George Barna's Revolution: A Follow-Up
I've been amazed at the response to my two-part review of George Barna's book, Revolution. It isn't the quantity of response that has surprised me (although it's been huge), but the nature of the objections that have been raised. So I thought it might be helpful to write a brief follow-up to clarify what I did and did not say about Barna's proposal.
First, many mistakenly thought that in my protest to Barna's book I was advocating the necessity of a "building" or some such physical structure as essential to Christian life and discipleship. I actually heard from a few who said that Storms evidently believes you have to meet in a building with a "steeple" and "stained glass" for it to be a legitimate New Testament church.
Needless to say (or I guess I do need to say it), I never said any such thing. Nor would I ever say such a thing, for I don't believe it is biblical. Buildings, dedicated exclusively to Christian use for corporate gatherings, at least in the way we today understand that phenomenon, were non-existent until well into the fourth century a.d. There is no evidence that New Testament local churches met in buildings or knew anything of modern architectural forms. You will search in vain in my review for any suggestion that I believe a church must meet in a building to be a church.
In Romans 16:5 Paul sent his greetings to "the church" that convened in the "house" of Prisca and Aquila. As I'll note again below, it matters little whether your "church" meets in a warehouse, pub, home, coffee shop, gymnasium, on a hill, in a hut, or within the palatial walls of a 75,000 square foot sanctuary.
Second, several used the term "institutional" church to describe what they think I have in mind when I speak of a legitimate expression of New Testament Christianity. They went on to describe churches with pews, pastors in three-piece suits, offering plates, AWANA programs, and some form of denominational affiliation, just to mention a few examples. Again, none of these is an essential element in a biblical church, although they may well be embraced if the people are persuaded this is the most effective way to minister and to fulfill the calling God has placed upon them.
My suspicion is that people have simply grown weary of church as a culturally nave, socially inconsequential, spiritually lifeless "institution." They see it as a well-oiled organizational machine, more attuned to the marketing techniques of Hollywood and Wall Street than the Bible, which appears to exist more for its own perpetuation than for the benefit of the weak, homeless, broken, and needy folk who may darken its doors. The "institutional" church, as they conceive it, is governed by a professional and polished pastor who is more a "religious CEO" than a caring and compassionate shepherd of the sheep. Tradition is sacrosanct, innovation is feared, weak people are scorned, the backslidden are unwelcome, and nobody's spiritual gift ultimately matters except that of the paid staff.
Well, I'm not sure I'd want to be part of that sort of church myself! But why must one think that the only or best alternative is no church at all, as if the perceived abuses and failures of the "institutional" church justify disobedience to the biblical mandate concerning body life in a local context?
Third, quite a few affirmed Barna's proposal and protested my critique of it based on their bad experience with overbearing and abusive leadership. They spoke of pastoral indifference, legalism, hierarchical structures that quench the Spirit, the exploitation of authority to promote one's personal agenda, financial mismanagement, sexual misconduct, and just about every conceivable abuse and extreme in pastoral ministry that one can conceive.
Need I say (yes I do) that I utterly oppose and am no less appalled by such unbiblical perversions of leadership and pastoral authority as are those who wrote to me concerning them? Nowhere, and in no way, did I or ever will I endorse "church" life that fosters or encourages or tolerates this sort of sinful behavior. But hear me well. The abuse of authority is never a legitimate justification for its abolition. The Scriptures speak clearly to the importance of holding Elders accountable (see 1 Timothy 5:19-21) to a high standard of conduct. They are no more exempt from church discipline than is the average believer.
One need only read 1 Peter 5:1ff. to see the quality of character and leadership required of those who exercise pastoral authority. "Domineering over those" in their charge is explicitly condemned (v. 3). All of us are familiar (some, all too painfully) with instances of self-serving, spiritual bullies who exploit their title, pulpit, and ordination to promote their personal agendas and enhance their self-esteem. [By the way, contrary to what one person suggested, I couldn't care less if one preaches standing behind a pulpit, sitting on a stool, lying down or standing on your head (figuratively speaking, of course). My concern, because it is biblical, is that there be consistent preaching and teaching of God's Word, regardless of posture or place!]
No matter how often or egregious the neglect of pastoral responsibility and authority may be, the inspired and infallible instruction of the New Testament remains unchanged: local churches are to be led by Elders (= Bishops, Pastors, or whatever you choose to call them) who have been raised up by the Holy Spirit (Acts 20:28) and have fulfilled the qualifications set forth in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. By all means strive and pray and aim for a humble, holy, Christ-exalting, sheep-serving leadership, but strive! I see not a syllable of biblical justification for abandoning either the principle of pastoral authority or the local church itself by appealing to some (or even many) who have abused it.
Fourth, and somewhat related to the previous point, several people mentioned their stifling experience in churches that featured a "one man show". Church, so called, consisted of little more than a one hour, once a week, performance by a singular figure who permitted no challenges, questions, or any expression of ministry from those considered less qualified or gifted.
I deplore this no less than you. I am a firm believer in every-member-ministry in the body of Christ. We are all believer-priests, called and equipped to exercise our Spirit-imparted gifts for the common good (1 Cor. 12:7-11). I deplore the marginalization and suppression of anyone in the body of Christ. The purpose of God-ordained leadership is to equip each and every individual believer to do the work of ministry (Eph. 4:11ff.).
Are there forms of church government and expressions of hierarchical leadership that silence the voice of the people and provide no opportunity for the exercise of spiritual gifts? Of course. They should be reformed and renewed and returned to that biblical model in which leaders facilitate and empower and release every Christian into the fullness of his/her calling.
A related point is whether or not a legitimate church must have a "paid" pastoral staff. The answer is No. Some pastors are bi-vocational and derive their support from a second job. Some churches are suffering under persistent adverse circumstances that make a "salaried" staff impossible. But we must never ignore the clear admonitions concerning those "elders who rule well . . . especially those who labor in preaching and teaching" (1 Timothy 5:17). These, says Paul, are "worthy of double honor," most likely a reference to financial remuneration. "For the Scripture says, 'You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,' and 'The laborer deserves his wages'" (1 Timothy 5:18; cf. 1 Cor. 9:4-18).
My fifth, and final, observation concerns what I heard most frequently in responses to my review. For reasons that utterly escape me, some people got the impression that I am opposed to non-traditional expressions of body life or to less formal gatherings of believers or what many referred to as "house" churches. I'm stunned. I applaud the "house" church movement and pray for its growth and success. How could anyone do otherwise, given the fact that every single expression of church life in the New Testament was in a "house" (see Romans 16:5; 1 Cor. 16:19; Col. 4:15).
A number of people who wrote me are involved with only a handful of other Christians, meeting in homes for prayer and support and encouragement and study of the Word. They are involved in evangelistic outreach, ministry to the poor and needy, care for widows and orphans, and are committed above all else to the centrality and supremacy of Jesus Christ in all things. Praise God!
There are countless churches spanning the globe that meet without the benefit of buildings, musical instruments, offering plates, padded pews, air-conditioning, electricity, parking lots, robed choirs, or any of the conveniences (or distractions, as the case may be) of western civilization. They meet in the open air or in thatched huts or in caves or in obscure and undisclosed locations (often because of political persecution), or wherever it is most convenient and conducive to the work of ministry.
Are these legitimate expressions of New Testament church life? Yes, if . . . This is where we come to the question of what constitutes the essence of a church. Are there minimal biblical requirements for a gathering of people to constitute a legitimate local "church"? Yes, I believe there are. Here is my list (which I leave open for additions or deletions).
(1) Godly, Spirit-filled leadership by Elders who are qualified (1 Tim. 3; Titus 1) and above all humbly committed to serve, shepherd, and feed the flock. I'm not saying that a particular form of church government is required, only that some form of government or, if that term is offensive to you, leadership is in place that answers to the biblical principles of such texts as Acts 20:28; Ephesians 4:11-13; Phil. 1:1; 1 Thess. 5:12-13; 1 Timothy 3:1-13; 5:17-21; Titus 1:5-16; Hebrews 13:17; James 5:14; 1 Peter 5:1-4.
(2) Regular, sustained instruction from the Word of God, whether that is expressed in formal preaching, informal teaching, or small group interaction.
(3) Commitment to the observance of (at least) the two sacraments/ordinances: Baptism and the Eucharist.
(4) Commitment to both individual and corporate worship, praise, and celebration of the centrality and supremacy of Jesus Christ (irrespective of style or degree of formality).
(5) Commitment to the basics of Christian ministry: evangelization of the lost, financial support of the poor and needy, mutual encouragement and accountability (that will make possible, if needed, church discipline), etc.
I use the word "commitment" because I recognize that not all expressions of local church life are equally capable of or equipped to fulfill each of the above. Persecution, financial hardship, and other factors may temporarily impede the implementation of some of these factors. But a church should at least be committed to them when time and circumstances and resources allow.
In sum, I cannot conceive of a church that does not provide for corporate gatherings (or small group meetings) in which the Word of God is expounded and applied. I cannot conceive of a church that does not recognize duly appointed pastoral leadership (whether paid or ordained, whether singular or plural). I cannot conceive of a church that refuses to provide for the spiritual nourishment of its people through regular observance of the sacraments ordained by our Lord Jesus Christ. I cannot conceive of a church that is not fervent in its praise and proclamation and celebration of our great Triune God. I cannot conceive of a church that refuses to evangelize the lost, support the needy, pursue justice or neglects other, explicit biblical responsibilities.
In the final analysis, it matters not whether your gathering has a name, a building, an ordained clergy, cell groups, or multiple programs. You may be mega or mini, liturgical or free flowing, denominational or non. My concern is not whether you convene in small groups or big groups, with a multiple staff or no staff, on Saturday or Sunday (or any other day of the week; although I suspect some may want to make a case for the propriety of Sunday as uniquely "The Lord's Day").
My concern, and thus my objection to Barna's Revolution, is that essential to Christian discipleship is obedience to the non-negotiable, foundational elements of life and ministry and accountability in a local church.
Let me close with one final observation. Perhaps my greatest concern in this dialogue is the way it has revealed how little functional authority the Bible exerts in the lives of professing Christians. Most Christians affirm what I would call the theoretical authority of Scripture. They declare their belief that the 66 books of the Christian canon are inspired and infallible and the only rule for faith and life. But, oh, how infrequently this infallible rule actually functions to determine what we believe and how we conduct ourselves in the household of God (1 Timothy 3:15).
So I pose this question to all (myself included): What do we mean when we say the Bible is our authority? To what extent do we reconfigure our theology to conform with its dictates? To what extent do we restructure our churches to reflect the principles it teaches?
Let us, by all means, be revolutionaries (if I may be allowed to borrow Barna's term). But let us revolt from unbiblical Christianity that would minimize or deny the centrality of local church life. Let us revolt from any tendency to diminish or blur the Bible's functional authority in lives. Let us revolt against the sinful and corrupt ways of our world as we seek to live truly revolutionary, Christ-like, lives to the glory of God.