there are many creep Christians that forget what it means to love everyone. I think we all at times forget to ask ourselves is it about the event?

So thanks Eric--I love you man...may you continue others to think "out of the box" and to not live in "Brick World!"

Love ya

Becky O

Eric said...

thanks Steve and Becky,

i had dinner with some friends of mine and we talked quite a bit about all this "Church Outside The Box" kind of lifestyle. it'll be fun to live this out together and see what this all looks like!

this weekend, i'm going to six different Christmas parties - all from different "oikos" (relational communities). last night i was with another "oikos" of mostly not-yet-believers. should be fun!


Marc said...

Dear Eric,

Your definition of the possibility of the church in its future form is something that the present church misses. It is time out for the personalities, sermonizing, big buildings, budgets, stars and individuals who crowd out the Jesus that we all know and want to see.
I no longer attend church, because one has to spend their time getting through the masses of individuals who control the direction of the service. It's more about who the pastor is; where he's been, and where's he's studied or even she's studied. I remember rightly the scriptures that the Apostles were not learned men. The need to qualify yourself as a minister, pastor, evangelist or what not, as based on what school you studied adds nothing to the essence of knowing Jesus. That is not to say that we can't attend seminaries and become profoundly learned men and women, but Jesus empowers each of us to minister in his name by example, word, and deed. People know when they are being nickeled and dimed to death by a corporate culture of some ministries who are not accountable to how the money in the church is spent. It is no longer acceptable to me to allow a minister's word that he or she is of God, so I have to give willingly; while said minister justifies the spending and lifestyle they live as a ministry expense. The prophets of old, the Apostles and even Jesus did not live as lavishly as some of these ministers who raise millions of dollars of untaxed money.
I know that it may not be fair to impose on the church to live a higher standard, but even not for profits have to report, justify and reveal their operations to the government and their donors.