Monday, September 1

Seeing legacy churches through simple church eyes

We've been back in the USA for 90 days now. During this time we have had the opportunity of visiting some wonderful Baptist churches here in Texas. Texas Baptists are some of God's most precious saints on the face of the earth! However, after years of being immersed in simple church values and practices, it has been quite a personal adjustment to re adapt to the way "traditional church" is done with its programs, practices and structures.

After now sitting through three months of worship services and Sunday School classes in half a dozen different churches, what follows are a few observations coming from someone who has long been out of practice of "going to church" as is commonly practiced here in America.

Sunday Morning Sermon. Instead of preaching 30-45 minutes and then everyone going home and promptly forgetting all/most of what has been so conscientiously prepared, why not share a reduced 15-20 minute message and spend the balance of time allowing interaction by the congregation? This personal interaction with the message would bear far more fruit than simply listening to a good man preach. Depending upon the size of the church and seating layout, this could be done in several different ways:

1) The pastor could end with a few key questions that get at the heart of what he was trying to share. As people begin to respond back to the pastor a dialog could ensue amongst all those present. The pastor could facilitate the discussion as several share their wisdom and understanding from their rich experience.

2) People could be encouraged to break up into small groups and share with one another what they sense God is saying to them through what has been shared through the Word.

3) Ask people to share how they intend on applying what they have learned from the Word. What specific actions is the Spirit of God impressing upon them in response to the message? Wouldn't 10-15 minutes praying for one another and applying the message with their individual situations have a more meaningful impact than simply one person doing all the talking?

It is strange that week after week so much effort has gone in to preparing good Biblical messages, only to be concluded with an invitation which usually has nothing to do with what has been preached. Sometimes 2-3 people will go forward during the invitation, but rarely does it have anything to do with the preceding 30-45 minutes. Why is the bulk of time given to one brother speaking week after week while the remaining 99% just sit and listen? Is church primarily about the message preached by the pastor? What happened to the exhortation by the writer of Hebrews, And let us consider one another, to incitement of love and of good works, not forsaking the assembling together of ourselves, as is the custom of some, but exhorting, and by so much more as you see the Day drawing near?


The offering. Instead of passing the plate while soft instrumental music plays in the background, or someone sings a "special", why not have someone testify how money given is actually impacting lives and making a difference in the Kingdom? For example, have the VBS Director come forward and share how the budgeted $1000 was spent and the impact this effort had on the lives of 200 kids. Share a few stories. Let people hear first hand how their giving is actually helping to make a difference in people's lives. Invite a missionary to share for a few minutes during the offering time what God is doing in their country and how the church's giving to missions is actually impacting Peru or wherever.

Sunday School. Instead of the goal being to get through the week's lesson, why not allow the Spirit of God to take us where He wants to lead us? Sunday School is the closest thing in legacy churches (in my opinion) to New Testament ekklesias--or has the potential of being so. Here we have the chance to really minister to one another through the Word in a smaller group setting. Yet, class after class, I have sensed that what matters is getting through the lesson, not on building up--encouraging--one another in the Lord. Sunday School seems more an intellectual, educational pursuit where we learn something from the Bible passage studied. There is nothing wrong with studying the Bible, but it could be so much more if we would allow the Living God to not only stimulate our intellects, but minister those studied truths into one another's lives.

Singing and praise. Maybe it's just me, but week after week, 75-80% of what is projected onto the overhead screen are songs I am hearing for the first time. I personally find it frustrating that all the songs are chosen ahead of time by the worship leaders and they are the ones calling all the shots from behind their amplified instruments and microphones. My voice is dimmed and unable to compete with the electronic powers that dominate what passes as "worship" to the Lord. I am getting close to thinking that maybe the non-instrumental Church of Christ churches are far closer to the true spirit of worship with their a cappella singing than what passes for today's contemporary worship practices. As I said, maybe it's just me, but this is truly a struggle not being able to interact more with what is sung and hear from others what they are thinking/feeling as they sing to the Lord. Also, what happened to hymns? They've disappeared from the churches! I am not against singing unto the Lord a "new song", but it does bother me that the great hymns of the faith which have sustained God's people for decades (centuries) are being substituted by songs with with far inferior content and lyrics. A possible solution? Un-program the worship times. Give worship back to the people. Yes it would be messy at first and some would not like it--it would be awkward--but after a few weeks of adjustment, worship would gradually return to being worship instead of what, seems to me, a programmed performance where we follow along with whatever is fed to us from up front.

Prayer.
Probably the most striking thing I have noticed after years of being away from legacy churches is the almost non-existent place of prayer in the gatherings of believers. Prayer is used more as a way to begin and close meetings, but I have seen little real praying when believers gather. Singing praise and worship songs is certainly a way of addressing our Lord, but there are so many other aspects of our communion with God that are going unaddressed in our gatherings: prayers of repentance/confession, prayers of united intercession and supplication, prayers for laborers (Lk. 10:2), prayers for wisdom/guidance/discernment, spiritual warfare, prayers for healing and for the sick, prayers for those who do not know the Lord, etc. Prayer takes time. I see little time in our gatherings being spent in prayer. Maybe the problem is we have to cram everything in between 11am-12noon. There simply isn't time for prayer when we gather if we are going to sing for 20-minutes and listen to a 30-minute message. But then, is it any wonder we have such little spiritual power in our midst? Maybe we should reschedule church on Sundays from, say, 5-8pm to give us adequate time to deal with truly being the Body of Christ and all that implies.

So, what are some of your thoughts? How can we be the church, be God's people; instead of going to church and doing church?

14 comments:

Wendy Meador said...

Amen. Stan and I experienced the same things when we were on STAS. We couldn't wait to return to Brasil and our house churches. We felt like we were attending a show instead of church. My 6 year old daughter said it all. She said, "Mom when are we going to house church." In her mind she had not been attending church at all and she wondered why on earth we had to go two times on Sunday and then again on Wednesday. We definitely live in a different world and have been spoiled with our close family fellowships.

Blessings,
Wendy Meador

Alan Knox said...

Guy,

These are excellent thoughts, observations, and suggestions. I hope that many people will read these as being from someone who has experienced what a church gathering can be like and who cares about his brothers and sisters. Your suggestions will require some change of thought and change of practice - but I think this type of change is drastically needed! Thank you!

-Alan

WTJeff said...

Guy,

I'm looking at starting a church where I live. I've had two organic church plants fail, most of that had to do with me, but a lot had to do with the culture here. People here, believers and non-believers alike, need a "face" to a church, the church service.

As I seek God in what a church with a missional heart really looks like, I will look closely at what you've had to say here. We don't need more churches, but more effective churches. Your suggestions are a great place for conventional churches to start and will definitely influence the one He calls us to start.

Grace,

Jeff Parsons

jeff w. said...

Guy,

I understand your feelings. We spent about a year and a half "on the shelf" visiting everything from traditional to contemporary - my thoughts ran similar to yours. But what you are talking about is a transition to something totally different – not just traditional to contemporary or even to missional. It is not about a style, but about the nature of the gathering, about what and who the church really is. It goes to the heart of what it means to be God’s people, the role of the "leadership", and the purpose and place of the HS.

The problem I see is twofold (at least). First, people have an expectation of what “church” is. It may be three hymns, a special, three points and poem, or it may be standing for 40 minutes with hands upraised followed by a talk, but still it is an expectation. If that expectation is not met, they will not have felt like they have been to “church.” Many hard battles have been fought over this point. Second, a real experience of ekklesia takes work. It is tough to be honest, vulnerable, open, and available to God and His body. It is a whole lot easier to have a structure to fall back on and hide in.

I’m not sure this type of transition is possible – I hope it is.

Thanks for the post. Have you ever read the book from the late sixties Brethren, Hang Loose" - it details an attempt at this type of transition?

GuyMuse said...

Wendy,

Welcome to the M Blog, and thanks for your comments. Do you Pascal and Amy Stowell there in Brazil? Pascal is my wife's cousin. They are with IMB. Are you guys planting house churches? I'd like to hear more about your work and ministry, have a website/blog?

Alan,

Thanks for the kind words. My take on the situation is that many people are hungry for this kind of more relational church, but feel they don't have a say in suggesting any changes towards those ends. The church program seems pretty set and any changes are seen as a threat to "the way things are done around here". With your creativity, maybe you could begin a series of posts on suggestions to help legacy churches who want to move in the direction of being more NT-like.

wtjeff,

We too have had a hard time in our ministry when trying to bring in believers from a traditional church background. It is very hard to transition from one mindset to another like that. In our own ministry we focus on winning the lost, and it is with these people that we plant the new churches. They come with "baggage", but not "church baggage". It is much easier to work with new believers, than to try to make changes with people who come in with a lot of expectations from past experiences.

jeffw,

Your two points (observations) are well taken. Especially the second point that being the church takes a lot of work. It is much easier to fall back on structure and not have to be so open and vulnerable. You mentioned spending a lot of time visiting everything from "traditional to contemporary". Where did you end up? Just curious!

jeff w. said...

Guy,

I ended up where God called me to pastor. God has a sense of humor – sometimes frustratingly so. My wife and I experienced house churches (cell group, home fellowships, or whatever you want to call them) over twenty years ago and saw the answer to a lot of things in them. But God has not let us pursue them like we would like. When we left Montana in 2006, we wanted to do something different - not too dissimilar from your approach – reaching those who don’t have church baggage, training leaders, engaging the culture, drinking coffee and talking to folks, starting small fellowships, and hopefully seeing lives transformed. God shut that door with a thud and very clearing indicated that this was not the road for us at the present time. So, we are in a small, traditional church waiting to see what God wants to do here.

While passing through the Austin church scene, the types of “worship” we went to were interesting. Once the leader was a young woman on a bar stool with a guitar – kind of like a lounge singer. We had several experiences in darkened rooms with very loud praise bands under spot lights) the walls in at least two churches had been painted a dark brown and the lights dimmed so that you could hardly see, except for where the spotlights were.) Once the spotlight was on the piano player of the praise band, who was individually miked and he could be heard over everyone. My wife tried singing a note as loud as she could just to see if she could here herself – she couldn’t. At times, I would observe people around me to see the level of participation. In one very large church, I suspect that in the area I sat, less than 30% were participating in the music. The church were we were ostensibly members seemed to sing new songs every week. I didn’t count, but believe that we went weeks without repeating songs and I knew very few of the ones we did sing.

But the thing about the worship that really bothered me (and this can apply to me as well) -- is that if as many people were as sold out for Jesus as they seemed to be on Sunday morning with upraised hands, eyes clinched shut, and bodies swaying to the music, shouldn’t we be impacting the world around us? Where is the fruit? Do all we have is the expression of love and adoration? Where is the brokenness? Where is the spirit of prayer? Why is the church so dead? Again, I can look at myself with these types of questions.

I might disagree with one aspect of your very nice post. I listened to a bunch of sermons in my travels. Most were well-presented, but were not satisfying to the soul. I found very few where I believe that the presenter had been with the Lord and had a message from Him for the church. I believe that the church needs more prophets and less Bible teachers. But that is probably an argument for a different day.

Thanks for asking,

Jeff

Wendy Meador said...

We do know Pascal and Amy. Sweet couple and adorable boys. Stan Meador is my husband the one who posts a great deal on the church planting forum. So I think you know him well. We are with the IMB and work with the Allens planting house churches. Our focus is German descendants in southern Brazil. Our team website is www.onmissionwithgod.org and you can reach our new blog and Portuguese and German websites from there. We work in both languages and are currently doing the OneStory project with our people group. Our team frequents your blog although we don't leave many comments. You are doing a wonderful job.
Blessings,
Wendy Meador

GuyMuse said...

JeffW,

I read with interest your short pilgrimage "bio", thanks for sharing. I feel like I know you better now. Much of what you write I can relate to, especially the part about praise & worship. Both of my college and seminary degrees are in music. In seminary I was a church music major. These issues have always been important to me, and continue to deal with them in our current ministry with the house churches. If there is one area where I feel I may have helped influence/guide it is in the area of music. I have always felt that the church should sing a balance of psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. We teach this to our church planters. Most of the house churches sing a balance of the three, usually a cappella, and sometimes with an acoustic guitar. Thanks again for sharing!

Wendy,

Yes, I know who Stan is from the CPF and have always appreciated his insights and comments on the various subjects touched upon over the past couple of years. I hadn't realized though that you were on the same team as the Allen's working with the German decents there in S. Brazil. I met them several years ago at an SC training in Campinas and have corresponded a few times over the years with Daniel. Thanks for the kind words! I will be sure and look up your website.

Scott in Vegas said...

Tremendously intriguing point of view. It’s invaluable to have someone go from one structure, to another, and then back to the first – the input is priceless and what a huge paradigm shift. Thanks for the honesty.

Scott in Vegas
http://www.newchurchreport.com - New Church Report
http://cells-twelves.blogspot.com - Expectation Blog

GuyMuse said...

Scott,

Thanks for stopping by and welcome to the M Blog. I will check out your blog as well!

debbiekaufman said...

Interesting thoughts Guy. I've often thought that we could learn a lot from missionaries and how you guys conduct church overseas. We forget how much of what we do and view as Biblical, is simply Americanization that has happened over the years. How much more vibrant could our churches be if we listened to these suggestions.

GuyMuse said...

Debbie,

Thanks for stopping by and for your kind comments. I haven't been doing much blogging since coming to the States, but do try to at least scan my extensive list to keep up with what is going on in the blogging world. As for the subject of this post, I am thinking about doing a follow-up piece.

Dion said...

Hey Guy, I just wanted to thank you for this post. The other week I was invited to talk in a brick and mortar church and used your recommendation as to how to change a sermon. It worked pretty well. I have some ideas for how to improve on it, but it was without a doubt the most interactive service I ever remember at the church. I think with some practice, it could really work well. The first thing is we've gotta quit calling it a sermon! Then put it in practice, it can work!!!!!

GuyMuse said...

Dion,

Wow, that's exciting what you share. You write, I think with some practice, it could really work well. The first thing is we've gotta quit calling it a sermon! Then put it in practice, it can work!!!!! I think so too. It would be an adjustment, but its a good place to start. I really believe that a lot of these kinds of things CAN be implemented, and would make a big difference in the way legacy churches meet.