Amazing Grace/Churches of Christ in Decline?: Transitional Issues, Part 1

grace2.jpgLet’s do what Einstein called a “thought experiment.” Let’s just imagine that our home church decided to transition to a planted church model. Obviously enough, the elders can’t just pass a resolution and expect it to be true the next day. Somehow or other, the congregation has to change. How?

Let’s first work through the disadvantages an established church has and see if we can figure a way to work through them.

1. A real, Biblical need to serve their own members.

The established congregation can’t abandoned its present members. The members need counseling and equipping and encouraging. The sick and shut in need to be visited. The dead need to be buried. Abandoning these needs would be the height of irresponsibility.

On the other hand, we can handle these differently. Now, I’m just thinking out loud. But several large churches have transitioned many of these needs from staff to elders or other volunteers, freeing staff to focus on other matters. In this thought experiment, this would give staff more time to work as church planters.

But there are other needs. My church is moving away from the traditional model, but most churches still have three weekly services. They expect the preacher to preach two sermons a week and teach two classes. They staff up for two class hours a week, adults and children. It requires a huge commitment of church resources. And it requires four hours (plus travel time) a week from each member.

Many rapidly growing churches reduce church to a worship hour and small groups, eliminating class altogether. However, some are seeing the omission of class as a mistake. Willow Creek, in response to the Reveal study, is initiating Wednesday night classes for the membership.

Hence, the optimal least-demanding model may be worship, classes, and small groups. If we take the research on which The Simple Church is based seriously, then that’s all we’d do for the members, in terms of weekly events. We’d take the time saved and invest it in the lost and hurting worlds that surrounds us.

Moreover, much (not all) of our class and small group time would be equipping for good works, as we’re taught in Ephesians 4. In fact, we’ve asked our small groups to spend much of their time each week in service to others, through social agencies in particular. This further transitions from “us” time to “others” time.

Under this model, Sunday morning is the assembly and classes, and small groups typically meet Sunday nights (although this is the group’s decision).

Now, an issue we struggle with (present tense) is the fact that our teen and campus ministries peak on Wednesday night. This is when attendance is the highest and when they are most likely to bring friends. And teens younger than 16 can’t drive, meaning the parents have to chauffeur them back and forth to church.

We are a metro sort of church (there’s a technical term I can’t remember). We are centrally located and serve the entire county. We have a few members who drive 90 minutes to come to church. Many drive 20 minutes. They’d far rather come to church for an hour than haul kids over at 6:30 and then have to come pick them up at 7:30.

A theoretical solution is to have small groups on Wednesday night at the building, but such groups tend to devolve into classes. Small groups work much better in homes, where social barriers break down, food is served, etc.

Our “solution” has been to de-emphasize Wednesday night, but it’s hard. Once teens show up, their parents come. With the parents come younger siblings, meaning we need to have children’s classes.

This summer, we’re semi-canceling Wednesday night for two months. The teens will meet in homes for two hours or so. But those groups who want to meet may continue to do so: the men’s ministry groups, the class for our oldest members, and the college class. But there will be no children’s classes and no general-interest adult classes.

To avoid depriving our children of educational time, we’ve expanded the lesson time on Sunday mornings.

Now, this hardly turns us into a church plant, but it’s an experiment to see if we can give our members enough free time to do something more meaningful to God’s mission. In particular, this allows us to free scores of volunteers in the children’s ministry.

2. Politics, silos, and turf wars.

Well, we’re not there, but we’re making progress. Here are some steps that’ll help.

* Don’t go too fast. People can’t change but so fast.

* Don’t be too extreme. Rather than canceling Wednesday night, let those who really need to meet continue to meet. When you start small groups, let one group meet at the building on Sunday night to offer communion. This also avoids forcing our most elderly members to drive unfamiliar roads at night or to clean house each week for company.

* Sell a vision to the membership (which we aren’t doing all that well, but we’re getting there). One thing at a time. And mention it every Sunday morning — from the pulpit.

3. Racial segregation.

I make no claim to have the complete solution here, but there are some concrete steps that’ll help.

* Preach against racism. It’s not just sin, it’s contradictory to the gospel that was given to unify us.

* Most large churches have a few minority members. Tell them they are welcome and appreciated. Ask them how the church can be more attractive to minorities. The conversation will do more for their attitudes toward the church than anything you might do afterwards. But do follow up on the suggestions.

* Make an effort to have minority members lead prayer, do the communion meditation, pass communion, etc. It’s easy for those in charge just to ask their white, middle class friends. Failure to do this will communicate the unintended message that minorities are second-class members — so don’t let it happen!

* Look for opportunities to integrate the ministerial staff, diaconate, and eldership.

* Be sure small groups include minority members. These groups tend to be very social — friends meet with friends. It’s easy for minority members to just assume they aren’t welcome at a white person’s home. Be sure minority members aren’t just given the opportunity to sign up but that the leaders invite them into their groups.

* When you invite guest speakers, include minority preachers.

* Stay away from Republican politics in the classroom and in the pulpit. Don’t pass out voter guides. Tell the church that Jesus is neither Republican nor Democratic and explain why.

* Ask minority members about their musical preferences. Again, it’s the asking that matters most. Don’t assume that they prefer spirituals or whatever. Don’t prejudge. Ask and then act on what you learn.

4. Legalism.

Legalism is, of course, the biggest reason we don’t grow as we should. It hurts us in countless ways. Again, I make no pretense of having the complete solution, but here are some helpful steps –

* Teach grace in every single class. Start with the Holy Spirit. Spend lots of time in the word. In fact, every New Testament and most Old Testament expository classes should be classes on grace, from Matthew to Revelation. (The Amazing Grace series of lessons posted on this site will work.)

* Don’t let the classes have different theologies. Make sure they all cover the same material (not necessarily at the same time).

* Preach grace and the Spirit. If the preacher is afraid to do so, get another preacher. But the classes should cover the material first.

* Tell the office staff that all letters of “concern” and all bulletins that “write up” your church should be shredded. Don’t let the other churches’ legalism sway the future of your church. Don’t meet with the other churches and explain yourself. Rather, just put the sermons and lesson notes on your website and move on. (This is not to say you shouldn’t talk about your principles with other churches. Just don’t feel the need to defend yourselves. Rather, be willing to teach.)

* Never, ever kowtow to the legalists in your church. In other words, if a member thinks it’s wrong to sing during communion, the correct response is instruction, not acquiescence. Teach! You cannot shepherd a church by compromising between grace and legalism. Rather, elders are called to equip and lead the church into sound doctrine.

* On the other hand, Rom 14 and compassion require that we teach first and then act. Don’t institute changes that will be a matter of conscience before the church has been taught.

[to be continued]

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0 Responses to Amazing Grace/Churches of Christ in Decline?: Transitional Issues, Part 1

  1. "Up Close and Personal: Embracing the Poor" by Harold Shank, Anthony Wood, and Ron Bergeron contains some good insights about both racism and why middle class churches have difficulty integrating the poor into their congregations.

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