Simple Church, Complex Reasoning Pt. I

For almost three years, I attended Sunday church in a local coffee shop with a group of friends.

The paradigm shift began for me in 2004. I was tasked with organizing and training leaders for a new small group ministry in the Bay Area Church of Christ’s 75 member campus ministry in Tampa, FL. To prepare, I’d gotten my hands on Buddy Bell’s small group training video series (which is excellent – here’s a good article by Buddy on small groups for your reading pleasure), popped the first DVD lesson in, and sat back to watch.

“You know what happened in 313 A.D.,” Buddy asked. “In 313 A.D., the Roman Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity making it the state religion. A few years later the first church building (a cathedral) was built. For the first time in history, 300 years after the ascension of Jesus, people were staring at the back of each other’s heads listening to one man talk to them from a stage as their chief form of spiritual nourishment. The church went from being people centered to being preacher centered, and from being relationally focused to materially (building) focused. The advent of the church building has been one of the most successful, and most disastrous, things that has ever been introduced into church culture” (that’s nowhere near an exact quote, but what I remember taking from his lesson).

It was like this light went off in my head. Woah.

“The way most ‘do church,'” I thought, “doesn’t meet many people’s needs. It doesn’t develop leaders. It doesn’t give people an opportunity to exercise or discover their gifts in the assembly. It doesn’t allow all the teachers to teach, it doesn’t allow all the encouragers to encourage, and it doesn’t allow all the servants to serve. If someone has something God has laid on their heart to share, most of the time they’re forced to share it privately if at all. If someone has been led to write a spiritual song, what chance do they have of singing it? Who in the world said ministry should be a one way street? What if the preacher – the centerpiece of everything spiritual in that type of assembly – has had a terrible week and needs to be ministered to himself? What if he’s struggling with some secret sin – like an addiction to pornography – that no one else knows about? Should we really rely on one person to feed so many? Where did the idea for a ‘worship leader’ come from? And what in the world is up with quietly passing those plates around? I certainly don’t read about that in the Bible.”

These thoughts ran through my head every time I attended a Sunday gathering somewhere. “Something is missing,” I thought.

And I was right – in many churches, something is missing.

 

Restoration Movement?

As most readers here know, I’m a proud member of the fellowship known as the Churches of Christ. Since I was but a wee lad, I’ve attended churches with CoC roots. I did take a hiatus for quite a few years when my belief wavered and I saw no point to Christianity at all, but when God helped me overcome doubts, gave me the gift of my now unwavering faith, and I truly made Christ my Lord at the age of 23, I came back to the CoC.

The Churches of Christ represent one of the three main branches of something that started in the 1800s known as the Restoration Movement. The RM started as a unity movement. The plea of the leaders centered around encouraging those from Catholic, Orthodox, and denominational (Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian, etc.) circles to return to New Testament forms of worship and doctrinal teaching. They believed that mainstream churches had veered away from the doctrines and traditions of the early church fathers mainly because they’d added to (or largely ignored) what’s to be learned about the first-century church through studying the Bible. They believed that, at it’s core, the idea of having a “denomination” was divisive and wrong. They didn’t believe the world should be full of Catholic Christians, Baptist Christians, or Methodist Christians – rather, the world should be full of Christians – no more, and no less. Thus, later came the mantra, “We are Christians only, but not the only Christians” (that last bit seems to have been forgotten by some).

I’m amazed at how many members of Restoration Movement Churches of Christ remain ignorant of the history surrounding our heritage. Many have accepted the traditions passed down from their fathers and mothers having never taken the time to examine where those traditions came from, why we are where we are today in our views, or why we practice the things we practice.

If you have a bit of time, I highly recommend reading over Thomas Campbell’s Declaration and Address– the remarkable document that eventually led to the modern Restoration Movement. If you have less time, Wikipedia has a good synopsis of it as well as some background info on Thomas Campbell. Here’s a quote:

“… division among the Christians is a horrid evil, fraught with many evils. It is antichristian, as it destroys the visible unity of the body of Christ; as if he were divided against himself, excluding and excommunicating a part of himself. It is antiscriptural, as being strictly prohibited by his sovereign authority; a direct violation of his express command. It is antinatural, as it excites Christians to contemn, to hate, and oppose one another, who are bound by the highest and most endearing obligations to love each other as brethren, even as Christ has loved them….”  

 

The Wikipedia article correctly points out that there’s always existed a tension in the RM between unity and restoration. In Churches of Christ, the ideal of restoration won out over the ideal of unity long ago. We are a fellowship that prides ourselves on doing things the way they were done in the first century, and on teaching things the way they were taught in the first century … but can we really make that claim?

Sure, we can make the claim, but I’m in Texas right now and know of a cult up the highway in Waco that made the claim too. I guess a better question is this: is the claim really true?

 

Similar, but different.

While there are many similarities between what mainstream Churches of Christ teach and practice and what the first century Christians taught and practiced, there are some striking differences as well, and, as far as church practice goes (or “doing church”), the differences greatly outweigh the similarities. I’m not going to go into great detail about those differences in this article, but I will say that a group of believers meeting in coffee shop looks more like New Testament Christianity than a run-of-the-mill CoC gathering on a Sunday morning in a building that’s been financed by the congregants.

As far as church doctrine goes, Churches of Christ nail baptism in my opinion. I believe as the Bible teaches, that something supernatural happens when a person decides to make a public declaration of their faith in Jesus through being baptized in water. If I’m studying with someone and they decide they want to become a Christian, I don’t advocate they say the sinner’s prayer or ask Jesus to come into their heart so they can be saved – I teach that they should turn away from the sin in their life, make a commitment to live with Jesus as their Lord and master, then take them to water and immerse (baptize) them in the name of Jesus. While there are instances of the Holy Spirit working separately from baptism throughout the New Testament (especially in the book of Acts), Peter’s words to the crowd written down by Doctor Luke in Acts 2:38 have always stuck with me:

Acts 2:38
38 Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
(NIV)

In this Scripture, Peter not only points out a person’s sins will be forgiven at baptism (Paul believed this as well – see Acts 22:16), but that they’ll also “receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” The importance of the presence of the Holy Spirit in a person’s life is articulated by Paul in Romans 8:9:

Romans 8:9
9 You, however, are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ.
(NIV)

“If you don’t have the Spirit, you’re not a Christian.” Paul’s teaching is painfully clear here, and most Churches of Christ echo this. I personally find that to be very attractive, and have found that the vast majority of denominations and other faith groups do not hold a biblical view of baptism. For those that do baptize, most teach that a person is saved before and the baptism is simply an “outward expression of an inward change.” How one can honestly teach that they are 100% sure a person is saved before their sins are washed away and before they have the Spirit is confusing to me.

I’m not so legalistic in my thinking on this issue to think that God is beyond making exceptions – He is God, after all, and there were hundreds of thousands of God-fearers before Jesus came that were never baptized who will be in heaven, and no doubt many who were converted in Roman prisons by their Christian cell-mates who never had access to enough water with which to be immersed. But I can’t tell someone I’m studying with today that they’re saved without being baptized while being intellectually honest about it. I’d be lying if I told them I thought with 100% clarity that they were saved apart from true repentance and baptism, and question marks are no good when you’re speaking in terms of where you’ll spend eternity.

I share all that to say that I really do appreciate what Churches of Christ teach regarding baptism. I believe it’s biblical and lines up with what the first-century church taught. What I believe is very unbiblical and will forever remain a stumbling block for some is this: making baptism an idol – that is, making baptism an obsession that trumps one’s relationship with Christ. In my limited experience, I’ve encountered some who’ve left me with the impression that baptism is more important to them than Jesus, and I find that to be very sad. I’ve also encountered some who’ve left me with the impression that Restoration Movement Churches of Christ are more important to them than Jesus, and that’s equally as sad.

Sunday morning worship is another hot-button issue that has the potential to be an idol – and indeed is an idol – for many. The emphasis people today put on singing is another key difference I’ve noticed between Churches of Christ and the first century church. The New Testament says surprisingly little about Sunday morning worship and singing when compared to what it says about the Lordship of Jesus and holy living, yet sometimes it seems that Sunday mornings – particularly the style of singing and whether or not instruments are used – gets more attention from “New Testament Christians” than what the New Testament talks most about – JESUS!

 

So what’s missing?

Earlier in this post I stated that I believe something is missing from many church fellowships today. In part II of this post, I’ll share what I believe that is as well as solutions to the problem, but before that I’d like to hear what you think.

What key differences do you believe exist between today’s Churches of Christ and the church of the first century? If you could change one thing your church does on a Sunday morning, what would it be? Do you believe the phrase, “We are Christians only, but not the only Christians?” Is there anything in this post your strongly agree with? Anything you strongly disagree with?

Please share your thoughts in a comment.

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11 thoughts on “Simple Church, Complex Reasoning Pt. I

  1. Thank you for your insights. We sometimes forget how our culture and experiences formulate our perceptions of reality. It is good to call us back to a honest look at the Bible and what has really formed our traditions. I pray that God will bless you with wisdom and spiritual insight so you can know Him and share Him effectively with others.

  2. K. Rex Butts says:

    Wes,

    Thanks for stopping by my blog.

    What you write about the way most churches (CoC and others) do church is in my opinion one of the biggest challenges faced today. The way we do church (building centered,ordained ministry centered, program centered, etc…) is actually a very complex approach to church and we only know how to do it well because we can do it without thinking just like we can speak English (because we have been doing it all of our life that way). However this complex model not only seems to get in the way of the gospel from having its fullest impact but it has and continues to be very diffiicult for small churches to sucessfully pull off.

    In the case of the CoC’s, for many smaller congregations (often outside the Bible belt), this was the only model of church they were taught. It appeared easy and sucessful because the mother church (often in the Bible Belt) was large in size and had plenty of staff and laity to pull off all of the programs and operations that centered around a building, Sunday-School program, a stage led worship, and so on. But the truth is (and my ministry experience is with small, less than 100 members, congregation mostly outside the Bible-Belt) that this model is becomming increasingly difficult to reproduce.

    In my opinion it is imperative that these churches need a new way (not just another program) of doing church. Given our circumstances coupled with the postmodern, post-Christian culture we exist in, we would do well to explore the pre-Constinian approach to doing church.

    Good post!

    Rex

  3. weswoodell says:

    Rex – that’s great insight.

    Any thoughts on what that “new way” you speak of could look like?

    The church I’ll be working with in California is much like what you’ve described, and I have my own thoughts about things to do but am always looking for further input.

  4. K. Rex Butts says:

    A Church of small groups.

    What is the local congregation consisted of a bunch of small groups? It is in these small groups where Christians gather for faith formation by spending time in fellowship, prayer, breaking of bread and/or meals together, and studying the scriptures (sounds like Acts 2.42-47). Depending on the exact purpose of the small group, these groups could meet in a home, park, coffee shop, restaraunt, etc… What is important is to realize that the small group is the place where new comers seeking God can be introduced to the community and its faith in a way that is relaxed and not so intimidating. Here is where the seeker develops new friends that mentor he/she in their new journey (discipleship) which may include additional and more personal ‘Bible studies’ to answer questions about the Christian faith that will arise. Here is also where the members spiritually care for each other since it is the small group that will know how each member is spiritually doing. The shepherds/elders of the church thus stay in constant conversation with the small group leaders to monitor the spiritual well-being of each member and then can step in personally to care after any member who is struggling. Many of these small group could find ways to incoorporate the youth into their activities and discussions as well, making the ministry taking place more wholistic.

    Rather than having a building and a building centered, program centered, ordained ministry centered church, the church could rent a local community center or some other location for its weekly assembly worship. This would be the place where the church gathers to coorporately worship through prayer, song, eucharist (though this could be done in a small group which would be even more consistant with Jesus’ vision for communion), giving, proclaiming the word, and prophesy (unless we want to continue to ignore the passages in the NT about this assembly activity). During the proclamation time, children under a certain age could be dismissed to a more age appropriate teaching environment and format. Also, as each group grows and develops new group leaders, it gives birth to more groups.

    I believe this is actually a much more simpler approach to doing church. Rather than church being a bunch of programs generated by staff and laity with ingenuitive minds, it (as you alluded to in your post) develops leaders in every Christian. This approach does not exclude paying someone(s) full-time support to work as an evangelist with the the church, for I believe the NT envisions an evangelist as one of the church leaders who will proclaim the word, challenge the church to greater depths of faith and ministry, and facillitate leadership development within the church by helping each Christian discover and utilize their Spirit-given gifts. Since their is no physical property to maintain, the church has much more of its weekly offering freed up to use for good works that do cost money (i.e., supporting missionaries (apostles), supporting ministries (i.e., a community pregnancy center), supporting new church plants, taking care of the poor and elderly, etc…

    If you have a chance, pick up a copy of “The Shaping of Things to Come” by Alan Hircsh and Michael Frost. This is one of the most revolutionary books I have read dealing with church and missions in a North American context. The book is not interested in promoting just another fad, it is interested in helping the church reclaim mission as its fundamental function in a postmodern, post-Christian context.

    I hope my breif description helps.

    Grace and peace,

    Rex

  5. weswoodell says:

    Rex – wow. Thanks for the thoughtful reply.

    That’s actually the direction I was heading. I’ll post my thoughts in pt. II.

    Also, thanks for the heads up on the book. I have a book or two by Hircsh and frequent his blog, but don’t have that particular one. I’ll pick it up.

  6. Wes, Thanks for stopping by my blog. Hope to have you back again.

    Unfortunately the video you commented about is not a joke. Wish it was though.

    Blessings,
    Bobby Valentine

  7. Terry says:

    Wes,
    Thanks for stopping by my blog. I noticed that you were with the River City Ministry in Little Rock before moving to Texas recently. It’s possible we met a few years ago when the Pleasant Valley Church of Christ in Little Rock hosted the Urban Ministry Conference in 2005. It’s good to see how you are planning to plant another church.

  8. clyde s. says:

    Buddy Bell’s stuff is really good. One reason I moved to the Lakehoma church is the small group ministry. The church went through Buddy Bell’s training DVDs in prep for launching the Life Groups. It has been wonderful to be a part of a church that enjoys and believes in small group ministry.

  9. weswoodell says:

    Terry – I didn’t make that conference so I’m not sure, but my dad may have. His name is Jim Woodell – he’s the exec director at RCM.

    And Clyde – Buddy’s stuff is great. I just booked him to come to Harding for the next campus ministry workshop and share summer 2009. 🙂

  10. […] why, with my being from Arkansas, a small, rural style church would give me culture shock – this post might explain). It didn’t surprise me to learn that many of the most influential and key […]

  11. Philip van Dijk says:

    The Church of Christ denomination and the former International Church of Christ (as I was a part of both of them in the past) is certainly another institutional denomination like the other denominations around them (just like Israel of old wanted a king like the pagan nations around them).

    So, the church of Christ denomination is virtually is identical in denominational structure as the standard evangelical/protestant churches since they also introduced these POST FIRST CENTURY phenomena:

    The church building
    The senior pastor (evangelical/protestant) or the pulpit/penior minister (Church of Christ) or the world missions evangelist/world sector leader/geographical sector leader (International Church of Christ)
    The order of worship
    The sermon
    The pulpit
    The pew
    The choir (some CoCs oppose this)
    Chapter and verse
    Scripture reading before the sermon
    The funeral and funeral oration
    Sunday school (some CoCs oppose this)
    Present sequence of New Testament letters
    The seminary and Bible college
    Parachurch organisations (some CoCs oppose this)
    ‘Going to church’ every Sunday at 10/11 a.m.
    Altar call (evangelical/protestant) or invitational song (CoCs for responding to the sermon)

    See Gene Edwards’ ‘BEYOND RADICAL: The history of where we Protestants got our present-day church practices’ for this exact list.

    One may wish to add to that list the following:

    The collection plate (referred even by some CoCs as 1 of the 5 acts of worship)
    The worship leader or the worship team etc. …

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