I just read the first two sections of Alan Hirsch’s The Forgotten Ways, and I know I will have a difficult time proceeding.
There are plenty of books in the market today which analyze the market in which Christianity currently finds itself and each one’s author feels certain that he or she has discerned the way in which Christians need to conduct the commerce of Christ in it.
And that’s where I have the problem.
Superimposing what may have worked in one culture, time, or place – even in the first century – and concluding that it is the way for the church to work here and now.
As managing editor for New Wineskins, as a blogger, as a member of the support staff for the ministry at a good-sized metro church, as a dad and a husband and just as a follower of Christ … I have read a few of these books. Many have superb points to make. Some may even be inarguable. A few might even be, dare I say, inspired – in some way, at least. Not all of them claim to be the way to do church in 21st century America, but virtually all leave that strong implication.
I admire the credentials of many of these authors. I cannot help but salute their attempts to write toward that goal. And I tend to believe that the motivation of most of them is pure – they truly, deeply want to help promote the story of Christ in a world that is increasingly unfamiliar with Him and uncaring about Him. Most are not in the business of writing these books to be in the business of making money writing these books.
Part of the problem is that I have a background in marketing, advertising, public relations, and journalism.
There is no such thing as a single, contiguous, uniform, universal, predictable, cross-sectionable, profilable, 21st century America. (Hirsch’s work recognizes this, but it does not seem to deter him from coming to his conclusions – many of which I happen to agree with, so far.)
So the attempt to lock down the way to do church in 21st century America is like trying to manufacture one-size-fits all unisex underwear, or a single-color skin-tone adhesive bandage.
And the other main part of the problem I have with this genre of books is that I feel not only is the target missed, but that the wrong target is being aimed at.
The target they’re aiming at – one way or another – is “doing church.” Not always, but often. The emphasis is on analyzing and contextualizing and revolutionizing and rethinking and reparadigm-ing and reimagining.
What’s the right target?
I think it’s being Christ in the world. And many of the books I’ve read refer to this, though too many refer to it as a way that should form and inform doing church, as if that were the target – just as too many books of a previous generation refer to doing church right as the way to be Christ in the world. There’s nothing essentially wrong with reading – or writing – about those things. But reading, writing, thinking, pondering, discussing, and debating is time-consuming. Could that time be better spent?
My friend David Underwood is always encouraging me to write a book. The reason I haven’t been able to, David, is that I am afraid I will end up writing a book that is essentially no different in its target than any of the ones I’ve already read – and far less informed. Far too much of what I’ve written on this blog has been concerned with the way of doing church right.
There is one Way; one Truth; one Life.
We need to be living it.
I need to be living it.
If we do, church will follow. We’ll gather because we can’t help ourselves. We love each other; we love God through His Son Jesus, the Christ. Getting those two life passions together in our lives will be inevitable.
We’ll worship Him because we simply can’t avoid it. We’ll spend time in His word in order to know how; what pleases Him most and we’ll do it because it will become second nature to us. We’ll accommodate what speaks to others in worship and they’ll participate in what speaks to us in worship because we are completely given over to our love for God and His children. We’ll get together in groups with whom we naturally communicate, and we’ll be driven by our love for others with whom we don’t – to the point where we’ll get together in groups with them, too.
We will be unable to NOT worship, because our lives will be continual worship – giving of self to others out of devotion to them and to God.
This “method” isn’t reductionism. It’s just simple. It isn’t doctoral-thesis-in-ecclesial-missiology stuff.
It’s the nature of Christ and you can find it in any Bible.
And it’s what we need to be all about.
The church at Philippi began differently from the church at Ephesus, or Jerusalem, or Corinth. They worshiped in different places: by the river then at Lydia’s house; at a synagogue and then at a lecture hall; at the temple and from house to house; at a synagogue and then at the synagogue ruler’s house. They may have worshiped differently: how often they shared the communal meal, in what way, how many spoke and for how long.
The plain fact is, there are modern ways of being Christ that work for modern people. There are post-modern ways of being Christ that work for post-modern people. The measure of effectiveness for any way of being Christ is not solely quantiative, nor is it solely qualitative. There are right ways to worship God, and there are wrong ways. There are right ways to communicate His Story to others, and there are wrong ways.
There is no single “right” way to “do church.”
I know this is not the position that a lot of folks will want me to take. Some will want me to say that God has spoken clearly, we have understood perfectly, and if we do not worship Him as a church in the way we have “always” worshiped, we will go to hell and take innocent converts with us. Others will want me to say that we should be open to any way that one can worship – whatever works for any given person is okay with God even if it seems absurd to others; and too many souls are being lost because we don’t encourage them to worship any way they want to – for instance, as gatherings of gay pride.
I can’t say either of those things.
I can only recommend constantly referring to scripture – not as a cookie-cutter pattern, but as a guide revealing as much of God’s will for us as we must have – and constantly supplicating the Holy Spirit – not as a magic 8-ball – but as the very presence of the God who wants us to have answers to our questions about serving Him, and also wants us to work out our salvation in fear and trembling.
On this Independence Day, I wish we could declare independence from the tyranny of both the idea that “the old way isn’t working and must be changed” and the idea that “the way we’ve always done it is the only right way.”
That’s all I can recommend, whether I write a long, expensive book about it or a medium-long, free blog post:
And I will almost certainly get in trouble for it.