The church is THE CHURCH, but how we DO church can vary… can’t it?

What is acceptable “practice” in the American church in the 21st century?

outside the box chuchSparked by some very interesting conversations with some dear old friends, my wife and I have lately been pondering the WAY we do church here in the good old U.S. of A. It’s not that I see anything particular that I’m bugged about in the American church, but that some of the questions and ideas that our friends have been suggesting have made me think through some new possibilities.

I’ve always been an “outside the box” kind of temperament – meaning that I’m willing to try new things (some of the churches I’ve served have regretted that on occasion… I remember this one time…).

So I’ve enjoyed our conversations back and forth over email about some of the things they are considering for their family. I guess this isn’t really a “new” idea… some of our more modern manifestations of this “experimentation” mindset in the church are:

And we must admit, gladly so, that none of these models actually define THE CHURCH.

The church is the people, saved by the blood of Christ, gathered to worship, grow, and work together to spread His saving message.

So, wherever the church gathers, however they gather, whenever they gather, they are still the church.


When it comes to a local gathering of people who are members of this world-wide church, I believe that there are certain criteria that make a local assembly of believers an actual local church – rather than a Bible study, prayer group, etc. As long as these things are met, I think they can call themselves a church – no matter where or how they meet. The easiest way to detail these criteria is to say that I agree with Mark Dever, who has written a book, “9 marks of a healthy church.” His 9 marks are:

  1. Preaching
  2. Biblical Theology
  3. The Gospel
  4. Conversion
  5. Evangelism
  6. Membership
  7. Discipline
  8. Discipleship
  9. Leadership

So… back to my original topic: If a group of believers is meeting and including each of these criteria in their organization and church life, then I consider them to be a “local church” – no matter what other practices (video teaching, multi-site, house groups, etc.) they engage in.

With all that said…

What do you think about the following ideas?

  • A house church that utilizes video sermons from a respected pastor who is not part of their local fellowship?
  • A larger church that makes use of the internet to broadcast sermons into the homes of those unable to attend?
  • Rural churches who cannot afford full-time paid staff, but can afford to pay a little bit in coordination with other small churches to fund a modern-day “circuit-riding” pastor?
  • Various combinations of any or all of these?
  • Other thoughts you have?




10 thoughts on “The church is THE CHURCH, but how we DO church can vary… can’t it?

  1. Can I suggest PRAYER be added to the very top of the list of healthy church attributes?

    There should never be the assumption that prayer life is strong and committed within staff, or congregation.

    • Hi Saraspondence… good to hear from you again.

      YES, you may and should suggest PRAYER be added to the top of the list. I agree with you whole-heartedly!

  2. I think there are a lot of tricky situations when we start to talk about this stuff. I think that it’s often not right and wrong, but what is best. I would say that none of your questions at the end were ideal scenarios but I wouldn’t state them as unacceptable either.

    • I agree that none of my scenarios are ideals… partly because I don’t think the ideal really exists. We are called to BE the church together, and culture often dictates how we are able to do that (in closed countries hostile to the gospel, for example). I’m just trying to think a bit unconventionally to see if my thinking has limited my reach. Thanks for the comment Loren!

  3. I like the ideas you suggested. The mega churches seem to be the only ones growing in recent times. I have friends who attend them simply because they can sneak in and out of service and not have to get involved. Basically no one knows they are even there except through their donations.I’d love to do a study sometime on the original churches. From the limited amount of study I have done, it seems like they were mostly home churches, led by the elders, with the teachers (Paul, etc.) coming to preach whenever they could and sending letters (our current bible), which were then read to the congregation by the elders, when they couldn’t. They had meals together, took care of each other and held each other accountable for their behavior. Thanks for the great post Carey (hope you don’t mind that I shared it on facebook).

    • Hi Laurie, and thanks for getting involved in the conversation! I appreciate your insights.

      Yes, the early church does seem to have been much simpler than in our day. I think much of that comes from the legal consequences of them being “public” or “large” – so they were wise and simply didn’t do those things. To me, that doesn’t mean that the Bible says we CAN’T do something larger, but only that it wasn’t done then.

      HOWEVER, the larger things/organizations get, the more complicated and difficult to manage. Anyone knows that. The same is true with the church, and sadly one of those things is that community and true care may be lost in the shuffle of very well-intentioned programs, etc. But there’s a difficulty there too… if the church is sharing the gospel faithfully, it WILL grow to some degree. So how do you keep it “close” but allow for growth? Many advocate a “cell” process of division or church planting, both of which are possible answers, and both of which have their difficulties. But I don’t think they are insurmountable ones. What ideas do you have about those ways of “growing” the church?

  4. I agree with a lot this is said here…”we are called to BE the church,” and “It’s about what is best”. Although I believe that there is a lot of sin in the hierarchy of the institutional church at large, there is some good that comes out of that way of “doing church” as well. I have been a part of a house church for 7 years and the reason we do things differently is because we believe this way draws us to what God has called us to more efficiently It’s definitely harder (you can’t hide, sneak off and no one notices, not be involved), but the reward is great.
    As for a house church utilizing video sermons – there may be a time for that (If they are doing a particular study and someone recommended this teacher’s insight). We read books to supplement our Bible reading, so it’s not that different.
    If they were dependent on a sermon though, I would say that they are missing a great deal. We all are gifted from the Holy Spirit and some people, out of tradition, have been taught that they are not equipped as much as the paid or “educated” staff. The “Pastor” (who is often administrator or speaker or teacher and not gifted in pastoralship) has the authority in their eyes so they cannot do without that position. This is just taking the institutional church into the home and defeats the purpose to some degree. When people see themselves as the church and not the building and rely on Jesus alone as their head (and I am not saying that He does not raise leaders and elders, but Jesus is the ultimate authority, not man), then their responsibility and worth come forth, and spiritual gifts begin to shine. They no longer need the sermon (which is almost always “preaching to the choir” anyway), but realize that they can all equally contribute and learn from one another because of the power of prayer and the work of the Holy Spirit.

    • Hi Kellycable – thanks for joining this conversation!

      I love the “balance” with which you are approaching this. I’ve found too many house-church folks who are a bit ingracious in their attitude toward those of us who have chosen or been led into the more traditional church. So it’s good to hear you say that there have been benefits that have come from institutional churches.

      I love hearing your house church experience. Do you mind telling me where (city) and what led you to that particular manifestation of the local church?

      The rewards and benefits of being small are exactly what I believe too. Those are things larger more typical churches have to work hard to figure out and facilitate.

      Regarding the video sermon idea, I think you have some wise things to say – though I think part of this has to do with what the LORD has for that particular group. While every house group could always do reading and discussion of the scriptures, and I would trust the Holy Spirit to guide and teach them. However, there is clearly a “gift” of teaching and if nobody in that particular group was a recipient of that group, I think it would benefit them greatly to have a regular video-preacher (for lack of a better term). One caveat, there would have to be a very good and cooperative relationship between that video-person and the house church leaders… making sure that they are not becoming dependent only on him (or anyone else), but are taking on the shepherding roles themselves. You are right in inferring that church is about a lot more than just teaching/sermons – but the sermon is very biblical and a powerful way of learning and being humbled under the word. I would be very slow to jettison it altogether, even in a house church. That doesn’t mean it would have to be a video thing, but that there needs to be some regular form of teaching, by a person gifted by the Spirit to provide that.


      • Thanks for the way that you replied to me. I think we see things differently, but I feel that we can talk about it :-). That’s great. My husband and I both went to university for Biblical degrees, all the way to PhDs. We both taught and led in a institutional church setting. He was a pastor in a large church here in PA…then he started sharing whit me what had been going through his mind for years. I think he was thinking he was alone, until he started finding books by people such as Viola and Barna that were saying the same things. A lot of times in house churches you’ll find people who have big issues with spending so much money on a building when that money could go directly to helping people or sending people. Our budget at large church here was over 1 million, and people were excited. We saw the details about what it was all going to. But that wasn’t even the main thing with us. We started seeing the institutional church today as modeling the Old Covenant, and not the new. When Jesus died the curtain was ripped, we are now allowed into the Holy of Holies to speak directly to Yahweh. We have one mediator and that is Christ, no longer man. And yet most often man is set up as that mediator. The building is the temple (not the people), the stage is the Holy of Holies where only the ordained or those given special permission would ever think of going. The pastor is seen to have a higher authority over the other people, a % tithe is given instead of everything being offered whenever a real need arises.

        That may sound offensive and I do not want it to come across that way. I believe that very quickly after Jesus’ resurrection people started reverting back to the Old Covenant. It seems that God allowed the Temple to be destroyed so he could move them away from that. So, yes, though I believe that there are wonderful, wonderful things that God can do through the traditional protestant church, I do believe that a great thing is being missed because God intended so much more for us.

        In regards to a church not having teachers, as you said, there is always a teacher: the Holy Spirit. If a church is lacking, then God will provide. If that happens to be through videos for a time, then that’s fine, but I also believe that God will gift people for times of need as well.

        I also think preaching is a valuable thing, but in the right context. Preaching in the New Testament was always done to non-believers, and when large groups gathered to hear an apostle who traveled to visit. Within a house church, teaching is very personal. People can ask questions, dig deeper. We can go off on tangents because someone may be confused on a certain issue, etc. There are times for someone to speak without interruption for a while because they have something on their hearts, something that they have brought to the church, etc. but this is not a regular event. It would sort of be like me coming up to you and telling you for 20 minutes exactly how to tie your shoes. You would appreciate any new ideas, appreciate me caring for you shoe well being, but in the back of your mind you would be thinking – what is she doing? It would be better to find out what you already know and we can discuss it and teach one another. That’s a lame example, but the first that come to mind.

        Anyway, great discussion. Thank you for being so open to thoughts (while seeking to hold onto truth) as we all strive to be more like Christ in this broken world.

      • I too appreciate the openness and spirit of this conversation.

        I agree with you that the perception, in the minds of the average person in the pew/seat, can be horribly wrong – regarding the building, the Pastor, the roles and functions of the church, etc. Pastors/Elders need to be very conscientious about teaching rightly about those things, as well as rightly modeling the truth. Some of the problem MAY BE in the structures and organizations we humans have arranged, and I’m open to considering that seriously. I just know that changing the existing institutional churches is an up-hill battle, and I’d prefer to see them gradually adjusted rather than radically opposed or revolted against (and please, understand that I DON’T hear you doing that or advocating that at all).

        I agree that the Holy Spirit is always our teacher, but God uses a variety of means to do His work in many cases, and He has appointed teachers for that work (spiritual gifts). Granted, we are to teach one another (Romans 14:13), and the typical church has great difficulty in seeing that applied effectively, but there seems to be another, teacher-using-his-gifts sort of way that is included in the early church as well. There were other, additional contexts of teaching that were not ONLY to unbelievers or when Apostles came through town. Paul for instance, specifically gives Timothy (a local church leader) the commission to “preach” the word… (2 Ti. 4:2)… which DOES mean “preach, proclaim” in the Greek. Contextually, the apostle is guiding Timothy in how to best care for the church as a shepherd… so teaching/preaching is a part of that. That’s how I see it anyway.

        Thanks… SO MUCH… for engaging in this conversation. My desire in bringing it up was to stretch my own concepts and ideas, as well as those of the readers. I hope that’s happening for you too.

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