Last week I wrote in response to Donald Miller’s controversial post denying church attendance as essential to the Christian faith. Today, I want to respond to a video by Francis Chan sent to me by a good friend after I had posted a survey about why people struggle with church attendance.
First of all, I suppose a more biblical way to speak about church attendance is to speak of the assembly. There can be little doubt that the early Christians assembled and based on that assembly formed a community in the name of Christ. If a person insists that this assembling is of little importance, then they really have little need for a large portion of the New Testament, which assumes and even commands the assembly of the saints.
I certainly do not believe a church is its building. A building is simply a meeting place for these biblical assemblies. We often (myself included) misspeak when we talk of “going to church.” A church is not its building, but consists of the people of God. And so as a good friend recently reminded me, it is inappropriate to speak of “doing church.” The correct emphasis ought to be on “being the church.” We are the church wherever we go and whatever we do. The assemblies of the church provide a way of defining the community and reminding the church of who she is. Without the assemblies, we would completely forget that we belong to each other or that it is Christ who brings us together (because quite obviously, we wouldn’t be together!).
Chan is a restorationist. He argues that there is a disconnect between modern-day church experience and biblical church. He claims these four emphases emerge when you just look to the New Testament on how to be church: 1. An intense family-like love for each other. 2. A compelling and urgent sense of mission. 3. Regular gatherings (assemblies) for communion, fellowship, and interaction with God’s word (he later adds prayer). 4. Training/Equipping of the saints for ministry.
These four emphases are demonstrably biblical. Maybe there is something we can add to this list, but you would be hard-pressed to prove that Chan is wrong on any of these four aspects of the biblical church. Just Acts 2:42-47 alone may prove three out of the four! Also, Eph. 4:1-16 is a very relevant passage in this regard.
Chan further argues that it is a rare experience to find a church that is functioning with these four emphases at the forefront. Modern-day churches are weighed down with salaries and buildings. So, he proposes (actually practices) four solutions, which assume starting a new church rather than reforming an old one (an important point I will come back to momentarily): 1. Meet in homes with minimal or no salary commitments. 2. Meet together for a year at the most and then multiply. 3. Read through the Bible in a year to emphasize the message over the messenger. 4. Start training leaders with good theology in anticipation of multiplication. If you watch the video, I hope you will find this a fair summary of Chan’s thoughts.
Again, everything Chan proposes is thoroughly biblical. It’s inspirational really. It is the kind of vision that I could easily see myself jumping into with like-minded people. And in light of such a vision, it is easy to become dissatisfied with the more established/traditional churches.
Notice, however, that Chan takes the quickest route to accomplishing this vision, which is to start a new church. This work is much more difficult, if it involves reforming an existing church, though I know David Platt has had some success in this regard. I do think established churches can and should refocus their vision, but they will likely never be able to shed their past history and established traditions completely enough to pull it off. What we really need is more people who think like Chan to start new churches, but I would propose in partnership with existing churches.
Existing churches may not be as adaptable, but they can raise their level of vision enough to help others to succeed in starting the next generation of churches. Established churches often suffer with myopia. Partnering with and devoting resources to new church plants will help ensure a healthier church for future generations.
However, is it a good thing if every church suddenly abandoned its building and dissolved into house churches? This will certainly never happen, but would it be healthy for the kingdom, even if it could? Should established churches who refuse to change be charged as slaves to their traditions and propping up an unbiblical institution?
It is important to remember that such churches were once new as well and that many of these churches have helped further the kingdom for generations. They also have the advantage of visibility (due to their building) and credibility (due to their long tenure in the kingdom). And just practically speaking, they have a lot of resources to serve the kingdom both here and abroad and to partner with trailblazers like Chan. Millions of faithful people are in these churches and it is important to remember that though imperfect, they are part of His Church!
Too often new church plants regard established churches as hopeless slaves to past traditions and established churches view new churches as irreverent flash-in-the-pans. Neither is true or, at least, not necessarily so. Old churches need to partner with new efforts to raise their kingdom vision and new churches need old churches to remind them of where they came from and that even they owe their existence to the faithful generations who came before them.
Chan is right, completely right. I hope more people do exactly as he suggests. I just hope that when they do, they will not forget the many brothers and sisters they have in more established churches. And I hope that these established churches will avail themselves of the opportunity to refocus their own mission, while being a blessing to others who set forth on a new mission for Jesus.