Appearence or Practice

Just a kite to fly about stuff I have been thinking over…

One of my fellow Cohort L friends has an idea for his dissertation on the idea of Churches functioning on “Practices” rather than “Programs.” It is an interesting idea, that may be more about what may be happening in history, rather than just the techniques of a church.

Programs are indicative of an attractional model of ministry. The hope is that there are programs that a church could do that would ‘attract’ people to the church, get them in the doors, and allow them to hear the gospel. This style of ministry (by the way, I’m not against it… attractionalism works) operates on the worldview, in my opinion, of Christendom.

Christendom, according to Anabaptist author Stuart Murray, is the following (from his book The Naked Anabaptist, pg. 73):
– Geographic regions where it is assumed that most people are Christian
– Christendom is a result of the decision by Constantine in the 4th Century to be Christian and to make the Christian movement a dominant faith in the Roman Empire, changing the scope of the Christian movement
– Christendom shaped society by its story, language, symbols, and rhythms of Christianity
– Christendom joined church and state and they mutually supported one another
– Christendom provided a worldview by which people saw the world

In short, it appears that the Christendom movement changed the Christian movement, which was a fringe community, a minority, a regular receiver of persecution from Rome. After Constantine, the Church moved to the center, took on political policies, forced conversions and compliance, etc. In sum, the Church’s presence was steady, predictable, and unavoidable.

One of the seven core convictions of the Anabaptist movement recognizes both the effect that Christendom had on the gospel and the signs that Christendom is eroding in Western culture:

‘Western culture is slowly emerging from the Christendom era when church and state jointly presided over a society in which almost all were assumed to be Christian. Whatever its positive contributions to values and institutions, Christendom seriously distorted the gospel, marginalized Jesus, and has left the churches ill-equipped for mission in a post-Christendom culture. As we reflect on this, we are committed to learning from the experience and perspectives of movements such as Anabaptism that rejected standard Christendom assumptions and pursued alternative ways of thinking and behaving.” (Murray, 72)

Christendom assumes that, since the Church is in the middle of culture, that people will deal with God at some point, that people will come if programs in local churches are useful and relevant. In some attractional churches, the assumption is that people come back to church or have a stronger desire to try out church upon starting a family, so there is a high value placed on Sunday morning worship, kids and youth programs, etc.

So, the inherent discipleship plan for Christendom churches takes a certain shape. Commitment is showing up, getting involved, enjoying what the church offers. If a church that one originally begins to slack in areas that a person enjoyed before, if the programs are not as ‘cool’ or relevant to his/her life, they will shop for one that is. There is certainly a principle here, ‘what we use to reach people will be required to keep them.’

This may be overly simple, perhaps over generalistic, but a person may not have to be a Christian to be committed to a Christendom church, they certainly have an Appearance of being Christian, but their habit of appearing doesn’t tell everything, does it?

I find it interesting, that the marginalized, early Church may have been dedicated to practices instead of programs. Acts 2:42-47 is the first summary statement that Luke provides for what the early Church did. The salient pattern of the early believers was to give themselves/put into practice the Apostle’s teaching, eating with one another in their homes, praying together, sharing life together (fellowship), giving to those who needed help, etc.

One might say that these are programs, maybe I am splitting hairs here. These practices, however, have a different feel from my vantage point, than programs. They seem to show people what it means to be Christian, instead of getting them into an activity or worship service in a building. We teach these practices to people, they could function without the church’s oversight and professionalism. They would most likely be more interested in Jesus and the community of believers than if they were having their desires of a church met.

Practices and patterns paint a clearer story. Instead of the dissonance that a wider culture experiences when comparing a church goer with a non-church goer, practices raise assumptions, in the least, conclusions at best. Patterns of life reveal who we are. Paul reminds the believers in Ephesus that works proceed conversion, not precede it. Practices form a discipleship that yields lifestyles. Practices help shape a rhythm of life that confirms our confessions.

Practices, in sum, allow us to help others not only discover Jesus (because we are following Jesus), but also show them the way they can follow Jesus, as well. Isn’t it interesting that the early Church called themselves the Way and were called, by others, Christians or ‘little Christs’. They were known for their practices, not where they appeared on Sunday mornings.

Could a church in our culture, a place where Christendom had roots, really be organized and function around practices instead of programs? What would it look like? Would it survive? Does this even matter?

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One thought on “Appearence or Practice

  1. Interesting post, Joe. My first reaction would be to suggest that the two (programs and practices) are not mutually exclusive. I think ideally the church would foster both programs and practices – and the practices would manifest themselves in and through the programs. Having said that, I would also agree with your premise that the early churh seemed much more focused on practices, and that perhaps these should be foremost in our churces today.

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