I have been in a swirl of reflection theologically and historically, and recently, the latter has impacted me much more in how far removed we have become from the early churches – especially in light of the fact that our society and culture is not that different from the Greco-Roman world. It is worth noting immediately that the early church certainly was not perfect in everything, but are the drastic changes we have made improvements on those imperfections? This piece will namely be a means of provoking thought more than anything (I hope) and it is important to keep in mind that when I say “church” I am primarily referring to local congregations.
I think often about the structure of the church today (to which I want to mention that I believe congregationalism to be the most biblical ecclesiastical structure) and wonder why we do things the way we do. That is the big question: “why?” – and I think we need to be asking this question more. I would argue that most churches don’t really have an answer other than, “That is how we have always done it,” which equates to “modern tradition.”
Of course, tradition isn’t necessarily bad and not all traditions have stuck in the church, one example being the inclusion of contemporary worship music, but the general structure and focuses of the church today seems to be fundamentally the same. I certainly don’t want to make a broad and sweeping statement, and so if your church is an exception, that is good. I certainly have questions and often wonder why the structure seems to rarely be different. Following a very quick debriefing on the structure of early church gatherings, I will share some of those thoughts and questions.
Within the early church, music, or singing, was not central – in fact, most services were structured simply with reading of and expounding on scripture, prayer, and the Lord’s supper. The music that was around in the early church was responsive chanting of the Psalms and poetic parts of the New Testament. Most would argue that hymns written by Christians did not become common until the 4th century, but regardless, we see little music and no instrumentation because the church considered them too Jewish or Pagan. Readings in the church would be from the Old Testament, Psalms, and the New Testament, followed by a sermon, and then the dismissal of non-baptized members for prayer and communion. This led to services that were about three-hours long, which would make most modern Christians sweat at such an idea. Interesting as well is the fact that hymns of the time were extremely theologically rich, often combating heresies. The point is not that they had it all right, but there is that question about “why” things are structured the way they are nowadays.
What we see is an immediate contrast with the common format of church today: half music, some scripture (being generous here), and maybe communion (depending where you go) vs the early church which consisted of the reading of scripture, and communion, with some music.
I am coming to believe that we are structured the way we are because of the business model churches have taken on. I think most of our answers to the “why” question will be found in the reality that the churches are just wanting to pull more people in, and if that is not their desire, they could likely be more biblical in other areas. (Of course, we must remember that we will never find a perfect congregation.) This is not to say that having more people in your church is bad, but rather, how and why they come to your church is the question is being raised.
What is peculiar is this notion that the church has replaced evangelism. Some may disagree with that statement, but consider how we invite unbelievers in, we try to get friends and family to come to church, and we try to pull people in from the outside – but why? So, they can hear the gospel… right? The problem should be obvious, but we have forgotten it: the church is for the believer, not the unbeliever. An unbeliever who wants to come in and learn certainly can, but the church’s function is to disciple, edify, and support other believers, not cater to carnal desires of unbelievers. Discipling and teaching your congregation will lead to their proper evangelizing, sharing the gospel with those around them.
The biggest difference between the early church and the American church is that the early church didn’t need programs, culturally relevant material, shorter sermons, or any other bells or whistles – they just needed Jesus, they wanted scripture, and they wanted fellowship. Jesus was enough for them, but is He for us? It has been said by a number of individuals that “what you win people with is what you win people to”. If you win people with entertainment, that is what they want, and when you take that away from them, they will leave.
Not only this, but think about how much we pander to the culture. The early church was seeking to be what the church was supposed to be: separate, holy, set apart, different than the world. Us? Not us. We assimilate the world to attract the world. The problem is, a little leaven ruins the whole lump, and I imagine Paul would have some harsh words for the church of America. While the church met in homes under persecution with deep hearts turned to Jesus, the modern church meets in large buildings (or even stadiums) that is acceptable to the culture with hearts turned to entertainment. Most in congregations have not read the bible, they don’t care to hear the bible explained, they don’t want theology, and on it goes.
Let’s look at one of the most prominent examples of this shift in focus: music in the church today. Why do we play contemporary music? Most answers are simple – for the younger generation. Why? So that they are interested in church. Why do they need contemporary music to be interested in the church? Perhaps it is because they are not interested in Jesus, and they are not interested in Jesus because they are not truly born again. The church thinks that if they pull in unbelievers, they can make them into Christians. But it corrupts the church more than it ought because the church isn’t for making unbelievers into Christians; it’s for Christians to grow as Christians with Christians.
You might respond, “But people aren’t evangelizing!” Why aren’t they evangelizing? Do they know the gospel? Do they believe it? Are they living a Christian life and talking about God? The Modern Church pulls people in, but lets them sit where they are: in nominal Christianity. Why is the church so focused on pulling people in instead of feeding those who are already there? Why is the church all about entertainment? It is because it has turned into a business. It needs to pull people in, even from competing congregations.
So one question is, with all this in mind, why do we have the music that we have now and why is that music half (or more) of our service? A question that may seem odd for our traditions, but significant I think. Why has music become equated to “worship?” Why is the music so shallow? And why has the music become more of a concert?
I want to say before going further that I am a musician and I love music dearly, and also that I don’t have a problem with contemporary Christian music, but I do have a problem with contemporary music being mistaken as worship. It is no question that the worship wars have continued on for a long time, so I really don’t want to beat that drum. I don’t care if the music is loud or uses instruments. I just want to know the “why.”
Why has music become so central, and why has it become more of a spectator’s sport? It reminds me of the medieval church with communion in which the laity (albeit in awe) would simply watch was priests would take communion. I see praise music being the same. We have changed not only how music is placed in worship, but how the essence and purpose of music was in the church. Music prior was minimal, but more engaging, deep, and rich than we use now. (Perhaps we use music so much now that we have cheapened its quality due to “high demand”.)
When hymns were introduced, they usually countered poor theology. Yet we have entered into a time of repetitive, shallow, music, which seems to be produced by groups with poor theology (which is an understatement). Music was a supplement of worship, not the primary means of worship. I think it is only when we understand that the business model of church is primary today that this makes sense.
Imagine a service today where you walked in and one individual read a chapter of the Old Testament, maybe sang a psalm in between, then read from the New Testament, and followed up with corporate prayer. Then the congregation takes communion. Imagine the three-hour-service, being one hour, for the sake of illustration. Do you think this would work today? If the answer is no, why? I think the answers to “why” this wouldn’t work reveals more about the lack of genuine Christianity than a mere cultural or time gap.
When thinking about modern music in the church, I actually feel bad for those who are leading worship. Giving them the benefit of the doubt, they probably want the congregation to participate, to engage their minds and hearts, but perhaps the modern approach and high demand for ‘good sounding music’ has hindered that. Instead of hearing the voices of other saints around us, we hear the saints on stage via microphones and instrumentation. Why? Perhaps the leadership wants the congregation to feel comfortable with singing openly, but that takes away one of the beautiful aspects of congregational praise, the voice of the collective rising up, instead, we just hear the band.
A question arises from that: would someone who is legitimately wanting to sing to Jesus congregationally care about being comfortable? No, or at least they shouldn’t be. I’ve heard many a bad singer in congregations, singing with more passion than the modern Christian hits artists. Why? Because they love Jesus. This isn’t to undermine those who may be shy with singing, but to make the point that you cannot “force” people to praise God – especially a God that they don’t know on a meaningful, theological, or relational level.
Sadly, we have entered into a time where shallow theology is normative, but why do we allow that to occur in an environment that isn’t supposed to be that way? The question circles back to, “why?” Perhaps the answer is, the theology is too deep, and the question would still be “why?” Why can’t your congregation understand these concepts? Likely because you aren’t teaching them. Perhaps attention spans play a role, which again spawns from the desire for people to come in and be a part of the church. Again, why? To be in fellowship with other believers, I would hope, but I would argue this just places them in fellowship with nominal Christians. What is worse is that those who are actually passionate and love Jesus are hidden away in the sea that has become modern Christianity.
Very few churches go through scripture, but will instead use one verse to springboard into a motivational speech. Very few in the congregation likely read scripture in their free time. This is backwards, which is quite sad when you consider how hard men and women fought for the bible to be in the hands of average Christians. In the early church, the only means of hearing scripture was within congregations, and so they soaked it in eagerly. Down the road Christians couldn’t understand the Bible, because it was presented in a different language, and now? Now we have all the access anyone could ever need to the bible and few seem to touch it.
One misconception that we have allowed to enter into the church is the idea that theology and bible study are only for church leadership. This is a sad mistake. Voddie Baucham in a message speaking against neglect of theology and the bible notes that, If a young man loves theology – he must be called to be a pastor, right? No. In truth, he must actually love Jesus and want to learn more about his God. John Chrysostom rebuked Christians who thought they did not need the Bible because they were not monks, “This belief has ruined you, because you need it much more than they do. For those who live in the world and each day are wounded are the ones who have the most need of medicine.” History truly repeats itself.
In regards to the sacraments, communion is now just a ritual that isn’t taken as seriously as it ought when it was originally a central point of focus in worship, and people are flippantly baptized. In the early church, individuals needed to be discipled and fasted before being baptized. Nowadays, if they make a profession of faith or say a prayer, they must be regenerate.
We have turned the church upside down in many ways and many get uncomfortable when the structures they love and trust are questioned. We need to be asking, “Why?” Why do we do what we do, and why do we do it in the way that we do? I sadly believe that many of the answers center around bringing people in for numbers and not as true converts. The distinction that must be restated between us and the early church is this: we rely more on man-made devices than the pure, unadulterated Gospel to bring people into the church, and that is a shame. The Gospel is enough. Jesus is enough. And those who love Jesus will love to hear His word. Your congregational attendance numbers will go down. The question is, why?
Note: The image and the title are ironic and satirical on purpose. Because, contrary to what many reading this may think…I do have a sense of humor.
A special thanks to Emily Urban from http://emilyurban.com for editing and providing feedback on this article.
Another special thanks to my dear brother in Christ, Josh Hoffman, for his wisdom and thoughts on these issues. He has been an amazing encouragement and example of how Christians should live. When speaking on this article he pointed me to this piece by John Piper – As a Pastor, Did You Use Church Growth Strategies?