I’ve found this post extremely difficult to write, even though I am putting forward a very simple idea. To make it easier for myself and anyone reading it, I am going to summarise the points here:
1. I have personally had experience of many different churches, especially here in Edinburgh, Scotland.
Many of these experiences have been less than amazing.
2. I know that there are many truly excellent Christians so I believe that it must be possible to have truly excellent Christian interaction within church that actually resembles New Testament standards of love, integrity, purity, mutual respect.
3. I’m thinking that the reason I may have struggled thus far in various churches I have been to is, in addition to my own personal failings and weaknesses, because of the way I joined churches, which happens to be the general way Christians are encouraged to join churches -to arrive somewhere new (like Edinburgh), quickly find a church, quickly get involved and “get stuck-in”.
4. The reason why this might have led, quite predictably, to issues in church after church, is because not all Christians – and leaders – even those in supposedly “Bible-believing churches” necessarily believe the same things about God, the Bible and faith, pursue the same standards of Christian conduct or are at the same levels of Christian maturity.
5. By going somewhere new and just throwing yourself wholeheartedly into somewhere that looks acceptable, then you are exposing yourself to the real possibility of finding out, in a matter of weeks, or months, or years maybe, that you cannot consider yourself compatible with that environment.
6. My solution to this is to take time – real time -like 2 years – perhaps even more – to carefully evaluate each church, the pastors, the beliefs etc – to assess whether you could be compatible -before getting involved.
7. I’m thinking of the whole issue from two perspectives:
a. If you are the would-be member, looking for a church. Ideally most churches would provide a low-commitment way for you to check out the church (and especially the pastors) before you go ahead to commit. I keep talking about two years because it is recognised that this is how long it takes to reliably get to know someone else’s true character. So ideally you should be able to remain in a system for at least 2 years before committing. In my life, I’ve never come across any such system. In my experience, most pastors can barely wait 2 months for you to make up your mind. So speaking pragmatically from experience, I would advise a would-be member to create their own system by getting as wide an experience of as many different churches as possible, and making sure that you give yourself plenty of time to especially assess the character of your would-be pastors – before committing to any church. (However, it would defeat the object if you tried to circulate around so many churches that you do not get time to form a reliable impression of any of them.)
b. If you are the pastor looking for members then this kind of idea might seem like a waste of time. However I believe that it would help to get members who can really be committed for the long term, instead of the high turnover rate that can happen in churches.
Actually, if you are a pastor and you are simply keen on getting members, then yes, I would recommend such a system. However, if you aspire to actually make a genuine impact in your social environment, then I would go beyond that to a radical overhaul of church altogether.
The radical overhaul
I believe that if you are a pastor who is desperate for God to work through you in your city then primarily you should be looking for partners who are as committed to God and His ways and His work as you are. So instead of just trying to attract any members by any possible means, as most pastors do, I would think in terms of a team, and take the time to carefully pray before inviting any individual to join the team. Ideally these should be individuals you already know, who are already of tested character, prayer discipline, Christian commitment, maturity. In my experience whole years can pass between finding one Christian who pursues God in God’s way – and finding the next one. So let it take years – instead of just trying to grow the number of members as quickly as “humanly” possible. You could think of it as laying a solid foundation for your ministry on rock, as opposed to a foundation on sand. The aim would most likely be to develop a Christ-centred, strong, united, prayerful interaction between these core team members. The aim would also be to build true relationship and Christian friendship between them.
The way the team might work in reaching people who are not yet Christians is that individuals within the team might reach out “one-on-one” to their friends who are not Christians and share the Gospel with them just through sharing life together, as normal friends do. So the possibility is raised that you might never invite someone who is not already a deeply committed Christian to any of your group meetings. From the awkward history I have of inviting to church people who are not already Christians, I actually think that this would be a fantastic thing. Perhaps then you would only invite people into small groups etc as they become Christians or as they seek themselves to find out about the faith.
In a way, conflict is almost inevitable, as there will undoubtedly be conflicts even within the small groups. However if the groups are kept small, then it will not be as if any leader has to handle a huge brawling mass all on their own, and it will minimise the stress that leading a church often puts on someone’s life, their marriage, their health etc.
I think that the real reason that most pastors try to grow their church memberships to be as large as possible is so that they can use the size of their memberships to measure their personal influence or brag between one another. However, in nature, animals, plants etc grow up – and become autonomous by breaking off. So it should be with churches. I believe that churches are always going to be more effective where they represent manageable groups of real friends. So as these groups grow, they should divide. I believe that this will make it easier to invite people into the groups, and increase the levels of real friendship and real interaction between the members.
I’ve called this a new (old) way to do church, because in a way it is new, in that I’ve never seen anything like this happening in any church I’ve ever been to, and I have grown up in the church from childhood. And yet it is an old way because I believe that this is similar to the model used in the New Testament. Jesus did not run around trying to amass followers (although He did preach very freely to everyone). Rather He took 3 and a half years and in that time “only” accumulated a handful of followers, including the twelve who made up His closest circle (does this indicate that 12 is the optimum number for a closely united team?) Jesus took the time to invest Himself and His life into these disciples, bringing them up not through a series of abstract lectures, but through living with them, and teaching through parables and analogies that were closely tied to their day to day lives. Admittedly things were different in the early church after Jesus had ascended into Heaven, but perhaps the exponential growth that they experienced with 3 thousand people being added in one day (Acts 2v41) was the result of Jesus’s years of consistent, passionate preaching.