Six years ago, I wrote a post called “Models and Methods and Forms, oh my.” Even before I started studying ecclesiology in seminary, I knew about church models. I knew that many authors had written about different kinds of churches, and I knew that different church forms had popped up around the country, especially during the last couple of decades. At times, it seemed the church was being franchised… but, was this a good thing?
It only takes a few moments of perusing the local Christian bookstore to notice that volumes have been written suggesting certain models, methods, and forms for the church. Similarly, there are conferences, workshops, seminars, and even degree programs that recommend and instruct in one model or another method or a new form. Many of these models, methods, and forms arose in response to various spiritual and practical concerns. Most of these concerns were valid. So, in response to failures or problems, believers developed models, methods, and forms to better present the church in their context, or to correct aberrant teaching or practices.
Most of the time, when people study the church in Scripture, they recognize that there is very little (if any) indication of a specific model, method, or form. The Bible clearly shows that believers should gather together, but there is no command as to how, when, or where that gathering should take place. Scripture indicates that believers should teach one another, but it does not indicate how that teaching is supposed to occur. Similarly, in the Bible, we see believers singing, praying, giving, etc. without any particular instructions about how they should do this together.
So, does this mean that all models and methods and forms are bad – wrong – evil? No. But, I think it means that the church cannot be defined by those models, methods, and forms. What, then, is the pupose of those models, methods, and forms?
First, I believe that the Holy Spirit will (super)-naturally gather believers together. Similarly, I believe that the Spirit will gift those believers as He deems necessary in order to carry out His purpose among this group and, beyond this group, to the world around them. The activities, concerns, and mission of this group will be determined by the Spirit himself, through His gifting and through the opportunities that He gives them to serve believers and unbelievers alike. The Spirit will use some primarily as teachers as he gifts them. He will use some primarily through their giving of money and other resources. He will use others primarily through their abilities to serve other people. As the believers obediently follow the gifting of the Spirit and his will in their lives, the church will build itself up and will function as salt and light in the world around it.
Now, this is not an easy process. It takes humility, complete reliance on the Spirit, and continually seeking His will. There will be bumps and bruises along the way. Some will misunderstand what the Spirit is doing. Others will assume that the Spirit wants everyone to function the same way. Still others will prefer to let more spiritual believers function while they “do” nothing. There will be failures. There will be sin. There will be hurt feelings. There will be discomfort. This happens because even believers do not always obey the Spirit. However, as the group of believers learn to recognize and respond to the work of the Spirit in their lives and in the lives of others in their group, the church will be edified and the community will be affected.
So, what happens when the Holy Spirit (super)-naturally brings together another group of believers? There are many options for this group (just as there were for the first group mentioned above), but let’s consider two of these options. First, this second group of believers could go through the same process as the first group. They could work through their sin and pride and independence to determine the way that God expects them to respond to His Spirit and the world around them. Like I said before, this is not necessarily an easy process.
There is another option for this second group of believers. They could look to the first group of believers, notice how the Spirit worked among them, and begin doing the same things. In this way, a model, method, or form is birthed. It will begin much more easily and perhaps “grow” more quickly, because the form defines how the believers should act toward one another and toward the community. However, what if the Spirit has not gifted this group in the same way that He gifted the first group? What if the community context of the second group is different than the context of the first group? What if the resources available for the second group are much less (or much more) than the resources available to the first group? When the second group of believers begin operating in ways that the Spirit has not directed, then they are disobeying God.
Thus, the Spirit can work through people using certain models, methods, or forms. But, that is for the Spirit to decide, not for the people to decide. When a group of believers begins gathering together within a certain model, method, or form, without considering the will of God and how He has gifted them and how He is using them in their communities, then they place the model, method, or form above the will of God.
Similarly, we should never assume that the church will be found and will operate within these models, methods, and forms. The church is the people of God – those separated by God from the world and for himself. The models, methods, and forms should never be confused with God’s people. And, where the models, methods, and forms begin to interfere with God’s work among His people, or where they do not allow the church to function as they are instructed to function in Scripture, then the models, methods, and forms should be modified, changed, or jettisoned.
But, what about disorder? If a church functions with no models, methods, or forms, won’t that church encourage disorder in its meetings? Wouldn’t that disorder be sin, since the church is not obeying Scripture? Wouldn’t following a model, method, or form that maintains order be better?
If there is disorder when the church comes together, that disorder is caused by disobedience to the Spirit, not by a lack of models, methods, or forms. Those causing disorder demonstrate that they are not following the Spirit, since the Spirit will never lead into sin. In fact, it may be that models, methods, and forms encourage order, but hide the sin of disobedience within that same order. People may follow the model, method, or form and thus seemingly remain “in order”, but they may actually be living in disobedience to God.
The Spirit may use (or may have used) certain models, methods, and forms in the life of a church. But, those models, methods, and forms should never be allowed to substitute for believers genuinely seeking the will of God then living according to His will, gifting, and mission in their community and world. This may be “messy” at times, but it also allows the power of God to work through His people when they are not bound by models, methods, and forms.