I’ve written a couple series here on Upptäcka Network about Why I don’t go to church much and articles On community, and I wanted to follow it up with some changes I want to see—some ideas for how we could ‘do church’ in today’s culture. There were a few key points I highlighted in those series, and I’d like to use them as a starting point for thinking about how our models of church might improve in the next 10 years.
The problem of homogenisation
In Parts 1 and 2 of Why I don’t go to church much I talked about the long lost power of identity and individuality. In the 90’s, popular Western culture enjoyed a big cultural push for individuality. Nirvana, the heels of the hippy movement, all the subcultures like punk, goth, emo and industrials became sub-categories to fit into, all in the name of ‘being different’. But this happened independently of the church. In the big Western churches we were too busy toying with the idea that our churches could be as successful and big as any given corporation. We invested our time into developing more strategic programmes and re-structuring our leadership to be more like businesses. I’m not saying this was all bad, though. It wasn’t.
A lot of positive change came from this, we became more focused and organised which, in turn, allowed us to diversify. We were suddenly able to afford to send missionaries abroad, hire more staff and buy better equipment. Some churches were so successful with this way of thinking they’ve become behemoths—building schools, television stations, clothing brands and even buying Starbucks franchises.
A brief history of the Christian culture bubble
When we finally caught up with ourselves, we realised this was all well-and-good, but we were still irrelevant to the wider culture—that culture which had just experienced a huge movement of individuality. We spent that time creating a modern Christian sub-culture bubble. This bubble proved to be a good way to, among other things, gain in numbers. All of a sudden we had something enticing—this perfect little world where everyone could exist in almost exclusive solidarity—not having to be a part of ‘secular’ culture any longer because now you could get your Starbucks at church, wear Christian clothes, watch Christian television and listen to Christian radio. You had everything you needed to live a tidy, perfect little Christian life.
But not everyone was pleased with that. Some people, particularly the youth, knew that something wasn’t right—this was only a smaller piece of the bigger puzzle. Some would say the ’emerging church’ was born to tackle this problem of the Christian culture bubble, and while everyone had the best of intentions, the fact is many of us had been raised within that Christian bubble, making it hard to gain a sufficiently wide perspective for this new venture to be truly successful.
Today what we have left is a fragmented mix of what is effectively ‘the cool kids’ and the ‘mega-church’. Not much has changed—the Christian bubble hasn’t popped—it has continued to entice followers of the Way into its fold, and the emerging church doesn’t really know what to do with it because all our friends go to a mega-church and we don’t really want it to go away. Most ‘successful’ emerging churches today are supported spiritually and financially by a larger, more popular church. The emerging church won’t bite the hand that feeds it.
Want to appear spiritual? There’s an app for that.
In true Western style, we have successfully patented and packaged Christianity. Want to appear spiritual? There’s an app for that. We’ve unintentionally formulated a comfy culture, and this formula has subsequently done away with one of the most important ingredients to healthy church community—individuality & identity.
The ‘realised’ individual
More strategic programmes are not what’s needed in order to address the problems inherent to this bubble; we need to re-gain what we’ve lost—vision from the veins—in other words, the ‘individual-type’ of vision that birthed these great communities in the first place. The ‘realised’ individual is what we need. It’s the person who will re-discover this vision within themselves, and then act upon it in the way we all should have been doing. It’s the person who has a sort of reality-check on a few key points:
- I am personally responsible for my own relationship with God
- I have a significant ‘calling’ here on Earth
- My spirituality is not measured by my involvement in my church
Each of these simple points addresses some unfortunate loss or lack found in today’s Christian culture bubble.
The bubble has homogenised us. It had made us ‘same-y’. If you’re willing to live within this walled garden, we are easy; there’s an extremely low barrier to entry, but we have ultimately lost our saltiness—that radical side of Jesus that overturned tables and rebuked the Pharisees. We’ve overcompensated and lost our flavour.
My vision of church for today is that we would become individuals who re-discover our sense of personal responsibility for our own relationships with God, who re-discover our individual callings, who re-learn how to have the ‘secret’ relationship with God, and who can set ourselves apart in all the right ways from Christian culture. (For the record, yes—I believe popular Christian culture aught to die a death, and that there is little or nothing worth redeeming in it.)
Don’t confuse ‘Christian culture’ with church. They are not the same thing. We should not be opposed to Christian culture I don’t think—I’m not convinced there is any value in trying to tear something down which will naturally die or else evolve in its own time. Mostly those subscribing to the Christian culture formula are amazing people, and children of God just like anyone else. It would be counterproductive—the last thing the bride of Christ needs right now is another split—another denomination or sect. Our modern church models will eventually evolve. Our responsibility is to ensure it evolves into something better.
If we must bother with having a model, let’s get it from the Bible
In Part 4 of Why I don’t go to church much I talked about how our current popular church models compare with the stories, principles and illustrations we see in the Bible. I won’t go on about this—anyone can pull out a Bible and have a read—but suffice it to say that how we do church today should look a lot more like some of the examples we see in the Bible. I’ve been called all sorts of ‘easy names’ for saying this before, but the fact is that one obviously glaring solution to addressing some of these issues to do with today’s church models is that—if we are to try to re-birth true community—we simply need less. We need less structure, less organisation, fewer programmes and, conversely, more freedom, more personal responsibility and more individual vision. But I don’t think this is what should happen. If there’s anything our modern churches need less of nowadays, it’s less trying to be all things to all people.
My vision for the church for today is that we would become a people who take our individual relationships with God in the way that follows Biblical models—having a very personal, even private relationship with God, like Jesus did, and then a secondary relationship, life and interaction with the people of God. My vision is that the change and action would come from the ground-up.
The typical ‘Sunday-morning’ church is not a replacement for community
Following some Biblical models, my vision for the church today is that we would not confuse our ‘Sunday-morning’ church with our community. They should only be the same thing in some few cases. In the modern Western world, most of us have a church, but not a community. With how most of us do church today, we consider our ‘Sunday-morning’ church our ‘community’, but we lose out on all the natural benefits of ‘local’ community because it’s too regimented, too big, too busy. We see examples of what I’m calling ‘local community’ in the Bible. Most churchgoers do not have the benefits of a smaller, local community within their Sunday-morning church experience, but if asked, they would refer to their Sunday-morning church as their community. Somewhere we’ve sold ourselves short, and we’re suffering for it.
‘Local community’ church
Our local communities should be geographically local, emotionally close and spiritually deep. This is the place we should be realising the examples found in the early church in the Book of Acts. We should be sharing everything (and by ‘everything’ I mean everything), effecting a natural ‘crossover’ of daily life, ‘sharpening’ each-other, worshipping and learning together. I don’t mean programmes here necessarily, but I also don’t mean without programmes. Each community should write the model that works for itself and each one will be different—but the main difference is that each member invests (rather than being offered a programme within a walled garden).
Individuals will have tight relationships with others within that community—people should be challenged and loved. The ‘local community’ church, in a nutshell, is all the things that ‘Sunday-morning’ church can’t be—mainly because there’s too many people and too wide an array of needs to fill. It’s not rocket-science, it’s just normal social behaviour. This is by no means meant to be exhaustive, but let’s unpack this a bit:
This can be argued, especially in today’s world where you can Skype or FaceTime almost anyone anywhere at any time, but I think most would agree that geographical proximity is of high value. In my personal experiences a close geographical proximity has been vital to the health of the community. If you disagree, please say so in the comments. I’d love to hear your point of view. But I assume I don’t need to explain the inherent value of being close-together. More specifically, I am literally talking about living in the same neighbourhood. In some countries and areas the idea of ‘closeness’ is different. For example, in California people are used to driving a lot, so the idea of ‘close’ might be as wide an area as a few neighbouring cities. But in somewhere like Bristol, where I live now, people aren’t used to driving a lot and even just ‘across town’ would bee too far.
This is mainly about people. In my experience, all of my closest relationships have developed within a local context—we lived within a tight proximity to one-another. This is probably the case for you, too. Either you went to school with someone, lived next door or went to the same church. The reason locality is important is because it gives you far more opportunities to build a relationship, and real relationships were God’s idea—in fact, they’re so important that He created us to be inherently social—we thrive in relationships. Many good things come from these uniquely deep relationships in a modern sense: the ability to challenge one-another, ‘iron sharpening iron’, sharing deep troubles and just sharing life. I believe these types of relationships are essential to the health of local communities. Without them we miss out on half of the possibilities for personal change—only God can change us because He’s the only one close enough to do so. We need these deep relationships to re-ignite the iron sharpening iron aspect—the ability to truly journey together with someone in faith. Without these relationships we are crippled not just as individuals, but as communities.
A depth of spirituality requires a certain environment. This environment is made up of a set of people who are accepting, who ‘know’ you like no-one else does, who trust you through that knowledge of who you are, and through that trust, value you, your relationship with God and your vision from God. It’s not possible to have this type of relationship with the other four-thousand people in your church, or even with the 30-odd people in your local community. But in the environment of emotionally close relationships we can journey into relationships that are spiritually deep. This depth of individual and communal spirituality is essential to the health of each member of the community. The vision that comes out of that community is entirely dependant upon that spiritual health.
A rundown of our current situation
…by making ‘Sunday-morning church’ and ‘community’ the same thing, we’re losing out on the natural benefits of each. What’s left of the essence of community needs to be largely extracted from Sunday-mornings and injected back into our local areas.
There is a clear Biblical place for what I’m calling ‘Sunday-morning’ church. This is the time when everyone gathers and worships and fellowships etc. I am in no way suggesting we get rid of Sunday-morning church, but rather that it changes and its purpose becomes narrowed and possibly more tightly defined—a narrower ‘scope’, if you will—rather than trying to be all things to all people. In a word, by making ‘Sunday-morning church’ and ‘community’ the same thing, we’re losing out on the natural benefits of each. What’s left of the essence of community needs to be largely extracted from Sunday-mornings and injected back into our local areas. We simply need more time building relationships and journeying with God in smaller settings—by ourselves or with close friends of our communities. It sounds crazy, but I believe we need less time gathering en-masse and more ‘alone’ time with our journeys with God and our communities.
For a second, I’d like you to forget about your experience of church and think only about the stories in the Bible where followers gather together. There are countless little pockets of tight-knit, ‘local community’ churches in, say, the ‘region’. They should live in faith, ‘abiding’ in Christ both as individuals and as a community. Every now-and-then it would be useful to meet up with other communities, but generally, we’ve got all we need here in our local community. If we were to meet together it certainly wouldn’t be necessary on a weekly basis—maybe every few months or so, because what this sense of ‘local community’ does is affords us some of the key benefits of our modern-day ‘Sunday-morning’ churches, but without the impersonal nature of meeting with four-thousand others, the necessary regiment of managing that many people at-once. It simply doesn’t make practical sense.
Sunday morning church today is a one-size-fits-all approach. The problem is, one size doesn’t fit all. We all know this by now. And in this modern day, time is far more valuable than it used to be, and though Sunday-mornings are great, we’re spending too much time there and not enough ‘deep’ time. By trying to merge Sunday-morning with community we’ve been forced to dumb down our Sunday-mornings by appealing to the lowest common denominator, and most church leaders I know feel stifled by this approach. It’s not that they lack boldness, it’s that they keep getting letters from one of the five-thousand explaining how they disagree with a snippet of last Sunday’s sermon, and things like that. There are four-thousand nine-hundred and ninety-nine more letters awaiting their chance to be written over the course of the coming years, and the leaders know this. This is obviously a tongue-in-cheek example, but you get the idea. Church leaders are in-between a rock and a hard place. They are full of vision, personal callings for themselves and for their flock, and yet to maintain any semblance of order in such a vastly large group you have to start managing things en-masse to be at all effective.
I think the Sunday-morning churches, and their buildings, should be considered more like a cross between a modern-day ‘conference-centre’ and a ‘drop-in centre’, where hands-on and theoretical training happen on an opt-in basis—it’s over-and-above your daily involvement in your local community. It should be a place where 24-7 prayer and worship happen—simply because the numbers and infrastructure make sense to do it there. It should not be considered the central communal meeting place on a weekly-basis—that should be around the corner or your local cafe or neighbour’s home or what have you, where you have a decent chance at truly journeying deeply.
‘Sunday-morning’ churches have developed such a strong infrastructure and financial backing and experience in managing huge amounts of people that they would excel at something like this. Heck, I for one would be happy to pay for tickets; like any other seminar, training event, conference etc. This is just one example of how our big churches are still very effective in my ‘vision’ of how ‘church’ should be done without the unnecessary burden of having to be a replacement for local community.
In a modern context
But today, we are not a bunch of loose, tiny little communities. We have the internet, we are naturally networked, and this is where things get exciting.
Community: The new black
A good place to start here is what’s called the human scale. It’s a scientific truth that, generally, there is a central ‘scale’ to which things should be created. Take, for example, a chair. It needs to be a certain height to be useful, around a certain weight to be moveable, and a certain softness to be comfortable. These constraints are defined by the limits of the typical human body. A building is similar; ceilings are usually a minimum of 6 feet, walkways tend to be a minimum of a few feet wide and there is an optimal height and depth for each step in a set of stairs. All these things are designed around the general proportions, strength, and senses of humans.
I want to stretch this line of thought a bit and bring it into our social circles. Similarly to some of the above examples, there is a specific range of amount of people needed to effect an optimal community experience. The amount of people will effect the ‘barrier to entry’, the optimal level of individual engagement, the amount of practical manpower to help run things, etc. Each region will have a specific range of geographical proximity needed to help a local community flourish. If someone lives too far away it’s more difficult for them to meet and be a significant part of the community.
These things are because, socially, us humans simply work a certain way, socially, and piling us all up in masses is just not the method that makes sense—in our typical Sunday-morning churches there are too few opportunities to really get to know people, to forge those deep relationships. We’ve tried to address this problem with ‘home-groups’, ‘pastorates’, etc, but in the end that model is still far from being natural—the way we relate and build relationships and share experiences at work or school or else outside church. We haven’t taken advantage of our in-built social nature, and as such, we’re effectively kicking against the pricks when attempting community.
Big churches should stop trying to be community. This means home groups, pastorates and similar small groups should either stop or split off if a natural community has formed.
Big churches should re-evaluate their role and purpose. They should take advantage of their strengths and recognise their weaknesses all the while trying to evolve through patient listening and observation to what’s happening around them.
Local communities should be encouraged, sought out and supported. Each member should take advantage of the way we’ve been created and allow a natural ebb and flow of relationship to happen, but with the intention of journeying deeply together in Christ through prayer, worship, friendship, learning and sharing life.