As a born-again Christian who has studied the Bible, I am confronted with two churches: 1) The Ekklesia of the book of Acts, which demonstrates power (thousands saved, healings, people speaking in tongues, prisons opened and other miraculous events), and 2) The modern church, where I haven’t seen any of that happen. If I’m honest, the modern church is often filled with sickness, a lack of intellectual curiosity and passivity. Why is this?
DEFINING THE MODERN CHURCH
Let’s take a few moments to define the key characteristics of the modern church.
1. Sermon-centric. The key event of the modern church is some regularly held religious event that focuses on a lecture. Special events on the church calendar often incorporate this lecture, which is given the grandiose title of “sermon”. In many churches, the sermon is the central component of the congregation’s life, although many would balk against this analysis.
2. A hierarchy. Modern churches often resemble businesses. The pastor is the CEO and the board (or elders, may be given different names) serves like a board of directors. Some churches lean more towards a pastor-led style, similar to the governmental forms of a monarchy. Some lean more towards a small group of leaders, similar to the governmental form of an oligarchy. Few function like a democracy. In all churches I’ve experienced there are leaders and followers—an over/under style of management.
3. A campus. Most churches today either have a building or are hoping to purchase one. A large chunk of the church facilities goes towards the sanctuary, which serves as a gathering place for worship services.
4. The worship service. This may go by different names, but it is a regularly scheduled meeting of the body. Some churches have one a week. Some have several. There are a wide variety of flavors, but key similarities include: 1) Often run by an individual or team, 2) Often has two or three key components: a musical segment, a liturgical segment and the sermon. Some churches don’t include a liturgical portion. In almost all churches the musical block is seen as secondary to the sermon, which is usually given near the end of the service.
THE MISSION OF THE CHURCH
Let’s consider for a moment the Biblical mission for the church. The Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20) gives a strong focus on teaching. Fellowship with other believers is seen throughout the New Testament. Helping those outside the church with needs—visiting the sick, feeding the hungry, helping widows and addressing other social problems is commanded. There are also New Testament commands on various spiritual disciplines—reading the Bible, prayer and living a godly life. Most churches (at least Bible-believing ones) will agree with this general list. However, there are other key components to the mission.
First, there is the component of figuring out God’s will. A study of Romans 12:1, 2 will clearly indicate this as a corporate function. I’ve never seen a congregation that figures out God’ will corporately. And, I’ve had many struggles where I’ve been trying to figure out God’s will! People are willing to pray for you or give advice, but each person decides for themselves what is God’s specific will for their lives.
But, what about God’s will for the congregation? Again, I’ve never seen a congregation that does this corporately. At times decisions are made by a single leader or group. At times a single leader or group will decide upon a list of options and then put it up for a vote. This is similar to our presidential elections, where We The People don’t choose the president. We simply choose between the options given us and often those options are poor ones! Our country is a republic as opposed to a democracy. In a similar fashion, even the most “democratic” of churches often function as a republic instead of a democracy. Is this Biblical?
The word translated “church” in English is the Greek word “Ekklesia”. It refers to an assembly—not just a group of people, but a political body with decision making ability. In the historical context of when the New Testament was written, this would suggest a body that was equalitarian—functioning like a democracy as opposed to a republic. This is consistent with the New Testament idea of the priesthood of believers. I believe a key component of the mission of the church is every member fully functioning in a democratic manner.
This fully-functional, democratic priesthood of believers is a cornerstone of all the other components of the Ekklesia’s mission. When everyone is pulling their own weight, more good is done. When some are functioning less than fully, less good is done. So, does the current model of church hinder the Ekklesia from functioning as it should? Notice, I’m using “church” for how things currently function and “Ekklesia” to represent how they should function.
HOW THE KEY COMPONENTS OF THE MODERN CHURCH HINDER THE EKKLESIA
The quicker we kill the sermon, the better. Yes, I’m attacking the sacred of cow of Christianity that was established in the 2nd and 3rd centuries and further bolstered by the Protestant Reformation. The sermon is held in almost magical regards, but the sermon weakens God’s children.
Now, before I go further, let me explain what I mean by the sermon. I am referring to a regularly scheduled lecture generally given by either one or a small group of people. I’m not referring to a special event where one person addresses an audience. There may be special circumstances where a lecture is justified. But, a regularly scheduled lecture is definitely detrimental. It needs to be eliminated.
You may wonder why I say that. The various terms translated “preach” in the New Testament do not refer to a sermon. They refer to a proclamation of the truth. They represent what should be done as opposed to how it should be done. It’s church tradition that has defined the how as a regularly scheduled lecture—not the Bible or common sense.
In terms of teaching (which is a key part of the Ekklesia’s mission) lectures are the worst forms. Studies upon studies prove this point. They produce much lower retention of material than more active styles of teaching—such as dialogue or hands-on application. A sermon is a passive form of learning. It requires little from the listener. Since little is required, little is learned. When one compares it to other forms of learning, it’s a waste of time!
Sermons (as I previously defined them) aren’t Biblical. Jesus discipled his followers—teaching primarily through dialogue and hands-on application. And, wouldn’t Jesus be considered the prime example of preaching? The church’s model doesn’t represent Jesus’ model in the slightest. It also doesn’t represent the model of the 1st century Ekklesia, which was an open, participatory model.
The “clergy class” preaching sermons conditions people to think there are Bible experts and the rest of us. In truth, every believer has access to the Word of God and every believer has the Holy Spirit. The New Testament doesn’t have a concept of “laity”, which would completely contradict the priesthood of all believers. Every believer is supposed to preach, not a select class. The modern sermon conditions people to passivity.
The sermon is also contrary to human nature and revelation. As we learn things, our understanding doesn’t come in regularly scheduled intervals. Our understanding comes in waves—some waves being big, some small and with widely varying intervals between waves. Sometimes it takes years for the aha moment to happen. Sometimes it comes in minutes. But, it doesn’t happen at the regularly scheduled pace of the factory floor. Yet, the sermon expects someone (or some group) to operate that way.
In any congregation, there are some people who are receiving revelation at that time and some who aren’t. I’ll use “revelation” in the sense of coming to significant understanding of something. Revelation could come through study, dreams, visions or life experiences. Doesn’t it make sense that the ones who should be sharing in a congregation are the ones who are receiving revelation at that moment? An open, participatory, dialogue-based form of teaching allows for that. A sermon does not—when the pastor is going through a dry spell of revelation, everyone is going through that dry spell.
The biggest problem that exists with changing the paradigm is that people don’t know how to function without the sermon. People don’t know how to study the Bible on their own. And, people have been conditioned by our education system and work place to be passive—follow the leader as opposed to taking charge and expressing their own ideas. The fully-functioning, democratic priesthood of believers is contrary to American culture. If the church in America is to become what it needs to, then it will require Christians overcoming years of conditionings and the fears they have in operating in ways they’re unaccustomed to.
While churches often resemble businesses, in some ways the business world is ahead of the church in resembling what the Ekklesia should be. In creative businesses, some employers are collapsing the leadership structure. Communication then becomes horizontal (cross communication between equals) as opposed to vertical (superior-subordinate relationships). The reason some businesses have done this is that this horizontal communication allows for greater buy-in and participation from everyone. It is more organic and more open to generating ideas.
Less creative companies often lean towards hierarchal chains of commands. This arrangement functions for one primary purpose—control for those at the top. Those at the bottom are less empowered. They go through the motions, put in their time and then go home.
Which should the church resemble? A more open environment, one that leads to creativity, seems more consistent with people being created in the image of God. God is infinitely creative, so shouldn’t we strive towards creativity as opposed to conformity? There is a conformity all Christians should strive for—conformity to Christ. Doesn’t that seem more likely to happen in an assembly that removes human control and allows Christ to be the head?
The hierarchy evident in church replaces the headship of Christ with the headship of an individual or small group. I can hear all the “buts” out there, “But, doesn’t the Bible set up a leadership structure with apostles, pastors, evangelists, . . ?” Well, no, it doesn’t. Think about it. Does it make sense that every believer is a priest (with full access to God), yet some believers are more of a priest than others? Seems a conflict, doesn’t it?
It might be better to think of pastors, apostles, evangelist, elders, deacons, prophets (or whatever other terms people may use) as functions. People can function to pastor others, offer words or prophecy, evangelize, etc.
Do people naturally know how to operate as a fully-functional, democratic priest? No! So, God has given certain people to the Ekklesia to help teach people how to function in that way—not so these certain people become a “clergy” class that rule over others, but so everyone can learn to function fully. That might be why Paul and the other apostles were itinerant. They moved around, serving to equip, as opposed to establishing themselves in one place and taking an office. Maybe their goal was to equip the Ekklesia in various geographical areas to function without them? That seems the exact opposite of how the modern church functions.
In the modern church, pastors move on, but not because the congregations become self-sufficient. They move one, because they become burnt out. I’ve seen it over and over. Good shepherds become burnt out, because the system conditions people to look to them for the answers. They aren’t equal partners in the ministry. They are considered super Christians.
Bad pastors tend to use the system to abuse people and rule over them. The hierarchal system evident in the modern church is corrupt. It hinders the fully-functioning, democratic priesthood of all believers. It puts people into castes. That’s Hinduism, not Christianity!
To be completely against Christians or congregations owning property would be illogical. What about food shelters, homeless shelters or Christian rehab centers? There are legitimate reasons for Christians to own buildings—reasons that fit within the Christian mission.
But, how much money simply goes towards a large sanctuary just so people can come and listen to the weekly sermon, which has already been shown to weaken people? The truth is, much of the money spent on campus is spent to make Christians comfortable or to allow people to put on the regularly scheduled show. Unbelievers readily see through this lunacy. Believers, due to the conditioning they’ve received through church, cannot see it.
The early Ekklesia met from house to house. They didn’t build edifices that required a great deal of money and upkeep. They followed a lean model. The modern church follows a bloated model, building structures that hinder its abilities to meet the needs of the society around it. In many cases the money spent on rent, utilities, upkeep and other expenses would be better spent feeding the hungry, helping widows, visiting people in prison or meeting the needs of congregants. The modern church wastes much money on comforts that detract from its mission.
The Worship Service
Everything I’ve said about the sermon also applies to the worship service. This weekly ritual has a large mass of people passively following a small group of leaders. Does spectator in any way resemble the fully-functioning, democratic priesthood of all believers?
I suppose there’s nothing wrong with Christians enjoying a Christian concert or watching someone perform liturgy, but at best it’s Christian entertainment—nothing more!
Now, I can hear all the “buts”, “But, I learn a lot from the sermon?”, “But, I really experience God’s presence during the singing?”, “But, I feel uplifted by the liturgy?” Yes, you do. Your feelings and experiences are genuine. God does work through these things. But, he works through these things not because they are ideal, but because he wants fellowship with his people. The church system throws up roadblocks to God functioning as he would like to function. If someone wanted to give me a hug, I could cross my arms in front of my chest. I’d still receive a hug, but it wouldn’t be a good one. Or, I could open my arms and receive a full hug. The current church model puts the arms in front of the chest.
WHY THE MODERN CHURCH HAS LOST ITS POWER
The New Testament talks about Christ being in the midst of his people when two or three are gathered. In the Biblical model of Ekklesia, these two or three are equals and Christ is the head. In the modern version of church, one in the group pushes the others to the side and operates as the head—Christ, clergy and then laity.
In the New Testament model of Ekklesia, there is power when two or three are in agreement or when a congregation seeks out the will of God. How can people fully come to agreement or how can a congregation seek out God’s will if only a few know how to make decisions? In the Biblical model, everyone is part of the decision-making body. In the modern model, only a few make the decisions. The masses don’t know how to function in God’s power, because they’ve never been given the chance. The leaders don’t know how to function in God’s power, because they are missing crucial support from the body.
The modern church, with its: sermons, hierarchies, buildings and worship rituals, hinders the fully-functional, democratic priesthood of all believers. That is why the modern church operates with limited power and the early church was dynamite.