The futility of “rethinking church”

This was going to be a well thought out article about how to “do” church better, but instead it’s a stupid article about how pointless anything like that is.

Our church is planting a congregation (note: not a church, a congregation i.e. a morning service in a different place – don’t ask…) and I’m involved in it. During a meeting we were having recently we got on to how and whether we should change our style to reflect the fact that we are hoping to attract new people, some of whom will have been put off church, and some of whom won’t have any experience of church at all.

I felt it was pretty obvious we should make some adjustments, but some others weren’t even convinced of that, thinking that we should trust the power of God’s word (and presumably his Spirit?). I think the flaw in that argument is the idea that somehow we’re speaking God’s word in the perfect way at the moment. Anyway, that’s a side rant.

So we talked about a few things e.g. changing the sermon topics from reasonably obscure bits of Moses’ life to something more directly applicable to the central Christian message (is this link a good one? Has anyone got a better one?). This is complicated because we want the two congregations to remain one church, and so the argument is that we are more unified if we both share the same sermons. Anyway, I digress again. The outcome was that we would send off a little group of people from this big meeting to discuss ways we might change our services – to be more newbie-friendly, or just to make them better. I volunteered to be in that group.

I thought I was such a dynamic independent-thinking radical figure that we couldn’t fail to have superb ideas with me there.

I forgot that the whole exercise is utterly futile.

Let’s look at some possible ideas in turn:

1. Dump church and become some kind of “cell church” or other newfangled thing.

Futile because: no-one in the church would agree to it, it’s pretty unbiblical to only meet in small groups – the church in Acts met together often and it was very important to their communication with God, small groups can go off on mad ideas very easily, some mad people would get control of groups and become megalomaniacs, throwing out established stuff and starting again is fundamentally bad because it leads to, and displays, unfounded arrogance.

2. Don’t sing in church because it’s weird for newcomers.

Futile because: no-one in the church would agree to it, it’s hard enough to worship anyway without taking away a way some people manage it, everything else we do in church is weird too – are we going to get rid of everything?

3. Replace services with “coffee mornings” every few weeks, with talks followed by discussion groups over coffee.

Futile because: some people in the church will think it’s heretical to have something not immediately recognisable as church on a Sunday morning, we’ll get out of step with the other service’s sermons, how would we persuade anyone to come, it wouldn’t offer anything to the people who are already Christians.

4. Get people up the front more often to do testimonies, songs, drama, notices about good causes etc.

Futile because: the usual suspects would still be the only people who went up the front, this wouldn’t feel any more inclusive anyway because of the jargon we all share, drama is always just plain rubbish, someone might want to do a dance.

5. Try and make sermons more accessible by explaining things and giving the central Christian message every week

Futile because: sermons are weird and intimidating no matter how understandable they are, people won’t be able to do it, twisting the sermon to mention how you become a Christian every week will be unnatural and make you sound either confused or like a salesman.

6. Explain songs before singing them

Futile because: the explanation will contain more jargon than the song, people will forget, we’ll get out of the habit in no time, people can’t explain things properly.

We ended up deciding to suggest 3, 4, 5 and 6 to the next main meeting, and I tried my best to contribute to ideas, but that’s all we could come up with between us, and as you can see by my helpful annotations I think they’re all completely futile. No-one wants anything to change, and no-one is capable of changing even if they wanted to.

So we’re going to carry on having a little version of the services we had in the other congregation, and we’re going to expect people to arrive and love it by magic. And I guess God can do that magic if he wants. We’re certainly not going to do any ourselves.

Haven’t got the imagination.

Join the Conversation


  1. THoughts on your 1-6 ideas … Loved reading them.
    #1 – Dumping church was a sound idea … no one new is coming anyway. It’s not unbiblical to meet in small groups! That’s goofy! Many churches have very easily gone off on mad ideas, mad people do control churches, established stuff can be tossed out … now that’s Jesus like … and I guess God is the most arrogant of us all since He loved starting over again all the time! I think that’s what the 2nd Adam was all about, for one.
    #2 – Yup … get rid of the singing if you really want to attract people off the street! When they want to sing … give them a CD! Of course, getting rid of everything weird isn’t such a bad idea either.
    #3 – Love the idea! Well, Jesus wasn’t too recognizable either as a ‘good Jew’, so you’d be in good company! I think you’d be surprised how many ‘already Christians’ you’d attract.
    #4 – “Getting people up front” is a foundational idea worth getting rid of, no matter what is produced up front! When your family gets together for Thanksgiving do you think about who is going to get up front to do what? Of course not.
    #5 – “Sermons” … Do we really think Jesus named His teachings and storytelling sermons? I don’t think you can get anywhere on this one without ditching the very word. Anyone give a sermon at family or community gatherings?
    #6 – We’re back to singing, hey! Hmmm …

    I give your church credit for at least dialoguing about change. So glad God liked change, diversity, new creations, starting over, new beginnings, etc.! Whew… I wonder how we can really be ‘in His image’ when we are so stuffy and predictable and fearful of the very things He’s all about! Bet it comes back to that ‘performance’ thing we have going with Him … we’re just so worried about getting it RIGHT! Haaaa… we are certainly funny creatures, aren’t we?

  2. Thanks for the encouragement about the ideas.

    I thought I might get pulled up on number 1.

    Basically I think cell churches are a potentially dangerous idea about a small isolated group of people is not the image of a body working together that I think is represented in the New Testament. Of course, if the cells are not isolated it sounds possible. My main point is that if we started a cell church we’d be dumping the old one because no-one would come, and I don’t think God wants me to dump my church and start a new one.

    About starting again: I think God has started again with us several times as you suggest, but each time he’s started the _same_thing_ again, not something different. If we’re starting again we need to be sure we’re starting from first principles, not going on to something new (e.g. from a new revelation) that is not justified by what God has already told us.

  3. Jesus stood up in front of people and talked for long periods.

    You can call them whatever you like, but they weren’t like sitting around a dinner table – there were thousands of people there.

  4. If the fundamental reason for this new congregation is to attract new people, that should be the main concern when discussing what goes on in it. But it sounds like that’s being interfered with by uncertainties about how exactly this new congregation relates to the old one.

    Is it going to develop into a separate group of people, i.e. basically a church-plant budding off? Or is it a kind of seeker-friendly ‘home group’ to draw people into the main congregation? If so, will new people want to make the transition into the main meeting? Will you want to commit yourself to both meetings?

  5. I agree it’s being interfered with but I think they are about style rather than content. We’ve got one or two zealots who want it to be this radical new thing, and most people just want it to be like church always was I think. I reckon I would be a zealot if I wasn’t so pessimistic about everything.

    It’s going to be a separate congregation – not a way to draw people into the other congregation, but it’s not necessarily going to split off and become a church plant ever.

  6. Ok this may sound naive but my view of church is us trying to spend some quality time with God.

    I’m not saying we should feel comfortable doing this but it should reflect the way the congragation finds it easier to relate to God.

    This may sound even more naive.
    So why not ask the congragation for ideas and I do not mean on one sunday and that is it. I mean ask them and then try and get one to one with all people. Suggest ideas that you have but the decision will be theirs ultimately. Even if it is a simple list like
    no singing
    Gather up all ideas then ask for people to vote
    This would take many weeks I know.

    At least you would get a feel for what people feel comfortable with and then you may find that your alternative service was different each week and led by different people doing what they find comfortable in an environment where we want to extend our relationship with God more.

    Sounds Awesome – I’ll come.

  7. We are the congregation – we’re a pretty small gathering at the moment. The idea of our meeting was to come up with some ideas so that we can all discuss them in our little meeting.

    That’s tonight … I’ll let you know.

  8. So all the congragation turned up to talk about how they want to worship God together!

    WOW – that is almost miraculous in itself. Good things must come from this surely.

  9. Yes … we do have places where Jesus stood in front of ‘masses’ and preached and taught, seemingly for long periods. But, I still think of MUCH of Jesus’ interaction with people was in the context of people’s homes where hospitality was the norm. Didn’t Jesus send his first groups of follower’s off to people’s homes and gave them the option of dusting off their feet and leave if not welcomed? Good ole Zacchaeus is another example … and Mary and Martha … lots of narratives took place in home settings. Maybe it is more of a hospitality issue vs. cell groups! I think hospitality is a lost ‘gift’ that could be given reformational consideration … what do think? How would that look in context of a new ‘church’ setting?
    And … I agree that they weren’t ‘sitting’ around a table … maybe laying around one though??? 🙂

  10. Be encouraged Andy … you and your community are taking serious the desire to be a sphere of influence in a new community of people and that takes courage.

    I believe even these meetings are worship …
    -dialoguing about how God’s Kingdom might “come’ to others in a meaningful manner
    -they have been fun … the Joy of the Lord should be the focus of worship
    -you are liking a group of ‘people’ … building trust and taking risks is all part of the dimension of love

    Just a thought …
    – ‘interested in how to be better’ … is this God’s interest, too? Personally, I don’t believe so … could this be a potential trap???

  11. Take a look at the new article posted by the Leadership Weekly of Christianity Today by Chad Hall: “Why Church isn’t Really Church.” I think you’ll find some things in common here with your perceptions of church.

    What would “church” look like if we took the Sunday morning time slot to “BE church”, instead of doing church to build the organization?

  12. Thanks for the encouragment – all good points.

    I think God is interested in us serving him better.

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