A party? A spiritual paracetamol? That half-time inspirational pep talk? A pop concert? What could you liken your church to?
There's the old joke that the church is like a helicopter – its fine so long as you avoid all the rotas. And there's the common observation that the church is like a premier league football game – a large crowd watching a small number of people doing all the hard work. But beyond the clichés and jokes, how is our experience of church shaped by our expectation of church? Examining those expectations – implicit and explicit - can help us to know whether our understanding of church is realistic, and, more importantly, true to Scripture and faithful to God.
I want to explore three contemporary models of church that both expand and inhibit our understanding of what it means to be the church in the world today.
1. The church as vending machine
It's the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, so let's get a little controversial and explore the operating definition of the church that emerged thanks to the division of the Church between Protestants and Catholics. The Ausgburg Confession that was developed due to the influence of Luther and Calvin states that the church is the assembly 'among whom the Gospel is preached in its purity and the holy sacraments are administered according to the Gospel'.
When it was originally conceived there was a benefit in this definition as it distinguished the Church from the excesses and distortion of 16th century Catholicism. The selling of indulgences where an individual could pre-pay for their sins to be forgiven by donating money was a particularly heinous distortion of the gospel. Luther and the Reformers wanted to help Christians distinguish between true and false churches. By defining the true, living church, as the place where the sacraments would be administered in a way that was in line with scripture and where the Bible was correctly taught was a way of helping believers to discern between historic and heretical communities.
However, the problem arose when that definition of church became accepted as exhaustive. I have heard some church leaders articulate that being salt and light in the world, for example, is not what the church is supposed to be doing – rather the mission and purpose of the church has to be focused on preaching the word and administering sacraments. But this model is fundamentally flawed. What about the community of believers? What about fellowship with one another? What about the body and bride of Christ?
This model of church filtered down to today has implications for many congregations, and not only those that explicitly or implicitly deny the importance of corporate responses to poverty and injustice. If this model is uninformed by the rest of the Bible's teaching on the church then it often becomes distorted into a vending machine mentality. Churchgoers turn up to receive the word of God in sacramental and scriptural form and then leave again. We can tell that this way of thinking has infiltrated our church when almost exclusive attention is given to singing, preaching, communion or baptism and not to how faith is lived out the rest of the week.
Of course Bible teaching and sacraments are an important part of church life in the same way that graduation ceremonies and school plays are an important part of family life. But if I only turned up for those events in my children's lives you would wonder what kind of parent I am. In the same way to exclude the Bible's clear teaching on loving one another, carrying one another's burdens, encouraging one another, spurring one another on to love and good deeds, meeting the physical needs of people is seriously restrictive. I cannot imagine the Reformers expected this.
2. The church as cinema
Cinema is not what it used to be. Screen projection has gone 4K, sound quality has gone Dolby surround. The seats are plusher. The variety of snacks on offer has broadened considerably. And cinemas are not only limited to films any more. Many now offer live feeds from theatre productions, sporting events and concerts. Some even house churches on Sunday mornings.
There are plenty of advantages to using a cinema over a church building – including great seating capacity and visibility, handy car-parking, state of the art audio-visual capability, proper accessibility, and the associative popular vibe of feeling contemporary.
But sometimes the places we meet shape not just our experiences but our imaginations. Just like the clothes we wear shape us, sometimes even leaving the design of the stitching imprinted onto our skin, so our church venues leave an impression on us of how we are to understand church. One obvious effect is that the architecture of the cinema forces everyone to face the front when seated. Of course most Protestant churches are structured this way, reinforcing the assumption and expectation that church is primarily about sitting and watching. The lighting in the cinemas take it one step further, literally putting the spotlight on the people at the front doing the ministry.
This encourages the view that church attenders are passive, leaving it to the 'ministers' to entertain, educate and enlighten. This expectation is so pervasive that it is hard for most people to imagine any other way of doing it. From childhood we are taught to sit quietly and listen – except for a brief interlude when we stand to sing. And we continue to do this as adults.
And yet what we preach about in church contradicts the seating arrangements we have set up. We preach against passivity. We exhort our members to practise serving God and one another. We want those who attend to show hospitality and care for one another, and build community where outsiders can feel welcomed and hear the good news about Jesus.
Church in a cinema is as ironic as a running club in a lecture hall. You may be surrounded by other runners, but the very thing that unites you, that motivates you, that drives you, is the one thing you can't do in that environment. As God's church we are supposed to be ministering to each other. Yet often this is neither facilitated nor modelled in our church meetings. We are expected merely to watch and listen to the experts. We have become not just churches that meet in cinemas, but churches that act like cinemas too. I don't want to suggest that we should change venues, but perhaps we should all be mindful of the effect where we meet as church has on how we live as church.
3. The church as family gathering
There is a rich seam of the Bible's teaching that describes the church as a family. For example we are told to treat older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, older men as fathers and younger men as brothers (1 Timothy 5). We are also reminded that we are the 'household of God' (Ephesians 2:19). The church as family offers a healthy counterbalance to the images and models of church as vending machine and cinema. No one goes on a family outing to a vending machine. Just imagine if someone tapped you on the shoulder in the middle of the movie and asked how your day at the office had been, or what you should do about poor Aunt Bertha!
Thinking about the church as a family offers a very helpful counterbalance to these other potentially more individualistic, consumer models of church participation. Families look out for one another. They are committed to each other for the long haul. Families' bonds are strong. They support one another through tragedy and triumph. Families do not make economic calculations about cost and benefit when someone is ill or in need. This is exactly how we should be as church.
Yet we continue to market our churches often not as a family where we have a role to play and a responsibility for others, but instead as an attraction to attend, or a product to be administered. Our websites commonly advertise our contemporary worship or exciting teaching programme, with a picture of a crowd. But when a new church turns up in our town with a picture of a bigger crowd, or a better worship band, our church members often seem to migrate away, attracted by a better version of what used to attract them to our church. When we breed consumer Christians we can lose them just as quickly when a church comes along that better meets their needs. Cultivating a genuine sense of family in our churches can help to develop committed, not consumer Christians.
But the family-based model is not perfect either. If it becomes the dominant model of our approach to church the danger is that we base our expectations on our normal experience of the western nuclear family. And for many of us family means strong and specific boundaries between who is welcome and who isn't. In other words we can become a community which is as exclusive as it is inclusive. We can become so focused on the needs of our own, that there is no room for anything outward-focused – whether evangelism or social outreach.
Remembering both the width and the depth of the Middle Eastern families of the 1st century, that would have formed the mental framework for Paul's conception of the family may help to counteract this bias. Secondly, if we remember the clear biblical injunction for God's people to show compassion to the most marginalised and vulnerable people through care for the widow and the orphan, this could break our preoccupation with the nuclear family and its often internal focus. Church as family in this sense can make the difference to all sorts of vulnerable people and model to an increasingly divided and isolated world a glimpse of the coming kingdom of God.
There are many other models and metaphors that we could explore. Each one would challenge and balance the flaws in the others, and may force us to rethink our expectations of church, from our seating plans to our preaching plans. We could consider the church as a political party, as a herald, as a servant, as a discipling community, as the people of God, as an institution, as a table. By exploring these prevailing metaphors in many of our churches today we may become more attentive to wide sweep of the Bible's teaching on the church and allow the whole counsel of God to shape our approach to church life.
Dr Krish Kandiah is the founding director of Home for Good. His latest book, 'God is Stranger' helps Christians discover a route to genuine intimacy with our mysterious God.