Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Catering Church

Yesterday we asked this question: what should the church look like to an unbeliever on a Sunday morning?  Should it be a catering church—primarily for the unbeliever, or should it be a comprehensible—primarily for the believer, but understandable to the unbeliever?

The Catering Church

The catering church can come in all shapes and sizes.  There are the obvious attractional churches—like the church that has decided to celebrate Easter with a million dollar giveaway.  But there are more subtle variations of this.  In my opinion the SBC’s GPS program falls into this category.  You can read more here and here.  If you are still not convinced then read their training manual

To be a catering church you do not have to have the 2 Timothy 4 “itching ears” type of preaching.  It often morphs into that, but that is not a necessity.  You are a catering church when your messages are primarily geared to the unbeliever and the edification of believers is a by-product.  Often catering churches hope to train and teach believers throughout the week in small groups or before the worship service in Sunday School. 

Certainly the Lord uses catering churches to further his kingdom.  I would be hard pressed to find biblical examples that a catering church is not a valid option.  (What I mean saying that is that I would be hard pressed to find anything in Scripture that says “do not make your service cater to the unbeliever).  Obviously in its more extreme forms there is a real danger of subverting the gospel.  Even in its most subtle forms I think there are inherent dangers that should cause us to pause.  However, before look at the dangers we should ask a couple of questions to build a foundation.  We must consider what is the church?  And then we must ask what is the purpose of the church gathering? 

The Church/The Church Gathering

There are a good amount of images given of the church in the Scriptures (body, bride, temple, to name a few).  Scouring through numerous books on ecclesiology you will inevitably come across a myriad of definitions; some lengthy, some simple.  The one that I have come up with (and it may be unintentionally stole) is this: A church is a blood-bought community of redeemed believers, brought together for the purpose of displaying the glory of God through their united joyous surrender to Him. 

I am certain that my definition could be improved, but it has several of the key components in it.  For instance:
  • The church is bought by Christ. 
  • The church is a community (fellowship, koinonia). 
  • The church is made up of believers. 
  • The church is on mission. 
  • The church is to be united. 
  • The church is a people and not a place. 
  • The church is primarily for the sake of glorifying God
  • The church is to be holy and surrendered to her Head
  • The church is to be joyous in her surrender

This, then, is how I would define the church.  We know from the New Testament that this group of believers is to gather together (Hebrews 10:25).  And it was the practice of the early church do just that; see Acts 20:7.  What did they do when they gathered together?  It appears to me that when they gathered together it was for the purpose of worship, edification, and fellowship around the breaking of bread. 

It is possible that I am reading the New Testament wrongly and simply missing something.  But what I see is that when the church gathered it was primarily for the edification of believers through the worship of God and rehearsing the gospel in the breaking of bread together.  I see the early believers doing evangelism, such evangelism that shames my practice.  I do not see them locking their doors to unbelievers, but I also do not see their primary focus being evangelism during their gathering together. 

Now, even if I am correct about the New Testament practice that does not mean that we have to do it this way in our day and age.  There are many things in the practice of the New Testament church that is descriptive and not prescriptive.  This could be one of them.  But I believe there are a few inherent dangers in a catering church; to those we now turn. 

Dangers of Catering Church

By no means will these be true of all churches that would be defined as a “catering church”.  Some churches are able to be a catering church without falling into many of these pitfalls.  But what often happens is that the small local churches try to mimic some of these larger congregations and are often negligent of their calling as a church.

When the primary focus of a local gathering becomes evangelization of unbelievers we begin asking the wrong questions as a church.  The worship gathering is often geared around what will “draw” the unbeliever.  As a result believers are often woefully undiscipled.  The theology is often very weak in these churches.  Certainly you do not have to have a Ph.D. in theology to be in a great relationship with the Lord.  But what often happens is that those who are shallow theologically get tossed to and fro by all sorts of strange doctrines. 

You would think that after hearing “the gospel” in its most basic form week after week that believers in these churches would be solid in gospel understanding.  Ironically, what typically happens is that these believers can lead someone down the “Romans Road” but are not quite certain what the gospel message has to say about their finances, child rearing, work, anxiety, fears, and death. 

Another danger is that evangelism is often stale.  Rather than training believers to do evangelism throughout the week, evangelism often becomes attractional.  Rather than preaching the gospel in the community we often give invitations to come to our church.  The church starts marketing.  There are numerous resources out there about the dangers of attractional models, church marketing, church growth, seeker-sensitive approaches etc.  It would not be for our benefit to rehash all that is spoken of there.  Research on your own. 

I am mentioning all of this simply to point to what I envision as a better way.  The point of these articles is not to be needlessly divisive, to tear down churches, or to discourage faithful believers.  My hope is that if there is a more faithful God honoring way that we will embrace it.  If I am wrong and you disagree, then so be it.  

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