Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Your Church Is Probably Not As Different As You Think It Is

When I lived in Little Rock, AR, working for a national youth ministry (K-Life), I tried to get to know the local church leaders--to see if we could collaborate  on mission for Jesus together. A few blocks from my house I found four churches occupying the four corners of a major intersection. I walked into each, met their staff, and found that none of them knew each other personally. They all could describe what made them so very different (and better) than the other churches in their intersection.

But when I thought I about it, I realized they weren't as different as they thought they were. In fact, almost all of the churches who I've heard proclaim how they were different and radical and unique--they weren't that at all. We focus on the micro-differences and miss the fact that on a macro-level most churches are virtually identical.

[From the book: Awake From Atrophy. Note, Drew & Jessica are married, Randall & Laura are married...both couples are at a workshop led by Jacob learning about the member-driven church.]

 "But before I begin explaining what makes a member-driven church different, it will help a lot to overview the practices of a typical church service. And I could use your help for this. What are the usual practices in a typical church service?" Jacob asked the room.

He stepped over and wrote “Typical Service Elements” on the top of a flipchart. Then he waited.

“Do you mean stuff like what songs we sing--like sermons or contemporary music? Or are you asking about things like taking an offering?” Randall asked.

“Yeah, sort of,” Jacob answered, picking up the blue marker again. “We don’t need to name the particular songs or even the style of the music for our purposes. But I am going to write down ‘sing together’ and ‘collect offering’ on here.”

“You mean the service elements,” Drew offered.

“Yep,” Jacob confirmed.

“Okay, well another obvious element is the sermon,” Drew added.

“Great,” Jacob said, writing ‘sermon’ on the flip chart. “What are other elements?”

“There’s prayer,” Jessica said.

Jacob nodded and wrote ‘group prayer’ on the page. “Several different approaches to prayer can be found in a service, depending on your denominational tradition, but it’s definitely a regular part.”

“Some churches perform dramatic skits,” Laura ventured.

“And I’ve seen dancing, both on and off the stage,” Randall said with a smile.

“Announcements,” Drew added.

“We used to turn and shake hands with other people,” Laura said. “I don’t know what you call that part.”

Jacob was rapidly writing it all down. “Let’s call those ‘art presentations (drama, etc)’ ‘announcements’ and ‘greet your neighbor’. What else?” he probed.

“How about communion?” Randall proposed.

“Of course,” Jacob said as he added that to his growing list. “Anything else?”

No one spoke up. Randall shook his head no. Drew just waited, curious where Jacob was headed. This was really obvious, so far.

He had compiled the list on the top of the big, white page:

“That’s a good list,” Jacob said. “It’s pretty much the same list I created when I was hunting for answers on what the church was supposed to look like versus what was typically done. And when I looked at these service elements, I realized two things.

“First, the differences from one typical church to another are very small. They disagree over what kind of songs to sing, but not that songs should be sung—or even that songs should come at the beginning of the service.”

“Wouldn’t that mean these elements are the right elements? I mean, if everyone is doing them, doesn’t that say something?” Drew couldn’t help asking.

“Not necessarily,” Jacob asserted. “In the dark ages the whole of Europe followed some pretty unbiblical practices. Since everyone was doing it, no one even considered other options. Just because everyone had a similar viewpoint at that time in history doesn’t mean it was God’s viewpoint. Whole generations of Israelites forgot the Law God gave to them and whole centuries of Christians throughout history missed the mark on some topics. If they were vulnerable to culture-wide blind spots what makes us think we aren’t?”

There wasn’t really a good answer to that and Drew knew enough to keep silent.

Jacob continued. “The second thing I noticed when I looked at the elements of a typical church service was a theme to the structure. The typical Western church service, as I see it,” Jacob said, gesturing roundly, “is structured around one basic concept. An elite few stand on a stage and offer performances to inspire the members to greater godliness while the members sit in rows of seats facing the stage and passively participate.”

Drew interrupted again. “Many people don’t think of it as a stage—certainly not like an entertainment stage. I think you’re misrepresenting many typical churches by using that term.”

“True, they usually give it a different name than a stage, but functionally, it’s the same thing. It’s a raised platform allowing a large group to easily see and hear what a few performers are doing. Can you bear with me on this for a minute? I think it brings a little more clarity to talk about this without the semi-theological terms that we give to our church elements, like calling the stage the altar or the podium the pulpit.”

He directed his comments to Drew, so Drew nodded, though a little grudgingly.

“In a typical church,” Jacob continued, “I see three categories of activities.”

He turned back to the flipchart and wrote while he talked:

“The first category is music and arts presentations—with the bulk of that time dedicated to singing together. Second is the public speaking category. Certainly, this means the sermon, but if you think about it, even the praying usually works more like public presentations than private prayer time. The third category I call the crowd response. Depending on the denomination, the leaders on the stage call the congregation to respond as a crowd in various ways, such as taking communion or giving an offering. And, of course, there’s the thirty-seconds-to-greet-someone-near-you portion.”

He stepped back to look at the list. “These practices are what I call the assumed elements of the typical church service.”

Jacob turned to face the rest of them and began pacing in his excitement.

“Different denominations change the frequency and placement of the crowd responses, but the music almost always precedes the sermon. Usually they spend close to 50% of the total service time singing together, roughly 45% of the time dedicated to the public speaking, including the sermon and the arts presentations. Often, the arts serve as illustrations to the sermon, so they sometimes function as one whole section. That leaves something like 5% of the service for the congregation to shake hands, put money in some type of container, and maybe take communion together. In the end, the typical church elements come down to this: music, public speaking, and a small amount of crowd response.

“The typical strategy for delivering these experiences is for the professional few to get on the stage and inspire the passive many who are seated in rows. The leaders on the stage do the work and members watch and are asked to do very little. This combination of elements and methods has been widely used for so long no one thinks about whether this is the right plan or not. People debate and explore how to execute this model better, but not about the model itself. I think it’s time to reconsider which elements should be included as well our methods for delivering them. As a mentor of mine has often said, ‘We don’t get any points for doing the wrong things well.’”

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