Chapter Four: The picture in my head
As a result of my first 40 years in the church, the picture in my head of what church was and how it worked was well developed. Here’s what it looked like…
- Church was a building. If you were going to have a church you needed a church building, either owned or rented. Every church that I had been a part of had a church building.
Every Sunday morning, we left home and went to church. This was reflected in our language. “Are you going to church?” meant “Are you going to the church building.”
And, those church buildings had things in common. There was a large room often called a sanctuary that was generally used only once a week on Sunday morning. In this room, all of the seats or pews faced one direction. At the front there was some sort of podium or pulpit. Behind that, there was a place for the choir or worship team. The mood of that room was one of quiet reverence.
- Church was a program. When you got to the church building, there was a highly scripted program, called “the worship service”, that took place. In fact, in most of the churches I attended, you were handed a bulletin or program that outlined exactly what would take place. This program was carefully crafted by the pastoral staff. And, then, it was led by a choir director and/or worship team who sang songs they had selected and invited the congregation to join in. After that, the senior pastor (usually) would preach (ie, lecture) for about 30 minutes. Church was considered successful if the people felt “uplifted” and if attendance continued to increase. “Are you going to church?” also meant, “Are you going to the church service?”
The role of the people sitting in the pews/chairs was largely that of spectators. They were invited to “enter into” the worship and the liturgy. And, they were invited to contribute financially by putting money in the offering plate that was passed around. But, mostly they were expected to watch and listen to what went on at the front. Before and after the service, conversations were generally friendly but superficial. “How are you?” “I’m fine and how are you?” “I’m fine.”
- Church was an organization. Churches had budgets, business meetings, committees, officers and staff. The bigger the church, the more attention that needed to be paid to these things. Part of my training in seminary was in how to “run” the organization called “church”.
In the churches that I was part of, we were also part of a larger organization called a “denomination”. In the local region, church leaders met monthly with the leaders from other churches in a Presbytery meeting. And, nationally, there was an annual General Assembly meeting. These meetings were run by Robert’s Rules of Order and they developed standardized procedures (called The Book of Order) for most every function in the church.
- Church was led by clergy. Church, both the worship service and the organization, was generally led by pastors with some assistance from lay leaders. (In the Presbyterian system, pastors were called “teaching elders” and lay leaders were called “ruling elders”.) Pastors in my denomination must have graduated from seminary. Then, they were examined and approved (ordained) by the denomination. Church growth theory said that a key to a successful church was a strong senior pastor who set the vision for the church and made most of the important decisions about the church with more or less input from the staff and lay leaders.
So, that was the picture of church living in my head. And, I was quite clear about all of this. That is, until, in the late 1980s, a question began to occur to me that was quite upsetting.
Question to talk about with the Lord and other friends: What is the picture of church that lives in your head?