Tag Archives: early church

Thinking out loud about church numbers

Someone asked me the other day how I think we can bring more people into the church. The numbers in our church are slowly dropping: families move away, people die. I was caught off-guard by this question, but it is one I need to think about if I’m heading in the right direction vocationally. Chances are that sometime in the next couple of years I’ll be asked what my vision for the church is.

The problem is this: I’m not the visionary type.  I’m not into mandates or visions for an organization.  It seems to me that if there is a mandate for the church as a body, it is to encourage each other to faithful discipleship to Christ–to love God, to love each other, to love our neighbours.  What other mandate could a church have?  Maybe that’s my idealism coming through.  Part of me thinks that if we are simply passionate and faithful followers of Jesus, then everything will be ok–even if that means the death of a church.

But I’ve been thinking about the question since I was asked, and I’m starting to wonder if the question of how to get more people into the church is the wrong one.  Sometimes the question is asked out of genuine concern for outreach and evangelization, the thinking being that the number of people in a given church is in indication of the spiritual state of the community.  That might be true.  I don’t know.  But for most of us the question is asked out of concern for our survival.   We need people so that our community will last. It occurred to me this afternoon that if it wasn’t for buildings and legacies, we probably wouldn’t be asking this question.  

One’s answer to this question will depend, I think, on what one thinks church is.  This is a question I’m trying to answer for myself.  I suspect many evangelicals would see church primarily as a place for outreach and evangelization, so that one should bring one’s “unreached” friends and neighbours to hear the basic gospel message.  In this view, church numbers are indeed an indication of the spiritual state of the community.

Others would see it church as a place where the people of God come together to worship and experience God as a community, where we are strengthened and encouraged to go out and live our everyday lives in the way of Jesus.  In this view, evangelization happens outside of the church.  (I’m just thinking out loud here; I’m sure there are other definitions of and approaches to church.)  These days I tend more towards this second view of church.  The reasons are many, I’m sure, including a disinclination towards cold-turkey evangelism.  But in studying the early church one of things I’ve found interesting is that they appear to have been decidedly closed and non-attractional.  Believers would gather for communal worship and then just before they partook of communion everyone but those who were “members” (those who had been catechized) were ushered out of the church.  It would seem then that evangelism was done outside of the church body and the converts were not made in church but outside of church.

Now the early church wasn’t necessarily right, but neither are evangelicals (or any other branch of the church) necessarily right.  But these days we are so fixated on numbers and growth to the point that some books about church could be interchanged between the church and the corporate world that there is something backwards and at the same time inspiring about the way the early church functioned.  The corporate element of the church (board meetings and motions and minutes, etc.) doesn’t sit well with me, but it’s something that needs to be done to maintain status as charitable organizations.  Maybe losing those tax priviledges would be a good thing for the church.  Many of us might die out, but it might force us to lose some of the physical assets that can weigh us down.

When we start worrying about our numbers, we start doing things to get those numbers up.  And when we do that, we lose our focus, and honouring God and following Christ becomes less important than filling the pews.  And when we get to that point, we are no longer the church and we become a business.

Maybe I’m too negative about the concern about numbers.  Maybe there is a valid way to think about numbers.  But something about it doesn’t sit well with me.

How would we choose what to do to attract people?  Which people would we want to attract?  That’s an important question, because, as they say, you can please some of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all the people all of the time.  And so we become market-driven: who is our demographic and how do we target this group?  And church turns into a business-consumer venture.  We try to find out what people want and we try to supply that demand.

Where is God in that?

I’m not opposed to meeting people’s needs.  I’d say that is one thing Christians should do and have been doing since the beginning.  But it’s another thing to meet people’s wants.

We live in a time when people are busy and church isn’t a priority.  We can change the time or day of a service, we can change our format, but people will still have jobs and meetings and their children’s endless extra-curricular activities.  Changing what we do doesn’t guarantee the the pews will be filled.

Now: changing who we are.  That might mean something.

Rather than asking how we can boost our numbers (and I’m speaking about churches in general, because churches are in decline all over our city), maybe we should be asking if we are being faithful to the Gospel and if we are not, are we willing to change, no matter what the cost,  so that we can become faithful to the Gospel.

But then we’ll have to establish what the Gospel is.

I’m rambling and I have no conclusion to these thoughts.  But I’ll stop there.  (I long for the day when I can once again take the time and effort to write a cohesive post.)

Apostolic and Patristic (and 2000th post!)*

An interesting bit from Evangelicals and Tradition: The Formative Influence of the Early Church, one of the texts for the “Patristic Fathers” seminary course I am taking:

I want to emphasize the indissoluble connection that existed between the apostolic and the patristic church.  The two should indeed be distinguished, the apostolic representing the voices of those who were the first disciples and hearers of the Lord.  But far too often we take the artificial boundaries established in textbooks for purposes of clarifying the stages in church history as real divisions.  Calling the time of the apostles “apostolic” and what followed “catholic” [small-“c”] has served not only to distinguish the latter period as post-apostolic but also to depict it as a series of developments not in keeping with the original apostolic charter. . . [by this division] the apostolic reliance on the gifts and freedom of the Spirit  was transformed in into the fixing of tradition and doctrinal content known as “catholicism,” in which a “canon of faith” eclipsed the spiritual simplicity of Jesus.  But it is one thing to observe changes of development and quite another to create a disjunction.  One can point to a formation of doctrinal tradition in the earliest apostolic writings and dependency upon the Spirit’s leading in later patristic texts.  A strict delineation between the apostolic and the patristic is no more than a theoretical construct that fails at integrating the historical evidence.  The manual of Christian practice and worship known as the Didache originated in the area of northern Syria, as did the Gospel of Matthew, and was produced within a generation or less of the Gospel.  First Clement was written, just like Revelation, in the mid 90s of the first century.  Yet one was eventually regarded as apostolic and the other patristic.  The reasons for this distinction are not always apparent, underscored by the evidence that 1 Clement and the Didache were regarded as Scripture (as were some other patristic works) by certain churches.  The distinctions we so readily make today between the apostolic  and patristic were not clear to the Christians who were living in those times. (pp. 52-3)

Still with me?  I bet I lost 95% of you or more.  Anyway, interesting stuff.  Here’s the nutshell version: historically, there is no clear division between the apostolic age (that is, the age  of those who were direct disciples of Jesus, or at least taught by an direct disciple) and the apostolic age (the age of the direct successors of the apostles) and therefore no basis on which to say former age was purer period of the church than the latter.

(I admit you came to mind as I read this, Toni, and your comment here—though now that I’ve read the comment again, it only marginally relates.  🙂 )

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*I never imagined that my 2000th post would be such a dull one.

You want to hear about my homework? You got it!

I read a book on early church history a year or two ago, so in a generally sense much of what I’ve been reading has been familiar. A couple things stand out for me so far, but I’ll mention two:

1. It seems that the early church was pacifistic.  Even if they didn’t have a worked-out theology about, in practice the early Christians did not become involved with the ruling Roman military.  I’m not sure if soldiers were required to make some kind of sacrifice to the emperor or something else which may have precluded Christians from participating, or if it was simply a matter of “Do not kill”.

In fact—and this one has had me thinking since the first book I read—the Christians of the time didn’t seem to participate in much of anything (such as gladiator events [too violent perhaps] and other Roman games).  Makes me think again about how fully participatory most Christians tend to be in our culture.  There’s probably more to the early church’s abstaining than is explained in the course work—especially considering that for the Romans religion and culture and the state where tightly enmeshed (Caesar was considered divine).  But in some respects, religion and culture and state are enmeshed in our day, too (consumerism, materialism, etc.)

2. At points during the 200 years or so persecution the church faced under the Romans, Roman soldiers had the right to accost Christians as they were leaving their places of worship, place a sword against a Christian’s neck and ask “Is Christ Lord?”.  The “right” answer (for the soldier) would be, “Caeasar is lord.”  Answer incorrectly, and the soldier was within his rights to thrust the sword and kill that person.

Scary.  I’m honestly not sure how I’d answer in a similar situation.  I’d like to think I’d answer the soldier “incorrectly” (but correctly as a confessing Christian), but modern Western Christians like myself don’t have the foggiest idea what persecution is like.  The early Church was illegal in the Roman world pretty much from the get-go and anyone who became a follower of the Christ at the time was doing so during a time of persecution.  So for many of them, being confronted by a sword-weilding soldier was expected (though still a difficult situation).  But we in the modern west have lived our lives of faith in comfort and general acceptance.  What would happen to the church if the situation changed?

3-2-1 Homework!

I started the coursework for my seminary course on the Patristic Fathers tonight.  Cup of Evening Delight tea (Safeway Select’s peppermint chamomile concoction) in one hand, Henry Chadwick’s The Early Church in the other, the fire crackling in the TV (a fireplace DVD—need to get our real fireplace safety-checked*) I set about my task to read 2 chapters in the book and listen to the first lecture.

The verdict to this point:

1.  I am an incredibly slow reader and probably for that reason not worthy of the “Seminary Student” title.  Consider: it took me 2 hours to read the 40 pages that made up the first two chapters of the book.  Not good.  While it’s true that the flow of the text isn’t great (and I’m tired, which is a bad combination), I will need to learn to read much faster than I do.**

2.  The lecturer isn’t particularly engaging, but he sticks to the outline and the lecture is pausable and rewindable, so I can’t complain.  I’m about halfway through the lecture.  I don’t think I’ll finish tonight.

3.  Despite #s 1 and 2 above, the topic is fascinating from the get-go: church history, church order and heresies from the get-go.  Much of this was familiar territory (thanks to Mr. Gonzalez in 2006), but I don’t mind the refresher (Boo, Gnosticism!  Boo, Marcion!)

4.  Fireplaces on DVD aren’t so bad.

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*We’ve lived in this house for more than a year and have yet to use our fireplace.  I’m not sure what to make of that.  Every time I consider just lighting something in there already, I get images of chimney fires in my head.  I just keep forgetting to call someone (and when I did in the past, no one got back to me).
**The slowness of my reading is mostly due to wanting to catch everything in the text, which results in going back and re-reading.  This gets worse when I’m tired, as I’ll suddenly find myself “reading” the book without comprehending a single word.  My concern with reading faster is missing a lot more information, but maybe that’s OK.