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Thoughts on the Church (an Essay) Part I

April 19, 2010

Church of the Future: A Look at the Sermon on the Mount as a Model

INTRODUCTION

In the Gospels, Jesus proclaims, at one point, that “the gates of hell” would not prevail against “the church” (Matthew 16), and to this point, Jesus’s words have remained true.  The “church” has always existed and continues to do so as the gospel makes its way to every nation.   There is no doubt about that.  However, though the church exists, it is right to question its effectiveness at being what it was called to be: “the body of Christ.”  Though there are a number of ways to understand the church, this description is central to the New Testament’s understanding of being “the people of God.”  In fact, the entire New Testament writings—especially the epistles—are written to flesh out what the church is to be and how it is to look.  The letters of Paul, John, Peter, and so forth were not written to individuals (although they certainly apply to individuals) but to churches.

That the New Testament was largely written to churches assumes that what the church is called to be and what the church actually is may, in fact, be two different things.  In other words, it is possible for the church to be less than what it is meant to be.  This begs the question:  what is the “goal” or ultimate aim of the church? Working as a minister in a church, I have found myself asking this question often.  Though the full exploration of this question far exceeds the scope of this essay, to sketch out a model for the church of the future, it is necessary to offer a brief answer to this question.  Paul’s letter to the Ephesians forms the heart of my answer:

“And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ.” (Ephesians 4: 11-13; NASB)

Though Paul is speaking of ministries in the church, these verses outline what I consider to be the ultimate aim of the church.  The church is to be built up, “to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ.”  In other words, the goal of the church is transformation into Christlikeness.  This serves as the foundation for the other main goal:  as the church is transformed into the likeness of Christ, it will be the “light” of Christ in the world.[1] Mission, service, and worship will all be an outflow of this one great aim.

With this in mind, it is now possible to sketch out a model for what the church should look like to fulfill this aim.  In order to do this, some preliminaries must be mentioned.  First, although I would hope that these suggestions would be beneficial to the worldwide church, I am writing primarily as a part of the American/Western church.  I do not know the “health” of churches worldwide, but I am aware of the challenges facing the 21st century Western church.  Secondly, I find that my model will seek to correct a current trend in evangelical Christianity—that of the “seeker-friendly” church.  Therefore, in order to flesh out my model I will discuss this model first.[2] Because I consider this model to be the most influential model in American Christianity today, it is necessary to begin by looking at its strengths and weaknesses in order to appreciate the strengths (or lack thereof) of my proposals.

THE SEEKER-FRIENDLY CHURCH

In the 1990’s, evangelical Christianity began a new approach to church that helped spur the modern “church growth” movement.  It’s difficult to pinpoint any one factor, but one church became extremely influential in this new approach to church growth and church function:  Willow Creek Community Church.[3] Coining the term “seeker service” Willow Creek established a model of the church that focused primarily on being a place where “unchurched” people could feel comfortable exploring Christianity.  Whereas the primary role of the church in the past was a place for believers to gather for worship, Willow Creek established the precedent of the Sunday morning service being a place for seekers to explore faith.  When criticized for abandoning certain aspects of a traditional “worship service” Willow Creek responded by saying that it isn’t a worship service, but a “seeker service.”[4]

Whether or not intended, there are certain characteristics that have come to define this model of the church.[5] First, because the “unchurched” is the “target” group, the Sunday morning service is designed with them—rather than the believer—in mind.  As Luecke writes, “If an idea can’t pass the [unchurched] test, it doesn’t go far in the seeker service.”[6] It may be a stereotype to say that the service is kept “shallow,” but it is not unwarranted to say that the service is kept basic: showing people how to come make a “profession” of faith is perhaps the primary function of the service.[7] Second, marketing is the primary tool of this church model.  If the goal is to get “unchurched” people in the doors, then using a business/marketing model becomes the primary means of attracting such people.  I find that churches that take this approach are extremely successful at drawing many people.  Thirdly, because unchurched people are the target group, believers who attend such a church are expected to find spiritual growth from other avenues besides Sunday morning.  Now, in one sense, this is quite legitimate:  if a person is only “growing” on Sunday mornings, then it is unlikely that he or she understands the nature of Christian growth in the first place.  However, where traditional churches have used Sunday mornings to strengthen and encourage a believer’s faith (how effectively is another question altogether), this model typically does not have this as a focus at all.  In any case, since the physical place where the church has traditionally gathered (Sunday morning church) is now wholly focused on ministering to unchurched people, it would seem that the body of Christ must look for other avenues to encourage one another “in the faith.”


[1] Karl Rahner’s understanding of the church is quite similar.  Alister McGrath writes that Karl Rahner took an incarnational view of the church “declaring that the church is there to make Christ present in the world, in a historical, visible, and embodied form [emphasis mine].”  See Alister McGrath, Christian Theology:  And Introduction, 4th ed. (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2007), 403.  I would argue that the Orthodox view of sanctification as “theosis” brings further clarity to the idea that the church really is the body of Christ.

[2] It is my thought that the “seeker-friendly” movement is a response to the “entrenchment” of denominational churches that focused primarily on preaching doctrine and keeping tradition, and in doing so made church inaccessible to the ‘unchurched’ person.  Although, I am in agreement with the traditional churches—that the function of the church is to strengthen (equip) believers—I resonate with the “seeker” model in their desire to make church accessible to the unchurched.  However, I feel in doing so, this model has compromised the primary goal of the church—transformation of believers, and so just as the “seeker” model was a corrective to the inaccessibility of mainline churches, my model will seek to correct the imbalance of the “seeker” model.  I begin with discussing this model because I believe it is the “face” of evangelical Christianity today.

[3] A great deal of this section is indebted to David S. Luecke’s, “Is Willow Creek the Way of the Future?” Christian Century, 114 no. 16 (1997), 479, 481-483, 485.

[4] Luecke, 481.

[5] Regardless of whether or not practitioners of this way of doing church intended it to be so, the seeker-friendly service is a model of the church.  Although meant to be pragmatic, it is intensely theological and ecclesiological.

[6] Ibid., 481.

[7] I find that the “seeker” service has simply capitalized on the pragmatism of earlier evangelicals that sought to make the gospel presentation as simple an efficient as possible.  Hence the “Roman Road” or the “Sinner’s Prayer.” Luecke comments that a primary characteristic of this model is “the packaging of the gospel as user-friendly Christianity 101,” 481.  I find this to be an accurate description.  I would argue that this pragmatic—results oriented—approach is detrimental to the transformational process of Christian faith.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Aaron permalink
    April 19, 2010 11:38

    Really great post Jonathan, I’ve been thinking of these things lately. Some may argue that church is for the edification of the beleiver and that evangelism (still very important) is not the primary function of the church. It seems as though the seeker service has taken the approach of evangelism being a primary goal. If more people are coming to Christ then I’m for it. Although at some point these people are going to need solid food, at this point should they go to “normal church”? Very interesting ideas.

    • jonathangroover permalink*
      April 22, 2010 10:56

      Aaron! Thanks for stopping by and reading man! It’s good to hear from you. It does seem like you would have to have two churches in order for the new Christians to grow. Maybe that’s happening, but I don’t see it a whole lot.

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