Wednesday, July 20, 2011
The church puzzle
Then, once it seems like you have all of the pieces in place and have it figured out you realize that what you thought were the borders are actually places where more pieces fit in. The puzzle keeps getting bigger and more complex and the more you think you have figured out, the more you realize just how much you have left to learn.
Here is an example from my life.
I came into the church after a lifetime of atheism and five years of mormonism so my knowledge of the Bible and what it says was pretty limited. Our first experience with an evangelical church was First Baptist Church in Walton, Kentucky. I quickly embraced most aspects of Southern Baptist doctrine and polity. This is how a church should look, like a Baptist church! I had it figured out! Ta-da! Puzzle complete!
Well before long I ran into some Southern Baptist material put out by Founders Ministries. It was my first introduction to Reformed theology and while skeptical at first because it didn't match what I was hearing from the pulpit, I gradually through study began to recognize in Scripture what Reformed theology was talking about and started to embrace it, within the context of a Baptist church congregation of course. I had it figured out!
A few moves and a variety of experiences later, I was firmly entrenched in a traditional church setting with a Reformed and Baptist doctrinal stance. As I continued to study Scripture and look at books and writers outside of the Reformed camp, I started to question the traditional church model and found pretty quickly that asking those questions was not popular. What I saw each Sunday (and the fact that I looked almost exclusively at Sunday in the first place) seemed to not mesh with what Scripture says. That was pretty jarring and the more I studied, the more of what I thought I understood about the church started to unravel. I used to think that expository sermons were a crucial mark of a “real” church. As I studied Scripture, I found that there was no example of what we would call an expository sermon to be found. I used to think the local church was functionally “pastor-centric”, while Scripture is more “servant-centric”. Church in the Bible seemed to be far more than the Sunday morning meeting. As I continued to study, I started reading guys like Alan Knox and Dave Black and lights started coming on. A simple church gathering with a focus on participation and edification was the way to go. I had it figured out!
As I explored options in simpler, more participatory meetings I found more and more people who had come to similar convictions, many out of backgrounds that we awfully similar to where I was coming from. That was an enormous blessing and support to me, and reinforced what I was coming to understand. I also started looking around and realizing that there were many, many Christians who were (not in a rapture kind of way) left behind in the institutional church. These poor folks needed to be rescued from religion! I was just the guy to do it! So not only was I going to move out of the institutional church and into a simpler church gathering, I was going to lead the rest of my wayward brethren out as well! I had it figured out!
Huh. A lot of those people didn’t want to move. They liked where they were and they were still my brothers and sisters in Christ. What should we do about them? Tough luck Chuck, you can come to our proper, Biblical simple meeting if you want on Sunday morning instead of warming a pew! That doesn’t seem in keeping with the spirit of community and unity among believers and counting others as more valuable than myself. So what to do with all of my fellow believers who are not convinced by the arguments against institutionalized Christianity? Is insisting on my way or the highway (even when “my way” is actually right) better than organized religion in the Body of Christ? That is where I find myself today and it turns out, I don’t have it figured out. I am seeing my church puzzle as more complicated than I ever imagined back in the days when the “complete” puzzle was a nice Baptist church with a steeple on top and plenty of parking.
Here is the thing. That doesn’t mean that each successive new piece removed an existing piece. I don’t think we should baptize infants even though I don’t attend a Baptist church. I don’t think that the doctrines of grace are wrong just because I am not part of a confessionally reformed congregation. I don’t think the church should meet in a traditional setting because a simple/house church model is incomplete. The pieces are being added, not replaced. Now some of the pieces that represent the traditions of man turned out to not have fit after all, I had just crammed them into place and now I cheerfully feel free to pluck those out and discard them. I have also noticed others removing pieces that do fit and replacing them with ill-fitting pieces. By and large though, I am seeing the puzzle expand and as it expands it should be doing more to foster community among believers
I think I may be at a point where I am finding some additional pieces that should reconnect me to the rest of the church that I and many others have “left behind”. More about that in the next post.