To begin, if you aren’t following Tara Ann Thieke on Twitter, you should remedy that. She’s great.
This post is inspired by a list she posted on Twitter awhile back which we have been discussing intermittently in Mere O Slack ever since.
If I were holding a fancy synod and solving problems here would be my good time solutions:
-dive into the liturgical year, revive
-have parishes hold processions at least 4x a year, must have many candles
-silent nightly prayer vigils at every parish at least once a month
— Tara Ann Thieke (@TaraAnnThieke) October 26, 2019
In interests of continuing the conversation, here are my 15 proposals for ecclesial reform in the American church.
A couple notes first:
This is just the most extreme idealistic vision I can come up with. The point is not “if churches aren’t like this they’re bad,” or “you should not be happy if your church does not have these things.” Churches are imperfect. And, as my mom is fond of saying, if you ever found the perfect church it would cease to be perfect when you joined it.
There is great good in learning to love the people you are stuck with—and that applies to churches too. Love your home place, love your home church. This isn’t about criticizing. It’s intended, instead, as a conversation starter for talking about the practices and habits that churches could take up in the spirit of being both an effective evangelistic witness and a place where spiritual formation is taken seriously.
I suppose you could call it a Benedict Option Starter Set: How can churches act as communities of life where the Gospel is believed and practiced and the hope of the Gospel is regularly shared with visitors and congregants?
Also, just to anchor this in something concrete, I have noted where some of these ideas came from as well as churches where I have seen them done really well.
Finally, I’m hoping to publish a few more similar lists from other Mere O contributors in the near future.
With that said:
- Weekly communion with the congregants forming lines and coming forward to take the bread and eat and then drink from a common cup. There should also be elders on either wing of the space to pray with children not yet confirmed and anyone else present who desires prayer.
- Making the elders available for prayer is a practice I first saw at a PCA church in Fremont and it has always struck me as a beautiful element to include as part of the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. The children in that church will grow up knowing the elders and their primary interaction with them will be the elder praying for them. That’s beautiful.
- Morning and evening services on Sunday—morning for lectio continua and the evening for catechism and congregational prayer.
- This isn’t about trying to program people to death; it’s about trying to establish healthy practices of Sabbath that help to orient people toward their ultimate end as human beings. It’s also a recognition of the fact that the Christian faith is good and life-giving but also that it is at points complex and our churches need time to properly catechize people, time which many of them do not have at present. The evening service shouldn’t be overly complex. Get a pianist or guitarist. Sing a few hymns. Read a few Questions and Answers from the Heidelberg Catechism or Westminster Larger Catechism. Pray together for your city, government, neighborhood, etc. If possible, you could have a potluck dinner prior to the service and aim to be done by 7 so that young families can get home and get kids to bed. OPC and CRC churches often still have evening services and I think they can be done in ways that are life-giving to congregants on an individual basis and good for the church as a whole.
- Weekly corporate confession of sin and assurance of pardon as part of the morning service.
- This is a common practice in all the PCA churches I have been part of.
- Wednesday evening prayer meetings.
- These ought to be informal by design. The goal is that it creates a comfortable space in which people can come into the church, share what is on their hearts, and receive prayer.
- I’ve seen this done well in several non-denominational churches that tend to do “relationships” and “informal times of community” really well.
- A cross in every sanctuary.
- Four scripture readings every week—use a Psalm as the Call to Worship then when you do the Scripture reading for the sermon you have one related OT text and one related NT text.
- What lectio continua does is it forces you to preach hard texts. That said, the downside is that it means churches do not read a ton of Bible in the service because the pastor is slowly making his way through an individual book. By including Old and New Testament readings with the sermon text, you can combat that.
- If you are preaching on Galatians 4, for example, the Scripture readings would be the account in Genesis of Sarah and Hagar and another NT text on freedom and the Gospel. I’ve seen some PCA churches do three scripture readings in every service in this way—I am merely proposing that we also work in some more Psalms. But this could also be done by simply singing the Psalms as part of our congregational singing.
- Lenten and Advent fasts—encouraged but absolutely not required—as well as Easter and Christmas periods of feasting likewise encouraged but not required.
- God doesn’t love you more if you practice a Lenten fast. Neither does Lenten fasting accomplish some spiritual good in you that cannot be accomplished any other way. Nor does the church have authority to compel such fasts. But God does work to sanctify us through practical means, one of which is fasting. And fasting collectively is not the same thing as a private fast. So there’s nothing wrong with churches fasting collectively, as long as we’re clear about what is and is not being done.
- The end of a festal periods can include some kind of church-wide celebration—line dancing, food trucks, a bounce house for the kids, etc. Festal periods should feel like festal periods. And they should be some of the best entry points for non-Christians to enter into the life of a church: Come have a free meal, play board games, dance, let your kids run around and have fun with us. We’re celebrating that Jesus is alive.
- Fourfold office structure: Pastors preach and administer the Sacraments and disciple, elders assist with discipleship and discipline, deacons aid in mercy ministry (and are expected to have a robust knowledge of the local area, such that they can provide more comprehensive aid to those in need), and doctors to oversee theological training within the congregation via Sunday school classes, regular lectures, film nights, and so on. Most of these roles, incidentally, will be non-staff. Once they’re an officer they’re no longer a lay person, by definition, but they will be people who are not working full-time in the church but have other lines of work they do to make a living who are also serving in the church as officers.
- This is the basic structure of the Genevan church under Calvin. It also is yet another way in which the church can strengthen both the ministry of the Word and its catechetical practice. Done right, it should also help make the pastor’s job easier because a lot of this stuff should be done by non-staff officers of the church. If the elders are available to handle pastoral visits and some shepherding and if doctors are handling education hours, then the pastor is freed up to focus on preaching. One of my fears with this list is that it would come off as asking too much of pastors, but if officers are available to assist and the congregation is regularly identifying lay leaders, then a lot of work can be taken off the pastor’s desk and distributed elsewhere.
- No screens
- Use a hymnal, songbook, or Psalter. We live in a world of distractions. Eliminating screens and encouraging people to look at a book for the words in a song (or for the Biblical text) is a good and relatively simple practice.
- Have a cemetery next to every church and do everything possible to make burial affordable for church members.
- Obviously this is more of a pipe dream given the laws regulating how land is used and the price of land in many areas. But much of contemporary America is obsessed with youthfulness. Many people dedicate great amounts of energy and effort to avoiding the reality of death. Churches should be places where people are reminded that they will die. It has a way of sobering a person up.
- Morning prayer in the worship space of the church building M-F—led mostly by elders and doctors rather than the pastor.
- This would necessarily need to have a strong volunteer leadership component. Pastors have limited bandwidth plus one day of the workweek ought to be their day off since they work on Sundays. The goal of this list is not to overwhelm pastors, but to propose a model of parish life that is accessible to non-Christians and transformative for Christians. But to do all the things involved in such a vision requires a lot of people because it is too much work for one person.
- I know of LCMS churches that have such practices. If you have a Christian school housed inside the church building, you can also make morning prayer the first thing that your school does each day and invite parents to attend as they are able.
- This does not need to be fancy. A liturgy like the one we use at the Convivium Irenicum every year for the Davenant Institute could be used and takes about 20 minutes. Sing two hymns, sung a capella if need be, have a scripture reading, and pray a couple prayers from the Book of Common Prayer or Valley of Vision.
- Three month sabbatical for pastors every seven years.
- A friend of mine who pastors in Acts 29 said this is the practice his church has had for a number of years. I think it would be a great blessing to pastors if it became a common practice in the American church. Obviously for this to be possible you need to have leadership that can step into the pastor’s role during his sabbaticals.
- So you’d need multiple pastors on staff or elders and doctors able to fill in or sufficient denominational support to handle pulpit supply during the sabbatical. But one of the main goals of strengthening the ministry of the Word and the work of catechesis is precisely to equip lay leaders for this kind of work. Also, given the statistics on pastoral burnout, I think it’s probably imprudent to not have a sabbatical provision built into your pastor’s role.
- Regular neighborly arts sessions taught by anyone connected to the church and advertised to the public.
- Learn how to change the oil on your car, learn how to bake a birthday cake, learn basic yard maintenance, etc. Teach people the skills they need to be good and useful neighbors. This, again, can be a good on-ramp for non-Christians to get to know the church.
- Churches have a garden on site that is maintained by church members and neighborhood members with all the produce being donated to the poor.
- Another on-ramp for non-Christians plus a chance for people to work together doing something that is good and valuable to the neighborhood.
- Church bells that are rung five minutes before public worship.