I still sometimes have dreams about my old abusive church. In those dreams, I frequently find myself attending long and dreary meetings listening to our head honcho or his lieutenants preaching while we all sit like prisoners, listening (although sometimes I am standing up in such meetings, yelling things like “Shut up!”). Or I dream that I am being assigned to help out with setting up such meetings or cleaning up after such meetings while being bossed around by a bunch of “head honcho” wanna-be's. I don't enjoy such dreams, but I don't always have much control over what my mind does while I am asleep. In this post, however, I will describe the kind of church I envision in my daydreams – in those wish-fulfillment fantasies over which I have control.
Each Christian, I am sure, has a conception of the sort of church of which he or she would like to be a member. These conceptions might all vary widely in outward details, while holding to the essentials of the Faith. Sometimes it's good to write down one's conceptions. Therefore, I am going to have a bit of fun and tell you all the sort of church I would like to walk into if I were going to church on Sunday.
The church of my dreams would have one and only one main meeting day, namely Sunday. This isn't to say that members couldn't get together spontaneously at other times to hang out, talk or do cool things together. It simply means that there would be only one day dedicated to formal meetings.
The first formal Sunday church activity would be worship. By worship I mean something very different from what is typically meant in modern evangelical circles, where “worship” is defined as an intense emotional experience. What I call worship is instead, a weekly ceremony of Christians presenting themselves to God for the following purposes (note the order in which they are listed):
To formally and openly acknowledge that they are His people and that Christ is their King.
To remind themselves of the nature of Him with Whom we have to do.
To confess their sins and receive His forgiveness. The celebration of the Lord's Supper would be a big part of this.
To hear His words to them.
And last, to present their requests before Him.
By their regular participation in all the parts of this ceremony, the members of such a church would be making a weekly public declaration that they are God's people and that He is their Lord. Such a ceremony would be very similar in its message to what I used to experience when I was in the Army, where every weekday, we had a morning formation after we had physical training and breakfast. The purpose of the first official formation of the day was to present ourselves to our commanders in order to receive their orders. No matter what any particular soldier thought of first formation, or how it affected him emotionally, that ceremony was a constant objective reminder that we had become the property of the U.S. Government. You can bet that there were no commanders who were trying to make such a ceremony “seeker-sensitive”!
In the church of my dreams, music would be an integral part of our weekly “first formation.” But the songs sung would, for the most part, be songs of instruction which intelligently declared the majesty, mercy and holiness of the God to whom we were all drawing near. And they would all be free – in the public domain, with no royalties owed to anyone for their use, songs that could be freely sung in all settings, public and private. Notice that I didn't say anything about musical style. In the church of my dreams, the chief criterion for singing a hymn or song would be “Is it Scriptural (in other words, is it Biblically accurate)?”, followed very closely by, “Is it in the public domain?” In the church of my dreams, the musical style of worship would be something decided by all the members, and would be simply be a servant to the words of the songs, rather than getting in the way. What this would look like in practice might vary from church to church, however, depending on whether we're talking about the church of my dreams or the church of someone else's dreams.
Point number one in my list, the formal acknowledgment of God as our Lord and Christ as our King, would therefore involve singing of appropriate hymns or psalms. But it would also involve the weekly public, participatory reciting of the Apostles' Creed and/or the Nicene Creed. (Sorry about any Plymouth Brethren whom I just caused to flip out over this statement. Take two Advil and call me in the morning.) As far as hearing the Word of God, the church of my dreams would assign certain volunteers the weekly task of reading passages aloud from the Old and New Testaments during the service. The weekly readings would be designed to cover the entire Bible. This would take care of points two and four in my list. But I want to expand on this a bit more.
I have to admit that coming from the sort of strict abusive church in which I was involved, I am somewhat leery of having to listen to extended sermons by preachers, since I think that the longer a man talks, the more likely it is that he might be trying to manipulate his hearers rather than instructing them. So if I were to attend a church that looked like the church of my dreams, I would be content if the only form in which the Word was declared at first was simply the public reading of Scripture. (Of course, the readings would all have to come from a translation that is in the public domain.) But if such a church graduated from public reading to include a bit of expository preaching, that would be okay – just as long as no preacher was allowed to preach for longer than fifteen minutes! Such a restriction could even be included in the bylaws ;). I have a cousin who preaches in a black church in Ohio who has two favorite sayings: “Be brief, be enthusiastic, and be seated”, and “Stand to be seen. Speak to be heard. And sit down to be appreciated.” Can I hear an Amen to that?!
The entire ceremony of worship would be presided over by a leader (lector? cantor? worship leader? pastor, maybe) who was democratically elected by the entire congregation to serve for a limited time, and whose powers extended no further than presiding over the Sunday worship. (I also should mention that such a church might want to elect elders who again have limited powers and serve only for a limited term, and whose chief duty is to demonstrate godly behavior to the congregation.) The leader's duties would include leading the congregation in reciting the opening creeds, providing the readers with their cues to read at the appropriate times, presiding over the Lord's Supper, preaching (if the congregation deemed a time of preaching to be appropriate) and the closing prayer.
That closing prayer would be the time in which members made known their prayer requests and the leader made a public prayer for those prayer requests, closing with leading the congregation in the public recital of the Lord's Prayer. The last part of such a service would be the closing hymn, followed by an exhortation from the leader to the congregation to give generously to the Lord by giving to the poor wherever they may be found (there would be no offering plate). The entire ceremony would take an hour at the absolute maximum.
I can already hear someone saying “But what about Sunday school?!” I have an answer for that also. Right after the worship, there would be a Sunday school. But not your everyday, run-of-the-mill Sunday school. Rather, this Sunday school would be devoted to teaching the congregation the original languages of the Bible, namely, Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. Why teach these languages? Because knowing these languages would give individual members a powerful means of going directly to the source to understand what the Bible teaches, and would make them much less susceptible to those who would try to enslave them by distorting Scripture.
“But learning languages is hard! The church of your dreams is a church for eggheads!” I have an answer for that also. Think about it – none of us could talk or write when we were born, yet somehow we managed to pick up these skills without too much trouble. And consider all the immigrants, both legal and illegal who come to the U.S. from non-English speaking countries, yet who manage to learn English. Their pronunciation may not be perfect and their vocabulary may be limited, and native-born Americans may look down their noses at them, yet they are mastering a skill which most Americans don't have – the ability to master a foreign language. If they can do it, and if their kids can do it, it isn't as hard as some people think. Americans may just be lazy. Consider also that Hebrew children are taught Hebrew in synagogue, and most synagogues have classes in which novices can learn Hebrew. For that matter, there is at least one Russian Baptist or Pentecostal church near my house which teaches Russian to regular attenders.
There are also good public domain resources for learning Biblical Greek. One such resource is Greek in a Nutshell: An Outline of Greek Grammar, by James Strong, available online for free download at www.textkit.com/learn/ID/143/author_id/64/. Another resource is A Brief Introduction to New Testament Greek, by Samuel G. Green. It too is available online for free download at http://www.recursosbiblicos.investigacionbiblica.com/libros-pdf/EnIngles/Samuel%20G.%20Green%20-%20A%20Brief%20Introduction%20to%20NT%20Greek.pdf. (By the way, the church of my dreams would only use public domain resources for teaching Bible languages. This would not only prevent the church from having to pay copyright fees, but it would prevent the church from being hoodwinked by heretics like the Jehovah's Witnesses or the Mormons in their distortion of Scripture.)
The key to such a language class would be to make it fun and interactive, and especially for children, to make it a sort of game. And it could be seeker-sensitive in a good way, with coffee and munchies and a laid-back atmosphere. It too would be limited to no more than an hour or maybe an hour and a half at the most.
Speaking of fun, the church of my dreams would have lots of fun together. Members might decide to go to a local park, have a picnic, and jam together on musical instruments, playing anything they wanted. They (at least the more adventurous among them) might get together for extended overnight bicycle camping tours. They might do all sorts of things together. But they would not lord themselves over each other or be constantly looking for some ecclesiastical ladder to climb, since their organizational ladder would be no more than a few rungs tall, and those who got to climb the rungs would get their chance based on a democratic vote.