Sunday, March 15, 2009

Reflecting (on) What’s Wrong

(Part Three of an ongoing series. Starts with prior posts below).

3. Theological Issues

Christ-followers love to debate theology. Just turn in your local yellow pages to “churches,” see the multitude of denominational labels, and you will realize that nobody agrees on the fine points of theology. Catholic vs. Protestant. Mainline vs. Evangelical. Pre-mils vs. Post-mils. Calvinist vs. Arminian. And literally thousands of others distinctions. Is this a problem with the church? Of course. But all of this has nothing to do with what I mean by the label to this section: “theological issues.” I began to realize that the church has a huge theological problem – and it is not any of the debates like the ones I listed above. It is infinitely more primary than any of those debates.

The Church Does Not Know What "Church" Means:

Stated more specifically, I began to see that the church has an ecclesiology problem. Ecclesiology is just a fancy way of saying “theology of church.” What I mean is that the church doesn’t understand what the word “church” means – at least not from a Biblical, theologically sound, point of view.

Most church leaders, including myself up until around the year 2000, would deny my accusation that the church doesn’t know what “church” means. Most church leaders are able to write a terrific theological essay about what “church” means. But, as the cliché says, actions speak louder than words. Church leaders and church planters don’t do what their theological essays would say. I know – I have been among them.

Whether we like to admit it (or even are aware that we are doing it), we have bought into the popular culture’s assumptions of what church is over the theological definition. We have bought into the assumption that church is, at its most basic level, a “non-profit organization.” Or, put more crudely, a “business.” Or, put more eloquently, “God’s enterprise in the world.”

No good church leader or church planter would admit that church is, at it essence, a non-profit organization, but their actions always give them (us) away. We play along with the cultural assumption that church is an organization. Or, as one writer has stated it, we have a “place where” assumption about church – that church is a place where certain things happen.

Once we rid ourselves of our denial that we really assume this, a question arises. What’s so bad about such an assumption? The answer is that the assumption is a logical staring point that leads to logical outcomes. A non-profit organization that wishes to reach out to culture does so by putting on programs. In the North American context, the culture is frequently busy, distracted, and pre-occupied, not to mention overly-targeted by various organizations. So in order to successfully reach out to that kind of culture, a non-profit organization (ie – the church) must put on high quality programs in order to compete with other competitors, both sacred and not-so-sacred.

Otherwise, a non-profit organization will merely get lost in the vast sea of voices. In order to put on extremely high quality programs, organizations require: talented staff, large numbers of committed volunteers, and first-class facilities. Mediocre staff leads to mediocre programs which don’t get the attention of the busy, distracted culture. Inadequate facilities are too inconvenient for the average person. And great programs require so much work that even a talented staff is overextended without an army of volunteers.

In order to attract and maintain a highly talented staff, and in order to build and maintain first class facilities, non-profit organizations need huge budgets -- really eye-popping amounts of money. Not that any of this is bad in and of itself. But it is reality. The culture’s assumption that church is, at its essence, a non-profit organization leads to this chain reaction which essentially requires huge budgets to have a chance to succeed in the present culture.

To question the need for huge budgets, talented staff, armies of volunteers, and first class facilities without first questioning the place/where assumption is . . . to kill a church! So we don’t dare.

If we hire mediocre talent, settle for less than impressive facilities, etc. – we stifle church growth. But that is really because we have bought into a false assumption to begin with. Because if we went back to our theological essay on what church is, nowhere does it say that church is primarily a non-profit organization, a business, or a place where certain things happen.

Then Who Are We?

Instead, we more accurately portray the church as God’s people (even His family) on God’s mission. We are really a sent people. Not that non-profit organizations are bad or evil in and of themselves. Sometimes true church thrives in such a structure. But it is not the essence of who we are. And because we’ve lost sight of this in North America (or at least in our loud-speaking actions we have, even if not in our words), the church has a problem: a theological issue. The church no longer knows who it is. Or, stated more accurately, the church no longer acts like what it knows it really is. Church has become more of a non-profit organization than the missional people of God. And that changes everything. The remedy to this problem is not subtle. It is drastic.

To fix our generational problem, we just change or music and preaching styles. In other words, we alter our programs.

To remedy our cultural problem, we educate everyone about the culture and encourage everyone to get out into the culture and become missionaries.

But to remedy our theological problem, we have to go to the root, to the very essence, of all that we know as church and ask frightening questions. Frightening, for example, for a church that has built a multi-million dollar auditorium to ask if the missional people of God really need, or ought to own, multi-million dollar auditoriums! Frightening for a church leader, who went to seminary training, built his career ambitions around pastoring at the exclusion of all other opportunities, to ask if professional clergy are what the people of God really need, or ought to spend their dollars on. And so forth. These questions are so frightening to the established church that it will find forceful arguments to try to immediately quash any attempt to raise them. Proof-texting is a helpful tool in this endeavor.

That is where I found myself – squarely faced with the reality that the church had a theological problem, and that the remedy would require radical change. Not to mention that I, myself, had always enjoyed getting paid at least a modest salary to do ministry.

Where Did All of that Theory Come From?

But I’ve skipped what happened to show me this theological problem with the church. There is quite a story behind the theories I have just written about. I will dive into that story in my next post.


Anonymous Bev said...

The church "changed" when boomers decided it should change. They didn't want church buildings with lovely stained-glass windows, steeples, hymnals, traditional hymns, etc. No, that wasn't what they were all about-they wanted the church to fit their lifestyles-modern and not "old fashioned." I like the new songs, but I love the hymns, and I've noticed when we sing a traditional hymn, the singing is louder and almost ALL are singing. Those songs speak to the heart. I belong to the very church you described-big auditorium, cafe, large screens, stadium seats, etc. The facility is used by a whole lot of groups, nationally-known people. The building was meant to do that, but I miss the beauty of an alter, beautiful windows, an organ, and a real sense of worship when you enter the worship center. I'm sure I'll never know that again. Thanks boomers!!!
Aunt Bev
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6:31 PM  

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