Many churches seek to reach specific groups of people by engineering services to suit each group. I remember as a teenager going to a “Hawaiian” themed service, not trying to reach Hawaiians, but people that preferred a relaxed island environment with music played on an ukulele. While many of our churches aren’t so specific about the affinity groups they seek to reach, they are clearly divided on demographic and interest lines.
For example, one church I was previously a member of operated something like this:
Children begin in the crèche; then graduate into the kids’ ministry; then move to the junior high ministry; then the high school ministry; next, they begin at the evening congregation, which (and I quote) “is a place for tertiary students, young workers, and young marrieds without children, but all are welcome” (!). Then if/when you have children you move to the church plant just for families. When your kids reach the age of youth ministry, you go to the middle-aged-adult-contemporary service where you stay as an empty nester until retirement. Once retired, or perhaps when you just wake up so early that you need to be home for a mid-morning nap, you go to the “traditional” service in the early morning. Then you die. Birth to death: there is a congregation for each stage of life.
When your kids reach the age of youth ministry, you go to the middle-aged-adult-contemporary service. Once retired, you go to the “traditional” service in the early morning. Then you die. Birth to death: there is a congregation for each stage of life.
There are, of course, many other varieties of how we can and do divide the people of God. We have historically done this for seemingly good practical reasons: like attracts like, and so if we want to see people come to Christ we need to provide a place where they can relate and find people like them to connect with.
But what is wrong with this picture? The subliminal message received is that church is about me. It is a place where I can find people I like: I can find me. If you aren’t offended yet, get ready. This structuring of our communities absolutely undermines the gospel. Oh, we may preach the gospel faithfully, we may give people wonderful programs for growth, etc. But our form communicates something about what we believe. We communicate that Christian community is just like the world. Christian community is about superficial affinity. Christian community is a place where you can find what you like, be around people just like you, and a place where we’ll make you feel comfortable. But all of these messages aren’t the gospel.
True Christian community sees the gospel break barriers (Ephesians 2). It brings together young and old, allowing the older members to impart wisdom and the younger members to stoke enthusiasm (Titus 2). It brings together single, married and widowed—providing a space for mutual service and a demonstration of true love amongst brothers and sisters (Ephesians 5-6, 1 Timothy 5, 1 Corinthians 7). It brings together people of varying needs, and gives them a place for care (Romans 12, James 2). It is a body of believers that says no member is insignificant (1 Corinthians 12).
For too long now we have allowed our structures to cut our legs out from under us. We have made compatibility the focus of our gatherings rather than the communion we share in Christ. In doing so, we have made church a place where—in all our efforts to give people a place to belong—we’ve actually excluded them. There are times, seasons in life, where people have to leave church, or they simply don’t feel they can belong. Is that true Christian community? The only viable barrier that I can imagine for our communities is one of language. Why? Because at the core of our gatherings is the Word of God. We gather to partake in gospel truth together. If we can’t understand one another, then there may be good reason for us to separate into groups where we can understand and be understood.
The lesson we must learn is one that Dietrich Bonhoeffer articulated well: “The more genuine and deeper our community becomes, the more will everything else between us recede, the more clearly and purely will Jesus Christ and his work become the one and only thing that is vital between us.”
So, when we think about our churches we must consider what we communicate not just in our words, but also in our structures. Here are a few practical diagnostic questions to ask:
- In what ways have preferences divided people? In the worship wars, did we simply settle on agreeing to disagree, rather than finding gospel solutions? “You meet early with your organ, we’ll meet later with our guitars.”
- Are our current structures promoting or hindering intergenerational discipleship? In other words, if your congregation is age-specific, who is training the younger generations? Likewise, who is enthusing the older generations?
- How do our services demonstrate life together in Christ as something different and richer than any other local community organisation?
- Who isn’t welcome at your church service?
Without any exposition, consider the charge given to us in Philippians 2:1-11 (ESV), grounded in the example of Christ:
So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, 2 complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3 Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. 5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
May Jesus Christ be the foundation of our churches both explicitly in our words (message), but also implicitly in our structures (mode).