Today I want to start an extended series on how we do church. I know I have other series going on like the one on vitamins and the one on explaining CLL to patients, but I have always had the sort of mind that likes to have many balls in the air.
The impetus comes from ‘The Briefing’ this month. It begins: Some years ago an elderly relative visited our church. She was a churchgoer herself – of a rather traditional kind. Afterwards, I asked her whether she had enjoyed church that morning – at which point, she looked straight at me with characteristic bluntness, “This is not a real church”.
I dare say there would be many who visit our church who would say that ours is not a real church. We don’t have a prayer book or liturgy. We don’t use the organ. Most of the hymns were written in the past 30 years. The prayers are extempore. We don’t have communion at every service. We don’t have a common cup. We don’t have vestments. The Pastor is often tie-less and jacketless. But when I look in the Bible I don’t find any of that.
At the time of the early church they did not have church buildings, and although there are little conglomerations of words that may have had liturgical significance, we really don’t know how they were used. It is probably deliberate that we don’t have clear instructions in Scripture on how we should conduct our services. It is such a contrast to the Old Testament where the Israelites were given instructions in the minutest detail. Remember how poor old Uzzah reached out and steadied the ark of God when the oxen stumbled (2 Samuel 6:6-7) and the Lord struck him dead for his irreverent act.
But we are given few instructions on how to worship God under the new covenant. WE are told that God will pour out His Spirit on all people. Our sons and daughters will prophesy, our old men will dream dreams and our young men see visions (Joel 2:28), and that indeed has happened, but specific instructions on how large a church should be, in what order we should do things, whether we should have a long or short or no sermon, how many hymns (if any), what musical instruments we should use (if any), how we should baptize people, who should pray and for how long, what form the communion service should take, and what we should wear are just not given
Scripture is not silent on church, but there is an open-endedness that has led to different denominations doing different things down the ages. I think we should recognize that many of the things that we do are simply human tradition, no doubt based on a Biblical principle, but they represent a church’s response to the cultural problems and conditions of the time, and quite honestly, many of these traditions are quite archaic and alienating from our own culture. The Salvation Army uniform is quaint, redolent with history, and serves to identify its members, but it isn’t exactly cutting edge twenty-first century. I would not dream of adopting it as a norm for any new church I was planting.
So, let’s start. I think that we can all agree that the ‘church’ is nothing to do with either a building or a denomination. It stands for the gathered local community of Christians; all those who have been gathered together to worship him in a particular place. The other sense of the universal church – all those who have ever trusted Jesus to stand in their stead at the judgement seat – both those alive now and those who have gone to glory, does not seem to be a New Testament usage.
Why have a ‘church’? Because it is a community of believers who worship together and help each other to grow closer to our Savior, who are His witness to our generation, and who need each other for mutual encouragement, support and sustenance.
As the weeks go on I will examine some of the things that we do in church and ask whether these are biblical, necessary, culturally relevant and helpful, and whether we could do things better.