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Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Transitions

I recently resigned my role as youth minister at a local church. It will be a month short of five years when I finish.  Despite enjoying being with students and their parents, I have come to the conclusion that my participation in a traditional student ministry and traditional church setting have reached an expiration date.

I love God's church. I am not of the mindset that anyone needs to abandon it wholesale.  However, I have been convicted, in the last eighteen months, of my complicity in the institutionalization of contemporary traditional churches in the U.S.  Three major things and innumerable minor things brought me to my current conclusion. In no particular order, I would like to share the three big things.

1. The church must be primarily a movement, not an institution. Early Christians were convinced of the urgency of their message and were willing to die for it.  This urgency must be born out of an organic, super-natural, and life-giving movement.  Movements change. They are messy. They hold true to their foundational impulses without vying for control.  Institutions insist on control. Movements break barriers of control.  

Institutional systems may be helpful without being primary, and yet the current state of most traditional churches in the U.S. is one of institutional primacy.  In these cases, the movement character and nature of the church dies. Instead of inviting people to Jesus, we (myself included) invite people to our church.  Here, our church patterns, programs, and ultimately institutional nature become a barrier to discipleship and when a number of people eventually and unavoidably reject the institution, they are told they are rejecting Christ.  This must end.  

As the bride of Christ, the church must reclaim her movement impetus.  We must unleash and empower people to ministry.  In particular, the Sunday morning as the primary, sometimes only, means of connecting with the rest of the church must be jettisoned.  We must embrace Gospel community and realize the necessity of regular fellowship, service, and mission which stay on task with our movement goals of sharing the Good News.  

Additionally, we must no longer be afraid of the Holy Spirit. He is able to equip Christians for every good work from the moment of conversion and yet we often cripple people with the burdens of institutional requirements rather than helping them to become disciple-making disciples. The vessel of the Holy Spirit is His people, not a building and we must come to recognize this reality regularly. 

If local churches decide to use buildings and the Sunday morning service, it must always be in service to the greater callings of the movement. Sacred spaces and sacred times are the way of the institution, and in language that recalls Paul, these were part of the old way of doing things. 

2. If it's not clear yet- traditional churches cater to a passive model of club member participation and programming. 

Think about it- if Sunday mornings and the building and programs built around Sunday mornings are where we put the majority of our time, money, and interest... then people must come to us and enter into these systems in order to experience the church.  This parallels the club member experience where people are served (i.e. passively receive) the benefits of an established organization. Events become scheduled by staff or high level volunteers in order to preserve the controlled order of the institution. Scheduled programming serves to fill time rather than spontaneous acts of love and worship. 

Even at the best service oriented churches I have seen, we have about thirty percent of people mobilized on any Sunday morning to serve. And yet, how did Jesus say Christians were supposed to be known? We are supposed to sacrificially love one another and actively live out the Gospel (cf. John 14:11-17).  

Specifically, what do I mean by club member participation? Clubs have rules and established parameters for behavior, spending money, and future activities.  Clubs also expect you to participate in their meetings or you are not a member in good standing.  Think about how often you have used a phrase like, "I'm going to church," or "our  church is a good place to experience worship (or preaching/small groups/children's ministry/etc.)." What types of imagery does this bring to mind? Does it bring to mind a body of believers working in one accord to live out kingdom principles? Does it make you think of people making disciples who in turn make disciples? Or how about this question- do people rely on staff for programming and scheduling of when the church body gets together? If so, does that sound more like a passive club or an active movement?

Clubs are known for their meetings and meeting places.

For example, most teaching in the church is done by one person talking and the rest sitting compliantly and listening. For me, this is one of the most frustrating things about traditional youth ministry. I try to make my times interactive and have students participate in questions and life application. They usually don't participate though. What is one of the primary reasons for this? The Sunday morning service. This is where we pour countless hours, money, and focus.  By default, it leads to students' perception that this is the expected way to learn and interact with the church.  So, if Sunday mornings include no questions, little interaction, and a sit-down-and-shut-up approach... why should we expect a sudden change of behavior at other times?

Most people in our local churches are in perpetual bondage to debt. This debt includes car loans, mortgages, credit card debt, school loans, and more. Many of these people will never be free from the servitude brought on by this debt. And yet, instead of teaching people to utilize their homes as places of worship, we spend more money on buildings that are infrequently used.  Should the solution be that we use the buildings more with more programming? Probably not, considering most of our programming has the passivity problem built into it.

3.This leads me to say- The kingdom directives I am asked to fulfill, primarily under the umbrella of disciple-making, will not be fulfilled in a traditional church setting. 

Do I think local churches who use Sunday morning services, traditional U.S. buildings and campuses, and a cadre of paid staff will be never fulfilled in a traditional church setting? Nope. That's not what I am saying.

I am saying that it is really hard for local churches to be healthy because those things lend more towards institutionalization than a movement focus. Those things also easily become about passivity and a club member approach to Christianity.

For American Christians, following Jesus is often seen as a lifestyle choice. It may be seen as the best lifestyle choice, but it is still just a choice. The previously mentioned reasons lead to this implicit assumption.

Christianity is more than that though. It is true. It must be true or it's not worth it all.  I think it is worth everything. If it is worth everything then I can't simply be passive about being the church.  For me, it's not worth continually fighting the uphill battle against our natural inclination of institutionalism to stay rooted in the traditional church. I applaud those who are able to use those obstacles as advantages and help people become better disciples of Christ.

What's next for me? I'm going to be starting and a part of organic churches.* I'm not completely sure what that looks like. This is a transition for me and my family. I do know it won't be limited to Sunday mornings or a particular building. It will involve radical hospitality and service in my community. It will involve letting go of control of other people and instead trusting the Holy Spirit to empower believers. It will also involve some disappointment, but I am sure there will be plenty to be joyful about as things change. I expect to be part of disciple making movement and not just a leader of programming.

Transitions are hard. This has definitely not been an easy one for me, but I am excited to see what God brings next.




*Among others, Neil Cole has recently done a good job of explaining and disseminating the cause of organic churches, rather than just house churches. The key difference is not just a minor quibble of terms,organic churches expect to reproduce in multiple settings, not just houses, and also grow organically and naturally rather than huddling and cuddling as some house churches are known to do. Check out - https://www.cmaresources.org/about/mission_values