Normal Church

NORMAL CHURCH: How should the Church ‘do church’?

I have no wisdom to share, no hobby horse to ride, no burning coal of encouragement or rebuke. Rather, I have a question that I admit I have no answer to. This is not a Rob Bell-esque attempt to stir things up by posing a question and pretending I have no opinion on the matter while secretly pursuing an end. I truly want to know more about something, and hope that those who read, comment, and lurk on this blog will jump in and share their Biblically educated thoughts that I may be further enlightened; that we all may.

Does God reveal a specific design in Scripture for what the Church should look like? To this I say “yes”. I actually could write a post on that: the Biblical description of who the Church is, our position, our calling, our purpose. But that’s not the question I’m curious about.

I’m wondering if God reveals specifically how the Church should worship, meet, pray, and go about being and doing those things we know that Scripture calls the Church to be and do. Was it intended to be the same for all time, or to change and adapt? Have we ever done it right? What is “normal church” supposed to be? Are the guidelines loose enough to allow for many different cultural expressions of “doing church”? I hope I haven’t muddied the water in trying to ask the question. Let me get really specific.

It’s clear from the Biblical record of the Acts of the Apostles that the earliest gatherings of the local Church bodies met in homes, open-air locations, and other convenient places held by members of the body of Christ. We see the earliest church praying together daily, and sharing their resources for the common good of the body of Christ. This was in Jerusalem. But we also see small glimpses into the lives of local Church bodies in Antioch, in Asia, in Greece. We see the weekly “love feast”, the sending out of missionaries, the appointing of elders and deacons. The call to teach and shepherd and discipline the Church.

As stated above I don’t have definite answers to all my questions, but from what I have studied it seems that the Church meeting together in “church” buildings didn’t begin until the mid 3rd century. Now it’s considered “normal” and even required by some groups. In fact, when I affiliated as a Calvary Chapel pastor it was a requirement that the local Church body I was pastoring met in an official building of some sort and specifically on Sunday. And yet the Church grew and thrived for over 200 years in homes, open spaces, and other properties they had access to through members of the Body. Was this God’s plan all along? To build up His Church in these places until the day when legal ownership of their own building would be possible, and then that would become the new “normal”?

Was it God’s plan that the individual members of His Body would meet together daily until such a time as they were able to get by with Sunday mornings and maybe a mid-week meeting? Is the bi-weekly meeting God’s plan for the new “normal”?

Was it God’s plan for His Church to share things in common and send aid to other local Church bodies in desperate need until they became big enough to have so many of their own issues that they need only worry about themselves? Was this His design for the new “normal”?

The Church in Jerusalem met daily. The Church in Corinth had love feasts and communion on Sundays. Was it His plan for those things to be temporary until we figured out a better way that would become the new “normal”?

Is our “normal” of today (and the last several centuries) just as flexible as the “normal” recorded in Acts? Or is our normal the end all? How can a pastor or elder have confidence that they are leading His Church in a way that He intended? In other words… how do we KNOW that a Sunday morning service with 30 minutes of singing/music/worship, followed by 30-60 minutes of expositional teaching, the collection of offerings, announcements, and maybe a potluck is how God truly intends for His Church to accomplish the mission of making disciples throughout the world? Or is it simply one of many ways?

Please don’t turn on the assumption afterburners and think that because I’m asking the questions I’m against these things or being contrary for the sake of stirring up conversation. I’m not entertaining some kind of dangerous doubt, or loosing the faith. If we can’t question and reaffirm why we do what we do in the name of Christ then we have no business claiming to do it in His name!

So, are these things done the way that we do them because God revealed that His Church should do them thusly? Or are they our interpretations of BIble and history and custom, tailored over time, institutionalised, and made comfortable via the vehicle of cultural adaptation?

If God never intended for there to be a specific Biblically mandated liturgy (beyond baptism and communion and the making of disciples throughout the world), then I’m okay with that. In fact it’s quite freeing to know that we can truly be lead by the Spirit within the bounds of common sense, cultural compatibility, and Biblical principles to carry out the work and ministry of the local Church body in the way He leads.

But if God gave us a specific design then what is it? If it’s what we see in the early church, then where in Scripture is it taught and why don’t we still do it that way? Why would a movement that typically decries the influence of Constantine’s legalisation of the Christian faith as “marriage to the world” then also cling to one of the chief results: the Church owning property and meeting in official buildings of worship rather than believers’ homes and other properties and open spaces in the community? Why was communalism okay then, but so heavily guarded against, and even sneered at now? Why was daily prayer and worship normal then, but beyond even the ability to imagine now (because people are busy with “their own lives”)?

If it’s what we see in the “normal” of today then where in Scripture is it taught and why didn’t the early church figure it out?

Or is it that those things were never normal and we’ve just misunderstood the record?

Or maybe they truly weren’t intended to remain “normal”, and the bi-weekly meetings of busy Body members with little to no real knowledge of each other and love of one another was always God’s goal? (Okay, I admit that one was opinion and a bit of bitterness masked in the facade of a question).

The thing is, it’s not normal in other places I’ve lived and spent time in. It’s not normal in many places I’ve heard from others about. What should the daily life and liturgy of the Church look like? Who got it right? The early Church? The African Church? The Indian Church? The Western Church? The Catholic Church? The Orthodox Church? The Chinese underground Church? Or is there a “normal” or “right” way at all, other than just doing what is truly Spirit lead and best for the Body of Christ in each local Church body?

I know… lots of questions. Let’s here some of your answers. I’m really very curious and hope that many comment and share what they’ve learned from Scripture, prayer, research, and experience.

Thanks!

16 replies
  1. Matt Kottman
    Matt Kottman says:

    Hey Jon,
    Just a couple of thoughts off the top of my mind. Shortly and firstly, the Scripture never tells us where our meetings should be held. Actually in Acts we see public gatherings in the temple, private gatherings in homes, and Paul in Ephesus even held meetings in the school of Tyrannus. There have also been some houses from quite early on found with whole areas of the house devoted to Christian worship like a church building. On of these is in Israel under the prison at Megiddo. It seems they may not have met in buildings as often due to strong persecution over the first 3 centuries. I think function is more important biblically than facilities. If the facilities help the church function as they ought, that should be the goal.

    Also, I think there were a lot of things the early church hadn’t figured out, just as we haven’t figured many things out (hence your post). Historical theology shows us that the church learned things along the way. For example, even at Nicea it seems the doctrine of the Trinity lacking. The incarnation had been worked out more clearly through the contending against Arians in the council of Nicaea. It wasn’t until the Council of Chalcedon that the Church really began to formulate a good understanding of the Trinity. The early church was still learning. This in no way negates anything in the Scriptures. In fact it supports them as the epistles were so often written correctively.

    I would say the normal church is a regenerate church living under the authority of God’s word which may look differently in different cultures and different eras. This is where I think Frank Viola and George Barna make some major assumptions and errors.

    It’s a good question to ask and I’ll eagerly watch the feedback.

    Reply
    • Jon Langley
      Jon Langley says:

      Matt – I appreciate the feedback. On the point of “church buildings”, the earliest record I’ve found in my research of an actual building built and used solely for the purpose of Christian worship was around 240 AD in Syria.

      It seems clear that things were still developing in “the early Church”, as would be expected. I wonder how often we idealise “the early Church” and think we ought to form our own “church” experience, or “normal”, to look like it. I feel this is just as dangerous as the arrogance of claiming that our present “normal” is the final step in the evolution of “doing church”.

      Obviously I lean towards the idea that you’ve supported that it “may look differently in different cultures and different eras”. But I want to challenge that assumption and see if there’s anything we’re missing, either in the area of direct revelation and instruction, or just good solid argumentation for why our present “normal” is best.

      Reply
  2. Eric Johansen
    Eric Johansen says:

    Plymouth Brethren style is the only way, of course :).

    It appears that the NT doesn’t prescribe a way to “do” church. I doubt very much that was some sort of apostolic oversight. Similar to church government styles that aren’t spelled out for us, could it be that the Spirit left it a little broader, as He would work in various ways through church in various places in the course of history? Here a house, there a building, another place employs a barn, or another has a cathedral with high liturgy.

    “If God never intended for there to be a specific Biblically mandated liturgy (beyond baptism and communion and the making of disciples throughout the world), then I’m okay with that. In fact it’s quite freeing to know that we can truly be lead by the Spirit within the bounds of common sense, cultural compatibility, and Biblical principles to carry out the work and ministry of the local Church body in the way He leads.”

    I like this – but usually when people say this type of thing, it implies more charismatic type worship services. Could the opposite also be true? Free to worship through hymns, responsive reading, and carefully planned liturgical church calendars?

    Reply
    • Jon Langley
      Jon Langley says:

      Eric — thanks for the reply. When I wrote the words you quoted, no particular “style” was on my mind, charismatic or otherwise. Just Spirit-lead in its truest and purest sense. Which would allow room for many styles, from charismatic to conservative, within Biblical bounds.

      Reply
  3. Ralph Gaily
    Ralph Gaily says:

    Here’s my two cents…. allow for some quality time for the Body to interact with herself during the main meetings….. maybe also a little Q&A after the study. This type of meeting would reduce the “nobody knows each other” factor, which is a true tragedy in the Church. Arrange the seating so we can see each other as we relate to each other. This kind of change would probably be looked on as “heresy” by those of us bound by our own traditions, but I honestly believe it would help make a positive difference in real fellowship…. which is much needed now. A few creative surprises on Sunday mornings would get our blood circulating from age=old patterns that don’t always need to be perpetuated just because “that’s the way we’ve always done it” …,r

    Reply
    • Jon Langley
      Jon Langley says:

      Ralph — one of the participants of this blog, Bill Walden (maybe he’ll chime in) does a Q&A via text message. I really like that and have heard good things from him about it.

      When you mentioned re-arranging the seating so we can see each other I thought of some of the old cathedrals I’ve seen that are narrow with benches on either side of the main aisle that face each other rather than front (not sure if those are for the choir or parishioners, but that’s what it made me think of).

      Those are good ideas.

      Reply
  4. Jon Langley
    Jon Langley says:

    So far a few have commented who clearly believe that there is no Biblically mandated “normal” when it comes to the style or liturgy employed in making disciples, keeping fellowship, breaking bread in remembrance, and baptising believers . I obviously lean that way myself.

    So let me ask these SPECIFIC QUESTIONS and see what the specific answers are from men in different countries, of different ages and experiences, with varying sizes of fellowships.

    (1) Other than tradition (“because that’s how we do it”), why do you as a pastor/elder/church leader organise your liturgy in such a way as to have approximately _______ minutes of worship/hymns/music and ________ minutes of teaching? (fill in the blanks with your liturgy)

    (2) Other than tradition, why is there only one “main meeting” per week? (You don’t need to explain the significance of Sunday, just the reason for only one main meeting if that’s the case for you, and by “main meeting” I mean the typical American Sunday church service with all the bells and whistles).

    (3) Other than tradition, why doesn’t prayer share just as large a share of the meeting as singing and teaching? (assuming that’s the case for you)

    In other words, if “normal” is flexible for each fellowship, how is your liturgy the most effective way (for you) of being the Church and fulfilling the calling of the Church?

    Reply
  5. Bill Holdridge
    Bill Holdridge says:

    Jon,

    The pastor-teacher is constantly challenged by this very question as it relates to the actual practice of the church he serves.

    Here are some clear, known facts:

    – The goal of our instruction is love, the fulfillment of the law is love, the righteous requirement of the law is love. Therefore, our challenge is to lead the church in the best possible way for love to happen. The structure is subservient to the goal of love. Form follows function.

    – The apostolic church … history’s greatest church … met publicly and from house to house. Everyone would not ever know everyone.

    – The important things are that any individual believer see himself/herself as part of the whole, that each believer have other believers in their life whom they can love on, that each believer is able to be depended upon for this love by some, that each believer do his/her share.

    – The Lord Jesus is the Chief Shepherd, and we pastor-teachers are His assistants. Certainly He is infinitely more concerned with the question “how to do church” than we are. Therefore, we can rely upon His wisdom and help to lead and oversee the church to the best of His ability in us. We look to Him.

    It’s vital that we keep the main things, the main things. The main things are love for God and love for one another. When a body of believers is driven to live out these main things, it’s a beautiful and rich experience.

    Reply
    • Jon Langley
      Jon Langley says:

      Bill — thanks! That is an awesome and foundational point. You are clearly in agreement with the consensus so far that the style / liturgy is not locked in but to be Spirit-lead, and as you’ve stated, that the Love of Christ may abound. They will, after all, know that we are Christians by our love for one another.

      I guess the challenge to myself, and one that I think we all need to challenge ourselves with regularly, is to be sure that our form really is accomplishing function as lead by the Holy Spirit. For me, the “normal” CC style seems to work okay (in the States). In Africa and India not so much. In Ireland it seems to work pretty well.

      One area that seems to me to be non-existent (in U.S. “normal”) is prayer as part of corporate worship, rather than on some special night where 1% of the body shows up. I’m still wondering why that hasn’t developed as part of our liturgy the way it has in cultures outside of the Sates. It seems to me it would be a dynamically important structure serving the proper goal. If we’re truly wanting to do what is best and not just do what is “normal”, should we consider adding this?

      Reply
      • Bill Holdridge
        Bill Holdridge says:

        Hi Jon,

        You’re right. We are prayer challenged in the U.S., as far as our public meetings are concerned. It would be wonderful to see that change. The “how” of working that out is a challenge. Please let us know what you come up with!

        I tried the Ugandan or Ghanaian method of public prayer when I was in Monterey. It went over like a lead balloon. It was hilarious, actually. Everyone praying at the same time, praying their own prayers, yet somehow in unison. We couldn’t quite get it.

        Reply
        • Jon Langley
          Jon Langley says:

          Oh man, you made me laugh out loud, literally. Just picturing a crowd of stereotypical Montereyans trying that out is medicine to my soul.

          There hasn’t been a church I’ve taught in (in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Congo, or Sudan) that didn’t employ the type of prayer you’re talking about. The funny thing is, they referred to it as “Korean style” prayer. When I asked the dumb/obvious question of “why?” they told me that it was the Koreans who started it. To this day I don’t know if that’s true or not, but now I call it that as well.

          I’m not a big fan of it. I learned to be okay with it and didn’t feel it was evil or stupid or wrong like so many short-term American visitors do, but I never got to the point where I still wasn’t distracted by it. Especially with the learned behaviour of trying to shout and pray louder than the other “spiritual” guy in the room. 😉

          In seriousness, though. I wonder if having a time of prayer in the “main” meeting (Sundays) — for say 10 or 15 minutes — is something us Westerners could adjust to? Maybe even given a specific item or short list of items pertinent to the local Church body, itself, or a focus on missionaries or persecuted brethren or another local Body in need. The leader could open and in between people could pray “Korean style” but silently or in soft whispers so they don’t distract each other. Then the leader would close. I wonder if practicing this publicly in the most public of main meetings would begin to push the sheep over the hump of overcoming any fear, discomfort, laziness, or stubbornness they may be having about prayer. They would be learning, experiencing, and practicing prayer together with those who they already sing with, worship with, hear the word with.

          Just some thoughts.

          Reply
          • Eric Johansen
            Eric Johansen says:

            Everyone I’ve ever met here (S.E. Asia – Thailand, Philippines, China, Myanmar), calls it Korean style too. Sometimes western pastors come over and try to stop it, saying it’s not praying “decently and in order”. But typically there is a leader type who calls the body to start it, and wraps it up; so there is a method to the madness, though it’s ordered a bit more loosely than westerners are usually comfortable with.

          • Bill Holdridge
            Bill Holdridge says:

            Jon,

            I know! My son laughed out loud too, as it was happening!

            I’m OK with this method of praying … in Africa. And having done a fair share of ministry among Korean believers, I can see how it probably did originate with them.

            I like your suggestions, actually. 10 minutes, 8 minutes, 15 minutes … it’s better than NO minutes given to corporate prayer. Of course, we want the pulpit prayers to count, too. But so often those prayers only come from the pastor or worship leader.

            I think what you’re emphasizing here is important, Jon. I’m tracking with you all the way.

  6. Bill Walden
    Bill Walden says:

    Jon, brethren…

    We have been doing the Q&A thing for many months now, and overall, it has been fantastic. A few people have wished we would use the time for response, altar calls for prayer, etc., but generally, the church loves it.

    I see that it has accomplished the following:

    1. I cannot possibly think like everyone in the room thinks. I approach passages a certain way, but always with some internal bias, blind spot, or perspective. The Q&A let’s me know when I have missed a perspective important to others, and held by others.

    2. I hate the idea of someone leaving the room confused. Something may be clear as crystal in my mind, but my lack of good exposition makes it as clear as mud to others. The Q&A gives me time to do damage control, answer questions, connect the dots, and clarify points, etc.

    3. The Q&A forces me to be ready in season and out of season. It sometimes blesses me to know that I have studied to show my self approved, and can pull from memory and studying, clear points to answer questions. But…sometimes the reverse is true, and the Q&A reveals to me that I have much more to learn and to think through.

    4. If I don’t have a good answer for someone, I ask to be given time to answer it either the following Sunday, or on my blog during the week. I think that demonstrates a few things to the congregation.
    #1- I don’t have all the answers, nor do they, and that isn’t bad. #2- It also demonstrates that it is OK to ask for time to find an answer to an honest question. That they ought to do that in their lives.

    5. I think it is important for Christians to learn to think on their feet, and to not be afraid to be challenged in their thinking in front of others. I believe many Christians are afraid to engage in dialog or debate, fearing that they don’t have all the answers. I demonstrate that we don’t have all the answers, and that that is OK.

    6. We have found that one person will text in a question, and that that text gets people thinking, and suddenly more texts come in. The Body is exhorting and provoking the rest of the Body without even trying.

    7. If people have been only partially engaged during the sermon, they really come alive in the pews during the Q&A, because anything could happen! As I am asked questions, they are waiting to hear my response to hard questions, but I believe that it also helps them gets their brains working, and that they are processing what they know, and trying to figure out how they would answer.

    8. Finally, (and maybe the best part) people will send in verses and thoughts that better illustrate what I was trying to teach. They send in short testimonies about victories in the areas that I was teaching. They finish my sermon for us.

    If I may link you guys to one of our videos, where the beauty of the Q&A was greatly enjoyed by all.
    Check the video at the 48:25 mark. It’s about 11 minutes.

    I was teaching on Romans 8:1-11. The Lord spoke to me that life in the Spirit could be compared to a new OS on a computer. An OS takes in data, analyzes it, makes it useful puts it on display, etc. The Holy Spirit, illuminates truth to us, shows us how to apply it, how to divide this from that, etc. There seemed to be some parallels. The example isn’t perfect, but the church totally bought into it, and magnified it through the Q&A. The experience was more holistic than just didactic.

    http://www.cmnv.org/a-new-operating-system/

    Reply
  7. Bill Walden
    Bill Walden says:

    Jon,
    Regarding corporate prayer gatherings, I have failed for many years, but have been inspired this year to emphasize it.

    I think if prayer happens, our churches need to hear it from the pulpit, and see it modeled by the leaders.

    I recently told the congregation during a mid week service, that if they are too busy to attend a midweek study and a prayer meeting, to skip the bible study, and come to prayer.

    We are deep with knowledge and shallow with prayer.
    As a result, we have had about 10% of the church joining weekly for prayer.
    I don’t brag about that, but I am thankful.

    I think those who are learned in the Word might do well to give up study time for prayer time.

    Reply
    • Jon Langley
      Jon Langley says:

      “I think those who are learned in the Word might do well to give up study time for prayer time.” — I’m convicted and convinced of the same thing, Bro.

      I guess that’s why I wonder, in the context of how we “do church” compared to other eras and other cultures, why it is that prayer seemed to be part of normal daily worship in the Jerusalem church and others; it still is a large part of worship services in many other cultures and countries; but it has become relegated to the occasional meeting in a lot of our liturgies in Western society today.

      I don’t know if having a set amount of prayer time to match the worship/singing time and exposition time is best or would even work. I’m not campaigning for a certain “normal” because I really not sure what would be best and I realise that each local Church body will and should be different. I just think it’s an easy cop-out to say the Jerusalem church prayed so much because of persecution and we’re not (“we” meaning American churchgoers). Or that the Jerusalem church was communal because of the poverty of persecution but we’re not. Is that really all there is to our differences? They were persecuted and we’re not so they prayed a lot and loved each other through sharing of resources but we don’t need to? Seems fishy.

      I’m with you, bro. “We are deep with knowledge and shallow with prayer.” If you’re getting 10% attending a dedicated prayer time in a modern-day California-based church I’d call that a wonderful move of God’s Spirit and pray it continues and expands.

      Thanks for your input!

      Reply

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