January 15, 2021

Another Look: A Suggested Program for the Church

By Chaplain Mike

Note from CM: One of the questions I received for the “Ask Chaplain Mike” series was this: “If you were in the process of becoming a new pastor in an established church, what would your first priority be? How would you arrive at it?” The answer to that question is bigger than this post, but what I wrote here back in January shows the emphases that I would try to inculcate in a congregation from the start if I were called as minister among them. As we get toward the end of “Ecclesia Week,” I thought it might be worth a review and further discussion. As with all “Another Look” posts, I’ve done some editing.

• • •

Let me be honest.

Sometimes the designation “Post-Evangelical” can be unhelpful.

If we only focus on what has been left behind rather than looking forward to new possibilities, we will never find a way out of the wilderness.

I don’t want to be known as someone who just levels criticism. I won’t shy away from it when appropriate, but that can’t be the whole package. So, when I rant about:

  • churches that have turned into Christian activity centers, offering everything from applique to Zumba dance classes,
  • when preaching focuses on life principles or prosperity nonsense and it appears to be more about style than substance,
  • when worship has been transformed into a religious stage production,
  • when youth meetings resemble “Survivor” more than Sunday School,
  • when discipleship comes packaged in programs and adult education is utterly devoid of serious Bible study, theological depth, and historical awareness,
  • when pastors abandon pastoral care and the cure and formation of souls as their calling,
  • when evangelicalism offers an alternative culture that is “of” the world but not “in” the world, and separated from real world of life, work, neighbors, and community,

then I also want to be able to offer an alternative program for the local church.

What I want to share today is humble and simple; more a blueprint than fleshed-out reality, more theory than practice at this point. Many of you will probably think it is fairly conservative. You are right. In general, I do not believe that innovation should be considered one of the marks of the church, except when serious reformation is necessary. And even then, the “innovations” usually involve restoring perspectives and practices from the past rather than creating new ones.

Guess that makes me a fuddy-duddy, huh?

At any rate, if you are willing to respond to this fuddy-duddy’s ideas, I would like for us to brainstorm about these matters and have a good old fashion bull session about our hopes and dreams for the church.

So, I’ll begin. I would love to see a church that organized its “program” (just a word for what we actually do) around four primary practices.

The gathering of believers for worship on the Lord’s Day should always be the central meeting of the church. It should be designed for believers, though any gathering of the church should be open, welcoming, and hospitable to anyone who comes. As a pastor, I have always enjoyed having all ages present for the entire service, though I don’t object if younger children have their own teaching time for which they are dismissed during the sermon. If children are present in the service, there should be some parts that are designed to be accessible to them, and parents should receive training and help to assist their children in learning what worship is and how to participate.

Since the purpose of worship is to reenact and celebrate the Gospel by which we have become God’s people, the service should be ordered around Word and Table. I’m not so concerned about style as I am that we include the elements that will renew believers in the Good News of God’s grace in Christ each week. Confessing our sins and receiving absolution, singing the praises of our creating, redeeming, and sustaining God, hearing the Scriptures read, professing our faith through the creeds, lifting our hearts together in prayer, hearing Christ proclaimed in the sermon, and meeting with Christ and receiving his benefits anew through the Lord’s Supper should, in my view, be what we do at each Sunday worship assembly. None of these elements should be sacrificed no matter what style of music or presentation is used.

Services should be as participatory as possible. Congregation members should sense that they are actively encountering and interacting with God and not just sitting there as an audience receiving a presentation from the “stage.” Representatives from all generations should be given opportunity to be participants. A warm, hospitable atmosphere should be cultivated by the pastor and worship leaders but it should never degenerate into chattiness or overfamiliarity. Those who speak, pray, or read Scripture should receive instruction on speaking clearly and reverently. Variety and creativity is good, but there is also something to be said for being formed by habitual practices.

Paul wrote in Colossians 1, “So, naturally, we proclaim Christ! We warn everyone we meet, and we teach everyone we can, all that we know about him, so that, if possible, we may bring every man up to his full maturity in Christ. This is what I am working at all the time, with all the strength that God gives me.” (Phillips)

God designed it so that babies would be born into families. The growth and development of human beings is meant to happen within a community of love, support, and mutual service in which all members, at different stages of life, are being nurtured into greater health and well being, becoming wiser and more loving. And so it is with spiritual growth. The church is the family in which those who are born from above grow to maturity in Christ.

I would suggest a few ways of practicing spiritual formation in the local church. First, I would encourage that the church follow the Church Year. The liturgical calendar provides a wonderful overall structure in which to live the church’s life. The repetition of the Gospel story week after week, year after year, can keep us focused on Jesus as the context for all we’re learning together.

Second, I think it would be wise to restore the practice of catechism teaching in our churches. This would represent a return to our Protestant heritage, for it was through parents catechizing their children and pastors using catechisms to instruct their congregations that the Reformation took hold on ground level. Using the traditional form of having people memorize, study, and pray the Ten Commandments, the Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer gives Christians a foundation in Law, Gospel, and spiritual practices that is rich enough for a lifetime of contemplation.

Third, pastors must recommit to their calling of pastoral visitation and spiritual counsel. Pastors must get out of the office and into people’s homes, workplaces, and public meeting places and have conversations with them about their lives, listening, supporting, encouraging, and continually pointing them to the cross and Christ’s provision for them. I recommend a renewal of the practice of confession. Pastors should become wise in the ways of spiritual friendship and learn, when appropriate, to help others find spiritual practices that will assist them in their growth in Christ. Like Paul in 1Thessalonians 2, we must be able to say to our people, we are “well-pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives.”

We have quoted Gene Edward Veith on this subject before: “This is the doctrine of vocation. God works through people, in their ordinary stations of life to which He has called them, to care for His creation. In this way, He cares for everyone–Christian and non-Christian–whom He has given life. Luther puts it even more strongly: Vocations are “masks of God.” On the surface, we see an ordinary human face–our mother, the doctor, the teacher, the waitress, our pastor–but, beneath the appearances, God is ministering to us through them. God is hidden in human vocations.”

The church must get back to encouraging this view of life. Over the past generation, the church has created a subculture that has separated itself from the world in unhealthy ways. The word “Christian” has become an adjective for a way of life that has developed into a ghetto. The sad thing is that it looks an awful lot like the world from which it separated, only slightly more sanitized. We have our own “brands” and by this we know that we are believers. In the process, we have become farther and farther removed from the life of our communities and more and more out of touch with our neighbors. Churches have contributed to this by becoming “Christian activity centers” that are open almost 24/7 to provide a family-friendly, full-service program for all ages. And so, we basically live in and around the temple, avoiding the dirt and grime of the outside world.

The first step to restoring the doctrine of vocation is to shut the church doors more often. Encourage people to get involved in their neighborhoods and school districts. If your town offers sports leagues, don’t build a “Christian” sports ministry and take all the believers off the municipal fields and courts. Encourage Christians who are musicians to participate in community bands, orchestras, and choruses. In our preaching and teaching, highlight and honor those who exemplify real-world Christianity. I’ve already mentioned the pastor’s duty to visit people in their homes and workplaces to learn about what they face day in and day out so that he can pray for them and encourage them in their callings. We must also challenge our young people to pursue “secular” callings with the same fervor as religious vocations.

Though living out the doctrine of vocation is a major way believers show God’s love and truth to the world, there is also a place for intentional mission activity to spread the Gospel, help those in need, and show compassion to those who are hurting. A local church should organize some specific efforts to use the resources of God’s family to reach out to others and give them Jesus.

First of all, this can be done on the neighborhood level. I heard of a rather large church recently that decided to focus on its neighborhood. So the leaders sat down, drew a three-mile circle around the church on a map and said, “This is our mission field.” Last I heard, they are in the process of learning the needs within that circle, making contact with other churches in the neighborhood to see how they might partner in mission together, and determining how to go about working to confront the challenges that people there are facing. That’s a great approach! Identify your mission field, get to know your neighbors there, organize your resources along with those of other congregations in the area, and learn what you can do to show Christ’s love among them.

Second, let me say just a little more about this matter of cooperating with other churches. I think John Armstrong is on to something with his promotion of the concept called, “missional ecumenism.” For an example of how this is happening right now, check out this post about a group of churches in the Chicago suburbs who are working with one another to love their neighbors through the facilitation of an organization called, “Christ Together.” If we can learn to see our congregations as individual parts of “The Church in Our Town,” which I think reflects the situation in the apostolic church, then perhaps we can do more to overcome the spirit of competition among us and the redundancies that make our work inefficient and less effective. Perhaps we can come a little closer to seeing Jesus’ prayer in John 17 answered.

Third, I believe that churches should be forming “world-Christians,” believers who have God’s heart that the whole world know the name of Jesus. I’m for anything we can do to grow people who learn, pray, give, and go so that the Great Commission be fulfilled. That starts in our own neighborhoods, of course, but it cannot end there.

There you have it, my friends. This is a suggested “program” for the local church. I hope you’ll join the discussion and help us dream some dreams of what could be.


  1. Thank You!

  2. David Cornwell says

    ‘Over the past generation, the church has created a subculture that has separated itself from the world in unhealthy ways. The word “Christian” has become an adjective for a way of life that has developed into a ghetto. ‘

    “The first step to restoring the doctrine of vocation is to shut the church doors more often. Encourage people to get involved…”

    Absolutely. We have made a huge mistake of becoming separate entities unto ourselves. Eventually we need to rub shoulders with the market place, whether that be the market place of ideas, the arts, sports, or commerce. If we only interact with and have community with those of like mind, we do it to the loss of the world. I get very tired of Christian versions of everything out there. “Christian” branding, to me, is a disgrace to Christ. He didn’t come in order to add his name to brand after brand and store after store. Christian art and fiction for the most part isn’t worth looking at. Politicians that market themselves as being evangelical or fundamental enough, and then pimp themselves out to the machines of capitalism and war and gluttony should be recognized for what they really are.

    No wonder people cringe when we identify ourselves as Christian.

    Chaplain Mike, I love this piece. Thanks. Sorry if I got started on a rant up above. Or am I?

    • awesome.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      I get very tired of Christian versions of everything out there. “Christian” branding, to me, is a disgrace to Christ. He didn’t come in order to add his name to brand after brand and store after store.

      “Just like Fill-In-The-Blank, Except CHRISTIAN (TM)!”

      I have seen more Gospel echoes and allegories in My Little Pony fanfics than in the entire “Just Like Fill-In-The-Blank, Except CHRISTIAN (TM)!” world.

    • Love it David C! Rant? No, I think you are passionate!

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Christian art and fiction for the most part isn’t worth looking at.

      Which is something I’ve ranted about for a long time myself. And IMonk has as well. Here are two IMonk Archive links from July 2010 that say all that needs to be said:

      Surprise — God Does Art!
      Selling Jesus by the Pound

  3. As one who has recently retired after 35 years as a pastor, I concur. I wish especially that I had been much more diligent in visting with people. Those with whom I did expressed special thanks at our farewell celebration.

    My wife and I are currently looking for a new church, and this describes what we need in a church–thanks.

  4. Isaac (the poster occasionally still known as Obed) says

    CM, I’d like your thoughts on something I’ve been thinking about for a long time, por favor.

    I think I agree with the having the doors of the church shut more often in terms of programs, activities, and those things that help turn us into a Christian ghetto. However, some of the things from the English Reformation that I most admire was the ecclesiastical mandate for the clergy to open the church twice a day for morning and evening prayer services that included a mostly-systematic public reading of the bible. Part of that was to help build a discipline of prayer in the Church as well as provide a platform to immerse both the clergy and laity in the bible. What do you think of that kind of thing? Do you think that would contribute to the ghetto mindset or help in the discipleship and spiritual formation of the congregation so that they can better minister in the community?

    • I’ll let Chaplain Mike answer for himself, but I’ll add something along the lines you’re thinking, Isaac. I love churches that never shut their doors, that understand that the church is God’s and his people’s, not the possession of the leadership. The Episcopal church I went to in college was open 24 hours a day, or at least a prayer chapel was. I stopped in during the small hours several times. Yes, once some candlesticks were stolen, but the priest considered that just a normal operating expense. Every time I’m in a new town, I like to visit beautiful churches and pray quietly, and I’m grateful for the ones that are open even though nothing is “happening” at them. Mostly they are Catholic.

      So I agree with Chaplain Mike that the body of Christ ought to be out and about, but I also love having a house of prayer that is always open to me as a member of the body.

    • I like the doors of the church being open for prayer and I love daily services.

      What I’m talking about is the 24/7 activity center approach.

    • A very good addition

  5. My cousin’s wife just posted on Facebook about her grandchildren going to church with them (Catholic) and she writes, “When we got home, Ally, the youngest one said, ‘Church wasn’t fun.’
    Lindsey, the oldest, said, ‘It isn’t supposed to be fun. It isn’t a theme park!’ ” 🙂

    I don’t know how old those children are. Cute response, though.

  6. One more Mike says

    Excellent Post CM. From your “pen” to God’s “ears”, I say.

  7. I remember a precious soul who tried coming to our church, she was rough around the edges, but the kind of gal Jesus pursued. She asked me why it was she felt more comfortable sliding up to a bar with strangers than sitting in our pews with so called family: bro’s & sis’s in Christ. I don’t recall what I said, but that was when I was in the thick of church: Lay counseling, prayer groups, women’s group in my home, my church attendance record was stellar, I wish I would have gotten gold stars, cause I could look at them now to cheer myself up… I planned on going to church this morning, but overslept. See, for about 14 years I lived in the Christian ghetto, and now, talk about my 180 most of my company/companions, folks I sit with, eat with, have campfires at the lake are atheists, a few gays, functioning alcoholics, they playfully call me Rev. They know I love Jesus and them and we have the best talks about God under the night stars… It seems like church to me… Of course, I need prayer I am not a good Christian.

  8. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    She asked me why it was she felt more comfortable sliding up to a bar with strangers than sitting in our pews with so called family: bro’s & sis’s in Christ.

    With me it isn’t a bar, but Furry Conventions, D&D sessions, IPMS hobby days, and Brony meetups.

    Because in a lot of cases “family: bros & sis’s in Christ” can be an Abusive Family Situation. And in an Abusive Family Situation, you learn to never let your guard down. Ever.

  9. Kudos. I’m grateful for both the content and (changed) tone. In re-visiting the premise question, I think the first priority would be listening and looking. Who’s here? What is the unique combination of possibilities God has assembled in this particular congregation (and its neighborhood)? How does that interface with these 4 programmatic emphases? That is where the blueprint becomes fleshed out. Perhaps that seems trite and obvious, but the risk of any kind of preconceived blueprint is increased tendency for confirmation bias. The emphases / elements you lay out are good and valid; they are only improved by subordinating them to the primacy of listening. Stott’s wisdom of double-listening (What is God saying? What is happening here on the ground?) seems particularly appropriate for all ministry at all times, but particularly in those first 100 days.

    • LD, if I had simply been answering the question in an “Ask Chaplain Mike” post, your answer is exactly the one I would have given. Thank you for reminding us of this. Listening is the key practice in all relationships, and especially in a relational context as complex as the church.

  10. “Christ Together” that you mentioned in Chicago sounds a lot like Compassion Connect here in Portland OR: http://compassionconnect.com/

  11. This post made me think about this quote:

    “We have become so accustomed to the religious lie that surrounds us that we do not notice the atrocity, stupidity and cruelty with which the teaching of the Christian church is permeated.” – Leo Tolstoy


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