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 and 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 wouldbe 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 that 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 wouldbe 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 wouldbe pastors – before committing to any church.
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, rather than 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 possibly 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 your 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 a 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 big as possible is so that they can use the size of their memberships to measure their 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’ years of consistent, passionate preaching.
I have been thinking a very great deal about being part of a church. On the one hand, I so yearn to be part of a passionate collective of people praising God and seeking Him and praying and sharing life together. On the other hand, I feel as if I’ve been going around collecting negatively exciting experiences from various churches where the reality from each church has never quite managed to live up to the expectation – or the hype. So what does it really mean to be part of church? This is what I aim to examine in this article.
I’ve not really been part of a Christian gathering or church for a number of months. This is the sort of thing that I would usually be careful about admitting, because it would usually lead to people trying to recruit me to their particular gathering. “It’s so dangerous [for a Christian] to be out of a church Tosin! You need to be planted!” (These statements are true, and I am hesitant to speak too soon (as I have done in the past), but as it happens I believe that I may actually have found a group of Christians who genuinely love God, give the Bible its true place, pray passionately etc.)
And yet sometime over the last few days, I was invited to another group. I was actually planning to go today, but remembering a few experiences that I have previous had, I was praying a little beforehand, that God would go ahead of me, that He would take control and so on. And while I was praying, I decided that I would not go after all. The lady who invited me was clear on the fact that it is a very small gathering – of fewer than 10 people. This in itself is not a problem in a church. However, it occurred to me that when a church is still so small, one extra person can greatly impact on the dynamics of the group. This is true regardless of what the venture is – whether it is a church, a business, a political group… (of course, many churches count as “all of the above”…) I’d never met her before in my life, and she was already inviting me into their core structure. She also asked me what my gifting was – could I be a part of the praise and worship team? This indicates a typical attitude among church people. The hope is that you would come along and immediately throw yourself into the thing – “get stuck in”, as they used to say in Christian Union at Uni, as they said in many of the churches I have been to since, as I’m sure they still say in many churches everywhere.
I am also really aware that I am a single woman – an aspect of my life about which I am emphatically not complacent. Who is the Pastor – is it a man? Is he married? If so, do he and his wife “pastor” together? If it is a man, is he single? If the church is so small, and I am expected to get deeply involved straight away, then I am necessarily going to be thrown into close contact with the leaders – and/or their marriages. I’ve never met these people before, so I don’t know how strong their marriages could be. I don’t know how strong their individual or collective commitments to Christian standards of sexual/relationship purity are. I don’t know whether I am going to be immediately, or eventually, perceived as a threat to any of the marriages or relationships already existing there. Is that a stress that my life needs? No.
You might be thinking:
“Tosin, it’s not such a big deal! You could always go, check out the place, and if necessary, not go again. ”
From experience, I know that it is not that simple. From my experience, people who set up churches are so eager and enthusiastic for them to grow, that once you’ve stepped foot through that door as a potential member, they will keep gently encouraging you to come back and to join. This could be all the more true in this particular situation as I already told the lady who invited me that no, I am not currently attending a church, before she then went ahead to invite me.
So these were my thoughts regarding this particular church.
But even prior to this I had been thinking a lot about church.
And then a friend on Facebook linked to this article (it always does tend to be the same people linking to articles!)
The thrust of the article, in short, is that we have to do away with “organised religion”. On the whole I agree with most of what the article says. However, I also think that as Christians we still have to meet together. So the question is how we can stop our meetings turning into “organised religion”.
Previously on this blog I too have linked to this following article which expresses many of the frustrations that I have experienced in church:
On thinking about these issues, a few radical thoughts occurred to me. They are still very new and fresh in my mind. As I express them, it is almost as if I am speaking “off the top of my head”. Perhaps on praying and thinking further and reflecting more deeply I will have cause to refine these thoughts, or even drastically restructure them all together. However they amount to a way of thinking of church that is very different from our current thinking, but I believe, is actually closer to the model in the New Testament.
Thinking a little about the woman’s church that I have spoken about earlier, I was thinking that while the church is so new, they should not just invite any old person to the church. Admittedly I am a very very committed Christian, and it could be argued that they came across me as a result of their prayer – so in a sense, I am not just “any old person”. However, I was thinking that for the first twenty people, for instance, they should invite people that they already know. This is something to be undertaken prayerfully, strategically. This is something to really take your time over.In most churches (that I have had experience of), people establish the churches then go out and seek “growth” willy-nilly -just like this lady did, inviting people they’ve never met before. But a church relationship is not anything casual. If you are the pastor of a church, then by inviting members, you are in effect inviting people to submit to your leadership. You would not just go out onto the street and romantically ask out a total stranger, would you? (Except I know that people do). Well inviting someone to get involved in your church is more than just asking them out – it is like proposing marriage to them.
Total Stranger 1: “Hi Tosin, I’ve literally just met you a second ago… will you marry me?”
Tosin: “Er, no!”
Total Stranger 2: “Will you marry me?! Oh, by the way, what’s your name – my name is -”
Tosin: “Er, no!”
(Except that I’m possibly more likely to be the one doing the proposing -hee hee!)
Except (again) that previously I have said yes to church invitations from total strangers! And it is upon reflection on the “wonderful” experiences that followed, that I have come to see that that cannot be the best way to go about it. One quite obvious consequence is that you get involved, (like a fool) you immediately throw yourself into it 100% , but it is over the course of time that you realise that your faith, your understanding of Christ and the Bible and Christian life is not actually compatible with theirs. At all. But because you are a member of their church, they expect you to just go along, to just submit anyway. To continue with the marriage analogy, it is like getting married to someone, and then realising that they actually belong to a completely different faith to you.
LESSON LEARNED: You have to be able to carefully evaluate someone’s faith, etc etc before you can decide that yes, it is compatible with what you believe, and yes it is appropriate to get involved in their church.
Sometimes, it is not the faith itself that is the problem. Sometimes it is the issue of who you are supposed to submit to.
I’ve been to some churches where they insist on levels of submission which to me are simply preposterous. Because someone happens to be the pastor of the church that you attend, they behave as if that gives them complete authority, for instance to ask personal questions about very private issues publicly. (Admittedly I volunteer this kind of information quite freely in my “Finding Mr Huggie-Wuggie” blog – but still!) I was once in a meeting where the supposed “prophet” (a woman -prophet my foot – charlatan more like) asked people to put their hands up if they’d ever had an abortion. This was in a public situation, asked of people who had only just met her. Yes I am, as you might expect, very much pro-life, and I always have been very much pro-life, but frankly, as long as you are a human being (and not God), this is not a question to ever ask of people, period, let alone people who have just met you, and definitely never in a public setting – and if you were God, You would already know!
So it has indeed happened to me that I will immediately get involved in a church, and then a matter of weeks, months or years later realise that I simply cannot respect the pastor sufficiently to be submitted to their leadership, to do the things which they expect of their members. Some issues to me are a matter of maturity, experience, Christian character – and I have found some supposed leaders utterly lacking. If I feel unable to respect you as a person, then how do you expect me to take your advice as to how to lead my life – regardless of your title? Hello?!!
LESSON LEARNED: You have to be able to carefully evaluate someone’s character etc etc (just as you would with a potential spouse!) before you can decide that yes, you do respect them, and you are willing to submit to their authority and yes it is appropriate to get involved in their church.
The problem with both of these situations – a difference in faith, an inability to respect and submit to leadership, is that many times, these issues can only become apparent after you have invested yourself into the church. At least this is what has happened with me. And then you’re involved in so many things, you’ve spent so long building up friendships, that it becomes difficult to extricate yourself cleanly. This is especially true in the churches with bad leadership. In fact, in some churches, they encourage you to get involved in so many activities so quickly that I can’t help feeling that the deliberate aim is to get you so involved as to make it extremely difficult for you to leave.
This is the way I now look at things. Yes, I want to get involved in a church, and yes I want to invest myself 100%. However, I’ve got to know the people who are involved in the church – especially the pastors, as these are the ones whose leadership I will need to submit to. (A general rule of thumb -as with husbands, so with pastors – the worse the pastor is, the more likely they are to demand blind, unqualified submission…) It generally takes two full years to get to know someone’s character thoroughly. So I am not going to submit myself to anyone in leadership until I have known them for two years, at least. Fact. This is radical because in the Christian life on arriving somewhere new, like when taking a job in a new city, you are encouraged to quickly find a church (and pray about it, naturally) to get involved in; the thought of taking two full years to decide on a church is laughably unthinkable. And yet I’m thinking that I’m not even going to go to check out a church until I have personally and thoroughly known the pastor for two years.
I’m thinking that church could genuinely be based on relationship. Christians always say that their churches are based on relationships. However this is often just a popular cliché. In fact, maybe it’s wrong to think in terms of church at all, because what I’m thinking of is so different from most church models. In church, because of your shared supposed commitment to Christ, you make yourself vulnerable to other people in ways that you never would to other total strangers. You put yourself in physical proximity to other people, you tell people things about yourself, (although the abortion thing was extreme, even for church – maybe not so much for a Black pentecostal church though, sadly); you volunteer your time and your resources. In some ways it can be considered a recipe for disaster, and frankly disaster is what often ensues.
So this is what I am thinking. If you as a wannabe pastor or leader or “kingdom maker” want to go out there and change the world, then all power to you. Could this be a valid way of going about it? Start with the aim in mind, which should not be about getting as many people as possible into your church doors of a Sunday. ( Or, this is a radical thought – perhaps you could dispense with the church building altogether?!) The ultimate aim should be about affecting the world for Christ, and winning the world for Christ – yes? In every single church that I have been to, they have always said that this is their aim. The way that we as Christians will collectively win the world is if each of us wins our immediate locality.
What if a wannabe pastor forgets about trying to get people into church, and instead focuses on trying to build up a group of like-minded people? People whose passion for Christ is the same, people whose hunger to see souls transformed is the same, people who are as genuinely prepared to invest as much time and effort into prayer as they are? Pastors and church leaders always say: “It is not about numbers” – but in practice, it always is. What if it was genuinely not about numbers, but rather about taking the time to seriously carefully, cautiously pray about the people that God might be calling you into partnership with. In my experience, it could take years to find even a single person who is truly on the same spiritual wavelength – which is part of the reason that I am still single, because I have not found that single person yet! What if the aim was to slowly, carefully, painstakingly, and above all prayerfully, build up not a church as such, but rather a prayer group? In this scenario, the pastor would be just as prayerful – in fact, far more prayerful, about inviting would-be members to his group, than the would be members would be about accepting. What if the aim was to build up unity, intimacy, and prayer power, that would all be very rigorously Christ-centred, even within that small group?
What if the aim then was not to go and invite others (especially people who are not yet Christians) to this group – but what if the aim was rather to send individuals out to disciple others one on one, until each person reaches a stage of maturity where they could similarly go out to disciple others…?