A Churchless Church

A couple years ago, as I was beginning to think about the postmodern in relation to the Church, I had an interesting conversation with my parents about change. I had just finished reading James K.A. Smith’s Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? in which he demonstrates how the thought of three French philosophers (Jacques Derrida, Jean-Fransçois Lyotard, and Michel Foucault) can be beneficial, even critical to the future of the church. At the end of book, Smith offers a picture of what the postmodern church could look like.

He imagines a place where, like other postmodern theologians such as Leonard Sweet have suggested, experience is the key element. Parishioners sit around circular tables adorned with candles, which provide the majority of the light in the room. A jazz fusion quartet plays a reworked, sometimes improvised medley of hymns and contemporary songs. A church leader, not necessarily a pastor, says some words of welcome followed by some scripture. Parishioners respond with anecdotes of their own experience. The worship team plays a U2 song. Someone stands at a table and reads some confessional poetry, something by Anne Sexton or Sylvia Plath. The atmosphere, the experience here is everything.

I’m not saying that this is what I think church should be. However, as conversations like the one Smith is engaged in move forward, those of us who are reaching forward trying to figure out what comes next need to be sensitive to the fact that some people may not feel ministered to at a church with candles, confessional poetry, and U2. We have to be okay with that. Not everyone is going to want to come along. However, it is equally important that those who would rather stay in their pews with their hymnal and pulpit be accepting of the reality that tastes and cultures change and some would like to change with them.

I was telling my parents about Smith’s book, how exciting it all seemed to me and my feeling that I was being called to ministry in order to help sort all of this out. After describing Smith’s vision of the postmodern church, my dad asked, “Why does anything need to change?”

To my father’s credit, he is much, much smarter than that statement sounds. Naturally, he is aware that cultures change over time. He can look back in history and see that his mega church in Lafyette, CO with its warehouse meeting space, lights, rock worship, and casually dressed church staff are not the same as church he grew up in or churches even fifty years ago. He would say the changes his church has made are good.

What he was referring to specifically was the idea that ecclesiology itself shouldn’t have to change. And it hasn’t. His church may have a full service coffee bar, a professional media production team, and a whole host of things that, say, the Puritans of New England did not or would have even possibly found blasphemous, but the core structure of churches in both those time periods has not changed. There is a preacher. There is a congregation. There are worship songs. Don’t those three things compose church services from the Middle Ages on into today? Smith’s point is merely that the teaching model that has existed for nearly two thousand years contains a basic assumption that the early church did not necessarily make: People need to be told by an authority what their faith is and how to live it out. That’s not to say that the church of Peter and Paul did not have authority figures. Clearly, throughout the epistles, Paul speaks with authority, rebuking, condemning, but also edifying those whom he is leading. That’s also not to say that anyone can have the privilege of disseminating knowledge authoritatively—the Bible is far too volatile to allow all to offer an authoritative opinion on its interpretation.

The issue is that authorities are humans, and as such, those they speak too need to have the opportunity to ask questions, to discuss, to respond in some way according to Smith. That’s what is missing from the model that we’ve used. We don’t seem to have any explicit information from Acts or any of the epistles about how parishioners were allowed to respond or if they were at all, other than the events of Pentecost perhaps. I don’t want to get into an exegesis of the text at this point. Rather, I’d like to focus on the fact that although churches had leaders in the first century, their gatherings were much more community-like than ours today. I say that we are not quite a community because, quite frankly, we have very few deep relationships at church. Ask yourself: How many people do I know really well at church? Sometimes even in our own small groups, which are designed to foster community, we can feel disconnected. These are the issues that Smith sees.

On the flip side, of course, there are plenty of people who are not merely complacent with the way church has been done, they’re honestly filled by it. I work at a church (Pasadena Covenant) whose service is about as typical as it gets. And there isn’t anything wrong with that. Worship styles may change, we sometimes have a variety of guest speakers from Fuller who may have different preaching styles or differing theologies, put at the core, that congregation is fed by singing songs and hymns and hearing someone, usually the lead pastor preach on Sunday. Will we ever move to a service with U2, candles, and Anne Sexton? Probably not in the foreseeable future.

What is fascinating to me is that although my parents’ church is emergent and casual, claiming to be more accepting and open than other churches, they still speak about how much better they are than other churches who would rather their attendees dress up and who insist on singing hymns and having choirs. They call them judgmental, strict, unloving, un-Christlike. Every time I’ve visited their church, one of the pastors has bragged about how great the church is because they’re different than traditional churches. But what’s wrong with the format of the traditional church if people are being fed? Should judgmental attitudes be addressed? Of course. The same, however, can be said about my parents’ church. The pendulum has just swung the other way. Anyone showing up in anything more dressy than jeans is going to feel uncomfortable. What if that person wants to dress up for church? What if they feel that is an essential part of how they worship and honor God? We can tell them they don’t need to do that to honor God, as my parents’ church does, but why? Shouldn’t Christians be fed however they feel they are best fed? If the answer from most emergent churches is “No,” then I wonder how much they’ve really changed. They still have an order of worship that includes singing songs and listening to an authority figure speak. They still retain the same judgment only it’s a resentment for those who originally judged them. Are rock worship, lights, set design, and video production enough to constitute a major paradigm shift in the way we think about and do church? Those things seem more like bells and whistles attached to the old model in order to make that model appeal to a different generation.

Don’t hear what I’m not saying. If a church with all those things appeals to you, then by all means, be filled by that church. But do not look at what others are doing to be filled, things that are Biblical and pleasing to God, and turn your nose up at it. That is wrong.

Let’s think about it in terms of outreach. Jesus’ instructions to his disciples were to make other disciples by proclaiming the gospel. He didn’t tell them in what venue that should take place, and he certainly did not stipulate that an institution very similar to the Jewish temple be the location where that happen—and I see emergent churches the same as traditional ones on this point. The institution of the Church was born out of necessity to get everyone on the same page. But Jesus doesn’t need a building called church. The Church is people (a body), not an institution—we’ve heard that a lot over the last twenty years. Why is it that it still has not gotten into the bloodstream of churches everywhere? More and more, we hear people saying that they don’t need church. They’re right! They don’t need the institution. But they need Jesus. They need people who know them and care about them with the love of Jesus. That should be the force that drives forward any group of people calling themselves the church.

After that, there’s no formula. That’s the point. There never will be an absolute formula. What needs to be called into question is not necessarily the viability of the sermon-hymn worship service or the Biblical basis for having a building with stained glass and pews as opposed to a warehouse with colored lights and a stage. What needs questioning is the attitude that nothing should change, that we’ve figured it out and no longer need to alter what we do in order to meet the needs of new generations or that everyone must change. I’m not advocating for consumer Christianity. The Bible is still the guide to our ecclesiology. I’m an advocate for a worldview that says that humans can’t know things absolutely, and this is how that translates into our ecclesiology. We recognize that our churches aren’t perfect. We’re willing to change when certain things no longer seem to be working, but we’re willing to say that our vision may not be everyone’s vision. In other words, the building, the format is no longer important. It’s not central. Jesus is. The fact that a community comes together to learn, to worship, to grow. We become a churchless church. To answer my father’s question, things need to change because we’re not God—in our brokenness, we get things wrong. But there’s hope for us to begin to get things right. The change is in our attitude toward change.

by Joel Harrison


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