What is the different between an outward and inward bound church? In 1980, Vernard Eller wrote “The Outward Bound: Caravanning as a Style of Church”. He has an interesting and dynamic style of writing that draws you into metaphors and allegories with humor and frankness. You can read the entire book here.
Chapter 1: Three Models for the Church
By “church,” let us make clear at the outset that we mean specifically the local congregation, the immediate community of faith. It is at this level that both the author and readers of this book have the most personal responsibility and the greatest chance of having some real effect. If change were to come about at this level, consequent change probably would follow automatically at the level of denominational and ecumenical structures. Likewise, no change at those higher levels would be very significant unless change also took place at the level of the local church.
You probably think we should talk about the lifestyle of the individual Christian before moving on to that of the church. But I am convinced that establishing the proper sort of community is the most critical factor in generating truly Christian lives. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that there is not even the possibility of a fully Christian style of life outside the context of the right sort of Christian community (church).
In this chapter we will examine three basic aspects of the church:
- Its fundamental nature and self-understanding.
- Its relationship to the world, that is, to the society in which it finds itself.
- The mode, or style, of its day-to-day operation.
COMMISSARY or CARAVAN?
Where lies the model for a Christian congregation? Where is the church to get a picture of that toward which it should be striving? From where is it to derive its essential self-understanding?
We propose that the congregations of New Testament times–those that are noted in the New Testament–provide the model. This is not to say that they were model congregations; that obviously was not the case, and Scripture does not present them as being such. But they do represent (however imperfectly) the fresh wineskins fashioned and formed by those who had been directly entrusted by Jesus with the new wine of his gospel. Those churches at least knew what a Christian congregation was supposed to be, whether or not any ever fully succeeded in becoming such a congregation.
Essentially, the New Testament pictures the church as a caravan. This “caravan” understanding seems to have been normative until the time of Constantine, when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. This acceptance of Christianity by the world brought with it a different concept of the congregation–a concept that has dominated the church scene to the present day. According to this understanding, the church is pictured basically as a commissary.
A commissary is an institution that has been commissioned to dispense particular goods, services, or benefits to a select constituency. The commissary church, then, sees itself primarily as an institution, a divine institution franchised by God. God has stocked the institution with a supply of heavenly graces (Bible truths, correct theology, the sacraments, etc.) which the clerical proprietors, through proper transaction, can disburse to the customers. The measure of a commissary, it follows, lies in the legality of its franchise, the warranty of its goods, and the authorization of its personnel.
A caravan, on the other hand, is something entirely different. It (and a walking caravan best fits our idea) is a group of people banded together to make common cause in seeking a common destination. (Cur emphatic use of the word “common” makes it evident that we are speaking of a community rather than an institution) The being of a caravan lies not in any signed and sealed authorization but in the way it functions. Its validity lies not in its apparatus but in the performance of its caravaners–each and every one of them. A caravan is a caravan only as long as it is making progress–or at least striving to make progress. Once the caravaners stop, dig in, or count themselves as having arrived, they no longer constitute a caravan.
A commissary, for its part, is and has its existence simply in being what it is, what God has commissioned it to be. A caravan, conversely, has its existence only in a continual becoming (and in allowing that existence continually to be called into question), in a following of the Lord on his way toward the kingdom. With a commissary, the question is: “Has this institution a valid charter, and is it operating within the terms of that charter?” With a caravan, the question is: “How are the people doing? Is the group operating so that all are being helped on their common journey in discipleship?”
A commissary is essentially establishment oriented, and a caravan eschatologically oriented. The distinction is not simply that of readiness for change. Establishments do change, have to change in order to maintain their status as establishments. They change with the times and in the effort to enhance their own size and influence. Yet this is something entirely different from the eschatological concern that could care less about keeping up with the times or enhancing an organization’s position. To be following the Lord points the caravan toward a goal that stands beyond history and thus beyond human power to define, project, establish, or effect according to our own desires and devices:
All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them. (Hebrews 11:13-16)
It is perhaps in the concept “membership” that the contrast between commissary and caravan is most stark. In a commissary, members are essentially “card carriers,” people who have been certified to enjoy the privileges offered by the institution (without much regard even as to how far they are actually availing themselves of those privileges). In a caravan, on the other hand, “member” has a Pauline, anatomical reference–it means a limb, an appendage, or an organ. Members are seen as integral, functional, and functioning constituents without whom the body cannot be the body it was meant to be.
But is the New Testament model all that anti-institutional, all that committed to caravaning? The earliest term used to identify the corporate Christian enterprise (before it was called “a church” or its members called “Christians”) was “the Way,” its constituents being simply “the followers of the Way,” or “those of the Way.” The term occurs eight or nine times in the book of Acts (9:2; 18:25, 26; 19:23; 22:4; 24:14, 22) and not elsewhere. However, we should hardly expect to find it elsewhere, Acts being the only account we have of the primitive church. But whether or not these references in Acts can be taken as proof positive that “the Way” was the earliest nomenclature for the church, it is easy to demonstrate that this basic concept underlies much of the New Testament.
A passage from Acts in which the term is not used is the clearest presentation of the idea. It is Stephen’s defense before the Sanhedrin in Acts 6:8-7:60. The charge brought against Stephen by the Jewish authorities is that he speaks “against this holy place [the temple]” and wants to “change the customs.” It is interesting to note that the controversy does not center on Christian/Jewish differences as such but simply on our two different concepts of the church, or the people of God.
Their protective, custodial concern for holy places and holy customs reveals a “commissary” view of the church. They see the church as established, institutionalized, settled, and fixed.
Stephen, in his turn, is determined to show that the church is called to be a “caravan”; the first characteristic of the people of God is that they ever are “on the way” and never secure in a state of accomplishment. He begins by using Abraham as a model and makes it clear that his significance is as one who continually has to get up and go in response to the forward call of God. He passed through much territory but bad “nothing in it to call his own, not one yard.” All he had was a “promise” of possession addressed to him and his posterity.
Stephen then moves to the story of Joseph where the theme again is that God’s people have no abiding place but must live the lives of wanderers. This brings him to the archetypal “going out,” or the exodus from Egypt. At this point Stephen Introduces a second theme, a negative one, namely the people’s desire to stay put, their resistance against any call that meant pulling up stakes and hitting the road. The key verse here is Acts 7:25. Describing Moses’ killing of the Egyptian taskmaster, Stephen says, “He supposed that his kinsfolk would understand that God through him was rescuing them, but they did not understand.” This dialectic between God’s offer to lead the way to deliverance and the people’s failure to follow that lead governs the remainder of the passage.
In this regard, it should be made very clear that we are not at all suggesting that the modern church should switch to a caravan model for the purpose of making the church more successful and attractive for Christians or people in general. On the contrary, to be part of a caravan is much more demanding than joining the clientele of a commissary. Given a choice, “the people” will go for the commissary every time. That is why Moses got the reaction he did. This is why Stephen’s opponents reacted the way they did. That is why the church is where it has been since the time of Constantine. The church is smart enough to see what works best with the people. If there is to be a new move toward caravaning in our day, it can and should come only out of a sense that this is what Jesus asks of us.
“It was this Moses,” Stephen says in verse 35, “whom they rejected … and whom God now sent as both ruler and liberator [leader-lord].” Then, in verse 37, comes the heart of the entire argument: “This was the Moses who said to the Israelites, ‘God will raise up a prophet for you from among your own people as he raised me up.”‘ Stephen’s intent is clear: Moses’ significance is as a leader-lord, not as the guarantor of holy places and holy customs. Further, as per the quotation from Deuteronomy, Moses foretold that in due time God would raise up a new, eschatological leader-lord. Obviously, Stephen is identifying Jesus as this new leader-lord. But just as the Israelites did not understand that through the first Moses God was leading them in the way of deliverance, so now their descendants will not recognize the new Moses.
Beginning in verse 44, Stephen again uses the dialectic. Under Moses, “our ancestors had the tent of the testimony in the wilderness….” This tent is the proper form of a church for a people on the way; the church is as mobile, as adaptable, as ready for change as the people themselves are. But Israel could not be content with this, so Solomon had to go and build a house for God–even though Scripture says that “the Most High does not live in houses made with human hands.” “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do.” When God sends a leader-lord who says, “OK, let’s go!” you say, “Let’s stay! The Lord is in his holy temple–and besides, we like it here!”
Stephen’s defense was very effective: it got him stoned to death, which is a good indication that he had won the debate and that his opponents could not find any other way to answer him. It is also apparent that he was interpreting the Bible just exactly right.
Throughout the Old Testament (and rather prominently in the New) we see that the archetype of salvation is the Passover and the exodus event. If that be so, then it is plain that salvation cannot be understood as a state of having it made, of settling down to enjoy a condition of secure accomplishment. Instead, salvation is the experience of being made free to travel, of being called out by a leader-lord and enabled to follow him on his way to the kingdom. The people of God who are the church should, in their institutions and life together, show forth something of this understanding.
With that, we have made our best effort in establishing the distinction between a commissary and a caravan church. It is up to you to decide how this applies to your particular congregation and what, if anything, is to be done about it. Undoubtedly different congregations represent different shades or mixtures of the two types.
But as you do your analysis, be aware that the basic distinction has its effect on almost every aspect of congregational life and structure; even small details can be revealing of the premises that lie behind a congregation’s self-understanding. Be alert to these. Be ready to follow out all the ramifications. For instance, the pastor is probably going to project a very different image if he sees himself as the appointed proprietor of a divine establishment than if he sees himself as a leader who is essentially one of the caravaners making his own journey along with his brothers and sisters.
What about buildings? Does caravaning suggest that the congregation will have to renounce buildings and begin meeting in tents? Probably not. But there is no escaping the fact that the two views of the church will lead the congregation to a different understanding of how much the church ought to be identified with its buildings. If a visitor saw only your church buildings, what would he deduce about the character of your church? Commissary or caravan, there is bound to be a difference in priorities, in the amount of money, attention, and pride invested in buildings.
Perhaps it should be pointed out that the distinction we are making between commissary and caravan churches will not begin to match up with the distinction between theologically liberal and conservative churches; this distinction cuts right across that one. We are not taking theological sides at any point in this study.
AVANT-GARDE or EXPEDITI?
Both of the terms above identify military units–which makes them apt for comparison and contrast. It will soon become obvious that this pair correlates very well with our commissary/caravan pair; yet they address themselves to different issues. In this section we will be talking about two different ways in which the church sees itself related to the society in which it finds itself.
Avant-garde combines the French words meaning before and guard. Originally it referred to the foremost part of an army, those troops that lead the way, take the first shocks of encounter with the enemy, set the pattern of battle, and establish the situation for the main force that comes behind. However, more recently the word has been used in relation to art, literature, and music. It has come to mean cultural leadership. Theologian Harvey Cox spoke explicitly of “the church as God’s avant-garde” in his best seller of a few decades ago entitled The Secular City.
On the other hand, Søren Kierkegaard, the Danish thinker of more than a century ago, spoke of the church as being made up of expediti. Expediti combines the Latin ex (“out of,” as in “exclude,” to include someone out) and ped (“foot,” as in “pedal,” to foot it around and around). Accordingly, it means “out of foot,” or more accurately, “freed feet,” or “those who are free of foot.” An “expedition,” it follows, is a trip taken by those who are free of foot. The term originated with the military machine that created and ruled the Roman Empire. It was used in reference to certain crack army corps, at the special disposition of the emperor, organized and outfitted to get on their feet and into action effectively and fast. The American Expeditionary Forces of World War I probably would not qualify–although they were named right. Closer to the idea are some of the Special Forces and Task Forces of contemporary military and police organizations.
Consider, then, that the nature and position of the avant-garde must be defined in relation to the army proper; “the guard before” has to imply the presence of “a mass behind.” The very term “avant-garde” carries with it a certain pride of position, the vanity of believing that we are today where the common run of people may get tomorrow–with our help and guidance. When avant-garde is understood in its artistic context, this pride of place becomes particularly acute. Overtones of sophistication, superior intelligence, and foresight inevitably lead to a scornfulness toward all the old fuddy-duddies who have not made it to the front line.
Yet the truth of the matter is that the avant-garde is totally tied to and dependent upon those fuddy-duddies. It can be defined only in relation to them. Thus, in order even to be avant-garde, attention must be paid to which way the world is going, so that one can stay in front. The avant-garde continually must look back to see whether the world is following. The avant-garde must continually seek out the new because if the masses ever caught up with it, there would no longer be an avant-garde. And the avant-garde must continually take care that it is leading where the masses will follow, that it is selling what the masses will buy; otherwise it loses its reason for being, its function as social leader.
The concept “expediti.” however, includes no orientation of this sort. Nothing is even implied about the presence of other troops. Expediti operate as a self-defined unit, independent of where the masses may be, or what the masses may be doing. But a self-defined avant-garde would be a contradiction in terms.
If “expediti” implies any orientation at all, it is toward the Emperor. The expediti are ready, unencumbered, unentangled, uncommitted (in one sense), precisely so that they can give the Emperor (who represents their one, total commitment) instant obedience. When the command comes to move, they move. There is no looking back to see whether anyone is following their lead, no need to compare their position with that of anyone else, for they are under orders. There is no temptation to take pride in their position. The most expediti can hope to achieve is the fulfilling of their orders. There is no common standard by which to measure their achievement over against the achievements of others (who knows what the Emperor wants from them?). Both the motivation and the goal of the expediti are entirely different from that of the avant-garde.
As we come now to compare the New Testament church with these models, the first thing to be said is that there is a sense in which that church could accurately have been called “the avant-garde,” and would have welcomed such a label. These early Christians firmly believed that “the way” God was taking them was “the way” he intended eventually and ultimately for all humankind. Revelation 14:4 says that Christians “have been redeemed from humankind as first fruits for God and the Lamb.”
However, they saw this as happening through the action of God and because it was his will–and not at all as a result of their own brilliant leadership. Above all, they had no inclination to adapt their way to what the world would most likely follow. They were not, then, an avant-garde in the sense we have been using the term. They came closer to being the kind of church that Paul praises: “like the rubbish of the world, the dregs of all things, to this very day” (1 Cor. 4:13). This church obviously was not making any effort to be recognized as a social leader.
The crux of the matter is that to go avant-garde would have been an exact reversal of the relationship Jesus had prescribed in John 17:16-18. There the disciples had been told that they were to be “in the world but not of the world.” The expediti role would seem to qualify here. Jesus’ words were, “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world” (Jn. 17:18). This is precisely the way in which expediti are in the world, sent at the command of the Emperor to do his bidding and accomplish his work. Likewise, expediti are not of the world, that is, their goals and values center entirely in the will of the Emperor and bear no relationship to what the world may call good or be on the way to calling good.
The avant-garde, on the other hand, sees things the opposite way. If, by definition, it is ahead of the world, it cannot at the same time be in the world. Indeed, its pride of place comes precisely from the certainty that where it is is not where the world is. Conversely, the avant-garde is very much of the world in the sense that its goals and values are determined totally by its relationship to the world–trying to place itself where the world will want to be. There should be little question as to which of the roles complies with the call of Jesus and the model of the New Testament church.
In a succeeding chapter, we will examine these things from a different angle, and will pick up this line of thought and carry it much further. At this point you are asked only to make an assessment of your own congregation, and to judge how many and what decisions regarding your church’s life and conduct are made solely out of a desire to be obedient to the Lord, and how many are made with an eye to “looking good” by the norms and standards of society.
We need to he especially warned not to fall into the liberal/conservative trap in this regard. Conservative churches tend to be very sensitive to the worldliness of the liberals, liberals tend to be very sensitive to the worldliness of the conservatives, and each tends to be blind to its own worldliness. But as with commissary/caravan, we contend that the avant-garde/expedite distinction will not begin to correspond to the traditional theological categories.
Of course, the term “avant-garde” has tended to be the very label and pride of the liberal left wing, and this somewhat complicates our analysis. But we need to understand that our notion of avant-garde can be applied across the board.
The liberal church, I would suggest, tends to be worldly by allowing the church to become identified with the world’s left-wing social causes–and more particularly, the world’s left-wing socio-political techniques. Likewise, it tends to identify with the world’s liberal, permissive moral standards.
However, although it may require a real mental adjustment to see it so, it is also evident that the conservative church is just as avant-garde in identifying itself with right-wing political causes and techniques. Just like the liberals, the conservatives see their church in the forefront of society, leading it in the direction it is moving. And much more conspicuously, the conservative (evangelical) church is borrowing from the world and even leading the world by staging mass rallies, producing television spectaculars, using the super-popular musical idiom of the moment in the service of the gospel, and enlisting the avant-garde talents and reputations of political luminaries, movie stars, beauty queens, and sports heroes. All of this projects an avant-guarde image of the church.
THE ROYAL VIENNA STRING QUARTET or A BARBERSHOP FOURSOME?
This pair will correlate nicely with both the avant-garde/expediti and the commissary/caravan analogies. In fact, what we actually may be doing is simply following out implications of the basic commissary/caravan dichotomy. In any case, now we shall examine the style of operation that characterizes the internal functioning of the congregation.
Although both the Vienna and the barbershop groups are quartets dedicated to the making of music, that is about the extent of their commonality. In truth, they exist for different ends and must be evaluated by different criteria. The purpose of the Vienna Quartet is to produce music of the highest possible quality for the enjoyment of the audience. On the contrary, the purpose of the barbershop group is to have a satisfying experience of singing (or, to put it honestly, “just plain fun”), not for the sake of any audience but for their own benefit. The quality of the music is of comparatively little concern. The contrast is between “do it yourself,” participatory, amateur performance in the one case and “nothing but the best,” spectator-oriented, professional performance in the other. Obviously, each style has its place; the question is, “Which is most appropriate to the fresh wineskins of the church of Jesus Christ?”
In order to insure the quality of its performance, what must the Vienna Quartet do? It places as many aspects of the production as possible into the hands of professionally trained personnel–this not only includes the musicians but also the advance man, publicist, booking agent, house manager, light man, stage crew, ushers, ticket sellers, and others. All the appurtenances of the physical setting must be “right.” Professional expertise is sought at every level of the operation.
Now, regarding the church, it is in a congregation’s practice of public worship that the Vienna/barbershop distinction will become most visible. And within worship, the manner of observing the Lord’s Supper is probably the dead giveaway. (I have written an entire book, In Place of Sacraments, chasing the commissary/caravan distinction through baptism and the Lord’s Supper). But although the contrast is most conspicuous in worship, our distinction will more than likely be apparent in all the programs of the church-Christian education, business meetings, and so forth. From top to bottom, a congregation will tend to be either an organization run professionally for the sake of the spectators or a group of people doing their own thing for the fun of it.
Yet look at the most common of our worship traditions and be struck with the Vienna Quarter parallels Our sanctuaries are designed as religious concert halls. In many cases they are even more resplendent (and expensive) than their secular counterparts. The clergy try to perform as smoothly and impressively as professional musicians. The cadence of the liturgy and the grace of the ritual are designed to create an effect not essentially different from that for which the Vienna Quartet (or perhaps the Moscow Ballet) strives. The distinction we are pressing is not necessarily the distinction between formal and more informal worship. Just because the pastor affects a Lawrence Welk or Johnny Carson mode rather than that of a Vienna Quartet member does not mean that he is on the barbershop side of the line. He is obviously playing to a different audience, but the one represents as much of studied, professional showmanship as the other.
Consider specifically, then, the Lord’s Supper. There is not the slightest doubt that the early Christians celebrated it while sitting (or reclining) around tables. The Eucharist itself was part of a real supper, a full meal, love feast or agape; meal. These were caravaners gathered as the community of the Lord, celebrating that community, and demonstrating community. The service took place while looking in the eye a brother or sister you knew by name (and more than just by name), breaking bread with him or her, and even exchanging the holy kiss.
Yet look at what the Vienna Quartet commissary has done to this most central symbol of the church! It can hardly be said anymore that the congregation celebrates the Lord’s Supper. The cleric does the celebrating while the congregation looks on as an admiring audience. The people do take communion, of course, but not any differently from the way they took in the music in the concert hall the night before. The term Eucharist means, “to show good favor, gratitude, or thanksgiving.” As such, it points toward the people expressing their thanks through their actions and words not through a professional delivering beautiful declamations from a manual.
Plainly, a primary requisite for “barbershopping” will be to get the pastor down off the stage and out of the spotlight. It might be more appropriate to suggest that the congregation get up on the stage with the pastor- except that the whole concert hall image is wrong in any case. Søren Kierkegaard was perhaps the first to see this:
Alas, in regard to things spiritual, the foolishness of many is this, that they in the secular sense look upon the speaker as an actor, and the listeners as theatergoers who are to pass judgment upon the artist. But the speaker is not the actor not–in the remotest sense. No, the speaker is the prompter. There are no theatergoers present, (or each listener will be looking into his own heart. The stage is eternity, and the listener, if he is the true listener (and if he is not, he is at fault) stands before God during the talk…. The address is not given for the speaker’s sake, in order that men may praise or blame him. The listener’s repetition of it is what is aimed at…. In the theater, the play is staged before audience members who are called theatergoers; but at the devotional address, God himself is present. In the most earnest sense, God is the critical theatergoer, who looks on to see how the lines are spoken and how they are listened to…. The listener, if I may say so, is the actor, who in all truth acts before God.1
Now of course, the pastor is one member of the barbershop quartet. Quite properly the pastor may be the one who gives the pitch and downbeat, but the pastor is not to be the whole show. There is no reason why he or she should be dressed differently (vestments) or act as though his or her function was essentially different from anyone else’s function. In fact, the pastor should deliberately work at subduing the “performer image and play up the actions of the group itself. From its beginnings, Protestantism has had a very nice doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. The only trouble is that the actual style of our congregational life most often gives the lie to the doctrine we profess.
The Vienna/barbershop contrast has some clear implications regarding the physical arrangement of our churches. I am not necessarily implying that it would be easy or even practical to make things a great deal different than they are, but we should at least be aware that the symbolism is all wrong. For one thing, the sanctuary rather than the fellowship hall is seen as the center of the church. For another thing, most of those sanctuaries are quite lavish and luxurious, and not exactly reminiscent of a suffering-servant Lord in caravan with his people. And finally, they are arranged incorrectly. Concert halls simply are not designed for communal activity; they are designed to expedite what is essentially private experience. The only people facing one another are the performer up front and each individual member of the audience on his or her own line of sight. At a concert, it makes not the slightest difference whether you have any personal relationship with the other people present. And the tragedy, of course, is not so much that the sanctuaries are wrong as that what we do in them is so appropriate to that setting.
A Vienna Quartet performance is not a celebration of community; a barbershop get-together, on the other hand, is an activity of a people in community with their Lord and with one another in him. There is no doubt at all as to where the New Testament church stood on this one. Here were congregations that owned no property at all, let alone the finest buildings in town. They met in homes (or catacombs) and were prepared to start enough such house churches to care for the Christian constituency of a locale. It was only when the church switched from caravan to commissary that it also began to form large congregations. A question to consider is: “How large can a congregation get without losing its ‘barbershop’ possibilities and inevitably slipping into a Vienna Quartet mode?” (It is evident, of course, that a congregation can be a Vienna Quartet as soon as it has as many as four members; smallness of size does not automatically make barbershopping” the order of the day.)
The early Christian barbershoppers had no professional staffs (or octaves) to make their music for them. They were “do it yourself” organizations, sometimes in extremis. Paul, apparently, would convert a few people, start a congregation, and then move on. At times he would leave or send one of his helpers to give some leadership, and sometimes the new Christians were entirely on their own. In any case, it is plain that the people did their own “doing” rather than hiring experts to do it for them.
The one specific description of worship in the early church is from 1 Cor. 14:26-33:
What should be done then, my friends? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up. If anyone speaks in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn; and let one interpret. But if there is no one to interpret, let them be silent in the church and speak to themselves and to God. Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. If a revelation is made to someone else sitting nearby, let the first person be silent. For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged. And the spirits of prophets are subject to the prophets, for God is a God not of disorder but of peace.
As the Corinthians apparently had amply demonstrated, the danger in allowing people to do their own worshiping was that of confusion and disorder. But would Paul have approved of taking worship out of the hands of the people and giving it to professionals?
Acts 2:42-47 describes the broader life of an early congregation:
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day be day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
Now it can be (and has been) endlessly debated whether community of goods is a proper practice and one incumbent upon modern Christians. This makes a good debate–because few if any of the debaters would be willing to give serious consideration to practicing community of goods anyway. So let us move away from matters of theory and center our debate on the issue that is much more relevant to what we might actually do and much more germane to the biblical text: Does the Acts passage suggest that the early church was more strongly oriented toward a Vienna Quartet model or a barbershop foursome model? Or to put it more bluntly–is there in either passage the hint of anything except full-fledged barbershopping?
As we come, then, to measure our own contemporary congregations against the New Testament’s “fresh wineskins,” there is one convenient way of evading the resultant (and very painful) contrast. It can be argued that the New Testament model is simply impractical, unrealistic, and inappropriate for our day and situation. Still, this cannot justify what the church has chosen to become. There is plenty of room to be different from the New Testament model without deserting “barbershopping” or becoming a Vienna Quartet.
Even if the congregation may own property and facilities, what does that have to do with luxurious concert halls and the performances that take place in them? Even if the church may have a trained and salaried ministry, what has that to do with our setting up professionals as performers whose religious spectacles we can watch without having to do any performing ourselves? Even if the ownership of goods may be by individual Christians rather than by the church body, what has that to do with the congregation’s eagerness to be recognized as a Royal Vienna String Quartet?
Take a good, honest look at the style of your own congregational life. Decide whether you need or want to make a move toward “barbershopping.” Consider how your church might make such a move.