Churches today are tempted to adopt a corporate model of the church, which can be a consumer-oriented approach focused on programs, numerical growth, and effectiveness. The early church showed a different model with the church being more like a family, which, says Skye Jethani, “will be equipped to meet this generation’s relational and spiritual thirst.” (p. 14, What if Jesus Was Serious About the Church?).
Speaker: Pastor Stephen “Tig” Intagliata
Main Bible Passage: Acts 2:42-47
Today we begin a six-week series on the Church using this book as our guide: What if Jesus Was Serious About the Church by Skye Jethani.
The format of this book is similar to a book on prayer that we read several months ago by Jethani: “What if Jesus was Serious about Prayer”. I remember some lively sharing about this book during our worship sharing time, and I trust that this book on the Church will also lend itself to some good reflection and conversation about what is the identity of the Church and how are we called to be the Church here at Daniels Run Peace Church.
One reason why we chose to do this series on the Church is because of our upcoming 45th Anniversary coming up a month from now, on September 25. I’m excited, and I hope you are as well. Our first pastor, Loren Horst, will be joining us, as well as a number of other former members of our congregation.
What better time to reflect on the Church than when we’re preparing to celebrate its anniversary and hear some of the history, stories and vision of this congregation from the past.
My hope and prayer as we go through this book and celebrate our anniversary is that not only will we look back on the past, but also gain a better understanding of the present situation of the Church,
And also look forward to the future of the Church, how we can be relevant and thriving and be faithful to God in the changing world in which we live.
It feels like we are living in a major time of upheaval in society and also in Church and its identity. If we look back on the Church’s history since its beginning on the day of Pentecost 2000 years ago, we can identify some events that were like earthquakes that shook up the Church, led to major changes and ultimately brought renewal in the life of the Church.
The late Christian author and historian Phyllis Tickle wrote a really provocative book just about 10 years ago called The Great Emergence.
The thesis of Tickle’s book is that about every 500 years a big paradigm shift happens in the Church which begins a new era of “Great” changes for the Church.
Tickle says that the first major shift occurred in the 6th century in the time of Gregory the Great and the fall of the Roman Empire. It was the beginning of what’s known as the Middle Ages, or “dark ages” in society and in the Church.
The new thing that emerged in the Church in the 6th century was the monastic movement—Christians forming separate communities where they committed themselves to a life of prayer, meditation, and service.
Tickle says that monasticism was Christianity’s lifeline through the next several centuries of the dark ages.
Then in the 11th century the major upheaval in the Church was the Great Schism, the separation between the Catholic Church in Western Europe and the Orthodox Church in the East.
And then 500 years later in the 16th century there was the Great Reformation which gave birth the to Protestant movement through Martin Luther and also the Anabaptist movement of the radical reformation which we Mennonites came from.
And now here we are 500 years later, and Tickle says that we’re again on the verge of something new, which she calls the Great Emergence. There is this movement right now within the larger Church called the Emerging Church,
Where different voices in the Church are seeking to envision new ways of being and doing church in this postmodern era that we find ourselves in,
It’s an era that is skeptical toward rational knowledge and certainty and institutional hierarchies that characterized the modern era of the past several centuries,
And instead postmodernism embraces moral relativism, pluralism, and rejection of black and white, binary approaches to seeing the world.
In the Emerging Church in this postmodern era, being authentic is more important that being right, there is more room for questions than having everything figured out, and relationships are more important than programs and structures.
In a way, it’s trying to get back to the description of the first Church as described in our scripture today in Acts 2. And it seems like a lot of it also resonates with what Skye Jethani says in What if Jesus Was Serious About the Church?
This morning we’re going to look at the Introduction of Jethani’s book. Here he spends most of those six pages contrasting two models of the Church—a Corporate model of the Church as an enterprise vs. a more family-oriented model of the Church as a fellowship.
I really like the quote he has from Richard Halverson, former chaplain of the United State Senate, who said:
“In the beginning the church was a fellowship of men and women centered on the living Christ. Then the church moved to Greece, where it became a philosophy. Then it moved to Rome, where it became a culture. And finally, it moved to America, where it became an enterprise.”
Jethani makes the point that there’s a temptation in the American Church to copy the values and strategies of corporations, to see the church more as a business than as the body of Christ.
A corporate model of the Church is program-focused, led by professional pastors who Jethani says spend more time inside managing programs inside the building than outside in the community serving.
One of the expressions of the corporate model of the Church has been the megachurch, which Jethani says buys into the mentality that bigger is better and that success is measured primarily by numerical growth, by how many people are filling the seats in the church building.
He says that with this model, sometimes effectiveness becomes more important than faithfulness, and he asks the question,
“In its pursuit of expansion, influence, and power, has the church lost the essential values of faith, hope, and love? In its desire to efficiently reach more people and grow as an institution, has it lost its original purpose to make disciples who grow into maturity?” p. 11
Jethani interacts with a lot of different people through his travels and also his podcast. I recommend his Holy Post podcast, done with Phil Vischer of Veggitales fame.
Jethani says that he encounters a lot of people who have left the Church or who are thinking about leaving Church and Christianity altogether.
These people often mention a frustration with the corporate machinery of the church, and a fatigue over the dehumanization that they experience.
And he says something that I found shocking: that the people who most likely leave the church are the most spiritually mature and most committed to Christ, and they leave in order to hang on to these things because they sense this toxicity in the church that has a negative effect on their life as a Christian.
Of course we can identify many other reasons why people are either checking out of church or don’t want to set foot inside of a church these days.
There are scandals where church leaders abuse their power, which tears apart a church leaves people hurt and disillusioned in the process.
People see so much hypocrisy in the church, so much intolerance and judgmentalism and hatred and lack of love toward people on the outside.
There’s the rise of Christian Nationalism in the Church, where churches and church leaders seek political power to make the United States a “Christian nation”.
People are getting turned off by the Church’s lust for power and for a privileged position in society, even through the use of force and coercion.
As a result of all the ways that the Church and many Christians are not being a positive witness , church and religious involvement is declining at an alarming rate. Up until the year 2000, church membership in the US was pretty stable at around 70%.
Then it started a significant decline, to 61% in the year 2010, and then down to 47% in 2020. And that was before the COVID-19 pandemic, which has led to more people leaving and many not coming back to church, at least not yet, maybe not at all.
Actually an interesting statistic I read is that smaller churches have fared better than larger churches during the pandemic. Of churches with less than 50 people, more of them gained people or held their own than lost people from the beginning of the pandemic until now. I think that’s kind of true for our church here at DRPC.
But overall, on any given Sunday, only about 30% of Americans will be worshipping in church.
So what’s the remedy? How can the Church become a place that is more life-giving than life-draining? How can people who experience loneliness and isolation in our technological and social-media filled era find the real community that they long for?
How can the Church be, in Jethani’s words, a “fellowship of men and women centered on the living Christ”, as it was in its beginning?
Jethani is convinced that the church must move from being a corporation to more like a family. He says that “a church that embraces the value of being a spiritual family… will be equipped to meet this generation’s relational and spiritual thirst.” P. 14.
So let’s take a look at the origins of the church as a family and a fellowship when it began. What did it look like when they gathered together? According to Acts 2:
First, they devoted themselves to the Apostle’s teaching. They took time to learn about Jesus and his message from people like the disciples Peter and John who lived and walked with Jesus during his time on earth.
Second, they spent time in fellowship with each other, breaking bread together. By breaking bread this could have referred to sharing meals together and also celebrating the Lord’s supper together. Back in that time, these two things were more closely associated than maybe they are today.
So in a real way, when we have fellowship meals, or have people in our homes, or go to lunch after worship, we’re in a sense breaking bread together.
Next, the early church community prayed together. Some of the prayers were probably from the Old Testament, like the psalms—which is a beautiful prayer book; some of the prayers were spontaneous as well.
Fourth, the passage says that they shared their possessions with the community, giving and distributing as people had need. As a result, there were no needy people among them. It was a community of sharing in so many ways.
Also, the passage points out that there were two different types of gatherings—in the temple, and also in homes. We could say it was a large group, more structured experience, and also smaller, face-to-face gatherings.
Our son and daughter-in-law used to go to church that was pretty large, 2-3 different services with 200-300 people at each service. They also had small groups of 8-12 people that met weekly; this helped people to get to know each other better face-to-face. Churches need this face-to-face time to be like a family.
Now I’m sure the early church had their struggles, and their personality clashes, and their own drama of trying to get along and be church together. All churches deal with these things. We see it in a lot of the Apostle Paul’s letters.
Maybe you’ve heard the saying, “if you’re looking for a perfect church, you’ll never find it, because as soon as you step into it, it’s not perfect anymore.”
But nonetheless, the early church community had a lot going for it; it was lifegiving. It says that they ate with glad and generous hearts, that they praised God and had a good reputation with those on the outside of the church.
I believe that one of the keys to this was that there was a real focus on the community rather than the individual.
In a consumer-oriented, corporate church model, there’s a tendency to focus on the individual. People look at a church and think, “What’s in in for me?” What can I get out of it? How can this church meet me and my family’s needs?
These are sometimes necessary questions to ask, but for a healthy church I believe that we must think about not just us as individuals but the community as a whole. We need to ask questions like What is best for the community? How can I contribute to this fellowship?
This picture of the church in Acts 2 gives the impression that it’s a very tight-knit community, like a close family.
Which in many ways is great, but in a close-knit family, sometimes it’s hard to make space for new people to come in and become part of the family.
But it appears that the early church was able to open its doors to welcome people on the outside who liked what they saw and wanted to be part of the community:
It says that “the Lord added to their number those who were being saved”.
Growing up, my parents made our house a welcoming place for people outside of our family. They would invite people over, and sometimes people would just drop in, because they knew that they would be warmly welcomed, and probably even sat down at the kitchen table and given something to eat. My friends in high school always felt welcomed at our house, and hung out there a lot.
Like my family home, the Church is called to be a welcoming place as well where people can feel like they’re part of a family and find true community.
As we go through Jethani’s book and our series on the Church, may we be open to learning more about how the Church can be a more vibrant, faithful and welcoming community to us and to those who have yet to discover us.
Thank you for this community of faith here at DRPC. I thank you for our diversity—in cultures and nationalities, in the gifts that people offer in service to the congregation, for the diverse viewpoints here that stretch us and challenge us and enrich us in so many ways.
God, I pray that you help us to continue to experience unity in the midst of our diversity. May we be united in our focus on Jesus as the center of our faith, and in our common desire to grow as his disciples.
Lord, may we be a place where all feel welcome, where there is room at our fellowship table for new people who come through our doors, so they can become part of our family of faith. Through Christ we pray. AMEN.