Early morning November 4, 2006
I was just reading an article on theooze.com about a pastor who invited his neighbors to church on Easter. Many of them came and as he stood to preach he realized what an odd feeling it was to preach to the people with whom he hung out with on a regular basis in a normal, egalitarian way. He made a few comments about how the time he spends with them in the neighborhood is just as important as having them come to church. This made me start thinking about my experiences bringing my friends to church. And I was shocked by the first thing that popped into my head—I was always embarrassed to have them come.
It’s not that I was embarrassed of my faith or of the fact that I went to church, but the experience was so awkward. Because it was always new to them I was always explaining things to them and letting them know what they should expect and what to do in different circumstances. That is to be expected, but there was more than that…. The problem was that I was always embarrassed about something. Inevitably someone would say something or do something that I would feel the need to apologize for or explain away. The preacher would always make some off-color comment or the worship team would play bad songs or the one person that I did not want my friend to have meet would be waiting for me in the parking lot. And it’s not just that one thing went wrong—it was always a disaster of a Sunday. Sure, you say, it was Murphy’s Law in action. The problem is that I don’t think that it was a fluke. It wasn’t just that one Sunday that was terrible—most Sundays were terrible and would have been embarrassing if I had had a friend with me.
I guess what I’m saying is that for most of my life I’ve found church irrelevant and old fashioned. And it’s not like I went to a conservative, backwater church either—no, the churches I’ve attended have always been decently progressive. They always utilized technology, were up on recent trends, and did their best to be relevant and seeker-sensitive. My next thought is obviously influenced heavily by Bonhoeffer, but I’m starting to be afraid that it’s the truth. The reason church seemed irrelevant is because it was. The way that we conduct church (whether we realize it or not) is based on the assumption that most people are religious or would be religious given the chance. The liturgical church service that brings people together in a building where they are led in singing and are preached at first came into existence once Christianity became the status quo. It wasn’t until Christianity was common and even assumed that we had “church” as we now describe it. And it was a decent model for hundreds and hundreds of years—until sometime around the twentieth century.
As society became increasingly secular during the twentieth century, it became more acceptable not to attend church or be religious. It was in the 1970s with the seeker-sensitive movement that the church first began to realize that it was being detached from society. All of the sudden, the church had to pull itself together and pay attention to what the culture was saying and doing—all of the sudden, the church was forced to compete with the culture. Unfortunately, as society has been becoming more and more secular, the church has been straining to make the old model fit something it wasn’t made to fit. It is not the church’s fault that the current model isn’t working—it wasn’t designed for this.
The underlying assumption of the current church model is something similar to what Bonhoeffer calls the “religious a priori” of humanity—I’ll call it the Christian a priori. The current model functions best when it is built-in as a part of society. It works best when it doesn’t have to fight for people’s attention, when people attend because they are already Christians. The current model was not made for evangelism—why would a non-Christian show up at a gathering that is meant for and directed at Christians? It is intended to edify and to grow up Christians, and it functions best in this way.
The current church model is based on the Christian a priori because that is how Western society has been for hundreds of years. Everyone was Christian in the Christian society, but that no longer holds true. For many years now, society has been loosening its grip on the Christian a priori and is in the process of letting go altogether. Meanwhile the church is still functioning under the Christian a priori model where people come to church and meet with God there. Eventually, this model will fail completely. What is difficult, though, is that the church feels that abandoning the current model is a form of compromise—as if altering the model is giving in to the culture.
The truth is, however, that church has not always looked the way it does now. It did not always function under the Christian a priori. There was a day when individual churches were just small gatherings in homes. Church was personal. It didn’t compete with the culture to try to be relevant—it was relevant because it was an intimate part of people’s lives. It didn’t consist of a building and a worship team and senior pastor. Church was not a building or a time of gathering—church was the group of people itself. Church did not occur only at a specific time and place. The people themselves were the church—when they went to work, when they went shopping, when they were sleeping, when they were eating. The underlying assumption for the structure of the church was that the people of the church needed God and they needed each other—and church was how both needs were met. Church was relationships. The web of believers who shared their lives together were the church. It was all about sharing—sharing Christ, food, trials, excitement, pity, drinks, time. In this model, bringing someone to church is easy—it is just introducing someone to your friends and family. This model of church assumes nothing about anyone’s beliefs—it just acknowledges everyone’s needs.