My original understanding and definition of “church” resulted from attending two small Southern Baptist congregations in Southeastern Arizona from the earliest time that I can remember. Until I was in second grade, my parents dropped me off at First Baptist Church in St. David, Arizona, a small congregation of 40 people on a good Sunday and the only Christian church in the community which was home to about 1,500 people, most of them descendants of Mormon pioneers who came there in the 1870’s. After that, I went to the Benson Heights Baptist Church in Benson, a town of about 5,000 people seven miles away where we moved when my parents bought their first home, and the only one they ever owned. This was a larger congregation, about 70 people on a good Sunday, and there were more children involved. Both were very similar in their ministry, and in their worship style, and very typical for the culture of the time.
“Church” consisted of two distinct experiences. There was Sunday School, where we came in, played a game or two, sang some songs, learned something from the Bible and did some kind of coloring page or cut and paste activity. Sometimes, in the St. David church, I was the only one in my class, but at Benson Heights, there were always six or seven other children in the Beginners, and later, as we promoted, in the Primaries. Then, there was the worship service, which was very much a sit and listen activity. Benson Heights had a small choir, pianist, organist and a music director, so the service was more lively than at St. David, where there was sometimes no pianist. We always had an opening song, then the choir would sing “Spirit of the Living God,” someone would lead in prayer, we’d sing a couple of hymns, have the offertory, the choir would sing a “special,” and on occasion we would have a soloist, and then there was the sermon, followed by the invitation, the dismissal and out the door we’d go. Occasionally, we’d have a guest speaker, or something different would be added to the order of the service related to a holiday observance or something else that was going on, but by and large, over the years, I got the impression that church services were weekly events in which a few people with oratorical skill or musical talent got up on stage and performed for the audience seated in the pews. When my parents rededicated their lives and got involved during my sophomore year in high school, a Sunday night service became part of the routine.
When I went away to college, and began attending a much larger church, First Southern Baptist Church of Phoenix, next door to the campus, it was a matter of the talent pool being larger, and the audience being bigger, but otherwise, there wasn’t much difference. I thought, “There has to be more to it than this. What’s missing?”
It was in small group Bible studies and interaction with friends on the college campus where that question was answered, and not in the church. Scripture memory and Bible learning activities in Sunday school had made me familiar with the order and content of the Bible, but not with any kind of systematic interpretation of it. A lot of the blanks got filled in for me through the Old and New Testament survey courses that were required for graduation and through the interactive Bible study groups I joined on campus. One particular college course, the Life and Teachings of Christ, was an eye opener. The whole panorama of Jesus was laid out through a careful examination of the gospels that was my very first exposure to a study of the scripture which took into consideration the fact that Jesus was the son of God, and placed that kind of emphasis on his teaching, and then, in turn, interpreted the rest of scripture as something which testified to that specific principle rather than as some kind of stand alone, verse by verse holy rulebook. Two things resulted from that. One was a personal conversion experience, a genuine encounter with the Holy Spirit that brought conviction of sin, confession, sanctification and justification for me before God through real faith in Jesus. I’d been in church all my life, and hadn’t experienced that. And the second was a realization that, given the fact that I’d been in church all my life and hadn’t come to this particular experience, or knowledge of Jesus in this way as a result of it, that I might actually be called to a ministry in the church to help other people find what I’d found.
What I found, after many years of ministry in the church, was an environment that was less than conducive to helping people find genuine faith in Christ, because of an unwillingness to consider that traditions and methods around which church leaders had wrapped their personal identities and in many cases had built their careers, weren’t effective in accomplishing their intended task. There was also an ironic twist in the fact that some college courses and campus Bible studies had led me to faith in Christ, but other courses related to ministry and church administration recognized the status quo for what it was, didn’t challenge the assumption that the church that existed might be more a product of the culture than the scripture, and proceeded to train its future leadership in how to manage it as a status quo institution rather than how to challenge assumptions and make it effective. That’s exactly why our denominational statistical analysis shows us that most of the evangelism taking place in our churches is a matter of getting the children of active church members into the baptistry. And it is why there are so many people, like those I mentioned in Part 1 of this series of blogs, who have found Jesus and when introduced to the traditional, institutional church, don’t immediately see the correlation between the two.
So how do we put Jesus back in the church? That’s part 5.