Established Churches and New Churches Need Each Other

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.

Francis Chan

Francis Chan

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.  house church

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?  

Do we still need church buildings?

Do we still need church buildings?

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.


About dgkeheflin

I blog about theology, church, culture, etc.
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6 Responses to Established Churches and New Churches Need Each Other

  1. Richard Shields says:

    Excellent post, David!

  2. dgkeheflin says:

    Hey thanks, Dad for stopping by! It is good to get some comments on the blog! By the way, did you watch Chan’s video? I think even when considering church-planting, it is only one way to do it. In some situations, a building may be more important than other situations. I’m certainly not anti-building, but I don’t like it when we treat the building like the temple instead of recognizing that WE are the temple of the Holy Spirit.

  3. virginia says:

    Very interesting David ! look forward to reading more of your blogs.

  4. Paul Smith says:

    Hey David, good post. I’d just like to share some push-back that I’ve encountered regarding the house church movement. While we can say it is “biblical” in the sense that we read of assemblies meeting in some person’s home in the NT, there is certainly never any *command* to do so (as there is certainly never any command to meet in a large assembly hall). One, house churches are highly susceptible to cliquishness, and even with Chan’s admonition to only meet for one year, I do not see that as a fruitful choice either. You cannot truly create a “family” where members are accepted and trusted if you know that the situation is transitory and if some members will only be a part for a few months. Two, house churches are highly susceptible to heresy – where one dominant member pushes his or her agenda and with limited opportunity for any correction. There is a reason for a relatively permanent group of leaders where there is some mutual accountability and a sense of overarching permanence.

    I think the overall takeaway is that God never specifically said *how* his assemblies are to meet, and there are certainly positives and negatives to both the large assembly hall and small house church options. Maybe the best would be a blended situation where there would be intentional effort to creating the intimacy of the house church, but with an over-arching large assembly that meets regularly for a sense of cohesiveness and permanence, and where matters of doctrine and practice can be addressed by the shepherds of the entire assembly. Maybe *that* is what the NT is actually presenting, although it is so fluid and systemic that we cannot see it as concretely as we would like.

    So, while I do see the “biblical” roots of Chan’s idea, I have also seen the negative of the movement, and I think it is important to note that there is no specific command anywhere in the NT as to how the assembly of Christ is to assemble. Culture, situation, membership all have a huge role in deciding that specific detail.

    • dgkeheflin says:

      Good points, Paul. I like the idea of multiplying, but I wonder how Chan would answer the critique that this would compromise the family love he’s after.

      Another thought I had that I didn’t get into the blog is regarding the issue of paid ministers. If you remove the incentive for full-time paid ministry, you also remove the incentive for expensive (and hopefully quality) theological education. This goes along with your concern for heresy in these house churches. What happens when all theological education is passed on by one who has not formally trained? Over time I think the church would become theologically shallow.

      Of course, I know that I am not unbiased in this regard, as one who has invested in expensive theological education and who now needs a salary to help pay for it! I appreciate your comment.

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