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Article No. 143

What is church?

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I was in a prayer meeting the other day and someone prayed that we could attract more of the surrounding population into church. That is a very common sentiment of Christians in our country. Indeed, it is almost axiomatic that that is how you will think if you are Christian. We need to attract more of the people who live nearby into our church so that they can hear the good news of the gospel and become Christians.

That theme runs through a lot of the articles that you read in the religious press. Sometimes the idea put forward is that we are not welcoming enough. Sometimes it is that our services are too dull and are putting people off. Sometimes it is that we need to provide different material for twenty first century man (and woman). And so it is now common to find coffee and biscuits (or even sherry!) provided after the morning service - a time for people to mingle and for the newcomer to feel the warmth of the welcome from the usual churchgoers.

All of this is linked to the need we have all been taught to recognise - that of reversing the decline in our numbers. The fact is that the number of people attending church, as an average, has been declining for decades, and there seems to be nothing that will halt the decline. Maybe we have reached rock bottom now? We keep hoping that that wonderful moment is reached - then we can start building up again!

Well, maybe all these varied efforts will yield results. And, again, maybe they won’t! There is no doubt at all of the genius of the Alpha courses - they have spread to many different countries now and have proved a useful doorway for some non churchgoers. However, not even successful Alpha courses are expected to solve all our attendance problems.

In America of course they have approached the whole problem in a slightly different way - as one would expect. Churches like Willow Creek have switched the content of their Sunday service to a much more up to date presentation - multi media and lively. This accords much more with what attracts audiences in the ordinary daily media presentations. And it works. The young families come into church with their families in their hundreds and receive a very up to date media presentation that is exactly suited to their secular state. They are introduced very gently to Christian ideas and the whole operation is highly organised and well managed.

Is that what we should be doing over here? Certainly not - because of several reasons. For one thing the outlook of the average American family is very different from that of the British family - they come from totally different backgrounds. Then again, huge meetings like that are not necessarily acceptable to the non-churchgoing family here. And whether it is a hard sell or a soft sell, one cannot but think that American marketing methods are less acceptable here.

So what is to be done? Here are all these churchgoers in Britain, downhearted that they cannot attract their neighbours into church - and meanwhile the church gradually declines in finance, numbers and influence.

I want to suggest (although, in truth, this is no new idea) that maybe the time has really come for all of those who go to churches to rethink what church is meant to be in this twenty first century. Maybe we are accepting too readily what it has always been (for at least a few hundred years) and not thinking deeply enough about what it should be in the decades ahead.

Lets start with what actually happens at church. Why church? What function does it play in the life of the Christian in Britain?

The first function of church is to enable Christians to come together to worship. Worship is multi-faceted - including prayer, celebration, communion (Lord‘s Supper, Eucharist), fellowship and a host of other Christian functions. What it is not designed to be is an evangelistic outreach.

Let me qualify that. You can use a service as an evangelistic medium -and the worship element is powerful and may well deeply affect any non Christians who are there (see Paul in 1 Cor. 14.22). But the function of a church service is not evangelistic. Evangelism is a special effort to bring the gospel of our Lord to the outside world.

So why are church people trying to make their services more stranger friendly? If a service is meant to be for Christians, why alter it (some would say dilute it) until anyone coming in from outside will not be at all put off or disturbed by what is said or done? If the purpose of the getting together is to worship God, why divert resources in the service to attracting those from outside?

Let me put it another way. If the object of a cricket practice session is to practice cricket, why change it to having a tea party in the hope that anyone who wanders in from outside will be attracted to playing cricket?

Yet if you go into almost any church (well, most anyway) you will find Christians talking about making their services more attractive. They hope thereby to increase their congregation. That those who ‘happen by’ will come again because they like the service.

It is obvious now that there is a fundamental flaw in that type of thinking. It might - I only say might - have worked when the general population of Britain could be assumed to have been brought up in homes and schools where Christianity was known and practised by the majority. But not any more! In today’s Britain the average ‘man at the computer’ has minimal interest in Christianity, and even less in the church.

It is therefore obvious that the basic approach by many hundreds of thousands (to select a low figure) of Christians in Britain today is way off beam. They are trying to change their worship to attract those who will never enter their doors, and who - even if they do enter - will not even begin to understand what it is all about unless they have had a basic Christian upbringing, which most have not had.

To recapitulate: the outlook and approach of most Christians in Churches these days is woefully out of date. They are working to a strategy that has failure built into it, because their assumptions are all wrong.

So if, in our day and age, church is not meant to be the gateway through which the outsider will come into the Christian fellowship, what is it meant to be? And what about those outside - what do we do about them?

Lets go back to what a church is meant to be. The weekly getting together for praise and worship is the essential function of the church. Christians need to gather together - for all sorts of reasons.

It is nice to meet on a Sunday, but the day chosen is not vital. It is the meeting together which is essential. For many it is sharing Communion together that is important. If it is decided locally to hold ‘church’ on a Sunday - then have a service that really allows the Christians to praise and worship - and to share their love and concern for each other. Stop trying to water the service down so that outsiders won’t be put off. Let your hair down - be happy clappy if that is your desire - but however you worship let it be from the heart - let it be real.

Think of that service (whatever day it is held) as the weekly refuelling point for the local Christians. In addition it will be necessary for the leaders of the local church to confer and pray about how they should attempt to interest, challenge, care for and befriend those outside the church. Call it evangelism if you wish. The word however has connotations and might be best avoided! But the vital thing is that the churchgoers have such a real experience of God’s love and forgiveness that they want to share it with others - and seek to do just that.

A hundred thousand ways now open up as possible avenues for approaching the outsiders. Each Christian is, of course, a witness in their own life. In addition there are all sorts of ways that the local Church group can serve the wider community. It would be a mistake to list even the first hundred of these as your circumstances might make them all irrelevant. But there will be another hundred just as applicable for your community.

What is church? It is not, emphatically, a building. Nor is it an organisation run for the benefit of its members! They derive great benefits from associating together, but their stance is always outward. If it is inward looking then it has gone off the rails. It is devalued. It is missing the whole point of its purpose.

Oh, and by the way, if it is not inclusive then it is not Christ they are following! Instead it is some dogma or historical precedent, or some man’s concept. The Church is the Body of Christ’s followers and it exists to help those outside itself - everybody, everywhere, whatever age or gender, colour or sexuality. If there are barriers, then it has left the way Jesus outlined for us.

Tony Cross

September 2007.


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