MANY Christians will rejoice at the news that since yesterday places of worship are permitted to re-open for prayer and services. As we know, ‘lockdown’ introduced a complete cessation of such meetings in the UK right across the church denominations for almost three full months, resulting in many of these substituting a very restricted form of corporate church meetings in the form of Zoom or Facebook occasions online. Will there now be a return to the status quo? Many question if this is possible.
The plain truth is that all is not bright and beautiful in the Western churches, particularly Anglicanism, for a multitude of reasons. Arguably they are not only in serious decline but in their death throes. Churches which openly abandon the Bible, and whose leaders embrace every form of post-modern irrelevance and political activism, can expect to reap what is sown.
For thinking Christians, lockdown should raise questions about whether a return to a familiar normality is either necessary or even desirable, particularly whether there is a sound basis for the traditional church worship meeting and a well-worn institutionalism where for decades congregations have voted with their feet and departed. Now is an opportune time to change and to begin a process of reform – to a format which more reflects a biblical view of the church as opposed to the institutional? For example, the online meetings have meant a much more personal dialogue and mutual reaction between members of church fellowships which suggest many have found a healthy and rewarding exercise, albeit not a substitute for the physical gathering for praise and worship of God.
What is striking about such online encounters is that communication and interaction flourishes between people, an important element wholly missing from the traditional church service. Is it not time then to reconsider why and how we meet as churches, to reconsider and to reform the rigid institutionalism of the status quo?
To question, for example, the bland acceptance of the false ‘clergy/laity’ distinction founded on and perpetuated in an entrenched tradition. To rethink why the ‘worship service’ should be an inflexible fixture as at present. Neither should the usual monologue sermon in its present form escape critical examination as this, too, is based largely on tradition and not scriptural precedent.
Why not encourage a return to biblical patterns of meeting in which the priesthood of all believers is a reality, instead of the ‘one man ministry’ and a largely passive congregation?
Critics of contemporary church practices have pointed out the institutional or organisational model is based on hierarchy, delegation of authority, impersonal relationships and formality – legitimate in many secular organisations but not a proper model for the church of Christ. As Howard Snyder points out: ‘All biblical figures for the Church suggest a charismatic and organic rather than an institutional model: tree, vine, flock, family, nation and household, and therefore institutional elements must be subordinate to the charismatic nature of the church.’
‘Charismatic’ simply means the recognition of each person’s actual or potential spiritual gifts which the traditional church fails to acknowledge, let alone allow to function in line with New Testament usage.
Time then to reflect on the old and ever-recurring question – what is the church and how is it to meet and function?
Most of traditional church life and meetings are a form of spiritual bondage, of almost complete passivity on the part of church members who are more spectators of events in a pre-ordained liturgical format than participants.
It is rightly said of such meetings that ‘all I have to do is to be there’. But the overall message of the New Testament is radically different and speaks of freedom – freedom for full congregational worship of God and freedom for all to speak and listen to one another within an orderly context as the New Testament allows.
The phrase ‘one another’ is found 58 times in the New Testament as the rationale for mutual ministry, so is there a sound reason why it may not be restored in our meetings post-lockdown? Equally important, there should be the freedom to learn from one another for ‘where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom’ (2 Corinthians 3:17).
Very simply, the options are: reform or die for the Western church.