If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll know there’s been a movement going on in the church for the past few decades, picking up momentum over the past 10 years or so. An increasing number of God’s people are shunning organised religion and seeking organic expressions of church life. They can clearly see the problems inherent in the “machine” of institutional church, and they’ve decided to get off the bus. They are swapping rows for circles, Sunday sermons for missional communities, formal lectures for interactive learning, and professional clergy for the priesthood of all believers.
People make the decision to get involved in organic church for various reasons. Some are deeply hurt by traumatic experiences in institutional church. Others are searching the New Testament for the original design for God’s church. Still others are bored with the traditional “sit+sing+sermon” model of service delivery, and long to find something more.
I celebrate the changes that are happening. I love to see the creativity and vision of the organic church movement, in all it’s many forms. But I’m also worried. There’s a danger that our disappointment and discouragement may cause us to abandon the established church altogether. I want to put forward a few reasons why we “organic types” must not completely give up on the institutional church (despite all her problems).
#1. There is only one church.
God has established Jesus as the only head of the worldwide church. Each and every Jesus-follower is part of the same church – even the ones who worship differently from you and I, or interpret the Scriptures differently. The established church is filled with millions of our brothers and sisters in Christ, men and women who long to follow Jesus, love people and change the world – and they’re worshipping God the way they’ve been shown and taught. If we think we have a better model, we owe it to them to communicate it effectively (not aggressively).
#2. The church needs us.
We are the risk-takers, the change-embracers, the non-conformists, the free-thinkers. We are discontent with what is, and seek a vision for what could be. We question the status quo. We have useful experience, practical knowledge, and prophetic imagination. We’ve made mistakes – and learned from them (which is even more valuable than our successes). We’ve been thinking about and studying the issues relating to church and culture for some time. The established church needs our input if she is to navigate this season of change.
#3. The world is watching.
The world is watching God’s church closely, and with great interest. Have you seen how excited they are about the current Pope as he confronts the institutionalisation of the Catholic church? It may seem strange, but the world is longing for the redemption of the church. They don’t want us to be self-absorbed, inward-focussed, fragmented, greedy, judgemental, hypocritical or irrelevant. They are curious to see what it looks like to follow Jesus in community. They crave the hope we offer, our capacity to point to God. They are horrified and disappointed by what they have seen in the past, but they still have a faint hope that we may, indeed, have something to offer them.
#4. The time is now.
We are living through a time of rapid change to the underlying structures of our society. The connectedness of the internet and social media is overturning our established ways of relating to one another, and opening up a world where everybody can have a voice and participate. We are no longer restricted to one-way broadcasting methods of communication, as we were in the past. Church-as-we’ve-always-known-it isn’t appealing in the 21st century. The message hasn’t changed, but it’s time to rethink the model.
I’m grateful for the leaders in the organic church movement who have not cut their ties with the institutional church, but are clearly communicating a new vision of how churches can be more missional, more relational, more empowering. Alan Hirsch, Neil Cole and Mike Breen are just a few of those who are working alongside “normal” churches to help them shift their way of thinking and discover a new paradigm for God’s people in community.
I’m not asking you to sit silently in rows and be a passive audience member. I think you have a gift to offer God’s church, in your own unique way. I think your voice, your story and your vision are important, even critical. This is a time to be courageous and creative, to take risks and forge new pathways. To ask big questions and challenge the-way-we’ve-always-done-things. To paint pictures of what could be. To let go of hurt and resentment, and seek ways for God’s church – with her weakness and her beauty – to face tomorrow in unity and maturity.