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Sunday, July 3, 2011

The Perfect Church

This is a still-in-development part of a much larger post I'm working on. There might be a couple of people who might find it interesting.
I belong to a church in the heart of Tulsa, a church that you could describe as "big," in the sense that the physical plant is pretty big, and "average" in that the total attendance on Sunday morning is about average for most Southern Baptist churches, which is to say, about 200 or so. It is a church like so many in this part of Tulsa, like a very great many across the country, really. It's dying. Most of the churches in the heart of Tulsa are graying and thinning out and they are dying.

Some of them used to be among the fastest-growing and largest congregations in the country.

What happened?

Well, there are a lot of things that have happened. I am still learning about some of it But one of the things, I am convinced, is that transportation and ease of communication are actually working against the neighborhood church.

If you go to a seminar, or have a workshop on church growth, one of the things you will find out is that a church's natural territory--at least in a city, I don't know about in the countryside--is considered to be everything within about a three-mile radius.

Couple that with the fact--at least I think it's a fact--that the majority of people hear about Jesus from a friend or a relative.

Then ask yourself if you, or any of your friends and relatives, live within a three-mile radius of your church. If you go to an older church, in an older part of the city, I think it is likely you are going to say, "No!"

People can drive--so they, or their children, move out to other parts of town and if they're so inclined, they can still attend the old church they've always attended, but their friends, their relatives, their lives, are all outside that three-mile radius around their church. Naturally, it then becomes very, very difficult for the church members to reach the people around the church! Nobody should be surprised. Nothing could be more natural.

Some people are going to home churches or things like that and I see nothing wrong with that, if that's what you want to do, except that I think that it tends to reinforce a certain cliquishness in some cases, that is, I think there is a pretty good likelihood that you are going to get all eggheads in one group, all the emotionistas in another, and so forth, and that's not altogether good.

And then there's the bad teaching--not in my church, actually, I think our pastor is pretty good (critics would say that he appeals to "eggheads" like moi), one of the few left that actually does expository preaching, and he's not inclined to dumb things down--but it seems to me like there's almost an active contempt rampant in the North American church, a contempt for any sort of teaching that goes beyond the very basics. I will never forget asking my then-teenaged oldest son what the problem with Adult Sunday School lessons was, and he immediately shot back with, "It's the kids' lessons, only with bigger words." If you question this, in most churches and most Sunday School departments, you will be told that the material cannot be made too complex or we will alienate visitors, completely overlooking the fact that visitors are not exactly overrunning the building. And then, if you are not already a teacher of some kind, you will be told that you know so much, you ought to be teaching!

No thought will be given to the possibility that most visitors are not so stupid as to be unable to figure out when their intelligence has been insulted.

In my opinion, the teaching in most churches in North America is execrable. I do not even have to go to them to see in order to have a pretty good idea. Why? Well, just ask around. For example, how many Christians do you know that feel confident in their ability to clearly articulate the Gospel? In my experience--and yes, I have asked--most Christians don't feel terribly confident in their ability to clearly articulate the Gospel, or to answer questions and objections, and more often than not, they don't even try (I believe the stats indicate that something less than 10 percent of all Christians will ever share their faith with strangers).

They just keep coming to Sunday School and church services, hoping all the while, I guess, that they will eventually gain enough knowledge to be able to tell other people what they believe about God, life, death, eternity, and salvation. To my mind, the situation looks like a massive, systemic failure to educate and train, despite a massive Sunday School program and the availability of enough literature to choke a moose. It doesn't help that a lot of people seem to like it that way. It amazes me how many people say they're afraid to share the Gospel, on the grounds that they don't know enough to answer objections, and then won't come to a Sunday School class heavily geared to equipping people to explain and defend their beliefs.

What to do? How to keep my church and others like it from dying? Well, I envision building a church like this:

On Sunday mornings, first, in Sunday School, we'd tackle whatever subjects the class was interested in pursuing in depth, getting people involved in the discussion and accustomed to discussing and defending what they believed. Then we'd have a service where the Gospel was preached, the text of Scripture was expounded, and Christ exalted. Then there'd be a potluck lunch, and maybe a softball game, or maybe some indoor games (chess or go, anyone?). Then everyone'd go home for a nap, and come back at night for more preaching, teaching, and prayer, maybe followed by some sandwiches (Potluck sandwiches. If you try to make the church responsible for the sandwiches, it'll just create a burden that nobody wants to bear).

I have to say a word about "worship," or, more specifically, about music.

Worship is an absolute joke in most churches, at least most churches I've been to--including ours. That is not to say the music is, quote-unquote, "bad." Often, the music minister and musicians and choir are very capable.

But that is not corporate worship. In all the years I've been going to Baptist churches, I have seen precisely one man I would call a worship leader, in that he always managed to get everybody in the sanctuary singing their hearts out. Most music ministers, together with most choirs, are not leading worship. They are performing for the congregation. That is not right at all.

A worship leader needs to be far more concerned about leading the congregation in corporate worship than about how he and the choir sound.

Monday night'd be visitation. Not like most churches, where "visitation" means visiting people who should've been removed from the rolls years before, or visiting people that brought their kids to the "Fall Festival" five years in a row (that kind of stuff is, in my experience, a complete waste of time), but visiting, first, the members who couldn't be at church due to illness or frailty, those who are having a hard time in one way or another (I am as convinced as I can be that one of the modern church's problems is that we have so emphasized ministry to the community that we have let our ministry to our members slacken. This should not be. Paul suggested strongly that we should tend to the brethren first), and then just going door-to-door in the neighborhood, asking people how we could pray for them, and sharing the Gospel where the Lord opens the door. I would suggest strongly that the same people not do visitation every week, not unless they feel truly compelled. Rather, a whole bunch of people should rotate visitation duties. Nobody should be allowed to become overwhelmed.

Tuesday nights, the clubs would meet. As I mentioned in the section on RyuTe, someday I'd love to teach a class at the church. I picture an energetic, sweaty class, where the emphasis is on health and self-defense, not fighting, not aggression, with maybe just enough free-sparring thrown in to satisfy those that want to compete in an occasional tournament (Tournament fighting is useless for self-defense, but some people find them a lot of fun). There could, and should, be other clubs--whatever people were interested in. Maybe Praisemoves for some. Maybe Pilates. Maybe a homeschooling support group. The point is to have neighborhood Christian people with a common interest be able to satisfy that interest and desire for fellowship through the neighborhood church, not so much to use those activities to attract lost people to the church--although, God knows, you wouldn't want to turn lost people away from those clubs, and you'd certainly want lost people taught the Gospel while they're at the church.

Wednesday nights'd be for discipleship training and prayer. Classes on all sorts of stuff, from in-depth study of various books of the Bible, to home economics (we all need to know how to stretch a dollar, folks), to New Testament Greek. Classes'd be preceded by a potluck meal and followed by a prayer session.

I think that's the way church oughta be. And very frankly, I think in our case, we need to seriously consider merging with the Hispanic church that meets in our building. They are actually growing, in part, I think, because so many Hispanic families have moved into the neighborhood, and, like I said, people do hear about Jesus from their friends and neighbors.

Many times I think the ideal is to have a little church like this in every neighborhood, with the social life of the whole neighborhood revolving around it. I'm about half-convinced that when we got to the point where you had to drive to church instead of walk (or ride your horse), it allowed us to be too darn selective about who we'd associate with. Being able to drive--I've run across people that drive thirty or more miles to church, folks--well, it seems to me that it makes it easier to ignore the people who are right around us, in favor of people that we find it easier to love. Why would we not expect our neighborhood churches to be dying if we refuse to attend the neighborhood church? And conversely, I can't help but think that if the people and their neighborhood church get all wrapped up in Jesus Christ and in one another, both the churches and the people will quit dying.

That's what, in part, I'm working on for the future. I may die before I see it fully realized. But that's the direction I'm headed.

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