In 1988, I left the organized church never to return again. Since that time, I have been gathering with Christians under the Headship of Jesus Christ. My books, “Rethinking the Wineskin,” “Who is Your Covering?,” and “Pagan Christianity,” all reflect a new paradigm for the church. These books have generated a great deal of reaction, both positive and critical. Positive among non-traditionalists. Critical among modernist traditionalists.
From the day I stepped out of institutional Christianity until this day, I have been asked the following question countless times: “Why do the vast majority of Christians prefer the traditional church, with all of its unbiblical practices, over churches that are patterned after the New Testament?”
Just recently, I discovered an answer to that question. To my mind, the best means of passing that answer on is to share the following interview with you.
Frank: So tell me, Anna, why do you go to church?
Anna: I go to church in order to grow spiritually.
Frank: I see. Can you describe to me what your church gatherings are like?
Anna: Sure. Our church services are essentially the same each week. First, the greeters give everyone a bulletin that gives announcements and tells about special events during the week. We then have praise and worship. I love the worship team at our church, and I enjoy the songs and the music.
Frank: Are the people in the congregation free to request songs and start songs?
Anna: Oh, no. Only the people up on the stage can do that. We just follow along. I think we have hymn books. But the words of the songs are put up on a projector screen.
Frank: What happens next?
Anna: Well, we then have announcements and the offering is taken up.
Frank: How does that happen?
Anna: Well, usually the pastor or someone from the staff will remind us about how important it is to give to God. He will sometimes read passages from Malachi on tithing and how a curse is upon those who don’t tithe and a blessing is on those who do.
Frank: What is the money used for?
Anna: From my understanding, the money is used to pay the pastor and his staff. It is also used to pay for the building and for other programs the church has.
Frank: Have you ever been part of the decision-making process of how the money is to be used?
Anna: Oh, no. That’s the job of the pastor and his staff. I think we have deacons who might help with this too, but I’m not sure.
Frank: Alright. Then what happens after the offering?
Anna: Well, that’s when the pastor preaches his sermon.
Frank: How often does the pastor preach?
Anna: He preaches every week, unless he is out of town and a guest speaker comes in. Once in awhile he’ll let the assistant pastor preach a sermon.
Frank: So basically, every week you are hearing about the Lord from the same part of the Body of Christ?
Anna: What do you mean?
Frank: Well, every Christian is a member of Christ’s Body. Each member has a function, just like the physical members of your physical body. The pastor is but one member. But you are a member also. And so is every other Christian who is part of your church. So if the pastor is the only one ministering in the service, the people are only hearing from one part of the Body.
Anna: Oh, I see. I never heard it put that way before.
Frank: What if you had a question during the sermon, could you raise your hand and ask the pastor? And what if you had something you wanted to share with the congregation . . . a message, a word, a testimony, an exhortation . . . could you do that?
Anna: I don’t think so. I’ve never seen that done before. It wouldn’t be appropriate.
Frank: Okay. Let’s continue. What happens after the sermon?
Anna: After the sermon, the worship team comes back on stage and plays a song or two. And sometimes the pastor will ask those who have needs to come up to be prayed for. In the last church I attended, this didn’t happen. So we just went home after the sermon.
Frank: Do you know anyone at your church?
Anna: Oh yes, there are three friends of mine who go also.
Frank: How many attend your church?
Anna: I think between 80 and 100. I’m not sure of the exact number.
Frank: Other than your three friends, do you fellowship with any of the Christians at your church during the week outside of religious services?
Anna: No. In fact, I really don’t know anyone else there. The pastor gives us a few minutes after the offering to greet one another. But I could never remember their names. I go to Sunday School sometimes and know some people there. They seem nice, but we don’t have a relationship outside of church activities. There is also a woman’s Bible study during the week. I’ve been a few times. The women are nice and we have discussions, but again, I really don’t know them well.
Frank: Okay, you have described your church very well. Let’s see. In the beginning of my interview, you said that the reason why you go to church is so that you can grow spiritually. Correct?
Anna: Yes, that is why I go.
Frank: So would it be fair to say that your church helps you to grow spiritually by listening to the pastor’s sermons and by singing the songs led by the worship team?
Anna: I guess that would be accurate.
Frank: Have you ever heard how the early Christians had their church meetings in the New Testament days?
Anna: No, how did they meet?
Frank: Well, before I answer that question, let me say that there are churches today that meet just like the Christians did in the first century. So I will describe these meetings in the present tense. I belong to such a church.
Anna: Okay, sounds good.
Frank: First, everyone in the church knows one another. And quite well. We spend time together outside of religious meetings. There is a fraternity of sorts among us. We are like family in many ways.
Second, we sing. But we have no worship leader, song director, or worship team. Instead, everyone is free to lead a song or request a song. And many of the people in the church have written many of our own songs. To be honest, our singing is very powerful even though none of us are professionals.
Anna: Wow. That sounds great. I often want our church to sing a certain song at a service, but there is no way to make requests like that.
Frank: Third, when we meet, we don’t have a designated person who gives a sermon each week. Instead, the ministry comes from anyone who wishes to share. So if you were to visit a meeting, you’d find many different people in the church exhorting, encouraging, testifying, and bringing a word that magnifies the Lord. So instead of hearing from one member of the Body each week (as is the case in your church), we get to hear from many members. And everyone is welcome to share.
Also, since our meetings are open, anyone can ask a question or add an insight when someone else is sharing. This happens quite frequently and it is spontaneous and very edifying.
Anna: I don’t believe I have ever seen anything like this. What about the money? And what about the pastor . . . do you all have a pastor?
Frank: Just like the first-century Christians, we don’t have a pastor. Instead, we realize that all of us are responsible to care for one another (we are the church). We make decisions together as a Body. We plan our meetings, our activities, and we decide how to handle our problems. We decide how to use the money we give. Tithing is not required (that was an Old Testament practice). But we do give. We give to the needs among us and to anything else the church decides to give to. We meet in homes so we don’t have the obscene overhead of a church building. And we have no clergy to support. Sometimes we bless the poor and needy. Other times we help other churches like ours to get off the ground. Other times the church here will put on something special for the community. And we give to that.
Anna: So this is how the early Christians met?
Frank: Yes. In fact, this is the kind of gathering the Bible is talking about when it says, “Forsake not the gathering of yourselves together . . . but exhort one another” (Hebrews 10:25). That is what we do. We exhort one another in our meetings. Because we are constantly encouraging one another in the church meetings as well as outside the meetings, our spiritual growth is not dependent on one man (a pastor). Instead, we have the privilege of getting fed from all the members of the Body . . . for every member of the church is encouraged to share in our meetings.
AnnaI never thought of it that way, but it makes sense. It sounds like there is a lot of freedom in this way of meeting.
Frank: Yes, there definitely is. We are free to function in our meetings as the Lord leads us. We believe that every member of the Body is gifted and has both the right and the responsibility to edify one another in the church gatherings.
Anna: How is this different from a Bible study group like the women’s Bible study group that my church sponsors? And how is it really different from a Sunday School class?
Frank: It is very different. Your Bible study has a Bible study instructor or leader. And that person is under the pastor. While there may be more freedom to discuss things than a traditional church service, a Bible study is not a church meeting where every member brings something of Jesus Christ to share with everyone else. In a church meeting, there is no leader except for Jesus Christ! All gather under His Headship. In a Bible study (or a weekly “cell group”), everyone does not have the freedom to make decisions on how church money will be used, how church meetings will be planned, what the church will do for the community, or for the Lord Himself. Everyone does not have the freedom and the responsibility to get the Lord’s mind on the affairs of the church. It is all prescribed by human leaders.
Sunday School is similar to a Bible study. You have a leader who is in charge. And you basically go there to receive from the Sunday School instructor, not to share or to give. Nor do you get the benefit of receiving ministry from the other people in the class. Plus, Sunday School is an event that is part of the larger church. So it has time-restrictions and is ultimately under the authority of the pastor.
Anna: I understand. What do you think the main difference is between your church and mine?
Frank: There are many. But I’ll just list two. Your spiritual growth is dependent on the preparation, the study, and the insights of one man . . . the pastor. (If you attend Sunday School and Bible study, then it is dependent on three people.) It would also be dependent on the amount of will power you can muster up to spend time with the Lord during the week.
My spiritual growth is dependent on an entire Body of believers who minister the Lord to me every week. I also have the privilege of spending time with these people outside of scheduled meetings. We seek the Lord together. We fellowship throughout the week, and we mutually encourage each other. The Bible teaches that Jesus Christ cannot express His fullness through one or two or three people. He needs a Body to do that. And that’s what I enjoy in a very real way every week. Plus, I don’t have to try to muster up my will power to seek the Lord during the week. My brothers and sisters in Christ help me with that.
The other difference is that in your church, the pastor is the head of the church. He ministers to the people, and he makes the final decisions. He is in charge of the order of worship, and he has the final say on how the offering money is used. In my church experience, Jesus Christ is the Head of the church in a very real way. We let Him lead our meetings. He has the freedom to function through any one of the members of His Body that He chooses. We look to Him to make church decisions, and we, as members of His Body, are all involved and responsible for getting His mind and sharing it with one another.
Anna: These are very new thoughts to me. But it makes a lot of sense.
Frank: I’m curious. After hearing how your church experience differs from mine, do you think you would like to be part of a church like this . . . like the New Testament describes?
Anna: Well, I think the way your church does things is great. But to be honest, I don’t think it’s for me. I like my own church. I enjoy the pastor’s sermons, and I like the fact that most of the people don’t know me and I don’t know them. I can come to church, enjoy the singing and sermon, and leave, not worrying about anything or anyone. Your way of meeting seems too serious and far too personal for me.
Anna’s experience, thinking, and mindset represents the vast majority of church-going Christians today. But does it reflect yours?
Do you agree or disagree with Anna’s sentiments about church?
How many Christians do you know who reflect Anna’s thinking? How many would disagree with her?
What can we glean from this interview regarding the direction of the contemporary church?
Frank Viola is an author and conference speaker on radical church renewal and reform. The follow-up to this article is a new series of books he is offering on radical church reform which includes recent research by George Barna on the new revolution that is happening in the church.