Its pretty obvious that the world thrives on difference.
We can see it in the climate, where temperature differences lead to differences in air pressure, so we have wind.
We see it in ecology, where an ecosystem is made up of different plants and animals, each playing its part in sustaining that ecosystem. Take one element out and often the system becomes unbalanced and unsustainable.
And we see it in effective organisations, which need different skills to function. Organisations need administrators and leaders and ideas people and strategists and organisers and people who reliably do the work.
What about churches?
A church is an organisation of people which needs different gifts. It is like an ecosystem where taking one part out can leave the system unbalanced.
There are different ways to think of the elements that are required for a balanced and sustainable church:
Word: We have beliefs that make up the core of our faith, and we need to understand them, be able to explain them and learn how to apply them in our lives. And we want others to believe them too.
Spirit: Being a christian isn’t just intellectual, but its also relational and spiritual. We need to love God whole-heartedly, to be devoted to him and empowered by His Spirit.
Action: The church doesn’t exist to wallow in God’s goodness. We exist to love our neighbours, to serve them, care for them and work for justice for them.
Community: Churches are meant to be places where friendship, fellowship, empathy and caring for each other are experienced by all.
If you look at the written goals and programs of most churches, you’ll find that they generally reflect all these in some way. For example, Rick Warren’s famous five purposes were worship, fellowship, discipleship, ministry, and mission, which sort of cover Word-Spirit-Action-Community.
But do you see this balance reflected in most church’s activities and emphases? I’m afraid I’m not seeing it much.
- Some churches are hard-core in their doctrine and teaching. Long sermons which dot every I and cross every T in explaining why their beliefs are right and others are wrong. They take a very conservative view of the Bible, and women probably aren’t allowed to preach. Their worship is likely to consist of doctrinal songs, and they may believe caring for the poor is the “social gospel”. They tend to be quiet and serious. These churches are most likely Reformed or Conservative Evangelical, or both.
- Some churches are big on worship. They have great worship bands and lively prayer meetings. They call on the Holy Spirit to fill them, empower them, lead them and thrill them. They tend to be noisy and fun. Their senior pastor is likely to be dynamic and spiritual. Their sermons are likely to be practical and life-oriented rather than doctrinal, and their Bible teaching may be idiosynchratic and not at all interested in the Greek. These churches are likely to be Pentecostal or charismatic.
- Other worship oriented churches are strong on liturgy, and music that expresses the majesty of God. They may use vestments, candles, rituals which communicate in non-verbal ways and express our dependence on a “wholly other” God.
- Other, generally more progressive, churches, care more about obeying Jesus in life than worship or doctrine. They will probably be more sensitive to indigneous people, LGBTQI people and social justice issues. They will likely have programs to feed the poor or provide for the homeless. They are likely to be anti-war and anti-materialist. They treat women equally and their pastors may well be women.
- Some churches are big on evangelism. Their services are visitor friendly. They hold “outreach” activities and teach their members how to witness to their friends. They offer people opportunities to turn to Jesus almost every service and every activity.
- And some churches (especially house churches) are big on fellowship and caring for each other. But they may become introspective and self-focused.
We can see strengths in every one of these different types of churches, but we can also see weaknesses. Some churches manage to combine several of these emphases, but it isn’t common to find ones that balance them all.
Not many churches are equally strong on Word, Spirit, Action and Community.
This makes for unbalanced christians. We tend to take on the characteristics of the church we attend.
Or perhaps, more likely, we choose to attend a church that fits our temperament. Academic and intellectual christians tend to gather in Word-oriented churches. Spiritual people in Spirit-oriented churches. Activists in Action-oriented churches.
We tend to reinforce each other. But it leads to less balanced churches. And less balanced christians.
A radical concept
Maybe we should try to attend a church that is different to our natural tendency, even if it makes us feel uncomfortable sometimes? Maybe we could benefit from the gifts and perspectives of christians who are different to us?
I have found this to be true.
I am more of an academic type christian. I like to read non-fiction books by experts on New Testament history, cosmology, archaeology and neuroscience. My faith is very much in my head and not so much in my heart.
But I have been deeply enriched by attending charismatic and Pentecostal churches, even though sometimes they are a bit of a freakout, and sometimes their doctrine is flaky. And I have learned much by attending progressive churches and being challenged by their love and concern for the welfare of others.
Maybe we should embrace being uncomfortable!?
Maybe we can learn and be challenged by people different to us? And learn tolerance and acceptance when they do things we find unusual and maybe even problematic?
And if you are a church leader, perhaps you could identify which of Word, Spirit, Action and Community your church is weakest in and find ways to strengthen it. Maybe even appointing staff or leaders who are different to you?
Photo by Allan Mas