I’ve been thinking a good deal about models for church — how church runs, if you want to think about it that way. For many decades here in the US, we’ve been using a pretty standard model. There’s a building, a pastor, limited other staff, programs, committees, and worship is the big thing that we try to get everyone to on Sunday morning each week. There’s other stuff in that model too — education, ministry, budgets, and service projects. I’m sure I’m missing a few things, but that’s not the point. You know what I’m talking about.
But here’s the thing — this hasn’t been the only model for church. In Europe, the model has been different — mostly because of the relationship between church and state is far different from the US traditionally. When the church is an official state religion, you end up with a very different model. The state collects taxes for the church, staff is usually greater, with larger and older buildings, worship happens, but has few attendees, and the church provides some services to the general public — weddings, funerals, baptisms. The churches in these countries are usually more bureaucratic.
There are other models — African churches are different from American and European churches. Some countries have more evangelists than pastors — a role that doesn’t exist in American Christianity. The services are joyful expressions that last hours and are the heart of Sunday, with multiple offerings. The church is more central to the life of the community, and the church hierarchy has more influence on government in many instances.
In all of these examples, the models have worked…until the don’t. There were other models before these. And when they didn’t work anymore, the church changed. There are a variety of reason why a model doesn’t work any longer. The current model for the church in the US is not working any longer. The numbers show this. Attendance has been in decline for decades. Membership has too. Offerings to church has gone down as well over all. Although, the people who remain are actually giving more. There is a focus on seeing results for what is given. The numbers don’t lie.
Recently I made the argument that the church needs to be open to different models. There isn’t going to be a one-size-fits-all silver bullet. I do think there is something fundamental though — a shift in focus.
In the current model, there is usually great focus given to getting more people into worship first. There are reasons for this — worship is the center of Christian life. And so churches have spent a great deal of time, energy, and effort at figuring out ways to get people to worship. Some of this makes sense. It is during worship that an offering is made — the revenue for the running of the church. Churches adjust worship, add new things, have the latest technology, go old school with the liturgy, using social media — all with an effort to get people into the pews for worship.
Let me say this — I have nothing against worship. I’m a pastor and worship is a big part of what I do. I enjoy worship very much. But I wonder if there are other models that draw people in outside of worship. That’s not to say that worship should be excluded — it’s still a central part of Christian life. I’m saying there are other models that draw people in that will lead to worship. But worship isn’t the end all, be all either.
If you are like me, maybe you need a visual. Here’s a rough draft of the concept.
Throughout the Gospels Jesus is inviting people into relationship with him. He’s telling them to come and follow him. He’s inviting them into the work of the kingdom. He’s got a mission that he is sending them on.
But he isn’t inviting people to worship, in the sense that we think about it today. He invited people into ministry and mission, and he invited people into discipleship.
As you can see from the drawing, I put those two areas at each end of the church “pipe” as I’m calling it. They are entry points into relationship. And each of those moves towards and through worship and drives us out to do the other end. Think of worship as a pump that moves us through to the other side. In other words, if someone is invited to mission and ministry, they will be drawn towards worship and be sent out towards discipleship. Worship still has a central place in the life of the church — but a different role maybe. Ministry and mission, as well as discipleship are ways that Jesus brought people in and I think Jesus calls on us to begin relationships with people.
People want to be a part of ministry — especially hands-on ministry. People want to take part in mission. They are drawn to it. As a result, they will want to grow deeper in relationship with the people they are doing ministry and mission with. Worship is an opportunity for that. Worship is a communal activity in the church. At least in the Lutheran tradition, it involves gathering people in, hearing the Word, being in meal together, and being sent out.
Sent out where — for more ministry and for discipleship. Discipleship is going deeper in living the way of Jesus. It involves learning, listening, thinking, questioning, relationship, and more. While ministry and mission are hands-on, discipleship is heart and head on.
Some people may be invited into discipleship and be drawn to that as well. In growing deeper in discipleship, there will be a desire for relationship with other disciples where people can gather, hear the Word, be in meal together, and be sent out. Sent out for more discipleship and ministry and mission.
A new model for church isn’t a total scrapping of everything the church is about. It’s really more a change of what already exists. Instead of focusing on getting people to worship first, the change is on reaching people through mission, ministry, and discipleship. Those relationships will drive engaged people towards worship and send them out for more ministry, mission, and discipleship.
The practical question becomes, how do you pay for the running of the organization? Good question. Maybe offering in worship is just one aspect. Maybe our idea of offering needs to expand because isn’t ministry, mission, and discipleship exactly what the church is called to? Is that not participating in the unfolding of the kingdom? Are there opportunities to support these efforts directly? I have no idea. But I’m willing to guess that there are.
This also raises other questions — what does the structure of the church look like? What is the role of the pastor? What does church look like as an organization?
These are really big questions, which I don’t have the answer to. But I think it’s important to ask the question, to explore, to test, to try things. It’s important to recognize the reality that what worked in the past isn’t working any more. It’s important to look at the reality of the numbers and face them, rather than kick the can down the road. There is no more road for many churches. And even though many church should have been tackling this challenge years ago, it’s never to late to start. But the longer we wait, the worse the options will be.
But the good news is that this is a great time to be the church. Yes, the numbers look bad. But all that means is that we are given an amazing opportunity to do something that happens once every 500 years or so — rethink church and discern how God is calling the church to carry out the mission. We have an amazing opportunity set before us. We can approach it with fear, clutching onto a model that doesn’t work, saying things like “we’ve never done it this way before,” or we can respond in trust to the faith that God gives us, opening our arms to new models that haven’t been tried, and saying things like “We haven’t tried that before, I wonder what would happen…”
God is giving us an amazing opportunity. How will we respond?