The church was going in for the current fads: small groups would handle teaching and pasturing and outreach, the service would be seeker-friendly and accessible, and the focus would be on addressing felt needs. The usual suspects.
It won’t surprise you to learn that the church started imploding: 2/3 left in a few years, and an intervention with the leadership didn’t seem to help. The last straw was when a friend with a wonderful servant attitude was told to keep his objections to himself or leave; he left. So did I. I’d stayed out of a quixotic idea that I could help, but forgot that I was obligated to try to give my children a worshipful place to meet God.
We found a new church, but I’d started asking questions about what had gone wrong. The old church wasn’t doing the right things, obviously; but what were the right things to be doing? Come to think of it, this church wasn’t all that much like the Baptist churches I’d grown up in, either in the US or in Africa. I’d not been a Christian in those early years, and so wasn’t tuned to the inwardness of what was going on there, but the external forms had certainly changed a lot over the years.
Questions have a way of ballooning into unexpected regions. Whether I took the humble approach of looking at what churches through the ages have done, or the ab initio analysis from the Bible myself, it was clear that a lot was missing, and some claims that at first seemed perfectly reasonable were flat wrong. The Lord’s Supper, the purposes of teaching in the church, the role of the congregation in worship, the structure of the service, the role of scripture in the service—quite a few things didn’t seem to line up.
Take teaching, for example. The mega-church wannabe didn’t want to spend resources on adult education, and not all that much on youth either. It is easy to see why: the adults were a mix of levels—some quite familiar with the Bible and the faith, and others not sure if Romans was a book or a TV show. One class doesn’t suit all, and we weren’t so huge to be able to have classes for all. So the compromise was to drop official church education and rely on small groups to handle it. Which they didn’t and don’t, of course; you need to plan that sort of thing. So the result was that the church’s intellectual depth was about an inch shallow. Never mind that their heritage was rich and deep—there was no contact with that, except for the few who took courses at Bible colleges.
But on reflection, on reading a bit in Paul’s letters, and on watching some of the people in our group, I realized that education was not only shallow, it was restricted. I said church education ought to cover the three T’s: charity, clarity, and purity. Being able to tell Azarias from Abednego didn’t seem to correlate with living a holy and loving life. Both ought to be teachable, though the latter might be better thought of as an apprenticeship than a classroom course.
So we were missing catechesis, missing connection with Christian history and thought, and missing apprenticeships in living well. (Remember that book I mentioned in the first paragraph? The chapters on history and different denominations just keep growing and growing.) And that’s just in the teaching ministry of the church.
Worshipers were supposed to be doing something besides sitting on their duffs listening to a sermon illustrated with pop movie clips, and trying to sing now and then in the teeth of an over-amplified band. But what? Either we needed a more liturgical format, with the service having a well-defined shape and roles, or else something Pentecostal and spontaneous (but even they have an implicit form to the service). And my experience with Pentecostal services was less than inspiring; they didn’t seem to have a lot of respect for clarity or connection to the main stream of Christianity. So structure is the way to go. Does a liturgy need a priest? So far I don’t see it—so I’m not converting to Eastern Orthodoxy anytime soon.
But about the time that I’m pretty sure I have a few good answers and am ready to make suggestions, I tend to run into one of those old saints and remember how much I have to learn about the things that matter most.
I’m still working on that book, and a couple of us are planning a short series on church history, with an emphasis on understanding why Christians did things they way they did. We’ll see what happens.