A new hybrid model for doing church

Something interesting happened to us during the pandemic. But first, some background: Our church, The Orchard, has two characteristics that make us a little different from many other churches—not unique, but out of the ordinary. We don’t have a senior or lead pastor as most evangelical churches do. Instead, we have a team of pastoral elders who all share in the shepherding of the church. (I’ve previously written quite a bit concerning this leadership model.) We also study the Bible interactively in our church services. We elicit responses from the people and encourage them to raise their hand when they have a question. I’ve taught this way throughout my ministry, but for some reason I’ve never posted anything here about it. [I’m thinking my next blog post should be on interactive teaching.]

When everything shut down last year due to COVID, we began meeting online for our weekly church service the same as everyone else. We met via Zoom so we could continue to study interactively together. I started receiving inquiries from people who had been part of the church we served in Puerto Rico. They were looking for something more interactive than what they had available from streaming church services, and were curious if we were doing anything online. At the time, we were very focused on making sure our online church service felt as familiar as possible to the people here—felt like “us”—so I was hesitant to have large numbers of people temporarily join our service. (Like many others, we were expecting to get back to “normal” in a few weeks or maybe months.) So I started an online Bible study on Sunday afternoons for people outside our area who were desiring more of an interactive study.

This study continued throughout the year, with the repeated disclaimer that it wasn’t a church. A few months ago, a good friend from the study (and one of my former co-pastors in Puerto Rico), challenged me about this. He pointed out the close, regular fellowship we had, and the way we worshiped and studied Scripture together. He asked why this couldn’t be a church. That gave me pause. I had never been impressed with the idea of an online church before. It seemed a lot like passively watching a church service on TV, which is great if you can’t physically get to a church gathering, but really just a temporary substitute. But with this kind of challenge, I needed to have solid reasons why this kind of online gathering couldn’t be an actual church.

This began some intensive discussions. More and more we discussed the possibility of a hybrid church model with a primary gathering online that would include people from many locations. This service would be focused mostly on interactive, expositional study of Scripture. Along with this larger service would be local fellowships, meeting in person in each location during the week, that could better do things such as worshiping through music, sharing in communion, baptisms, eating together, sharing testimonies, deeper discussion of questions, encouraging one another, etc. These local fellowships would likely look very different in each location, with maybe 20 people meeting in a living room in one town, and 4 people meeting at Starbucks in another.

The more we discussed this possible hybrid model, the more excitement grew about the possibility of making this group a church. Most of these people were motivated by a love of interactive study of Scripture (It’s hard for some people to return to passively listening to sermons when they’re used to raising their hands and asking questions!) but also a shared conviction regarding church polity. Many expressed how important team pastoral leadership is to them. One obstacle, though, was the difficulty in me personally being part of planting a brand new kind of church while serving as a pastor of another. I didn’t feel I could do that and faithfully serve both.

But, in The Orchard, we were having a series of interesting discussions of our own. Other than the offices, our building had sat unused for almost a year, and we were getting close to the end of a multi-year lease. We were beginning to discuss whether we should continue leasing the building. We loved the space we met in, with couches and chairs arranged almost in a circle to make it look more like a large living room or coffeehouse. But the pandemic had helped us remember we’re not dependent on any particular space. A building can be a great resource, but the church isn’t a building. So we had been discussing alternatives such as renting some space once a week in which to meet, or buying a house and converting it into a church property. These ideas fit with our “strategically small” approach of limiting the size of our church service, but also planning for multiple services to allow further growth.

One of the things we had repeatedly discussed was how to best get the word out about who we are. We had experienced many people visiting us just because we were another church in town to check out. We wanted to let people in the community know some of the distinctive characteristics that make us who we are as a church, so those who were seeking this kind of church would know about us. In fact, last year we had planned a whole series of mailers describing different aspects of who we are that make us a bit unique in this local area, and were poised to begin sending them out (literally the following week) when everything shut down because of the pandemic. So we had been looking for people who were looking for a church like us, and now there were people from outside our area who were eager to be part of a church like us! We began discussing the possibility of The Orchard actually becoming this hybrid church.

Eventually, after discussions among the church leadership and then the congregation, we decided to take this step. We now have a primary service online on Sunday mornings (10 am Eastern and Pacific) that includes brothers and sisters from mutliple states plus Puerto Rico. We’re seeking to incorporate leaders from other areas into our church leadership team. Our most recent addition to our pastoral team is Jack Foster, a brother from Puerto Rico. We’ve given up our building here in Sacramento, and now lease a small office. Our local congregation is becoming one of the local fellowships. The online group is really melding into a cohesive church family. We recently had one lady who’s been part of the church here for some time move to Grand Junction, CO, and she’s very happy that she can still be part of our church!

This has been a real paradigm shift for me. The biblical model of one church in each town has always been compelling to me. But, then again, there was no way for them at that time to have any larger context for a church congregation. Geography was the natural and necessary division for individual churches. But when we see, for instance, how Paul longed at times to be with the Thessalonians or the Corinthians, if he had a tool such as Zoom that he could have utilized, I’m sure he would have! Especially since we were already to some extent outside of the norm due to our team leadership model and interactive teaching, a hybrid model that includes a translocal congregation actually makes sense. But we’re definitely in uncharted territory, so we are constantly aware of our dependence on God and his wisdom and leading. It’s amazing that we would never have considered any of this if it hadn’t been for the COVID shut down, but that shows how God can use times like this to slow us down and get us to consider new and possibly more effective ways to faithfully be the church. We’re excited to see where we go from here!

Review: “Church Elders: How to Shepherd God’s People Like Jesus” by Jeramie Rinne

[Updated 4/1/21]

Church_Elders_1024x1024This is a very helpful addition to the (thankfully) growing number of books on church eldership. In now standard works, writers like Alexander Strauch and Benjamin Merkle have established the normative, biblical pattern of the local church being pastored by a team of pastoral elders (with no one designated as a senior or lead pastor). Richard Swartley has added helpful insights regarding the more practical and organizational aspects of elder church leadership. Now in this book (part of 9Marks’ Building Healthy Churches series), Jeramie Rinne describes the heart of the ministry of church elders: What is it that we do?

The author begins with a good foundational understanding of church elders, showing that the elders of a church are the pastors of the church, and giving a fairly standard description of the qualifications for church elders. He then devotes a chapter each to different things elders are to be doing as part of their ministry. He shows the genuinely relational aspect of true shepherding, and that we shouldn’t be satisfied with simply being trustees or board elders. He emphasizes the necessity of real teaching in the church (as does the New Testament, repeatedly), and also stresses the responsibility to be training other teachers and leaders who will continue the ministry after we’re gone. He describes a life of caring for the people in the church, including watching for those who are hurting, beginning to stray, or harming others. Rinne encourages us to be leaders who actually lead—actively and decisively, but without lording it over our brothers and sisters, being humble but not shrinking back. He explores serving together as a team of elders, living as mature examples, and devoting ourselves to praying for the people in the church.

Most of this is solidly covered, but there are a few things on which I would respectfully push back. Rinne assumes a formal model of membership for the local church, and views this as a necessity for faithful elder leadership in the church. Of course, the New Testament never actually teaches a formal church membership, and a great many faithful elder-led churches don’t have such a structure. But his insistence on formal church membership crops up from time to time in this book.

He seems to make a common mistake of attempting to apply the Granville Sharp Rule to Ephesians 4:11. (Rinne doesn’t mention this rule by name, but only refers generically to “the Greek grammar” without specifying exactly to what he’s referring.) If he is, in fact, relying on this familiar rule (as is invariably done by those arguing this point), then he has a problem. This rule just doesn’t work in cases where the nouns are plural (e.g. the Pharisees and Sadducees, the men and women, the apostles and prophets, and, yes, the pastors and teachers), so it’s not accurate to insist on this referring to one role of “pastor/teacher.” This passage isn’t listing church offices, but gifted people whom Christ gives to the church. Does everyone with a gift of shepherding others also have a gift of teaching? Is every gifted teacher also a shepherd/pastor? Such a view seems unnecessarily restrictive, and it’s simply not borne out by the grammar of this verse. Along with this, we find an over-emphasis on elders not only being “able to teach” (or some translations: “an able teacher” [1 Timothy 3:2]), but on each elder being an active teacher, even that each, according to Rinne, “must be known for teaching the Bible well.” He later qualifies this slightly, but it still goes well beyond what we have in the text, especially in light of 1 Timothy 5:17 that distinguishes those who are particularly involved in teaching.

Rinne also seems to approve of a distinction between elders and pastors in a church, and even of some kind of hierarchy of senior pastor and associate pastors. In fact, Rinne himself serves as senior pastor of his church. To many of us committed to a polity of plurality of pastoral elders, this will seem highly incongruous (not to mention without scriptural warrant). This peculiarity isn’t emphasized in his book, but it becomes obvious the way this adaptation can subtly undermine the plural, collegial nature of pastoral eldership with distinctions made between “the elders” and “their pastors.”

But none of these issues are major emphases in the book, and there is still much to commend here. The book is fairly short, so the author doesn’t exhaustively examine any of these aspects of pastoral ministry, but this makes the book accessible for those not looking for long, in-depth treatments. Rinne succinctly covers the essential components of the pastoral role of church elders, so this can be a very useful book for teaching—or reminding—what it looks like to serve as an elder/pastor. While there are some issues you may need to clarify, I think this book can be truly beneficial to elders and potential elders.

Can churches be too small?

StockSnap_QVIEE1UZSXIn my last post, I wrote about the dangers of a church becoming too large. I’m sure for many readers I was simply preaching to the choir. A lot of believers have either never felt right about megachurches or they’ve become disillusioned with them. But can a church be too small? For many, that might seem like a strange question. We may immediately challenge the idea that “bigger is better,” but then just assume that smaller must always be better. But is this true? Does this best fit the biblical model of the local church?

I served as a pastor/elder of a house church for 3 years, and for most of that time the church met in my home. I’m very familiar with the joys and blessings of a simple church meeting in the home, and I understand quite well the reasons why Christians leave “traditional” churches for this kind of intimate, family-like setting. So I understand and sympathize with the thinking behind the house church movement. (I’ve had many conversations about the church’s “edifice complex,” etc.) But is a modern-day house church or a “micro-church” the most faithful way to live out the pattern of the church we find in the New Testament?

Steve Atkerson is even more familiar with house churches than I am. For over 25 years, he has worked to encourage, support and help house churches and house church leaders. But somewhere along the way his understanding changed regarding the house churches in the first centuries after Christ. He came to realize that the house churches in the early church met in the homes of wealthier members of the church (who had larger homes), and that these large, semi-public villas would have atria that could seat anywhere from 60 to 150 people. This is the kind of house church described in the New Testament and to whom the letters to the churches were written. (For more on this you can read my earlier post or Atkerson’s articles here and here.) This is obviously much different than 15 or 20 people sitting in a modern living room.

But this leads to the same question we had to consider in the last post [about abnormally large churches]: Is there anything unhealthy about churches being too small? And—as with the last post—the question isn’t whether a small, house church can be wonderful and healthy. Again, I know they can because I’ve experienced it! I still have very fond memories of our time together in the house church and the wonderful people with whom I was in fellowship. No, I’ll word the question the same way I did for megachurches (only changing “large” to “small”): The question isn’t whether a very small church can be healthy; it’s what are the dangers that all very small churches face, and is this the healthiest option for a church?

Here again I’m appreciative of the work of Steve Akerson. His reflections have confirmed some of my own thoughts and observations and caused me to think more deeply about aspects of house church gatherings that I hadn’t considered before. So what are some of these weaknesses of too-small churches? I’ll note some, but first a reminder: This isn’t a house church vs. traditional church comparison; it’s a Roman atrium-sized church model (à la New Testament house churches) vs. the current micro-sized house church model. (Maybe it would be helpful to drop the terminology ‘house church’ for how the church met in the early centuries, and instead call these villa churches!) This isn’t a call to return to a traditional way of doing church; it’s a fine-tuning of what we should understand as the biblical model of doing church. Could meeting as a very small church in someone’s home actually hinder us from living out biblical principles of church life?

Let’s start with a practical instruction to churches in Scripture. We’re told in 1 Timothy 5:17 that the elders who lead and teach well should be financially supported. And notice this is speaking of elders (plural) who are supposed to be well paid. How many house churches today are able to pay even one elder who is devoted to leading and teaching? Atkerson notes: “Even if there is an elder, the congregation is usually so small he cannot be supported. Unless he is retired or is self-employed and willing to neglect his business, time devoted to the church in equipping, leadership, training, disciple-making, evangelism and teaching is in short supply. As a result, little disciple-making occurs.”

The New Testament churches were not only supposed to financially support certain elders who devoted their time to leading and teaching, they were to be shepherded by a team of pastoral elders. How many house churches have a plurality of qualified elders shepherding the church? Far too many micro-sized house churches don’t have even one qualified elder. Because of this, there is often a lack of biblical leadership and substantive teaching of Scripture. The fellowship may be wonderful, and the people may enjoy and even genuinely benefit from spending time together. But the church is lacking the leaders and teachers God intended to be shepherding his church.

Some newer networks of micro-churches plan from the beginning that all of their pastors will be—and remain—bivocational. They also often stress the surprisingly rapid training and releasing of these new pastors to plant new micro-churches. How are they able to train pastors so quickly? They remove the need for substantive teaching of Scripture. Instead of calling these leaders ‘pastors,’  they’d be better described as evangelists or small group leaders. These groups are actually either cells connected to a larger church that provides needed teaching and training (and so not autonomous churches at all) or they’re churches whose leaders don’t teach the Bible to the people in the church. When one considers the repeated emphasis on teaching the church in the New Testament, this is alarming.

luan-cabral-XVqwbImMR4M-unsplashThe biblical design for the church body is a community of believers that’s large enough to have a healthy assortment of spiritual gifts. This is the way God intends for the body to grow, building itself up in love (Ephesians 4:16). I think it would be a wise thing for any small church to ask how well they’re living out being a community of believers with a healthy diversity of spiritual gifts. If this is problematic because of the church’s small size, it might be appropriate to ask if the church is abnormally small (especially in light of the actual size of early house churches, i.e. 60-150 people).

We also need to take into consideration the differences between first century Roman culture and our culture today. Not only do we not typically meet in the same large, semi-public villas that the Romans did (which were also places of business, with people often coming and going), but we also usually drive to the place where the church gathers together once a week. This, of course, means we have to park. In many neighborhoods, this can create a weekly annoyance for our neighbors, harming our relationship with those living around us and even hurting our witness to them. These kinds of problems have caused some communities to pass restrictions on regular church meetings in private homes. Instead of railing against these “godless” attacks, we need to hear the concerns of our neighbors and realize that our setting is not the same as the early church’s.

To conclude this post, I can’t do better than quoting Steve Atkerson’s excellent work on this (the emphases in the quote below are the original author’s):

“Being too small is a violation of the New Testament norm. Intent on holding to the New Testament example of meeting in homes, some house churches instead violate other New Testament patterns such as having elders and consistent, quality instruction. It is far better to not meet in homes if it means having the blessing of elders and teachers and a diversity of spiritual gifts operating. . . . In all, to accomplish what the early church accomplished may necessitate not meeting in our modern homes (but rather some dynamic equivalent). Thus, the real emphasis should be on New Testament church principles, not simply meeting in homes.”

Can churches be too big?

architecture-building-chapel-532720Let’s begin with an obvious caveat: the size of a church doesn’t guarantee a church’s health. There are healthy large churches and unhealthy large churches, and there are healthy small churches and unhealthy small churches. Scripture doesn’t dictate a specific size for local churches. This isn’t an issue of obedience to an explicit biblical command, but instead one of seeking wisdom in how to best live out the purposes and intended life of the church. With that said, can the size of a church adversely affect its health? Is there an optimal size for churches? And, if so, why?

When we consider almost 2,000 years of church history, extremely large churches are a new phenomenon. There have been large churches before, of course (such as Metropolitan Tabernacle in London), but these have been noteworthy because they were so unusual, obvious exceptions to the rule. Throughout most of church history, a church of 300-400 people would have been considered a large church. It’s only been since the 1980s that we’ve seen the proliferation of what we now call megachurches. But, surprising to some, megachurches are still the exception to the rule today. One recent report found that 95 percent of churches surveyed have weekly attendances under 350, and 88 percent have attendances under 200. This compares well with other surveys of church sizes. In contrast, less than 1 percent of churches would be classified as megachurches (having at least 2,000 people in weekly attendance).

In his book The Strategically Small Church, Brandon O’Brien asks why the experience of less than one percent of churches has somehow become the standard by which we evaluate the other 99+ percent of all churches and pastors? Pastor and writer Karl Vaters notes that speakers at church conferences are almost always from very large churches, and he questions just how encouraging and helpful this is to virtually all the pastors attending these conferences, most of whom pastor churches with attendances under 200. We saw in the previous post that the early churches were gatherings of 60-150 people. Throughout history the vast majority of churches were less than 200 people, and still are today. What if it’s so rare to “break the 200 barrier” because the church wasn’t really designed to be any larger? What if the reason churches stubbornly resist growing beyond 200 people is that it’s somehow hardwired into the church’s DNA not to? What if extremely large churches are actually the abnormality? As Karl Vaters asks in his book Small Church Essentials, “What if by trying to fix a problem that isn’t a problem, we’re actually working against a strategy that God wants us to enact?”

O’Brien challenges us: “Until we stop measuring our success in terms of numerical size and growth, we may be unable to accurately analyze the faithfulness of our ministry.” And this gets to the deeper issue. What is healthiest for the church? When are we most faithfully being the church God intends us to be? Certainly, we want to continually see people coming to faith in Christ. The church should be ever growing, but this doesn’t mean every local congregation should just continue to grow larger and larger. Vaters helpfully notes that there’s no biblical mandate for churches to grow larger. We don’t see any place in Scripture where Jesus or his apostles told a local church they needed to get bigger.

But is there anything inherently unhealthy about a church growing too large? Now, let me hasten to say again that many very large churches are good, healthy churches. Please don’t write in the comment section about huge churches you’ve been a part of that were wonderful and healthy. I know these exist because I’ve been a part of some, too! I was trained for pastoral ministry in a very large church (around 1,600 in weekly attendance), and I’ve served in leadership in very large churches. And many small churches are unhealthy. This is not an invitation for small churches to dismiss their own dysfunction by condemning large churches. The question isn’t whether a very large church can be healthy; it’s what are the dangers that all very large churches face, and is this the healthiest option for a church.

audience-backlit-band-154147Are there unique problems for large churches? Yes, there are. Some may not be insurmountable, but they’re perpetual. The more dramatic a church’s growth, the more this growth becomes part of the church’s identity, how others perceive them and how they perceive themselves. There will be a natural tendency to begin advancing and promoting the perceived success and image of the church, rather than the mission of Christ. The more the focus is on one key pastor, preaching weekly to thousands of people—especially if his preaching is also streamed to other sites—the more the pastor gains celebrity status, whether wanted or not. It’s difficult to resist taking advantage of this name recognition to draw even more people to the church, thus making the pastor even more of a celebrity and making the church seem even more successful. The more power, acclaim, money and influence a church and its leaders have, the more the danger these things will be abused. This abuse isn’t inevitable, but it’s a very real threat that puts the church constantly in peril.

Some problems are unavoidable for really large churches. Even if you resist making your pastor into a regional or national celebrity, there is no way that regularly preaching to huge crowds of people (and maybe having your face projected onto 20 ft screens) won’t cause people to see you differently. Some friends of mine became part of a newly planted church many years ago. The church was still fairly small, and they became good friends with the pastor. A few years later, the church had grown extremely large. Whenever they would speak with the pastor, others would ask with an awed voice, “Wow, you know ______________?” Seeing the pastor as some kind of rock star—even if only within the context of that one congregation—is almost impossible to avoid when a church gets very large. It’s a radically different perception when everyone in the church knows their pastors personally. That removes the mystique and allows for more genuine ministry to occur.

The biblical picture of the church seems to be one where the people know each other and they personally know their pastoral leaders. They not only participate in the life of the church, they participate to some extent in the weekly church meeting. We’re called to encourage one another, exhort one another and to use our spiritual gifts to build up one another. In Scripture, the teaching we see happening in the church gathering is interactive, with the people responding and asking questions. A church can grow to the point where this kind of life is stunted and obstructed. Instead the congregation becomes a passive audience. Vaters makes a telling observation: “. . . if I walk into a large church, I know what’s expected of me; I will be an audience. Aside from singing along (if I know the songs), I will be a watcher and listener, not an active participant . . .” Many do become involved in ministries in really big churches, but this isn’t the reality for most. The vast majority of people attending megachurches attend once a week (at most) and have little interaction with anyone there. They come in, sit, enjoy the service, then get up and leave. They are a passive audience. If they stop attending, few if any will notice. This doesn’t fit well with the biblical descriptions of the church gathering together.

In the book Jim and Casper Go to Church, atheist Matt Casper questions evangelical pastor Jim Henderson about the way many Christians do church:

Think about it: How do schools sell themselves? By class size. The lower the student/teacher ratio is, the smaller the class size, the better the education. It’s because you get more interaction with “the expert,” and more interaction with your classmates.

Why do churches seem to do just the opposite? Why is a church deemed successful by its size rather than its ability to truly teach its people?

I think these are incredibly perceptive questions. Casper asks in another chapter: “Maybe if the church weren’t so huge, there’d be a better chance to really connect with people. Is this what it’s all about, Jim? Is contemporary Christianity driven by the ‘bigger is better’ maxim?”

Many of us know all too well that the larger the audience, the more we have to make sure the service flows smoothly and professionally. The energy on Sunday morning becomes focused all on “the show.” It even feels like going to a show. [I first heard this comparison from Dan Kimball.] If the operation is a professional one, then parking will be fairly easy. I’ll follow the crowd into the theater where someone will give me a program and show me where to sit. I may say a casual hello to a person or two as I move past to take my seat, but then I just look around and wait for the show to start. Then the lights dim, the professionals come out on the stage, and the show begins. If it’s a good one, I may laugh and cry and be moved. But then the people leave the stage, the house lights come on, and I get up and leave. It’s not that I don’t get anything of benefit. But I’m a passive observer. I’m part of the “audience.” I’m anonymous. I may even prefer it that way. But it’s not the church gathering that the New Testament describes, and it’s not accomplishing a lot of what the church gathering is supposed to be accomplishing.

It’s interesting that many megachurches are now trying to utilize smaller venues. This is often motivated by logistical issues. Communities are now much less accepting of massive church campuses. Neighbors are more likely to protest and resist church expansion. So, many churches are moving to multiple, smaller locations. (And I haven’t even begun to address the problem of pastoral burnout and the many who are under so much stress they’re ready to chuck it all and walk away.)

nicole-honeywill-dGxOgeXAXm8-unsplashThis helps us answer the question: “What’s the alternative?” It’s actually not that complicated. Instead of hoarding so much of our resources to build one massive empire, why don’t we become a resource? Instead of driving ourselves to build a church of 4,000, why don’t we release others to plant 20 churches of 200 (churches that can be much better connected to and serve a specific neighborhood, and that can provide an environment for spiritual life and ministry that is much more organic and authentic)? Why don’t we decentralize our leadership and have churches that are pastored and taught by teams of pastors (as modeled in Scripture) instead of one over-utilized rock-star pastor? Why not have churches small enough that the people can know their pastors, be discipled by them personally and be able to observe up close their examples of living faithful Christian lives? Maybe we shouldn’t just assume that bigger is better (no matter how much we may personally enjoy it), but take some time to prayerfully consider: “What will make us most effective at being the kind of church the Scriptures describe?”

Some have unfairly condemned everything about megachurches. That’s unfortunate. There are many people serving in large churches seeking to be as faithful as they can be to the ministries God has called them to, and people are being loved and reached and blessed. We need to acknowledge that. Because of this overly harsh criticism, when others present careful, balanced critiques of large churches, they still feel the need to add a disclaimer: ‘. . . not that there’s anything wrong with being a megachurch!’ I think this goes too far the other way. We need to honor each other and the ministry taking place, while still challenging each other to be willing to relinquish any way of doing church that’s out of synch with the biblical model and purposes of the church (even if it might seem very successful).

So can a church be too small? We’ll look at that next.

Review: “The Shepherd Leader” by Timothy Witmer

41BVBHa89VL._SX312_BO1,204,203,200_I’m always eager to read insights on pastoral leadership, and especially glad to see another book advocating that the church be pastored by a team of elders. The author of this book is obviously knowledgable and has a heart for the local church. He gives a capable defense of biblical eldership, and also includes a helpful explanation of the historical development of the church. Witmer begins with local churches being pastored by elders (the New Testament model), and shows how this morphed into the Roman Catholic episcopal model. He then describes in great detail the polity changes in Calvin’s church in Geneva and the Presbyterian church in Scotland.

The heart of the book is a section divided into four chapters, each on a different aspect of shepherding the church: knowing the sheep, feeding the sheep, leading the sheep, and protecting the sheep. Along the way, the author includes both biblical principles and practical applications. As with any book that makes practical suggestions, some will resonate and some won’t, but it can be worthwhile to think through (and discuss) any of them.

Potential readers should be aware of the theological context from which this book comes. The author is a professor at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, served as a pastor of a Presbyterian church (PCA) for more than twenty-five years, and writes from a distinctly Presbyterian perspective. I think it’s entirely appropriate for our approaches to ministry and church leadership to be grounded solidly in our theology. But, because of this, it’s helpful to know the theological presuppositions of an author whose book we may read. For instance, one will notice Calvinistic assumptions peppered throughout this book. This doesn’t make the book unusable for non-Calvinists, but it’s helpful to know about this context beforehand.

A more salient concern is the specifically Presbyterian model of eldership put forward in this book. As a Presbyterian, Witmer sees a sharp dichotomy in the church eldership between lay “ruling elders” and professional, seminary-trained “teaching elders” (often referred to as “pastors”). Most non-Presbyterians would view this as based on Presbyterian tradition rather than scriptural exegesis. The only passage that comes anywhere close to this idea is 1 Timothy 5:17. In my view, and the view of a great many others, this text simply does not establish two distinct kinds of elders. All elders lead and are able to teach; some elders lead well (whether because of gifting, devotion, or availability); some of the elders who lead well (“especially those who…”) devote themselves to studying the Word and teaching. To somehow conclude from this the normative need for “ruling elders” who don’t publicly teach and “teaching elders” who don’t rule is to go far beyond the text itself.

And this problematic distinction among the elders leads to other problems. It doesn’t take long to begin seeing in this book an expectation that each church will have one “teaching elder” (despite the fact that 1 Timothy 5:17 refers to plural elders doing this teaching). It also becomes apparent that this teaching elder is often referred to as the pastor, so it’s not a big step to later references in the book to “the pastor” and “his elders.” By introducing a distinct classification of the elders that is not warranted by the text of Scripture, those who hold this model end up militating against the very plural shepherd (i.e. pastor) model they intend to defend and practice. Because of this prominent deviation from what I understand to be biblical eldership, I can’t recommend this book.

Challenge 5: What about the angels of the seven churches in Revelation?

wrote-book-revelation_e5084222746a34b7A few years ago, I wrote: Why we don’t have a senior pastor. In this post I explained why many Christians are committed to a leadership model of plural eldership. I showed how there is a consistent pattern throughout the New Testament of churches being pastored by a council of elders, with no elder distinguished from the rest as a “senior” or “lead” pastor/elder. I followed up this article with a series of posts addressing various challenges to this leadership model. A few days ago, a reader emailed me asking about the angels in Revelation 2-3. This question warrants being included in this series, so let’s take a look.

In Revelation chapters 2-3, John is instructed to write seven letters to seven specific churches. Each letter is entrusted to the “angel” of the intended church. Some see these angels as indicating the senior pastor of each church. Does this work?

We should make a couple of observations right at the outset. The commentaries are all over the place on who these angels are. Some don’t address the question at all; most others describe various possible interpretations, while maybe leaning toward one. The only consensus seems to be that there is insufficient basis here for being dogmatic about the identity of these angels.

I would also note this claim (that these angels = senior pastors) is very rarely used by scholars and pastors arguing for a normative senior pastor type role. In fact, many of those who support a senior pastor role have specifically rejected this interpretation of Revelation. Let’s see why.

First, let’s remember the first three rules of biblical interpretation: context, context, context. Where are these references? In the book of Revelation. What do we know about Revelation? Revelation is a kind of writing know as apocalyptic. Apocalyptic literature was always highly figurative, utilizing elaborate symbolism. Readers were to assume that elements were symbolic unless there was a clear reason to take them literally.

Do we see this in Revelation? Absolutely. Right from the first chapter, we have lampstands that aren’t literal lampstands, stars that aren’t literal stars, and a two-edged sword that isn’t a literal sword. Often the text doesn’t tell us what the various symbols symbolize, and so we discuss and debate what they mean. (What exactly do the two witnesses, the mark of the beast, the great prostitute, etc., represent?) Fortunately, we’re sometimes given the meaning of the symbols. So, for instance, we’re told that the seven lampstands represent seven churches, and the seven stars represent the angels (or messengers) of these seven churches.

While Revelation is filled with symbols that represent something real, what we don’t see are symbols of symbols. If the great dragon represents Satan, then that’s it. We don’t have to debate what Satan then represents. The Lamb who was slain is a symbol for Jesus, but Jesus is not a symbol for anything else. So the seven lampstands symbolize seven churches, which do not then symbolize anything else. And the seven stars represent the aggelos of each of these churches. We don’t have to figure out what these aggeloi (the plural form of aggelos) symbolize; we just need to make sure we understand what the word means.

blog11Each letter to one of the seven churches begins the same way: “Write this letter to the aggelos of the church in ____________ .” This Greek word is found over 170 times in the New Testament. It’s almost always translated “angel.” A few times it indicates a human “messenger.” So this now shows us the key interpretive question for these references: Are these aggeloi angels or human messengers? And this is where the scholars disagree.

Notice that—either way—the letters are not written to a single leader or messenger, but to the entire church of Ephesus, Smyrna, etc. (“Anyone with ears to hear must listen to the Spirit and understand what he is saying to the churches.”) Each church is either commended or confronted, not a sole leader. The “you” being addressed in the letters is plural. But to whom are these letters entrusted: angels or human messengers?

Could these be literal angels? This isn’t as odd as it sounds, and many scholars think this natural reading is the best one. Remember our context is within the book of Revelation. And Revelation states at the very beginning:

“He [Jesus Christ] sent an angel to present this revelation to his servant John”

If an angel was part of Christ conveying this revelation to John, why would it be odd for angels to be part of conveying the letters to the seven churches (which are included in the revelation)? The word aggelos is used over 60 times in the book of Revelation; every time (besides these chapters) it means “angel.” We also have the intriguing references in Daniel 10 that seem to indicate there are angels assigned to certain nations. Some also point to passages such as Matthew 18:10 and Acts 12:15 that hint at the idea of a guardian angel for each person. Is it such a stretch to think that each church would enjoy the protection and service of a specific angel?

But how would angels be involved with the delivery of these letters? Well, remember that Revelation is written in a highly stylized, dramatic form. It also depicts a heavenly, spiritual perspective of these events, not a primarily human one. Unless we want to assume that angels have no real part in human events, we shouldn’t too quickly reject the idea of angelic involvement in the revelation of these letters to these seven, specific churches.

Ok, but could these be human messengers? That’s certainly a plausible interpretation of these passages. Let’s assume these passages are, in fact, speaking of human messengers. What could these chapters tell us about these human messengers? Well, they would tell us there was one messenger designated for each church, and that each letter was written to the whole church but entrusted to a messenger. That’s it. There is nothing in these chapters indicating a leadership or pastoral role for these angels or messengers. Because there is one angel/messenger designated for each church, some have read back into this passage our traditional practice of having one main pastor for each church. But nothing in the text indicates such a role.

Are there any reasons we should not see these messengers as senior pastors? Well, first we observe that the word aggelos is never used anywhere else in the New Testament to indicate a church leadership role. Next, as we saw above, there is nothing in the context that would clearly and directly indicate a senior pastor role. (Actually, in the context of the New Testament church, if these were human messengers, they would more likely be exercising a prophetic role than a pastoral one. They may have simply been the people responsible for physically carrying the letters to the churches.) And this interpretation would be introducing a senior pastor role that isn’t even mentioned anywhere else in the New Testament, and one that would conflict with the consistent pattern we see throughout the New Testament of churches being pastored by groups of elders with no designated senior leader. (Notice that none of the New Testament epistles [letters to the churches] are addressed to the “pastor” of the church of Corinth or Philippi, etc.)

bible-magnifying-glassThere’s a principle of biblical interpretation that says: ‘Clear passages in Scripture help us understand the passages that aren’t so clear.’ It makes sense to take the clear and consistent pattern we see throughout the New Testament as the model we’re to follow. But it makes poor sense to take an ambiguous passage in a highly symbolic book, form a conclusion—not from the reading of the text, but based on pure speculation—then use this questionable assertion to challenge the clear, consistent pattern found elsewhere in Scripture. This would be circular reasoning—assuming the senior pastor role when interpreting the passage, and then using the passage to establish the senior pastor role!

Regardless of whether we understand the aggeloi in Revelation 1-3 as angels or human messengers, there is nothing in these passages that point to a senior pastor role in the churches.

Church replanting: Core commitments

Our church has been going through a “chrysalis” process of replanting and revitalization. As part of this process, we just finished an intensive 12-week study of biblical principles concerning the church: what the church is, what the church is to do, and how we’re to do it. I’ve condensed these principles into four core commitments. I’ll post an updated version of each commitment with fuller descriptions, but here are the basic principles to which we commit ourselves as a church:

  • We will remain graciously and uncompromisingly evangelical.
  • We will intentionally emphasize, as a key priority, New Testament principles of what we are as the church, what we do as the church, and how.
  • We will have a plurality of pastoral leaders and teachers.
  • We will remain focused on our mission of helping people become and continually grow as disciples of Jesus Christ.

A biblical case for senior pastors?: Two questions

Most evangelical churches today have a senior or lead pastor. Can we make a solid, biblical case to establish this practice? For those who are part of a church that has both elders and a senior/lead pastor, here are two questions I invite you to answer:

Why do you have elders?

In my experience, many respond to this question with a robust, thoroughly biblical explanation of the role of elders in the local church. Our churches must have elders because of the clear teaching of Scripture, they insist. They frequently describe the normative need for elders in each church, the plurality of elders, the pastoral nature of the ministry of elders, etc.—drawing directly from clear New Testament passages—in ways that might cheer the hearts of the strongest proponents of biblical eldership. But then we ask the follow-up question:

Why do you have a senior/lead pastor?

scratching-head. . . ummm . . . . . . There can be a long pause at this point. We sense the need for a similarly robust, equally biblical explanation for this (presumably) key role . . . but it seems surprisingly difficult to find. One can rely on a pragmatic response: ‘There has to be one key leader, you know.’ Or we could resort to conjecture or speculation: ‘Well, the New Testament church had strong, prominent leaders, so . . .’  Or we can just blindly follow tradition. But I can’t seem to find anyone presenting a strong, clear, biblical case for the normative senior/lead pastor. Any takers?

Exploring a possible church plant

As many of you know, my wife, Kelley, and I moved back to California earlier this year, returning from over 13 years of ministering in Puerto Rico. Looking strictly at circumstances, it would seem the economic situation in Puerto Rico forced this move. But we believe God is sovereign over circumstances, and that the timing of this change was—and is—in his hands. The church there has transitioned from being overly dependent on one paid elder/pastor to being served by three unpaid, bi-vocational elder/pastors (along with others stepping up to do their part in ministry). They are now realizing the level of team leadership and teaching to which we always aspired. Although it was sad for us to leave, this is a good and healthy change.

imagesAs for us, we’re now in Placerville, CA (between Sacramento and Lake Tahoe). The transition for us hasn’t been as smooth as we had hoped. Over the past few months, we’ve had trouble finding good jobs, finding a place to live, and dealing with ministry opportunities that didn’t pan out. But we still trust God’s timing and believe that he has been working through these circumstances. We’re praying for wisdom and the sensitivity to be aware of any guidance God is giving us.

We’re prayerfully considering planting a church in the Placerville area. Some have asked me what a new church would look like (whether here or somewhere else). So I’ve written out four core commitments I see as essential for a new church. I’ll post them here one at a time. I’m not implying that these commitments would be unique to us. Some could prove to distinguish us from other churches, but this isn’t really the intent. The idea is that these four core commitments, together, would constitute the DNA of a new church. All other distinctive strategies and methods we might develop would be built on the foundation of these core commitments.

You may notice these posts don’t include a detailed description or vision for this new church. This is intentional. As you read through these commitments (or if you’ve read many of my posts on church leadership), you’ll see why for me to plan out in detail my vision for a church plant—and then look for people who will support my unique vision—would be contradictory. It’s not that I don’t have a vision or a lot of ideas for a new church! But the plan is to first establish a consistently biblical vision for a church plant. Then, as a team, we can brainstorm how to best apply these biblical principles to our specific context. The comment threads of these posts are a great place for this kind of discussion!

Follow-up to “Why do so few churches today have a truly biblical eldership?”

This post has generated some interesting discussions. One person asked me if churches that have a genuine, biblical eldership ever drift back into a senior pastor structure and, if they do, why? The answer to the first question is unfortunately, yes, they sometimes do return to a senior pastor model.

I recently added a page to the blog with links to elder-led churches. This isn’t a comprehensive list, just churches I’ve run across from time to time. When I happen upon a church that’s elder-led, I add it to a folder of bookmarks for elder-led churches. But I occasionally have to move a church out of my “elder-led churches” folder because I find they’ve designated one elder as a senior or lead pastor. Why?

I think we need to recognize that this kind of biblical team leadership isn’t natural to us. It goes against our instincts. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it doesn’t work—that is, it doesn’t work unless the Holy Spirit is actively working in the hearts and minds of the elders. Now, I have to clarify, I’m not saying the Holy Spirit isn’t at work in those who are senior pastors! What I am saying is that, just as water follows the path of least resistance, so we naturally tend to slip back into one-man leadership. It’s not as foreign. It’s what we’re accustomed to. And it’s just easier to get things done much of the time with a primary 3078761_f248leader. The problem is that it’s not biblical. And when we follow what’s comfortable to us rather than the model God has given us in his Word, there will always be unforeseen consequences.

It can be a real struggle at times to maintain a truly biblical leadership structure, and we need to acknowledge that. It can only be done through dependence on the Spirit of God and diligence on our part. It’s vitally important that those of us who serve as elders never forget this. If we coast, we will always coast away from plural leadership. We need to be very intentional about continually pursuing a consistently biblical church leadership model.