Friday, March 05, 2010

More on church models

I was thinking more about the link I provided to Tim Keller’s article on the need for different types of churches. I am not sure I am still of the same mind on the topic. I agree that we need different styles of the gathering of the church. I am not sure that we can or should divide the church up in the way that Tim described (emphasis added).

We need a great variety of church-models. Avery Dulles' book Models of the Church does a good job of outlining the very different models of churches in the west over the centuries. After qualifying his analysis by saying these are seldom pure forms, he lays out five models. Each one stresses or emphasizes: a) Doctrine, teaching, and authority, or b) deep community and life together, or c) worship, sacraments, music and the arts, or d) evangelism, proclamation, and dynamic preaching, or e) social justice, service, and compassion.

Many evangelicals today have bought in to one or two of these models as the way to minister now in the post-Christendom west. So for example, those who believe in the 'incarnational' (vs. 'attractional' approach) emphasize being and serving out in the neighborhood, smaller house churches and intimate community (a combination of Dulles' b and e models.) Meanwhile, many evangelicals who are afraid of the 'liberal creep' of the emerging church, stress the traditional combination of a and d emphases. Each side is fairly moralistic about the rightness of its model and seeks to use it everywhere.

I feel that our cultural situation is too complex for such a sweeping way to look at things. There are too many kinds of 'never-churched-non-Christians'. There are Arabs in Detroit, Hmongs in Chicago, Chinese and Jews in New York City, Anglos in the Northwest and Northeast that were raised by secular parents--some are artists and creative types, some work in business. All of these are growing groups of never-churched, but they are very different from one another. No model can connect to them all--every model can connect to some.

Must we choose? More to the point, can we choose? Can we have no more than two of these in a given local church? It sounds as if we need to plant multiple types of churches so that we reach lots of people, which sort of makes sense, but when do these styles ever get to the other models? In other words, if a church makes its mark on doctrine and preaching, is it ever going to get to a deep community and a commitment to compassion?

I am not sure we should view this as a series of distinct features that are bordering on being mutually exclusive. I think that Tim is right in that the reality is that we don’t typically see more than a couple of these in one church assembly at a time. I don’t think that is OK. I don’t think a gathering that is B and E is healthy if it lacks solid doctrinal foundations and a willingness to preach Christ as the sole hope to the lost. I don’t think a church is healthy if it embraces A and C but ignores community and compassion. It also follows that individual Christians who gather in a church that only embraces a few aspects are likewise not going to be healthy either. It is far too easy to focus in like a laser on the aspects of the gathered church that we really enjoy. I love doctrine and theology but I also have come to recognize that I am missing out on a life of deep community. It is quite possible to be the most doctrinally sound and orthodox church out there and have no heart for the suffering of the world and no real sense of community. It is also quite possible to have great fellowship and a commitment to social justice while being as deeply in error as any of the groups Paul wrangled with in his epistles.

I think if we stop trying to overthink the gathering of the church and just turn for direction where we all say that we should, i.e. the Bible, this stuff will all fall into place. If we devote ourselves to prayer, fellowship, breaking bread and teaching (Acts 2:42), we will be in good shape. If we commit to one another and live our lives together day by day instead of one day a week, we will experience community in all its wonderful messiness (Acts 2:46). If we see mutual accountability, edification and maturity as our goal, we will grow together as we live together and all contribute to the life of the community (1 Cor 14:26). It is when we decide that some things outweigh others that we get in trouble. We figure we can only get people to show up for a couple of hours a week, so let’s try to focus on expository preaching/worship/compassion ministries/liturgy & sacraments/(insert pet distinctive here). This gets back to my post from earlier today. When we refuse to let the church intrude into our lives and restrict fellowship to a few hours a week, we simply are not going to have enough time to accomplish what the early church modeled for us. It just takes time and even the most talented pastoral staff and worship team cannot substitute for time spent with one another.

So in a nutshell, instead of trying to plant multiple church models, why can’t we just seek to live out the fullness of the life of the church in community wherever we meet? Models A-E that Tim Keller mentions are not something we have to pick and choose from. It is just a reflection of how healthy community life looks. Quit making it so complicated!

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