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A Million Ways to do Church Wrong

A Million Ways to Do Church Wrong | MSG 4-12-15

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If we were to start a new church, if we could clear the slate and start fresh, if we could open God’s Word and let it speak to us, what would that church be like? In our imaginations, what do we picture when we think of a “church?” In our preconceptions and presuppositions, what do we think a church is supposed to be? Is it a grand cathedral with stained glass windows, a pipe organ, gold ornamentation and heavy wooden pews? Is it a group of people meeting in someone’s living room with an acoustic guitar? Is it a little country church on the edge of town with old people, young people, an upright piano and whatever musicians just happen to show up? Is it a multipurpose facility with stage, lights, video projectors and a rock band? Maybe it’s a small group of people sitting in lawn chairs on astro turf—at least for a while.

What would be the reason for them getting together? Would it be to plod through a ritualistic, historical, liturgical form, making sure to cross themselves while they also cross all the “t’s” and dot the “i’s”—trying to do everything right, with the right words and in the proper order? Would it be to sing along with emotionally charged music, drumming-up the passion to feel a previous spiritual high—kind of like getting your Holy Spirit fix for the week. Maybe it would be more about hearing a deep, challenging, seminary level Biblical message. Or is it to hang out with your Christian friends? Is the point just to get church out of the way, check it off the list of weekly obligations. We go to church because we are supposed to. Maybe church should be fun, entertaining and good for the whole family.

Maybe it’s more noble and pure than any of that shallow nonsense.

Like, going to church should be a selfless act of worship, something we render to God expecting nothing in return? No wait, that sounds wrong, like we are doing God a favor. Maybe since God is the one who has everything we need, church should be a time of us simply receiving His gifts. Or is it both? Does He give us what we need and we respond with thankful praise.

Should church be more about edifying the people of God, deepening their faith, calling them to action and feeding them with Word and sacrament? Or should it be more about reaching those who do not yet know about God’s love and Jesus?

(John 14:3-6)    says this: And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. And you know the way to where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

There’s a lot to think about in this well known verse of scripture. It’s a very rich picture of who Jesus is and what He means for His people. I want to spend a few minutes thinking about how if we focus on one of these attributes to the exclusion of others we end up with a skewed vision of what the church should be.

Jesus said He is the way, the truth and the life. He is all three, but too many churches focus on only one of these primary aspects of His being. For example, some churches are all about “the way.” In “The Way” churches the focus is on Jesus being the way to the Father, heaven and eternal life, and focus their entire attention on getting people saved. Every sermon is an evangelistic call to faith. The members end up getting “saved” every couple of years—just for good measure—because the only thing that matters is how many converts they make. How many people come forward, dedicate their life to Jesus, or get baptized. I’ve been to that church and you probably have, too. The old school “Way” churches were like tent revivals with “fire and brimstone you’re going to hell” sermons followed by an emotionally charged altar call. With every head bowed, every eye closed, no one looking around—I see that hand, and that one, and another, now just take that next step and come forward to the altar. The modern version of these churches probably have a rock band, multimedia presentations, and some kind of bigger than life preacher. They are gimmicky, trying to get new people to show up, and as big as the front door is—because they are highly attractive, I mean attractional—the back door is just as big. People tend to leave in droves, either when they figure out that there is very little beyond the big flashy evangelistic outreach event (so they go looking for a church where they can grow deeper in their faith) or when they are attracted by a newer, shinier “shock n awe” campaign. These are “the way” churches, and they hardly have time for silly things like Bible study, discipleship or helping the poor and vulnerable.

Other churches are more obsessed with “the truth.” They are all about deep Biblical teaching, Sunday school and study groups. They all but ignore the Great Commission but they can recite it to you in Greek. They are serious. Serious about their music, their form of worship, and every detail of their doctrine and practice. These churches tend to be small, but they can be quite large if the preacher/teacher has some charisma or is a published author. The main growth for these kind of churches is when people outgrow “The Way” baby churches and long for the deeper things of God. Many of their numbers come from burned out “Life” church members, too.

When I was fourteen, I started going to church for the first time in my life. It was a church that could be characterized as a “Life” church. My mom had warned me about it, she said, “Don’t go to that crazy church, those people are nuts.” Her objection was part of the attraction, part of the reason I went. God can even use teenage rebellion to get His children’s attention.

I started doing ministry in a “Life” church. I went to one of their Bible Colleges and was on my way to becoming a pastor when I “burned out” and took a fork in the road that led to me doing music for the next twenty years or so.

“Life” churches are the most volatile. If “Truth” churches are a cold, beautiful stone fireplace without any sign of fire, then “Life” churches might be said to light fires without bothering to build fireplaces—they just set everything on fire. Everything is done with passion and emotion, there is a desire to be filled with the Spirit, signs and wonders, laughing, weeping, dancing, naming and claiming everything for your best life every week.

In my experience, people in “way” churches tend to remain infants in their faith. People in “truth” churches tend to get cold and grumpy—quick to argue about everything—and people in “life” churches tend to burn out. Not always of course, and most people think their church is perfectly balanced—fine—your church is the exception and I’m not talking about you.

We’re talking about the ideal church, and I believe that Jesus wants His church to represent Him in fullness. I think we are to represent Him as the way, the truth and the life, all three. Making disciples, growing in knowledge and wisdom, while also enjoying a Spirit-filled, abundant life—while making sure others have plenty, too.

I have noticed that churches tend to either have faith or works but not usually both. Churches tend to either preach the hard truth of God’s Word and actually believe in Jesus—or they have a soup kitchen. They either say with their mouth that they believe what the Bible says is true, or they actually do with their hands the work of helping the oppressed, the orphans and the widows—what James calls “true religion.” He also says faith without works is dead. Churches tend to either profess belief in what the Bible says or do the work it tells us to do. Few churches seem to have both faith and works.

As a worship leader, I have led the music in all kinds of churches and noticed some patterns in how the congregations sing. In “the Way” churches, where they are mission focused primarily—you know, missional—most of the congregation hardly sings or not at all. They don’t seem to understand the concept of “praising God with raised voices,” participation is half hearted and they seem to treat the service more like a smooth jazz concert. In liturgical churches the people fill the sanctuary singing hymns and speaking the readings and responses with full voices and in charismatic churches they pour themselves into the songs like their life depends on it—hands raised, eyes filled with tears, teenage boys lining up to pray with the hottest girl at the altar.

It seems like there are a million ways to get the church thing wrong. So, back to my original question: if we could start a new church from scratch, looking at God’s Word and following Jesus, what kind of church would we make?

When I was first thinking about starting this new ministry I wrote a simple outline of the vision I believed God was showing me.

  1. To become a community of people following Jesus, giving glory to God and blessing to each other.
  2. To worship in a way that is Biblically faithful and culturally engaging, and
  3. To be a ministry focused on reaching out to those who do not yet know about God’s love, while continuing to love and care for the people who are already here—investing in them and discipling them toward Jesus.

I think this vision has the potential to be a balance of the way, the truth and the life Jesus wants for us.

We are starting with these informal worship gatherings. We meet here on Saturday nights, praise God with music, hear His Word and pray together. Then we hang out for a couple of hours getting to know each other over good food and drink while our kids have a blast and make friends. That’s the part you see.

The part you don’t see is just as important. We have assembled a group of eleven leaders who meet weekly in a discipleship huddle. We want this church to be led from a spiritually mature, safe group of people who know each other and hold each other accountable. After several months, the leaders of this group will start their own discipleship huddles and invite others into them. This is how we are starting our new church from the inside out. We are focusing on Jesus and how He invested in His leaders before He went public with the church that changed the world.

When we go public, we will go for it. When we have established a core group who will roll up their sleeves and do this ministry with us—all of you, plus a few others— we will have a grand opening. When we have a stage for the band, lights to make it beautiful in here, speakers to make it sound good and clear, some kind of screen so we can look up and read the lyrics and maybe show a video now and then, rows of chairs that you don’t have to carry in from your trunk. once we get the party ready, then we will release the Kracken. We will let the community know we are here. We will make signs, run ads, and tell all our friends. We will have events, concerts, sports celebrities as guest speakers, provocative message campaigns, and anything else we can think of to get people’s interest in walking through those doors and joining us.

I like to call this the “air war.”

We’ve all seen the shock and awe campaigns on CNN. Flashes of light in the distance as Baghdad is pummeled with bombs. It’s a spectacle. it gets everyone’s attention. It’s on the 6 O’clock news. It’s impressive but it doesn’t win the war. The war is won on the ground with troops going street to street, block to block, house to house, securing an area. It’s messy. The big worship show, with a rock band, multimedia, lights and a strange, yet  somehow likeable preacher will only get us so far. There has to be a ground campaign with community, Bible study, and prayer—there has to be house by house, person by person discipleship.

Another big idea for our new church is the concept of “third place.” Your home is your first place, your work is your second, then the third place is where you meet your friends. It’s also part of what defines you. It’s the diner on Seinfeld, Central Perk on Friends, it’s Cheers—a place where everyone knows your name. Churches want to be people’s “third place” but they can’t be, not really, because they are never open—other than for worship events or Bible studies, sitting side by side with their friends listening to a speaker or singing along with a worship leader. People don’t get to know their friends in lecture halls or concert venues, they go to places where they can talk, meet for coffee, share a meal or have a beer.

This is why our worship is followed by a Hang out time.

Some of you have told me how much you look forward to our Saturday night gatherings, and how this is becoming your ‘third place” and that’s great, but our vision for NewChurch is bigger than that. We want to open a gastropub. One that is open every day. It will have great coffee, great food, craft beer and good wine. A place where we can meet our friends for fun, for business, for lunch or dinner or just to hang out. My hope is that it we be a place where people want to meet and sometimes God will open up opportunities for conversations and ministry to the people who show up. No pressure. No sales. Not a “Christian pub,” just a place where God’s people hang out with the community and worship on the weekend.

My hope is that we will be a church that introduces people to God’s love, His grace, and the salvation that is only available through Jesus. May we be people who are ready to give an answer to the anyone who asks about our hope in Him.

May we be a church that longs to know the deeper truths of God. Not satisfied with baby milk and candy, but hungry for meat—wisdom and knowledge—and are prepared to share what we have learned with the people puts in our lives.

May we be a church that is filled with the Holy Spirit, walking in the Spirit, and led by the Spirit. May we not only have faith and believe, but may we do what God asks us to do. Enjoying the abundant life that Jesus offers us and sharing our blessings with the people God puts in front of us.

I think we are off to a great start.

Even if God blesses us with the ability to add some production value to our Saturday night worship event, and even if He brings a bunch of people in here, I don’t want to lose what we have now.

I want NewChurch to still have this comfortable, accessible atmosphere. I want us to continue to be organic, warm, inviting and friendly. I want us to hang out and enjoy each other’s company, share food and favorite beverages. I want us to grow closer and more like true family. I want our kids to grow up knowing each other, making life-long friends.

Most importantly, I want NewChurch to follow Jesus. To know Him fully. He is the only way to the Father, He is the absolute Truth by which anything can be known or understood, and He is the resurrection and the everlasting abundant life. AMEN