11 March 2010

The Emperor has no clothes

Over on my friend David's blog, Big Circumstance, I managed to blurt out an idea that's been in my head for awhile but which never came out in quite the same way before.

The idea is this: lots of people who want to follow Jesus hate Sunday morning services. They find them energy-sapping and exhausting, like a terrible meeting at work that you really don't want to attend but have to. Only the thing about church is that you don't have to attend if you don't feel like it.

I think that this is actually the real challenge to the Church today and no amount of contemporary worship, no amount of praise songs and no amount of "modern worship" is going to "fix" the problem. Trying to make existing Sunday services attractive to people who would rather go to the dentist is just a no-win game and I think that's what we're trying to do. US congregations, not having yet declined in the way that the Church has done in the UK, seem even more stuck in the mode of thinking that if Sunday services just get more "modern" that more people will come.

Now, my only problem is that I don't really know what to "do" about this. I do think that small groups may be part of an "answer" and I suspect that this is part of where the Emerging Church movement is at. But I think that small groups are going to have to be places where individuals can share of themselves and be real and contribute to the growth of others in the group so that everyone can go out from the meeting into the world. They can't be just another meeting. And they can't be primarily led by one person week after week or they just turn into mini-Sunday services.

Any other thoughts?


Jonathan Robinson said...

I have that problem, but I still go because I fundamentally believe in church even when I find it energy sapping. The problem I have is that I don't think the people who do church and the people who go to church know any more what it is supposed to be for. Worship has become either entertainment or pursuit of some sort of experience and the sermon has become education or advice. Worse than both of those is that fellowship now consists of small talk.

All those things can be satisfied better now on the internet or TV. Figure out what church is actually for and people who follow Jesus will want to come again.

On the whole I feel at church that I am mainly getting my time wasted.

(of course this doesn't reflect on your context, i have no idea what your church is like)

PamBG said...

Hi Jonathan: Thanks for those comments; I don't really have that experience with worship so it's interesting to hear from someone who does. I especially appreciate your comment as it seems somewhat more concrete than I'm used to hearing, so it's easier for me to understand than what often sounds like vague complaints.

I'm not the minister of a congregation right now and may not be for some time, due to my family circumstances. I had to move to the US to be near family and I'm ordained in the British Methodist Church which is a different bureaucratic entity than the United Methodist Church, so it's unlikely I'll have an appointment whilst I remain in the States.

I've always been rather "restless" about "church as institution" so this is an opportunity to rethink ministry. I have always felt that all Christians minister and that worship was a "place" to be sent out from rather than a destination in and of itself. The institution always feels like it thinks that "church" should be a destination. In the UK, many small congregations seem to be hoping to be destinations. In this part of the US bible-belt, congregations (still) are very much destinations. This drives me crazy.

As a congregational minister it's so easy to get caught up in this mindset too. The UMC seems to be evaluating pastors and congregations as if they were businesses: the growing ones deserving of resources and the declining ones not. Which rather makes me think I don't want any part of that. People seem to equate "going to church" with being a Christian. This drives me crazy too.

Rev Tony B said...

"Cell Church" might have something to offer. Basically, church needs two wings to fly - big wing and small wing. Small wing is the cell group, which isn't just another small group but has a set of values by which to work. That means it isn't the same person doing their thing every time. Big wing is the congregation or celebration - worship is linked to what everyone is doing in cell, but it is a celebration. The dialogue between the two should mean that everyone finds what they need to be nurtured and to enable them to serve according to their gifts. One of the cell values is "every member ministry".

The theory is that a cell begins with 6 people and grows to 12, at which point it divides into 2 sixes, which start again. That means there is always growth, and necessarily there is always training of new leaders. It was very successful in Malaysia, where binary growth was expected to happen every 6 months. In the UK it is expected to take about 2 years ('cos we're Brits, and reserved, or something). (Here in Pennine W Yorks, it seems to be taking about 10 years...)

Might be worth exploring to see how it could fit where you are. Cell UK is at www.celluk.org.uk - there will be information in more detail than I can give.

PamBG said...

Tony, I guess that "cell groups" are along the lines of what I was thinking about.

When I attended Guy Chester Centre for Foundation Training, we were introduced to them. I personally found the cell group extremely difficult.

I think I felt that we were forced into a "programme" in the cell groups and that we had the illusion of the possibility of being able to share with each other but, really, there wasn't time to do it because the entire hour was filled up with pre-programmed material. With corporate worship, you know that its going to be pre-programmed and you don't come to it with the expectation of sharing.

I think that my idea about "small groups" is that each group could work out its own format rather than being forced into a set pattern. Although I appreciate that there are other issues here too, like not staying worshipful and Christ-focused and not deteriorating into gossip sessions.

The problem with the two-pronged approach, as I see it is that you'd need both "prongs" to work. From the perspective of a member (as opposed to working minister) I don't think I've ever yet had that happen. In the past, I've always defaulted to congregational worship that worked for me.

At the moment, I love my Sunday School class (the equivalent of a house group in the US) and I find the congregational worship totally unengaging with the exception of our pastor's sermons which are generally very good.

Beccabumps said...

For a Methodist Church that has been declining in numbers for a number of years and felt pretty depressed when we arrived we've just started a home group. When talking about coming here we had the image of an oak tree (later we found it to be common image with others in the churches around us). The small groups are the roots where people get fed, grow, expect to be changed and explore who they are. This, in theory, creates the foundations or underpinning for all other expressions or symptoms of 'church'...without that level of fellowship and discipleship (in my opinion) the expressions (the toddler groups and cafes and youth groups etc) can be just the empty actions of a desperate church seeking new ways of getting bums on seats that are unable to be maintained in the longterm because there are no foundations, no nutrients getting through to the growth above from the roots below. (not sure that's very clearly explained but i am also making tea while preventing a 1 year old from beating me)

PamBG said...

Good comments, Becca, thank you.