Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem, Israel (courtesy Wikipedia)
by Spencer D Gear
‘All a church building does is attract people from other churches’ is what a pastor told a small group I was attending. He and his church were contemplating building and were negotiating the purchase of a block of land.
Get a handle on this message, whether directly stated or implied: A church building is not to attract unbelievers and reach them for Christ. He said something similar to this as well: The church building is not intended as a means of outreach to unbelievers. It is a way to draw people from other churches.
Is that what we need in secularised, multi-cultural, non-Christian Australia?
The contemporary church in Australia is not radical enough.
Why spend mega-bucks for what?
Australian specimen $100 note (courtesy Wikipedia)
Therefore, my question to you is: Why spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to attract people away from other churches when there is a better alternative?
I’m speaking of an organic expression of the church that would equip God’s people to be biblically-based Christians in twenty-first century Australia. Get back to how the church functioned in the first century.
What is an organism?
The American Heritage Dictionary gives this definition of ‘organism’:
- An individual form of life, such as a plant, animal, bacterium, protist, or fungus; a body made up of organs, organelles, or other parts that work together to carry on the various processes of life.
- A system regarded as analogous in its structure or functions to a living body: the social organism.
So the human body is an organism, made up of many ‘parts that need to work together to carry on the various processes of life’. The same applies to the ‘social body’ and the body of Christ. We need to function together according to the qualities of each member of the body. In biblical terms we call these the gifts of the body of Christ.
How is the church of Jesus Christ described?
)Front view of vicera, courtesy Wikipedia)
‘You are the body of Christ’
What could be clearer than this? ‘Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it’ (1 Cor 12:27 ESV). Then 1 Corinthians spends three chapters explicating on how that body is to function for optimal ministry.
In the entire Bible there could not be a better description of how that body (the organic church) ought to function than First Corinthians 12-14 (Romans 12 also can be added and Ephesians 4). This message of the church being organic – the body of Christ – is not unique to First Corinthians. See:
- Eph 1:22-23, ‘And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all’.
- Eph 4:11-12, ‘And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ’.
- Eph 5:30, ‘because we are members of his body’.
- Col 1:24, ‘Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church’.
Functioning as an organism
What does this mean?
Since the church is an organic body of believers, it should be a fundamental for all Christians to function biblically by allowing their gifts to function when the church gathers, engages in outreach – and at much, much less expense. Buildings and pulpit-centred church gatherings are not an overflow from 1 Corinthians, Ephesians, Romans, and Colossian teaching.
I know that this sounds radical, but there are currently others who are going down this track. The hierarchical (pastor, elder, bishop, archbishop) model is a human invention from around the time of the Reformation. It did not come out of the New Testament or biblical Christianity from the first century church.
Have you heard of Frank Viola and his advocacy of an organic approach to church? In this online statement, he claims that there are ‘1,500 to 2,000 pastors who leave the clergy system each month in the USA. And most of them have left for the same reason: A crisis of conscience with their position and how church is “done” today‘ (emphasis in original).
Courtesy Frank Viola author: Biography
You might like to read a couple of Frank Viola’s posts that contain this information from February 2014, ‘5 Marks of a Spiritual Pioneer & A Famous Megachurch Pastor Steps Down‘. See another of his posts from 18 February 2014, ‘10 Reasons Why I Left the Institutional Church & Sought the Ekklesia‘.
If you want to investigate the contemporary church problem, I recommend Frank Viola and George Barna’s Pagan Christianity (2002), which is their diagnosis of the problem of the church, including the evangelical church. His follow-up book is, Reimagining Church (2008), which is his solution to the problem – a return to the organic ekklesia.
Frank Viola is radical, but I think that most thinking pastors and laity need to give him a read to shake our traditional thinking. The New Testament church also was radical in its impact on the world of the first century. Here are a few quotes from Pagan Christianity (Viola 2002):
- ‘the modern institutional church does not have a Biblical nor a historical right to exist!’ (2002:18, emphasis in original);
- ‘the Protestant order of worship has about as much Biblical support as does the Roman Catholic Mass!’ (2002:38);
- ‘At no time did Luther (or any of the other mainstream Reformers) demonstrate a desire to return to the practices of the first-century church. These men set out merely to reform the theology of the Catholic church (2002:45, emphasis in original).
- ‘Pragmatism, not Biblicism or spirituality, governs the activities of most modern churches’ (2002:59);
- Wayne Oates wrote: ‘The original proclamation of the Christian message was a two-way conversation…. but when the oratorical schools of the Western world laid hold of the Christian message, they made Christian preaching something vastly different. Oratory tended to take the place of conversation. The greatness of the orator took the place of the astounding event of Jesus Christ. And the dialogue between speaker and listener faded into a monologue’ (Oates in Viola 2002:83, emphasis in original).
- ‘What do I mean by a first-century styled church? I am talking about a group of people who know how to experience Jesus Christ and express Him in a meeting without any human officiation. I am talking about a group of people who can function together as a Body when they are left on their own after the church planter leaves them. The man who plants a first-century styled church leaves that church without a pastor, elders, a music leader, a Bible facilitator or a Bible teacher. If that church is planted well, those believers will know how to touch the living, breathing Headship of Jesus Christ in a meeting. They will know how to let Him invisibly lead their gatherings. They will bring their own songs, they will write their own songs, they will minister out of what Christ has shown them – with no human leader present’ (2002:289).
That will sound scary to many who have been raised in a traditional, status quo church (as I have). However, I have to admit that this is how a body functions and how 1 Corinthians 12-14 articulates how the body works when it is in action. I have yet to experience such a church body in my part of the world but I am seeking and praying for such.
In the latter part of their lives, my parents (who are now in the Lord’s presence) were attending Christian Brethren assemblies that had an approach to this kind of ministry, but women had to remain silent. That is contrary to the biblical mandate that says, ‘What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has …’ (1 Cor 14:26 NIV).
In spite of the fact that there was some turmoil in the Corinthian church over certain women who were told to ‘keep silent’ and it was ‘shameful for a woman to speak’ (1 Cor 14:34-35 ESV), there was a reason and that was: ‘But all things should be done decently and in order (1 Cor 14:40 ESV). We know that this was not an absolute teaching to silence women in church ministry because 1 Cor 11:5 speaks of ‘every wife who prays and prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head’ (ESV). It is impossible to prophesy in the Corinthian church and remain silent. Those who close down women in ministry in the church have adopted – in my understanding of Scripture – an interpretation that is not consistent in context.
Many church planters or those considering building have an ideal opportunity to be this radical in getting back to first century Christianity, instead of practising a model that started well after New Testament times. But it won’t happen unless the current leadership is convinced that the current model cannot be supported by Scripture.
The current pulpit dominated, pastor-centred, program-based model of the church closes down most of God’s gifted people when the church gathers. They become an audience of non-participators. In the traditional church, an organic model of function (a Bible-based version) is abandoned for a human-invented hierarchical, seeker-sensitive, and mega-church-growth model. The latter is coming out of marketing and rhetoric and not biblical functioning.
This is the organic church model in action:
Courtesy David C Cook
What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up (1 Cor 14:26 NIV).
After this pastor made the radical statement that a church building simply attracts people from other churches, I wondered why his church was going down that track and spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in the process. I thought through …
Some steps of a more radical approach:
- Continue meeting at the place where the church is presently hiring a facility while the current church leadership discusses and then begins to teach on how this local church can become radically organic as an ekklesia (church). Show how the institutional church is not a biblical model of function. However, deep down I have a reservation. It is challenging and even scary for a church to go down this route. I cannot imagine too many denominations supporting it as it would put paid pastors out of a job. Therefore, the most likely place to begin such a model is through an independent church plant that does not have a denominational affiliation. Let’s face it. There were no such structures as denominations in the first century church.
- Ask church leadership to read Pagan Christianity and then Reimagining Church by Frank Viola to discuss how to function as an organic church and equip God’s people for such.
- We do not need a repeat of what we can get at the Baptists, Churches of Christ, Wesleyan-Methodists, Pentecostal-charismatics, independent churches, etc. We need a return to the expression of biblical Christianity when the ecclesia gathers. We desperately need NT function and any church can have an opportunity to encourage that to happen – if it gets the biblical vision.
- Begin teaching some of this biblical material from the pulpit until your church officially moves to a truly organic function. But it is threatening to those raised on the status quo. Most do not know how to function as the body of Christ.
- Teach 1 Corinthians 12-14 with a careful exegesis and exposition so that the people of God understand that the church gathering is for the people of God to function and not for the people of God to be silent. They need to admit that what has been happening in the evangelical church (the liberal church lost the plot long ago) is a far cry from New Testament function. This does not mean the end of the function of a paid pastor, but it does mean that a large part of the pastor’s role will be to help facilitate a transition to a biblically-based organic model and then cause that model to grow in strength.
- One extended benefit is to prepare God’s people for possible persecution that could happen to the church in Australia.
This is a radical suggestion
Recently, the pastor who spoke with me, made a radical and practical statement that one of the primary functions of a new building will be to attract other church goers to that church. This article is designed to challenge the status quo of the hierarchical church to get back to the New Testament view of the body of Christ.
How about a radical rethink of the wisdom of building another traditional evangelical church? We need something that is radically and biblically different – an organic church.
When the body of Christ functions, God will notice the difference. This world will see the effects.
The prophetic A. W. Tozer got to the heart of this issue many decades ago:
What is needed desperately today is prophetic insight. Scholars can interpret the past; it takes prophets to interpret the present. Learning will enable a man to pass judgment on our yesterdays, but it requires a gift of clear seeing to pass sentence on our own day. One hundred years from now historians will know what was taking place religiously in this year of our Lord; but that will be too late for us. We should know right now.
If Christianity is to receive a rejuvenation it must be by other means than any now being used. If the church in the second half of this century is to recover from the injuries she suffered in the first half, there must appear a new type of preacher. The proper, ruler-of-the-synagogue type will never do. Neither will the priestly type of man who carries out his duties, takes his pay and asks no questions, nor the smooth-talking pastoral type who knows how to make the Christian religion acceptable to everyone. All these have been tried and found wanting.
Another kind of religious leader must arise among us. He must be of the old prophet type, a man who has seen visions of God and has heard a voice from the Throne. When he comes (and I pray God there will be not one but many) he will stand in flat contradiction to everything our smirking, smooth civilization holds dear. He will contradict, denounce and protest in the name of God and will earn the hatred and opposition of a large segment of Christendom. Such a man is likely to be lean, rugged, blunt-spoken and a little bit angry with the world. He will love Christ and the souls of men to the point of willingness to die for the glory of the one and the salvation of the other. But he will fear nothing that breathes with mortal breath.
We need to have the gifts of the Spirit restored again to the church, and it is my belief that the one gift we need most now is the gift of prophecy (Tozer 2013).
Tozer, A W 2013. The gift of prophetic insight (excerpted from Of God and men) (online). Published at Hermann, MO: Tentmaker Ministries, available at: http://www.tentmaker.org/holy-spirit/prophetic.htm (Accessed 21 February 2014).
Viola, F 2002. Pagan Christianity: The origins of our modern church practices. www.ptmin.org: Present Testimony Ministry.
Viola, F 2008. Reimagining church: Pursuing the dream of organic Christianity. Colorado Springs, CO: David C Cook.
 Viola’s footnote was, ‘What I am describing here is not arm-chair philosophy. I have worked with churches that fit this bill’ (2002:289, n. 25).
 There is a 2012 revision with Frank Viola and George Barna as co-authors, the title being, Pagan Christianity: Exploring the roots of our church practices. Ventura, CA: BarnaBooks (an imprint of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc).
Copyright © 2014 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date:27 January 2017.