What is Wrong With the American Church? Better Exegesis?
Acts 2:44-45 GOD’S WORD Translation (GW) – 44 All the believers kept meeting together, and they shared everything with each other. 45 From time to time, they sold their property and other possessions and distributed the money to anyone who needed it.
I was listening to a prominent radio preacher this week and he was talking about the problems of the current state of the American church. It was interesting what his idea of the main problem of the church is. He felt that the main problem of the church was that there was not enough exegetical teaching. In thought I found myself disagreeing with this statement.
At first I was in agreement, but then when I thought about it I was struck by the thought that breaking down the Bible line by line and word for word may not be the best learning method for every person.
When playing out what he was saying to it’s logical end, the man was really saying was that there are not enough buildings with Bible college or university educated leadership (highly educated leadership) that can sit down weekly (or bi-weekly) to study and draw out a deep and relevant message and deliver the message with skill and in a way that will keep the crowd interested.
Thinking this through, the first problem is that having a highly trained professional that can exegete passages word by word is not likely to motivate large numbers of listeners to study in the same way or to study at all. In many cases like this the reliance is on such a person to do the studying and more importantly the connecting with God for you and less individual study and individual connection with God. The reliance is often on that person and if that person leaves, dies, falls in some kind of sin etc. the congregation are often lost and limited in the ability to do this on their own.
As far as the model of having a building and a trained expert to teach the group weekly from a pulpit, that model is not really the example of the churches planted in the New Testament. The churches of the New Testament had varying levels of teaching from trained leaders (many of them had it for a period to start and the church planter –like Paul- would then leave) but the focuses seem to be on deep interpersonal fellowship, taking care of one another, prayer, and worship and the scripture was in their discussion or in the context of the Jewish converts in Israel they did all of this, as well as listening to the various teachings and teaching styles of the Apostles and went to the temple also.
The New Testament model including teaching:
Acts 2:42-47 GOD’S WORD Translation (GW) – 42 The disciples were devoted to the teachings of the apostles, to fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayer. 43 A feeling of fear came over everyone as many amazing things and miraculous signs happened through the apostles. 44 All the believers kept meeting together, and they shared everything with each other. 45 From time to time, they sold their property and other possessions and distributed the money to anyone who needed it. 46 The believers had a single purpose and went to the temple every day. They were joyful and humble as they ate at each other’s homes and shared their food. 47 At the same time, they praised God and had the good will of all the people. Every day the Lord saved people, and they were added to the group.
Most of the models described throughout the New Testament have little access to such teaching (and to Bibles – particularly since the New Testament had not been written yet as evidenced by the fact they are in the stories) so they focused on getting together to seek God and to show live to one another in various ways. Loving God through things like worship and prayer and loving each other through caring about one another and for on another seemed to be the main focus.
Matthew 22:34-40 GOD’S WORD Translation (GW) – 34 When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. 35 One of them, an expert in Moses’ Teachings, tested Jesus by asking, 36 “Teacher, which commandment is the greatest in Moses’ Teachings?”
37 Jesus answered him, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the greatest and most important commandment. 39 The second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as you love yourself.’ 40 All of Moses’ Teachings and the Prophets depend on these two commandments.”
If these are the greatest commandments, then whatever model of church that most demonstrates and creates these is the best model. Along those same lines, if you are looking for the problems in a church or the churches of a nation then the biggest problem would have to be anything that hinders or limits these things in any way.
I have my feelings on people taking it upon themselves to say that only one way of teaching is the way it must be done when that is not the example we get from Jesus who used many teaching styles to reach various audiences, but that is not the biggest challenge here.
The first problem to look at is the model itself before the discussion of teaching styles. Has the model of having a building with a cross on it, a pulpit and a highly trained expert teaching (whatever the teaching style) produces an environment completely focused on the exchange of love with God and the exchange of love with others to the point of all believers selling their valuables etc. to make sure nobody has a need.
It would seem that in our churches in the United States the biggest problem might not be teaching method, it may be more of a problem of church method. The house to house gathering together to eat, fellowship and focusing on exchanging love with God is absolutely absent in many of our churches.
In many of our major cities, people rarely sit down together at home to eat dinner with their spouses and children much less other believers. The focus seems to be every man, woman and child for themselves. There are often programs in these churches which are designed to focus on loving others usually involving something like giving money to foreign missionaries, going to parks where the homeless congregate and giving out sandwiches, going to downtown areas to give out Bible tracts to start the conversation to talk people into the kingdom, etc., but these (while good things) seem to be a sort of beginners level to the kind of loving one another described in the Biblical examples of church.
Before focusing on teaching style the question needs to be if you alter the teaching style in this same context (same church model) will that alone suddenly make it more likely that each participant will develop a deep personal love for God (including studying the Bible and hearing from God in that study as individuals) and a deep interpersonal relationship throughout all of the members of congregation. These are the greatest commandments according to Jesus and everything else hinges on these.
My personal observations have been that church models that focus on studies that are “expertless” and small group based (often also based on multiple families meeting together). These groups tend to, by nature be built on each individuals seeking of God, study of the Bible and better build deep interpersonal relationship with the other believers involved. I have seen these groups as stand alone churches and I have seen these as key parts of a larger church that has a more traditional Sunday service also.
With the traditional Sunday service and small group together models there is that more traditional teaching involved but the building of obedience to the two greatest commandments is more naturally built in the small group settings and the worship service has a teaching and more corporate worship component.
I have traditionally been pretty comfortable going to a building and listening to deep, engaging teaching with little likelihood of carrying that out through the week. The thing is, I have to ask myself, if having a model that has a much greater likelihood of building me and those around me into believers that study for ourselves and from that study hear from and are led by God while also building much deeper, interpersonal relationships with the body of believers as well as my family is really a model that I would better benefit from. It might also be a model that I enjoy more personal interaction with God and others as well as building a group of people that really care about and for me as well as caring for and about the other believers. In other words I think I would be more likely to grow in the are of deeply loving God and deeply loving others in such a model.
The real challenge with the statements I heard on the radio about what is wrong with the American Church can only be seen as wrong when you realize that question has to be the second question asked. You can only ask what is wrong after you clearly define what a right church is. Using something as simple as the likelihood that each member will rapidly grow in obedience to what Jesus stated as the two greatest commandments, suddenly a whole bunch of ideas that once seemed logical become just more of the same “holding pattern” style of church that is losing membership in droves over the past few years.
The problem really seems to be that we are asking the wrong questions so we are getting the wrong answers.
Thoughts by faith and in His service,
W. Lawrence Hess