In the past few weeks I have grasped again why the ‘Institutional Church’ will never get the job done, i.e. taking the Kingdom to all nations. By ‘institutional’ I mean the traditional, denominational, facility-centred, hierarchical church where ‘life’ flows (or is supposed to) from the top down instead of from the bottom up (cf. Jesus’ many agricultural/organic parables), authority (‘control’) is top-down, there is an unbiblical clergy-laity divide which decimates body-life, the emphasis is on consumerist needs rather than kingdom-concerns, etc.
First, I noted the headlines of our local newspaper (Fri. 29 March), ‘Bay Churches’ Hot Property.’ It noted that churches in our city control extensive property empires worth R. 850 million. 650 properties make up this sum, and they include businesses, farms, retirement homes, luxury houses, vacant plots and ‘places of worship.’ The bulk of these properties is owned by 3 denominations: the Old Apostolic Church (R. 91 million), Dutch Reformed Church (R. 72 million) and Roman Catholic Church (R. 51 million). The former is ‘a chiliastic sect with roots in in the Catholic Apostolic and New Apostolic Churches’ and their spokesmen were the most reluctant to talk about their property portolio. One church owns a home listed at R. 2 million. The DRC correspondent could at least report that some of their facilities are used for soup kitchens, adult basic education and holiday youth programs.
Then I learned of a megachurch in our city launching a huge (almost desperate) money-raising drive to enhance their sanctuary entrance facilities, to exchange the 70’s look for a 2013 look (for visitors to feel more comfortable and accommodated?). I have in previous blogs quoted missiologists Alan Hirsch and Michael Frost’s findings in their ‘The Shaping of Things to Come.’ In this volume they rightly argue from Scripture that the Church’s mission in the world is incarnational/missional (believers go to broken people) rather than attractional (come to us!)
To come back to my original assertion. To the above arguments I would add:
- Bad stewardship and even wastage of money, energy and life. I pastored institutional churches for decades: the amount of money spent on buildings and their upkeep, worship paraphernalia (state of the art mixing desks, loudspeakers, amplifiers, microphones, etc), church programs, staff salaries, ‘ministry,’ etc! My wife and I (among a growing number in our metro) facilitate small organic groups predominantly in homes, we try to practise the priesthood of all believers, we enjoy pot-lucks – financial upkeep? negligible! And we are able to support ‘widows and orphans’ in our community in a small but meaningful way.
- The loss of incarnation and mission. Witness the plethora of books on trying to get the people out of the building and into mission. Unfortunately, while some are well-intentioned, most ‘churches’ stick with the original mould/model: there’s something ‘special’ about doing it in a ‘church building.’ ‘Come to us, come worship with us…’
- The loss of community, something our hurting world is crying out for! One church door steward, when asked how many people he knew, replied honestly ‘I shake hands with 200 people each Sunday morning but I don’t really know anybody.’ Even in ‘cell groups,’ while community improves, the agenda is still controlled by the powers that be. [Leaders, when will we grow up and trust God with people who love him, read the Bible and are indwelt by his Spirit?]
- And so we could go on…
The alternative? Bible-based, Christ-ruled and Spirit-led organic ecclesiae, gathering in homes, in the market-place, under a tree, in a squatter camp tin shack. Do yourself a favour and read Wolfgang Simpson’s ‘Houses That Change the World,’ then go on to Robert Bank’s ‘The Church Comes Home,’ then Frank Viola’s ‘Re-Imagining Church.’ Or just read your Bible/NT, and particularly the Gospels and the Book of Acts. Even if you go to the Epistles, you will never find them addressed to ‘The Senior Pastor’ (or even Elders) of the church in Corinth. Rather to ‘the saints in the church at Corinth,’ or to ‘the church that meets in the home of so-and-so.’ Read up early church history (‘church buildings’ as such were only popularised by Emperor Constantine in the 3rd century AD). Read the story of the Anabaptist communities.
This shift from institutional to biblical is ENORMOUS, GLOBAL! Leaders, believers, wake up! Witness the Church in China, now 3rd largest in the world. Witness the Church in S. America and Africa and the Middle East and India.
Imagine small assemblies of believers within walking distance in every village, city, suburb, high-rise building and city slum!
In the later 1970’s in Viet Nam, the communist government had closed 200 Vietnamese church buildings. Some years afterward the officials agreed to the buildings being re-opened, obviously in an effort to regain control. To the officials’ shock, the church leaders and members, now meeting in homes and shops and every conceivable place, replied that they did not want their buildings back. They had experienced ‘life’ outside of church buildings and no longer wanted to be inhibited in any way!
So what are you and I going to do about getting the job done?