Is this church?

When you hear the word ‘church’ what image comes to mind?  A building?  A community?  A service?  A family?  Perhaps all of these do, or perhaps only some of them.  What do you think is essential for church?  Your answers to these questions may vary significantly from those of people of a different generation to you.  They might also acquire additional significance if you’re working in a missions community where the local church may have lengthy services in uncomfortable conditions, with repetitive singing in a language you don’t fully comprehend, and loud sermons that are not aimed at your needs.  And that’s just if you’re lucky enough not to be preaching or leading the worship.

For most older mission workers, church may not be an enjoyable experience, or even a relevant one, but it’s part of the job.  You go to church, because you should.  It’s expected of Christians, particularly of mission workers who should set a good example to the local believers.  And what happens there is pretty standard: Acts 2:42 sets out the four pillars of church: teaching, fellowship (whatever that is), communion and prayer.  Though we always leave out the embarrassing bit about having all things in common and nobody being poor – that was just culturally appropriate to the Jerusalem church.

Is this church?????

Somebody I spoke to recently was completely unable to understand why young people did not want be part of an experience like that.  They’re just not committed, she complained.  I was able to explain that young people (postmoderns, Gen X) are able to be highly committed, but only to things they believe in, and not merely to things somebody else thinks they ought to be committed to.  So younger mission workers are increasingly spurning traditional ways of doing church, just like young people in Europe.  They are finding new ways of doing things, and making them work, but this doesn’t always look like church to an older generation.

Why is it not church when a group of people meet regularly together in someone’s house for prayer, or worship, or Bible study?  Because they don’t do them all at the same time?  Because it’s not Sunday?  Because there’s no leadership?  Is that really what defines church?

This conflict has its roots in a transitional phase that the western world is going through at the moment: the much-talked-about but little-understood transition from modern to postmodern.  It’s not merely an intergenerational conflict where the old don’t understand the young and vice versa; it’s a change of epoch on a scale of the fall of the Roman Empire or the rise of the Enlightenment out of the middle ages.  It involves fundamentally different worldviews and ways of doing things.  Including church.


Is this church?

Here in the west there are already many different ways of doing church which do not fit the traditional model.  House church led to cell church, and 50 years later there are simple church, messy church, cyber church, deconstructed church, and an awful lot of people who love God together but don’t do church at all.  While this development may not have touched the cultures of the two thirds world in the same way yet, it has had an impact on a large number of young people who have grown up among a postmodern generation who are passionate about church in a different way.  When these young people enter the mission field, they want to keep doing things in a different way, but often the older generation not only sees this as a threat to the work they’ve spent their lives establishing, but doubts the very genuineness of the young people’s relationship with God.

I write this brief introduction to a highly complex issue in the hope that older mission workers will be able to be tolerant of younger ones who want to do things differently, and that younger ones may understand why the previous generation just can’t see what they see.  This of course relates only to the church needs of the mission worker; how it impacts on the church needs of the local believers is an entirely different matter!


Leave a Reply