Let’s do a thought experiment. You and some friends are on a desert island, and you’ve never heard of Jesus before. All you’ve got is a Bible, some blank sheets of paper and some pencils (and food, clothes and shelter—it’s a well-equipped sort of desert island).
As you read the Bible, you all realize Jesus is your Lord and Saviour. You become his followers. And as you study God’s word, you find he’s made you part of his people, and so you should meet up with other believers as God’s people. You need to do church.
But what does that look like? You sit down with a Bible in your left hand, and a blank sheet of paper in your right. You’re going to write down on the right-hand piece of paper everything your left-hand Bible says must happen at your gatherings.
What’s on your list? I’m guessing it’s something like this:
- Gathering of believers (Acts 2:44, 46)
- Bible teaching which points to Christ (Acts 2:42; Col 3:16)
- Makes the gospel understandable to newcomers (1 Cor 14:23-25)
- Lord’s Supper (Luke 22:19; 1 Cor 11:23-26)
- Praying (Acts 2:42; 1 Tim 2:8)
- Singing (Col 3:16; Eph 5:19)
- Opportunity for believers to use their gifts (Rom 12:3-8; Eph 4:11-13; 1 Cor 14:39)
- Encouragement (Heb 10:24-25; Eph 4:15)
- Good order (1 Cor 14:40).
The thing that strikes you first is that it is not a very long list! In your right hand is a bit of paper with a lot of room left. That means we have a lot of space to imagine (or, given that most Briefing readers will not be on a desert island, to re-imagine) how our church gatherings look, feel and run. There are a lot of areas where we can be flexible and think radically about what will most encourage our fellow Christians, and what will most connect with the non-believers in our communities.
Every local church exists in a culture, a time, and a place, and the first two are always changing. If a church isn’t flexible on non-biblical essentials, it will be existing in (and seeking to reach) a culture that no longer exists, in a time which has passed. It’s no accident that the Bible leaves us so much flexibility. Surely it’s right to challenge ourselves to use that flexibility.
But in our left hand is the Bible. There’s no room left at all here—it’s packed with everything God wants us to know about who his Son is, and how we can live his way (2 Tim 3:15-17). This is, of course, what we need to be resolutely inflexible on—it is what our fellow Christians, and our communities’ non-believers, need to hear.
A church needs to be inflexible on what the Bible says, and flexible on everything else—all for the glory of God.
All this may seem obvious! But is it how our churches work? We can use this flexible-inflexible idea to categorize all churches into four ‘types’:
This type of church seeks to preserve another culture, time and/or place: the highest authority is “this is how we do things”. They’re also flexible where they shouldn’t be: tradition is much more important than the Bible. Evangelicals are very good at spotting this kind of church!
This type is flexible where it should be (where the Bible is silent, they’re happy to challenge themselves and think radically), but also flexible where it shouldn’t be (if part of the Bible proves unpopular or uncomfortable, it’s ignored or explained away). Again, evangelicals are very good at spotting this kind of church.
These churches are doubly inflexible: inflexible where they should be, committed to Bible teaching, even when unpopular; but also inflexible where they shouldn’t be, with the right instinct to Biblical inflexibility spilling over into all areas of church. Evangelicals are not very good at spotting these churches. Often, we’re in them!
Type 4: Ideal
Ideally, we ought to be inflexible on clear, Christ-centred Bible teaching, but flexible in regards to other matters, constantly challenging ourselves as to how we can encourage our members, reach those outside the church, and change accordingly. Is this the type of church our own is? If it’s not this type, what would need to change to make it this kind of church?
Asking these questions might bring us to some surprising places. That’s because flexibility should go both ways. In an area with a high proportion of retired people who were brought up on the King James Bible, or on an estate with hundreds of eastern European immigrants who are Roman Catholic by cultural background, a church might choose for gospel reasons to be formal, traditional and liturgical.
Or imagine a church set up to reach creative, arty types in a trendy area of north London. What are you seeing in your mind? Minimalist, modern, ‘non-religious’ building, all songs from the last few years? Well, Grace Church Hackney meets in an old-style church building, doesn’t use PowerPoint, has a printed liturgy, and always has traditional songs. Why? Because they realized that the people they were seeking to reach with the gospel love beauty, would hate a big screen obscuring the architecture, and so on. They were engaged with culture enough to realize this, and flexible enough to reflect this.
‘Ideal’ churches will end up looking very different. But they will constantly be going through the same process—asking themselves difficult questions, thinking innovatively and radically, looking around not backwards, sacrificially giving up comfort or personal preference so “that by all means [they] might save some” (1 Cor 9:19-23, especially v. 22).
The rest of this article focuses on three areas (the top three on the ‘blank piece of paper’). My aim is not to give answers, but to float ideas to get us thinking about what church in our culture, time, and place could look like.
How should we teach the Bible in our gatherings? As ever, we want to ask God’s word to answer the question.
When Paul wrote to the Corinthian church, he thought it could be a good idea for more than one person to prophesy; each person seemed to turn up with something to offer (1 Cor 14:24, 26). The Colossian church was told to make space for “teaching and admonishing one another” (Col 3:16). In Acts, Luke describes the way the apostles taught in various ways: proclamation (Acts 9:20), interactive (2:36-39, 18:4), public debate (18:28), discussions (19:9), and Bible study (17:11).
Further back in Scripture there were the ‘performance prophets’ who taught through visual acts: Ahijah tearing the cloak to show the dividing of the kingdom (1 Kgs 11:29-39), or Ezekiel packing his bags (Ezek 12:3-7).
I’d guess that almost all of your main-meeting teaching is done by one man, in one go, exclusively verbally. I’m not suggesting that the sermon has had its day—preaching is one of the main ways of teaching throughout the Bible (just think of Deuteronomy!). Church leaders are to preach the word, both when it’s popular and when it’s not (2 Tim 4:2). But a single monologue needn’t always be the answer.
Thinking through the how
If we bring flexibility to how we teach, what implications might this have?
- Teaching doesn’t always have to be up-front and top-down. Bible studies, discussion, sharing insights or application are all biblical ways for us to teach each other.
- Interactivity is great. Invite questions. Things get less controlled, which is scary! But it means the whole church is learning together, and helping each other to learn.
- Think hard about visual aids, film clips, movement-based illustrations. Not everyone learns best through listening—many will take more in through discussion, visuals or movement. If your church is full of people who are ‘listening learners‘, that doesn’t necessarily mean your culture is. It may just mean those are the only people you’re catering for.
- Break the teaching up. Use a song, or a discussion slot, or a time of prayer in the middle of the sermon to help reinforce the message, and to refocus minds.
- Have a simple summary sentence. It’s what you want members to be able to remember on a Wednesday. The teaching (and maybe even the whole meeting) outlines, explains, responds to or reinforces this one sentence.
What and how
When it comes to teaching, the what is more important than the how, but the how is still vital. We have many organizations, courses and conferences helping church leaders think about what to teach: is it time to begin to challenge ourselves and equip ourselves when it comes to how?
The first Christian church was notable first and foremost for two things: gospel teaching and gospel community. They “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship” (Acts 2:42). Through the gospel message, God saves us to be in community, a people.
This loving, sharing, trusting community is what we were (literally) made for. Yet it doesn’t come naturally, because:
- We are sinners. We like to put ourselves first, doing what’s easiest and most comfortable.
- We are individualists. We tend to see faith as ‘me and God’ not ‘us and God’.
- We are consumerists. We are a ‘cinema generation’—turn up, be served, go home.
- We are home-owners, not home-sharers. Our houses are where we close the door and escape, rather than opening it to welcome.
Might it be that there are lots of churches which are great at up-the-front gospel teaching but don’t have a sense of real, authentic community? Ironically, that actually undermines gospel teaching, because it’s only in gospel community that gospel teaching becomes really effective—where members can minister to one another, serve one another, encourage and rebuke one another, and have their lives on show in a way that is attractive for those who are not yet in Christ.
Community and Sundays
This kind of community is about much more than what we do on a Sunday, and thinking about what it looks like for our church in our culture will take a lot longer than a sub-section of a short(ish!) article. But it isn’t nothing to do with what we do on a Sunday.
Our meetings can encourage and support being together, sharing together, praising and witnessing together—being true community. But equally, they can also reinforce our natural individualistic, consumerist tendencies.
Think about our church meetings:
- Do we take part together, contributing to the meeting, or do we consume something happening up front, led by a ‘professional’?
- Do we talk to other church members about the weather, the kids, the game, or do we trust them enough to be vulnerable, talking about our struggles, worries, decisions?
- Do we sit facing other members of the family, or do we sit facing a ‘performance area’?
- Is there space to share prayer requests or respond to the teaching with one another during the meeting, or do we simply hope that might happen in the car on the way home?
Are we being as intentional about planning and building community as we are about planning and preparing our teaching?
Church is a family: “My mother and brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it”, said Jesus (Luke 8:21). But it’s an open family. Anyone can join, by receiving Jesus as Lord (John 1:12‑13). And it’s a welcoming family. At the family get-togethers, what the family does is meant to attract outsiders (1 Cor 14:23-25).
The girlfriend difference
Imagine the scene. It’s a suburban house, and the Jones family are sitting down to their meal. Nothing special in that; but tonight is different. Johnny, the son, has brought his girlfriend Sarah over for dinner for the first time.
What difference will Sarah’s presence make? In one sense, none. The family is still the family, and she’s not part of it (yet—Johnny’s hopeful, though!). They still sit down at their dining table for food, at the normal time, in their normal places, eating food they like.
But in another sense, things are very different. Mum checked what food Sarah liked beforehand. Everyone introduced themselves to her. Dad made sure Sarah was included in the conversation. Her opinion was asked for and listened to, even when not agreed with.
Is this a helpful way to think about how our church gatherings should be? It’s a family occasion—with non-family members there. The family need feeding, but that never needs to be at the expense of being welcoming and accessible to non-Christians, listening to them and being relevant for them.
An Englishman was once on a walking holiday in Wales (this isn’t the start of a bad joke!), and he found a small chapel to go to one Sunday in a small village. There were a dozen people there, and the service was traditional and formal—he felt a little out of place in his shorts and walking boots. Only afterwards did he discover that there was one major difference in the service that Sunday—it was in English. The bilingual Welsh congregation had realized that, to welcome the newcomer and enable him to hear the gospel, they would have to change. Without undermining their own gathered worship, they did what was slightly awkward for them in order to make the newcomer at home with them.
We sometimes get stuck with an ‘either-or’ mentality—if we start changing church to be clearly relevant to and helpful for outsiders, then we will stop feeding the family. Church must be either for Christians (apart from the odd evangelistic service) or for non-Christians (a seeker service with nothing for mature believers). But that’s a wrong assumption. Church can be, and should be, a both-and: both for Christians and for newcomers.
This is not to say that we must become like the world. Christians are citizens of a different kingdom, and our gatherings will reflect that place as much as this one. But it is to say that we won’t be different just for the sake of it, just because we’re comfortable with it. We need to differentiate between maintaining the culture of the last generation and reflecting the culture of heaven.
Our church language—the way we express the gospel in all we do and say—can be intelligible both to church members and church newcomers. Christians are bilingual—we understand both ‘amen’ and ‘I agree with that’; we know why we sing in church, though we’re happy to be reminded. Our visitors don’t speak ‘Christianese’, have no idea what grace or justification or offertory or blessing actually mean, and don’t know why we do what we do. So let’s have the discipline to speak and live a language everyone can grasp.
How to tell
A ‘both-and’ church will answer ‘yes’ to this challenging question: would a church member confidently bring a non-Christian friend on any Sunday, and know that both of them would hear the gospel in a relevant, intelligible, and helpful way?
That Welsh chapel could probably have said yes. But it’s easy for the answer to be no. Take the church at which the service leader began with: “Wasn’t yesterday wonderful?! What a great wedding!”, immediately pointing out to newcomers that they’re outsiders. Or the sermon which was thoroughly Bible-based but which referred to non-Christians as ‘them’, spoke about them as though they weren’t there, and didn’t point out that we are all sinners in need of grace.
It’s hard to create a church culture where the answer is consistently yes. But it might include ideas like:
- Every up-front speaker telling the congregation their name. Without fail.
- Whoever is introducing the meeting explaining how long it will last, what it will include, and roughly how long each bit will last.
- Preachers always assuming a non-Christian is sitting in front of them (soon enough, they will be).
- Planning services in which people have the opportunity to say what they think, and to ask questions (back to how we teach).
- Keeping notices short, and not done early in the service.Explaining why the family sing, share communion, pray, and so on, and never using jargon!
- Minimizing awkwardness for the newcomer. For instance, is it helpful to a non-family member to stand and sing as the first thing they do? Might it help to stay seated to sing?
If Sarah chooses not to become part of the Jones family, we want that to be because she decides she doesn’t love Johnny, not because his family put her off before she had a chance to work out how she felt about him. If a newcomer decides not to become part of our church family, let that be because they decide they don’t love the Lord Jesus—not because Jesus’ family put them off before they had the chance to work that out.
Back to blank
We began with the Bible and a sheet of paper. Let’s finish there. Your church is unique—so is the culture, time and place in which you live. Focus on the teaching, community and evangelism.
What would the ideal church for encouraging your Christian family and evangelizing your surrounding area look like? Some things are for sure: it would hold to the truths of the Bible, it would present people with Christ, and it would call outsiders to faith and insiders to holiness. The rest, the way it did that, is largely up for grabs. Church: just imagine!