Why Churchless Christianity Doesn’t Work

liturgy2What makes a church a church?  This is an important question with all the novel approaches to no-church-churches that we currently see in the contemporary evangelical world.  Its also an important question for Simple Free, since we don’t look like a typical church– meeting in a house, without a pastor, etc.  Kevin DeYoung writes interesting books.  He has a  book called “Just Do Something” which encourages 20 and 30-somethings to stop sitting around waiting to figure out what to do and just start doing things. Thats an interesting thesis. Another book DeYoung wrote with Ted Kluck is “Why We Are Not Emergent”, in which they explain why the Emergent Church movement is flawed. Now these young authors have a new book, “Why We Love the Church”, an adamant defense of traditional church as being essential to the Christian life. There is a nice interview with DeYoung in a recent Christianity Today magazine about his views (http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2009/august/35.58.html) They are responding to disgruntled Christians, many of whom have come out with recent books like Pagan Christianity?, Quitting Church, Life After Church, and They Like Jesus But Not the Church. DeYoung and Kluck respond that despite its flaws, the traditional institutional church is important, and loved by Christ. They say at one point:

“And any husband worth the paper his marriage license is printed on will be jealous to guard the good name of his wife. She may be a lying, no good,
double-crossing poor excuse for a wife, but if she’s your wife, you’ll protect
her honor, whatever may be left of it. And woe to the friend who comes
around your house, hangs out, and expects to have a good time, all the while getting digs in on your bride. Who wants a friend who rolls his eyes and sighs every time your wife walks into the room? Apparently, some people imagine Jesus wants friends like that. They roll their eyes and sigh over the church.”

This seems like a great book to start conversation and thinking about the value of traditional church structure and institution, and a thoughtful response to those who are overly critical of traditional church. Some of the things DeYoung says are essential to the church are: preaching, praying, singing, sacraments, pastor, sermon, doctrinal boundaries, regular meetings. In reference to Churchless Christianity they say ” It’s important to remember that when you have two people at Starbucks who are talking about Jesus, that’s nice and that may be a group of Christians, but a church has order, offices, and certain worship elements.”

This is a great challenge for us at Simple Free to think about, because we don’t have a church building per se (DeYoung doesn’t think that is necessary), yet we do have a lot of elements of what DeYoung seems to think are essential for the institutional church: order, worship (liturgy), songs, prayer, sacraments (we have communion each week), doctrinal boundaries (we follow the Free Church statement of faith) and regular meetings.

It would appear that we fail to be a real church on DeYoung’s account because we do not have a pastor, a sermon, or offices. Now DeYoung, a pastor from the Calvinist branch of the Reformed tradition (Arminius was from the Dutch Reformed tradition, so 5 point Calvinists are a part but not the whole of ‘Reformed thought”) seems to have a strong emphasis on the sermon and the pastors role in preaching it. That makes sense given the Calvinists view that the sermon is the center of Church worship, as well as the Enlightenment roots of that Reformed tradition which highly valued ‘informing’ the congregation of new knowledge (in the Enlightenment tradition). But that the sermon is the center of worship is a Calvinist viewpoint, not shared by everyone.  Its almost like saying if a church doesn’t have the same central emphases of the Calvinists, then its not a church (I don’t think DeYoung would really say that, but it could come across that way). There are Christian traditions without pastors– such as the Brethern or Quaker traditions, or home churches. And in the Anglican or Catholic Church, it would likely be argued that the liturgy and communion are much more important than the homily itself.

Now that offices are important in the historical church is a point well taken, and while Simple Free was at 5 regular attenders for 6 months, it didn’t seem very relevant to try to figure out which of us would be the elders. Direct congregational rule works great at that size. Now that we have more like 12 coming, we will probably have to make some decisions about such things, but fortunately we already have bylaws in place for just such an occassion (the bylaws were put in place by our original 4, with the expectation if we grew a bit, we’d revisit them and congregationally decide how to modify them and move forward). The congregational rule is a problem for many in the calvinist tradition, but thats kind of a side issue here I believe. I’m a strong advocate of congregationally-elected Elders in churches– but primarily because I think they provide direction and some pushback and accountability to the congregation, and to a pastor when one has a pastor. A pastor without an elder board is not a good situation, in my view.

I do think Deyoung and Kluck’s book is timely and is a good reminder first of all not to complain or be overly critical of churches and especially traditional practices of churches.   We do tend to be very consumer-like in our church-expectations and very self focused in what we expect.  But most important I really like the general thrust of the book– that those who want to throw out traditional church practices as being irrelevant in our postmodern age are mistaken– is for the most part right on. People are hungry for church tradition, actually. Simple Free is starting to get inquiries from local small groups at other churches about utilizing liturgy and the church calander of scripture passages (not that we have any corner on the market– we simply shamelessly rip off book of common prayer liturgy and use old hymnbooks from the free church of my youth (from the days when hymnbooks were used instead of power projectors). I believe there is a hunger for MORE tradition, not less, among many younger believers. A highlight of our service each week is singing an old hymn accapella together. It isn’t news that many are rediscovering the historical church and its liturgy, prayers, hymns, and other practices such as fasting and honoring lent and advent– and they are finding powerful life in Christ through these historic church practices. Call it retro Christianity, call it old fashioned Christianity, call it historic Christianity, whatever it is, it is far from reinventing the wheel, it is simply going back and submitting to what the church has used for millenia to establish good faith and Christian practice.

I’m just not conviced that a pastor and a sermon are quite as essential as DeYoung and Kluck do. I hope thats just because I don’t have a Calvinist viewpoint on that issue, and not because I’m not Biblical. May God give us wisdom and grace.

For the introduction to their book check out: http://www.moodypublishers.com/Media/MediaLibrary/WhyWeLoveChurchExcerpt.pdf

Also check out DeYoung’s site at:

If you want, become a fan of omaha simple free church at: http://www.facebook.com/home.php?#/group.php?gid=100998097389&ref=ts


14 responses to “Why Churchless Christianity Doesn’t Work

  1. I get a lot out our scripture analysis when people start discussing and ideas start snowballing. It’s kind of like listening to a pastor and being able to stop him and say, “What about this?”

    But, at the same time, I also enjoy listening and learning from people who know more than me.

    As far as elders go, I think one role they could fulfill is to keep Simple Free constantly moving forward. Can the whole congregation (all 14 of us) keep the big picture in mind or do we need two to four people to really focus on it?

  2. I haven’t read the book, I just enjoy your blog. It seems to me that the teaching/evangelism aspect of the sermon is critical for preserving and communicating essential Christian teaching and bringing to light any false teaching or misunderstanding of that truth. As long as a “sermonless” setting provides these biblical essentials, I think it’s covered. A sermon is not virtuous in and of itself, many are the source of the very deception we have to combat!

  3. It would seem significant that a missing concern in DeYoung’s conclusions about the necessity of a pastor and sermon is the consideration of whether those elements can be defended in scripture. The fact that neither is ever mentioned in the context in which those designations are used today should give pause, to say the least. Other than proclaiming the gospel to crowds, “sermons” are not recorded. The word used in every other instance indicates that a dialogue took place. The concept of a single pastor of or over a congregation is simply non-existent in the scriptures.
    The other point in question is his reference to rediscovering the historical church. Since the church after Constantine has had very little impact on society it would seem more appropriate to consider how the church functioned during its most productive season. Certainly it was before Ignatious introduced bishops who enforced restrictions on who could do what in a meeting.

  4. This is an interesting discussion. I would offer two thoughts:

    1. The idea that a high view of ‘sermons’ and ‘pastors’ is largely to do with Calvinism may be a little short-sighted. I think there are some clear examples from the OT and NT where the people of God sat (all day sometimes) before the priests/elders and listened to the law being read (Deuteronomy 31). Some may say these were not sermons by todays standards, I disagree. God appointed leaders who were instructed to read His Torah (which means instruction) to the people and they were to learn to ‘hear it and obey it’ (see Duet. 31). Often times we see Moses instructing the people, not just by reading the law, but by telling them what to do according to the law. This is preaching, teaching, instructing, encouraging and admonishing. These were the sermons of ancient times, long before the ‘historical church’ and even Jesus incarnate.

    Jesus continued this tradition by reading from the law and then teaching (Matthew 21:23, 26:55, Mark 12:35, Luke 20:1, Luke 21:37, John 7:28, John 8:20, there are more). In fact, it says he did this daily. I would humbly submit that Jesus is exampling for leaders of the temple (church) how it is they should lead; namely reading the bible and then teaching it. Granted there are also other dynamics to leading, but this is key and can not be neglected if we are to follow the example of Christ.

    Although there are helpful discussions to be had about Calvinism, I don’t think assigning to them credit for making the preaching the word central to church is fair. Jesus and Moses were doing this long before the Reformation.

    2. Perhaps we also need to define what we mean by ‘sermon’. If ‘proclaiming the Gospel to crowds’ isn’t a sermon, then I need a new definition. I would also put the challenge back to you: Defend from the scriptures a model where reading and teaching of the word are not central to the life of the church.

    Thanks for letting me post.

  5. One more passage that may be helpful to this discussion on the word as central in church: Acts 13:13-52. Notice how after the reading of the scriptures, there was teaching. Notice also the result of this teaching, verses 48-49. Thanks again.

  6. simplefreechurch

    I am really happy to have your thoughts here Matthew and Zach and Becky and David! Thank you!! Your responses make me think, and I am happy. The verses Matthew mentions in particular are some important verses and I do think Simple Free needs to think through whether having a pastor and sermon are essential to being a church in the biblical sense. First, let me say that I love listening to good preachers, I like to read old sermons of Augustine, Aquinas, Spurgeon, and many others. I think Preaching is a great tool and gift to the church, and can be powerful. I’m just not sure that the Bible shows us that a church MUST have a preacher and sermons. I want to sort of flesh that out a bit. I’m certainly not entirely settled in my opinion yet, or finished thinking it through.

    I totally agree that preaching happened in the Bible, as did prophesying, like what we find in Issaiah and Jeremiah etc etc. When I look at passages like Nehemiah 8:8 there Ezra reads scripture “from daybreak til noon” and then a whole group of men plus the Levites explain the law to the people. It seems like more of a group of elders, and this is a pretty unusual and special occasion, as Jerusalem is being rebuilt and this is a celebration to remember the law. It seems similar for the passages like in Exodus where Moses reads the law aloud that he receives from God. Again, this is a pretty unique situation—where we received the 10 commandments. There are definitely passages where Moses does teach the people, as does Joshua. Of course Kings who turn back to God often have the word of God read out loud, and this has a powerful effect, like King Josiah in II Kings 22. But most of these cases are primarily reading of the word, it seems like to me (I’m sure I’m missing other passages).

    From what I understand of Jewish traditional religious practices, any jewish man can perform the jewish prayer ceremonies, while a Rabbi is one who is somehow certified to be able to help instruct and resolve disputes. But a rabbi does not have special authority to lead services particularly. This is only important because I think that when Jesus was teaching in the temple, for example, it was probably a lot like the first time this happened when as a child he was found discussing the law with adults. It was a type of preaching, but it seems that it would have been more give-and-take as we see when various religious leaders approach him in the temple in many of the passages you cited. Its not like they interrupted his sermon—they joined in with a question of their own in the discussion which he was leading, and through which he was teaching. Obviously what we call the sermon on the mount was much more like our sermons of today in some ways—although quite different in other ways—it was the Son of God talking, and his words were actually the Word of God.

    The teaching of Paul in Acts 13 that you mention seems also to be much more informal—the leaders were having their regular public reading of scripture, and Paul was from out of town and they knew he was smart, so they asked him to speak, he presented the gospel interpretation of OT scripture, the people liked it, and said they wanted him to share more next time. The leaders were jealous and kicked him out of town. Pretty informal. Was that a sermon? Maybe. If it was, I am not sure its so unlike when we have a new person come to our small group, and they share insights and interpretations that we find remarkably insightful at our bible reading time.

    In Acts 2 when it says, They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. I think of what we do at Simple Free- we devote ourselves to the apostles teaching (from the Bible) and to Fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayer. It seems like we are doing what they were doing in Acts. But I think some would say that we need to have someone specifically who fulfills the function of the apostles to provide for us teaching for us to devote ourselves to. The Catholic Church has certainly said that with its doctrine of Apostolic succession as a justification for the office of Pope etc since very early church days. Of course protestants don’t hold to that apostolic succession with regard to the Pope, but some do with regard to having God-appointed teachers to guide believers. That seems more necessary to me in the early Church, and less necessary now that we have established Christian doctrine and written letters of the Apostles to study. We don’t need to have them teach us themselves, because we have their words of instruction. I’m not clear that we absolutely need another authoritative layer of teachers to teach us the words of instruction of the apostles. I remember one of my Seminary professors who taught me the book of acts saying that you have to be careful deriving theology or universal directives from the book of Acts. Acts is a weird time in early church history because people are getting the apostles teachings straight from the horses mouth before these things got written down. The letters help eleviate this problem and allow for more widespread distribution of the apostles teachings without needing direct teaching from the horses mouth. In Acts the Spirit is working in special ways (I realize this is my dispensationalism coming out, but at the very least it seems to me that the Spirit worked in different ways through miracles etc in the early church compared to today (I’m not advocating total cessationism here)

    I definitely agree with your view that “preaching the gospel to crowds” is a sermon. I would also say that that sort of public preaching in the public square is rarely if ever practiced by most churches. I have seen preachers at universities preaching to crowds like that, but it was not in a church. Probably the old revivals in tents were an attempt to approach that approach. I think a lot of the teaching of the word to the faithful which happened in the OT and NT Jewish tradition was not so much like our present day sermons as it was like a discussion group among some of those who knew scripture best at the synagogue—or even like what we are doing now—presenting alternate views of scripture—reasoning through scripture together—and trying to come to some better understanding. Paul usually just goes and shows up at the synagogues, where people are reading scripture, and people can speak about the passage. I mean, John 7 is a perfect example of this—it’s a back-and-forth between Jesus and the Jewish leaders. This is almost always what happens when Jesus is “teaching” or “preaching” in the temple courts. That is not what happens in sermons today. Here it is:

    14Not until halfway through the Feast did Jesus go up to the temple courts and begin to teach. 15The Jews were amazed and asked, “How did this man get such learning without having studied?”
    16Jesus answered, “My teaching is not my own. It comes from him who sent me. 17If anyone chooses to do God’s will, he will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own. 18He who speaks on his own does so to gain honor for himself, but he who works for the honor of the one who sent him is a man of truth; there is nothing false about him. 19Has not Moses given you the law? Yet not one of you keeps the law. Why are you trying to kill me?”
    20″You are demon-possessed,” the crowd answered. “Who is trying to kill you?”
    21Jesus said to them, “I did one miracle, and you are all astonished. 22Yet, because Moses gave you circumcision (though actually it did not come from Moses, but from the patriarchs), you circumcise a child on the Sabbath. 23Now if a child can be circumcised on the Sabbath so that the law of Moses may not be broken, why are you angry with me for healing the whole man on the Sabbath? 24Stop judging by mere appearances, and make a right judgment.”
    Is Jesus the Christ?
    25At that point some of the people of Jerusalem began to ask, “Isn’t this the man they are trying to kill? 26Here he is, speaking publicly, and they are not saying a word to him. Have the authorities really concluded that he is the Christ[b]? 27But we know where this man is from; when the Christ comes, no one will know where he is from.”
    28Then Jesus, still teaching in the temple courts, cried out, “Yes, you know me, and you know where I am from. I am not here on my own, but he who sent me is true. You do not know him, 29but I know him because I am from him and he sent me.”
    I mean, this is real back-and-forth. Jesus is saying stuff, and people are responding, and then he responds. I think that in the Temple in particular it was not entirely unlike the scenes in the life of brian where various people are trying to get a hearing speaking their message. Passerbys would listen, maybe ask a question or challenge the speaker, and either stick around or go on to another teacher. The synagogues were a smaller version of this. When Jesus goes to the synagogue at Capernaum, he stands up, which Wesley says was the custom for someone who wanted to read from the scroll. Again, this was a pretty open service at the synagogue—if you wanted to read, you stood up, and you’d get the scroll passed to you to read. Jesus chooses what passage to read even. Its not a typical sermon in a church as we have today. He does preach after he reads—no doubt—but it is almost more prophetic than anything. Again: I do not doubt that preaching happened in scripture, especially evangelism-style preaching in the early days of the church in the temple courts and synagogues. But it was not the kind of formalized sermon or preacher that we see in today’s churches. That doesn’t mean that today’s churches are bad—I see no mention of pews or offering plates or nursureys in Scripture either, and I think they are all fine and perfectly within the bounds of Scripture. I just still don’t see the contemporary model of pastor and sermon explicitly required in Scripture for churches. But I still have a lot more thinking and studying to do on this. Thanks for putting up with such a ridiculously long posting.

  7. In my opinion (biblically derived?) little of what we do today had a lot to do with what Jesus may have had in mind for His bride. That being said, it is not wrong either…except for those things that detract from the full weight of grace. Many of the traditions (liturgies, sacraments) do just that in the way they’ve evolved through the grid of man’s tendancies to kill what was founded with purer intentions.
    So whereas the table was founded to clarify our dependence on the full sufficiency of the atoning blood of Christ, it morphed into its regular observance as a means of grace. Anathema.
    Whereas the believers gathered for the reading and teaching of God’s word, now we evangelicals border on “bibliolatry.” We worship the Word of God, rather than using it to find the God of the Word and engage with Him (not merely His words) in the transformational way He intended.
    You asked for scripture justifying pastors and buildings? In my view they don’t exist unless as logically implied. Was Timothy a “pastor” to one or some when he appointed elders? Or Titus? A plurality of elders is clearly the only bilblically “sanctioned” leadership body for the local church (“…the churches…”). What we’ve come to call “the pastor” is just one of those men. Whether or not he is freed financially to focus more time is a practical option, not a biblical mandate either way (except maybe to make sure that if you do pay him, you actually pay him well!).
    Anyone who determines that the mere existence of the current day trappings is “unbiblical” is misguided. As always, God looks at the heart. If the heart is rightly motivated and teachable, ready to change, then it’s no skin off God’s back either way. Imagine God being ruffled by our pracctical choices one way or the other. It’s almost comical to make such a big deal of having or not haning any one or the other of these “churchy things.”
    On the other hand, if any of our structures (or lack of structures) is violating the purity of the gospel of grace and its effect on the hearts of people perishing, then we must react with the same passion Jesus did against the Pharisees who were religiously ushering people into hell.

  8. simplefreechurch

    Neal, thanks for that post man! I do feel like I resonate with your practical approach, and the focus on the gospel of Christ above all else.

    This discussion is helping me realize we should think about having some elders probably pretty soon. I think we have people functioning like elders already, but to formalize that seems like a decent idea and biblical– we’ll probably talk that over soon.

    For those of you who don’t know Neal, he is a Free Church pastor who planted a thriving Free church in Ashland and whose son is planting one in sw Omaha. They have a fresh approach to church life: http://www.riverviewcc.org/

    The new church plant by Jake, Neal’s son:


  9. I agree with Neal regarding God’s focus on the motivations of the heart. However, when it comes to the expression of His heart to a gathering of His people a sermon may not be the best way to go about it. I think Matthew misunderstood my comment regarding proclaiming the gospel to crowds. I was trying to make the point that such proclamation IS a sermon, but that preaching a sermon was not the method used to teach in a group of believers after the church was birthed. When they came together each one had something to contribute, and when one had a word it sparked a dialogue in which all participated. This is important as it allows the gifts to flow. A teaching may have a better oportunity to progress from information to revelation in the context of corporate participation. (No rhyme intended)
    It stands to reason that before the birth of the church at Pentecost there would be more of a one man show since the Spirit had not been given to all, so naturally a prophet or high priest upon whom God poured a special anointing wouild be his spokesmen. But now that all those in Christ are the Royal priesthood, the priest (or solo pastor) is no longer needed. In the old covenant the priests did all the ministering. In the new covenant everyone is a minister.

  10. simplefreechurch

    David, Thanks for your comments. I really appreciate your being willing to post here! Is it your view then that the position of pastor is unnecessary (a church doesn’t need that) or is your position more strong– that a church shouldn’t have a pastor? In all of this also, what is your view about elders, or some sort of leaders of the church? I guess I’m sympathetic to Zachs earlier post that its nice to have elders simply because someone knows they are particularly responsible to keep things going and to kind of be thinking about things from a birds eye perspective– I mean, you must be a leader like that in your fellowship probably– what are your thoughts on the idea of having elders or church leaders then (even if not pastors)? Thanks. -andy

  11. Andy, I appreciate you giving the opportunity for me to post here.
    I believe in pastoring gifts among the body, but not in one pastor over a group of believers. The concept of a senior pastor over a congregation is not found in the New Testament for good reason. The major one would be that Christ alone is head over the church. Jesus cautioned his disciples not to be like the gentile leaders who lorded it over and had authority over others. He also instructed them not to be like the Jewish leaders who used titles and had positions of authority. Authority in the church was given as the ability to function in the context of one’s particular gift in serving the body. Also, the unscriptural position of pastor lends the opportunity for people to be led by a man rather than by the Holy Spirit. Usually the pastor assumes responsibities and functions that belong to the whole body, thus hindering spiritual growth.
    I believe elders function in an important role, part of which is pastoring in the biblical context of walking with those younger in the Lord. They teach them by example as well as other forms of teaching that brings practical application to individual lives. Elders can also serve to seek God together regarding dicisions that might need to be made concerning issues that arise in the course of body life.
    But elders are a function, not an office or official position. The greek word “praxis” is mistranslated “office” in some versions of the bible, but it is more of a verb than a noun. Paul told Timothy to recognize elders in the cities where there were believers. It’s important to understand that during that time there was very little leadership at all. Most of Paul’s epistles were letters written in response to letters from the churches asking him to sort out the truth regarding various teachings by the Judaisers, gnostics and doescitists who were confusing the new believers. So to recognize older christians(elders) who could be trusted to teach sound doctrine was a much greater need than would be the case today.
    You mentioned that there are already people among you functioning like elders. Perhaps, then, there might not be a need to “appoint” them. Special recognition, when unnecessary, tends to interrupt the flow of what is happening in an organic sense.
    Bottom line, if people are allowed and encouraged to discover and operate in the gifts God’s given them, leadership, of all kinds, happens naturally.

  12. Garrett Swanberg

    I am loving the discussion, Thank you!

  13. Barna/Viola’s “Pagan Christianity” wasn’t a stand-alone book. The sequel is called “Reimagining Church”, it’s the constructive part of the discussion. He also has a new book that’s the practical follow-up to both books. It’s called “Finding Organic Church.” Viola’s article “Why I Love the Church” explains the motivation behind all three books. http://frankviola.wordpress.com/2009/08/18/why-i-love-the-church-in-praise-of-gods-eternal-purpose/

  14. Wow. I just discovered your website and notice that this post is six years old!

    So, did you all ever appoint elders to oversee your little flock? From what I see in the scriptures, “appointing” elders to oversee/administer was not always done.

    When Paul told Timothy to appoint elders, I believe “elders” already existed, they were identified as such, and functioned as described in scripture. Timothy needed to appoint some of them to fulfill administratve/overseeing tasks because the church was growing so quickly that some prudent management was needed.

    In a small group, the “elders” will become obvious to all and there may not be a need to “appoint” them for any management functions.

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