Saturday, 17 December 2011

The Western Church: A top-down, spiralling in gathering, or bottom-up, spiralling out community?

Recently I was complaining to a friend about my view that the local church is becoming an irrelevant failing institution. Rather than simply agreeing with me and offering the appropriate sympathy, she challenged me to investigate my claims and to come up with some alternatives. Of course, this was a perfect response, and so I have been thinking and researching this for a few months now (including occasionally writing a post on this blog). In this post I will try and concisely outline my views on the church, and in particular the way we have been seduced by the pervading philosophies of the Western world and now have little to offer the not-yet-saved world because we no longer reflect the Biblical pattern or mandate for the church.

As I have noted on earlier posts, I am not a theologian, but what I have done to research the church is to carefully read and study the books that focus on the church, starting in Acts. I am not saying that the rest of the Bible is not relevant, but I just wanted to start where the Christian church began. Also, I have read a couple of books about the church, but primarily I have focussed on the Bible.

Top-down or Bottom-up?

The main reason I wanted to focus on the Bible as my 'research site' and authoritative source is because we as Christians are privileged to have complete and direct access to God and His Word. Furthermore, we have His Holy Spirit - the very author of Scripture, within us to guide us and to interpret for us. We as believers are now priests and we do not need to go through an intermediary (i.e., another priest). So here is my first issue with the current church – we ignore our priesthood and rely on others to give us access to God and His wisdom. We aren't willing or confident to do the hard work of studying the Bible for ourselves, so we rely on Christian books (or other texts) where someone else has read and interpreted the Word, and they tell us what it says. This is problematic not only because it is a soft option, but also because the power of God's Word, interpreted personally through the Holy Spirit, is personally and contextually applied. God speaks to us through His Word in and where we are, not in some general sense. Hence, Christian bookshops now have a small section devoted to Bibles and commentaries and other study tools, and large sections dedicated to motivational books, cds, videos, posters, pencils, and numerous other religious trinkets.

The giving away of our 'priesthood as believers' is indicative of the top-down philosophy and structure of our Western churches. Church services are now highly orchestrated and practiced. What we now call worship is primarily a time of singing, and singing songs that are written by those outside the local community and don't necessarily reflect the lives of the members. At our local church we now have a 'worship director' (a 3-day per week paid position), and therefore, the philosophy is that worship can be directed. This is an anomaly to me and it is another example of the top-down church. It requires that the believers turn up, and regardless of what has been happening in their lives, their personalities, and their circumstances, they blindly follow the directing of the worship director and the worship team (who are all musicians). Come along and we will give you worship as a product, and apart from thoughtlessly singing along, you can passively be a worshipper. Of course, there is validity in the argument that worship is a response to the nature, person and work of God, and we can join together in this activity despite ourselves because it is all about God. But it also a response from us – not a programmed routine that we receive from the so-called worship leaders and passively mimic like a puppet. The rhetoric I hear around this is that "it is not about the music", but the practice of only ever singing during 'worship' seems to defy this claim. Similarly, I also hear the view that "inspirational worship will equip believers to live more worshipful lives during the week", but again, this reflects the false top-down philosophy. Sunday worship should be inspired from our lives lived in intimate relationship with God, where people come to share what God has done in their lives as they have done the: good works God had planned for them to do.

My reading on the NT says that church is a bottom-up, not a top-down community, where the activities and life of Sunday services comes from the community of believers, not from a director who orchestrates false worship that comes from a prescribed program of songs not the lived lives of the members. A top-down philosophy creates a community of passivity and nominal engagement, and one can be a worshipper by simply turning up and singing enthusiastically, whether the words mean anything to you or not - the sociological and psychological influence of group singing will carry you along. Hence, rather than inspiring the community of believers to more Godly lives, it gives them a false sense that they are pleasing and worshipping God, however they live during the week.

Our churches are set-up with a top-down philosophy, but this is not Biblical and it doesn't work. The currently demise of the Western church is evidence of this failing situation.

Spiralling in or spiralling out?

Another problem with the top-down approach to church is that it makes the church the centre and focus and so it 'spirals in'. In this paradigm, churches become consumed by organising and running programs for the members, who are placed as consumers of the church's products. The events are very important, particularly the Sunday morning service, because this is where the products (worship, teaching, etc.) are provided from above by the church employees (pastors, worship directors). Of course, this top-down approach promotes consumerism and commodification of Christianity where people voted with their feet and their wallets, and we now have pseudo-christian corporations like hillsong that make a fortune by selling religious experiences. The role of the 'top' in the top-down approach is to create better and better products and services to keep the consumers happy – not an ideal environment if the believers need to be challenged or confronted!

The issue with the current philosophy that pervades the Western church is that it causes the church to spiral in. Everything focuses on the church and the church events and programs. Our most enthusiastic and talented members are caught up and consumed by performing in church events, and outreach means putting on an event that hopefully a non-believer might attend (an in-drag rather than an outreach – an outreach would seem to imply that it was outside the church buildings/structures). This seems to be completely contrary to even a shallow reading of the gospels and the rest of the NT! Also, a church that is so focussed on entertaining and pandering to those in the church will eventually be self-defeating, because you can never keep everyone happy with programs, and so you spiral in until you eventually reach zero. A healthy and growing church will spiral out, and look to declare God's reign in all realms, and thus be an influence for good in the wider community.

The failing church

It is my opinion that the main reason that the Western church is currently diminishing and is seen as irrelevant is because it is built on a top-down and spiralling-in mentality, whereas the Bible promotes a bottom-up and spiralling-out paradigm. The current situation is a reflection of the pervasive Western market-driven, consumerism, entertainment philosophy and it does not work as it is based on individualism and does not promote community. Church services and other religious practices are the focus and centre now – the most important parts of the religious life – ceremonies and rituals. Rather than church services being 'training sessions' for the real game of the Christian life that is lived out every day at home, work and in the broader community, that have now become sacrosanct rituals that are the pinnacle of Christian life and experience, and hence we have become religious rather than Godly.

A church that is built on real Biblical community will be organic, family-oriented, and messier and less structured than the current clinical forms. Probably it will lose some of its middle-class niceness and polish, but it will actually connect and grow from the real lived lives of God's people, and it will be more relevant to people – those in the church and those who are yet-to-be-saved.

A Biblical church

First, there is no recipe for a church, but when the church was first established the community of believers held to 4 main tenets (Acts 2: 42-47):

  • prayer;
  • devotion to the apostle's teaching;
  • breaking bread (communion); and
  • fellowship.

I think these principles are still useful today if a church wishes to establish a Biblical community.


One doesn't need to have a degree in theology to realise that prayer is a central and recurring theme of the NT (or the whole Bible for that matter). It is clear that Christians are called to pray individually and corporately, and to pray for all aspects of life, and to pray continuously. Prayer is an unfathomable privilege – to actually commune with the Almighty God about our everyday lives, and our shared lives as a community of believers. You would then expect that prayer would be a regular and integral part of the community-life of the local church, and it would be an active and engaging rather than a passive activity. Prayer should be an ordinary and routine activity when the church community meets, but this doesn't seem to be the case.

At the church I am loosely associated with, we usually have an opening prayer (after the obligatory opening song or two), a prayer for the offering, a prayer before the sermon, and a closing prayer (that is also always followed by the obligatory song). These prayers are lead by the song-leader and one of the church pastors, and generally the congregation listens politely, quietly says "Amen" at the appropriate time, and then move on – it all seems rather passive and programed and unlike the vibrant activity described in the NT. However, on one occasion someone from the congregation shared an issue with the church, and then we split up into small groups of 3 or 4 and prayed together. This seemed to me to be a wonderful example of a caring community of believers really engaging together in the Biblical activity of prayer. Unfortunately this hasn't been done again – maybe some people didn't like actually have to be actively involved at church! Maybe we rarely have people sharing real-life issues or experiences with the church community where people are passive, so the need to pray is not overt?

It is a sad indictment on the church that prayer is so marginalised and passive in the church meetings.

Committed to Biblical teaching

Again, it is not difficult to realise that good Bible teaching is important. As noted previously, the Bible is our only authoritative source and so Christians should be devoted to reading it, studying it, meditating on it, and generally trying to understand it so they can hear directly from God. This means more than just a casual reading with a devotional book, or just listening to a good sermon every Sunday. If Christians are unwilling to really study the Word and to ascertain what it actually says – not what they want it to say, then they can hardly claim to be followers of Christ or to believe in that the Bible is God's Word. The Bible needs to be studied up-close by examining verses and short passages, but it also needs to be examined at a macro level – what are the over-arching messages of the NT or the gospels, or of the whole Bible. Too often we see the use of decontextualized verses, clumped inappropriately together, to say something that God never intended, but that is sugar to our ears!

Fundamental to actually understanding God's message to us today is to read and study open to what the Bible actually says. Unfortunately, we mostly interpret the Bible through firm and fixed views about Christianity, church and living a Godly life, and this is why the Western church is largely inert, and we are happy to accept religiosity and piousness as a poor representation of Christian life. How can people honestly read about the life of Jesus and yet have little or nothing to do with those who are unsaved? Whatever they may say, their lives shout that the gospel message is not that important so it isn't shared.

This is indicative of the second issue related to Christian's commitment to Biblical truth. First, people can't be bothered and/or don't want to understand what the Bible is really saying, preferring the version of Christianity that they are comfortable with already (spiralling in). The second issue is the lack of devotion to God's message. On most Sundays, God's Word is preached from pulpits, but in general this seems to be treated as a form of religious entertainment rather than life-transforming Truth. People in congregations may sit there politely and listen, and some may even take a few notes, but few apply what they learn to their lives outside of church. It is just another form of top-down, spiralling-in church life, where we are told stuff, which we basically ignore outside the church walls – religiosity!

I think there is a real issue of inertness and religiosity amongst church congregation members, there is scope for Biblical teachers to present their messages in more pedagogically sound and engaging forms. If the Biblical message is to be life-changing, then people need opportunities and pedagogical structures to assist them to consider the Truths deeply – a sermon that is lectured from the front is fairly limited. People should be asked questions that cause them to reflect and consider the ideas and how they relate to their lives; to make notes and to check the message against other passages of Scripture; and to pray and ask God to transform the individual and collective lives by His Spirit. With people really committed to God's Word, and preachers committed to facilitative pedagogy, we can see the church "devoted to the Bible's teaching" as was required of the early church.

The Lord's Supper (Communion)

The third practice that characterised the early church was regularly partaking of 'communion'. This too should be a regular practice in our modern churches, not as a ritual but as a constant reminder of the historical Jesus who is the foundation of the church. It was Jesus himself who said "do this until I return". I think in church we can often make too much of 'communion' added all-sorts of other routines, ceremonies and activities to the simple act of remembering Jesus. The real Jesus of history, not some romantic image we construct of Him, but the real Jesus who was fully God and fully man – who lived amongst everyday people and who died a cruel death on our behalf.


Finally, fellowship is not just about sitting and standing together in a concert hall for 90 minutes, sharing a quick cuppa with the selected people we know and like (while trying to avoid the annoying ones we don't!), and then shooting off for another week. Real fellowship is about sharing in each other's real lives, practicing hospitality, and meeting one another's needs. Of course, the current top-down, spiralling-in approach to church works against this, as fundamentally true fellowship involves the people of the church reaching out – bottom-up, spiralling out. This is not about programs or events, but about people having a Godly and Biblical perspective so they can actually live lives that are worship.

So what might this look like in practice?

The Bible does not mandate the form that church should take, so it is quite surprising that almost all local churches look the same, regardless of denomination or 'flavour'. Rather than looking for a particular form, I think churches need to find ways to enact the principles outlined above in ways that meet the needs of their local community (the broader community and the collective of believers). For me, I think churches need to be less formal, less program-focussed, more organic, and more family friendly (especially towards children). I imagine that a hall that is somewhere between a cafĂ© and a classroom would be good; where people engage with one another about their lives; where testimonies are common; where people encourage and pray for one another regarding their Christian lives lived at home and in the community; where people pray and the church prays; where people are looking for ways to be missional and to care for poor and needy; where teaching is organised and engaging and requires a response; where the nature and character of God is foregrounded; and, where Jesus – the real Jesus of history and the Bible, is central.

So what about worship?

I'm guessing that this part might be where people might want to disagree with me (and that is fine), but I think we have fallen in love with worship as a (musical) practice, rather than the God we supposedly worship. Put simply, while 'worshippers' will not think so, our current church worship events are primarily orchestrated and directed so people feel like they are doing something for God, when it is actually a rather self-indulgent practice – it is so the 'worshipper' can feel something, even if it isn't really what God desires. I appreciate that this may be offensive to some, but below I explain my position. All I ask is that 'worshippers' actually consider the broader Biblical perspective on this aspect of church life.

The word "worship" is only mentioned twice in the NT epistles, and none of these refer to the sort of corporate-type church practice that pervades our church services. In fact, in all the NT passages that refer to the church and church life, none refer to formal worship events or programs – they talk about prayer a lot, that services be orderly, and the roles of men and women, etc. So, the big picture of the section of the Bible devoted to the church era (i.e., now) is that corporate worship is not that significant. However, in the main passage where worship is defined it says;

"Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God - this is your spiritual act of worship" (Romans 12:1-2).

To me, this seems to make it pretty clear what worship is! If you really want to worship God, then live an everyday life that is devoted to Him and is characterised by righteousness – this is an undivided life that is most evident in your home with your family, spouse and children, and at work and in the community. If this worship is in order and evident, then perhaps it might also spill-over into a Sunday morning service, but it does not happen the other way around, and if your life is worshipful outside the church, then don't bother singing on Sunday morning because it is meaningless. It does mention "speaking to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs" in the NT three times, but none of these refer to 'worship' or church events.

True worship is about obedience and sacrifice – an undivided life.

"I urge you then, … , that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all Godliness and holiness. This is good, and what pleases God our Saviour, who wants all men to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth" (1 Timothy, 2: 1-3)

I do understand that people can select a few verses from the Psalms to justify the music-based approach to church and worship, but this need to be taken in context, and understood in the broader perspective of Biblical truth, and how it applies to the current church age. David did many other things that we seem to disregard and we selectively choose verses that support the sort of church and God that we want. Church therefore becomes about us, hence my opinion that it is primarily selfish and self-serving. I should add that I don't think it is wrong to worship God, but I think we should desire to worship Him as he desires for His glory, not just for our entertainment or self-fulfilment. Therefore, I do think it is wrong to devote a large portion of church service time and church resources to what seems to be a practice that is Biblically relatively minor.

So-called worship services look more like a pop music concert now with the performers on the stage leading the fans who proudly stand tall and self-righteous like mini 'Towers of Babel' (at some churches they even sound like babble!) reaching up high towards a God that seems to be somewhere up in the clouds. If worship was truly consistent with the character of the Almighty God, then people would not be tall and proud, but low and humble, conscious of their position and God's nature. Whatever words they may be singing (over and over again), all it really sounds like is "me, me, me, me, me, …" – it is all about ME.

So where to from here for me?

Well, I will not be reading, thinking and writing any more about the church, because fundamentally I am giving up – I concede defeat (I haven't even bothered to edit this post so forgive the typos). I know that this is a weak response, but in the end I think the Hell$ong mantra will win and the Biblical perspective will be lost as church is twisted to meet the desires of the people. I have little hope for any meaningful change, and I know that in the church where I am loosely attached, nothing will change, so I will concede defeat, attend (unlike many other blokes who see no place for themselves), and keep up appearances so church seems nice. I will try and engage with others outside the formal structures of the church institution and hope I can live a life of worship at home, at work, and amongst the not-yet-saved people that God brings across my path.

I have little hope for the current Western church and think that reform will only probably come through alternative structures that aren't so culturally bound. So, the church will be top-down and spiralling in, as church employees (and their volunteer disciples) seek to keep their clients happy. Rather than reaching out and making disciples, the church will operate a pseudo-religious entertainment-based institution that's goal is to keep the consumers happy so they maintain members (and their tithes).

So this is the last post, at least for a while. Not sure if anyone has read anything, but it has been useful for me to think about things by writing it down. Actually, it has caused more tension and trouble than I expected or wanted as people don't really want to have their sacred religious practices challenged – don't think, just feel and keep things the way they are, even if they aren't working.

"And this is my prayer, that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ – to the glory and praise of God" (Philippians 1: 9-11).

This passage sums up what God wants for us, and this results in true worship.

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