Allow me to posit the following: To borrow from our Founding Fathers, with regard to the passionate search for “a more perfect” church, “Form should follow Function.”
Tremendous interest surrounds the whole subject of the identification and the practices of the authentic New Testament church. Many who have followed the traditional church format have grown weary of their efforts at goading a dead horse. While statisticians chronicle the exodus of church members, and while literally every denominational expression under the sun experiences decline, some choose to bury their heads in the sand of their programs while others depart in search of something substantive and vital, something their hearts yearn for even as their minds are not able to grasp.
I've Heard the Cry on Four Continents, the synthesis of which is: "We want more than the organized, traditional church has delivered. We need more than religion can produce or organization can provide. We're not satisfied with a song and a sermon and a social club - we want God!"
I am here addressing structure, not doctrine, and the structure I am addressing is spiritual and not physical or organizational, which are valid, but auxiliary considerations not within the scope of this discussion.
This proposal infers certain conditions and is not an all-encompassing statement. To be clear, the claim that “form follows function” can include panoply of possibilities. I am speaking herein of function produced by and issuing from applied faith in the crucified and resurrected Jesus Christ.
A born-again person, functioning by and through the Spirit of God will tend towards a form that is sympathetic to spiritual life in Christ in whatever shape it may appear.
The resulting form, absent previously learned behaviors or past religious experience will be life-giving, life-encouraging and life-sustaining. How the form of such activity appears is not a matter of essential concern, except in the sense of personal inclination. A spiritually alive man will produce a living form just as a fountain cannot produce both sweet water and bitter. A spiritually dead man will produce or follow a spiritually dead form.
My intention here is to first de-emphasize the necessity or tendency to establish form (either by imitation of the Acts Model or by the invention of something new - but oh, how we like “new”). Often when discussing any kind of emergent church form, the question quickly goes to “how do we do it?” and “what should it look like?” These are at best incidental queries, and at worst, they are self-defeating. To look first for a “how” and a “what” is to bypass the most necessary issues, which we will examine shortly.
Secondly, I will address the question of function changing form, which is another dynamic of function.
Function is here defined as the new life as represented in John 20:22 and Acts 1, 2 among others. When the first disciples experienced the Second Birth, function – the way they worshipped, the way they understood God, the way they responded to a now indwelling Holy Spirit – changed from the Judaic and Levitic form of worship, which Jews had practiced for millennia to something new, something untried, and something strikingly imperfect, yet alive.
The old, sacrificial system with its hierarchy of the Aaronic priesthood was torn asunder even as the veil had so recently been “rent in twain” in the Temple. However inadequately the first disciples transitioned to a new understanding of the outworking of the Cross, to include the liberty and freedom thereby provided, change did occur from the old form of “law” to the new form contained by grace. This is the change addressed by Paul when writing to the Galatian church: Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage (5:1).
What we read in Acts 2:42-47 and following concerning the assembling together of the new ekklesia is a radical departure from the Judaic model even when considering the presence of residual vestiges of the old system. I say radical, since the first Christians were entirely Jewish, and possessed a deeply entrenched institutional memory, knowledge, and custom, of how one approaches and worships Jehovah God. All that had been deeply ingrained by the teachers of the law was now exchanged for a “new and living way” through a newly recognized High Priest, Jesus, and through the indwelling Holy Spirit (Jn. 14:6, 17).
With the resurrection and subsequent ascension of Jesus and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, a new entity, a new vehicle of God’s redemptive provision was born. Ensuing generations would wrestle with the questions of Old and New, Law and Grace and in the meanwhile, a fledgling and sometimes grievously erring church would begin to walk out the intent of heaven, reaching towards all mankind with the message of the Good News and the “faith once delivered.”
Each generation of Christ followers beginning with that primitive church would find their own contextual methods of speaking with relevance to their generations.
Traditions would be born, sacred cows established, habits would be formed and sacerdotal methodologies that would be engraved in stone. Inch by inch the church structure would move from its original center point until in many cases, a literal “Ichabod” could appropriately be written over their doors.
Jesus had promised to build His church, and has now fulfilled that promise for two millennia, but the recognition of His building, the comprehension of what the church was originally meant to be has gone begging in many ecclesiastical circles.
Form was increasingly dictating function. The cart truly was placed before the horse. For instance, those who ardently attempt to follow the Acts 2 description as our modern pattern have difficulty with such activities as having “all things in common” and selling their “possessions and goods, and dividing them among all, as anyone had need” (Acts 2:44,45). Some of the activity of the primitive church was spiritually induced while other activity was a product of existent culture, or particular circumstance.
We no longer practice the culture existent two thousand years ago, and our circumstances differ from those of our spiritual forefathers. How we address our specific circumstances will not serve a future generation, since their times will call for their unique, heaven-directed response.
If we make “form” our first priority, we will reproduce the physical activity and perhaps mirror the appearance of an earlier church, but we will potentially miss the inner power source that enabled them. The form of “continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house” flowed from the function of the indwelling Christ and the life being experienced as a result. Could it be that today’s follower of Jesus, experiencing that same indwelling presence will find a form, different from but no less valid than the first church’s expression? If replication of form is our objective, we are creating, once again a dead tradition.
Certainly, the content of the Acts 2 description is viable in every generation: There must be essential elements present in the church such as worship, discipleship, fellowship and evangelism. But the form or forms these take should not be the issue. Where does scripture dictate that God’s people must meet on Sunday mornings? The first followers met daily. How would following that pattern work with 21st century five-day-a-week work schedules? Where is the divine edict for meeting at 9:45 or 11:00 in the morning, or meeting in a special room (considered to be holy because God appears there) with special carpets and special seating?
History provides ample evidence of breakthrough, of heaven crashing into our programs and upsetting our hallowed activities. The rise of the Pentecostal movement beginning in 1901 in Topeka, Kansas is one such example. Among several immediate expressions of this Pentecostal phenomenon was the birth of the Assemblies of God, as numbers of former Methodist and Presbyterian leaders, among others were drawn to the new Fellowship. In this case, function, (as identified as the onset of the Pentecost-birthed Baptism in the Holy Spirit and the accompanying zeal among those baptized) radically changed the form of worship these leaders had been trained to conduct.
More recent is the testimony of the Charismatic movement, where function changed the form, the shape and the traditions of many Lutheran, Methodist, Roman Catholic and other groups.
The rise of the Emerging or Emergent Church - and here I do not refer to those groups calling themselves emergent which have either abandoned the belief and practice of the word of God or which have mixed Eastern religious practice, New Age teaching or other experimentations with their Christianity - provides a contemporary example of function again changing form.
Participants of the “organic,” “simple church,” or “house church” movements are discovering that form is not as essential as is first establishing function. These expressions of church initially sought a more primitive, more intimate and more authentic worship experience but are discovering that the questions of “Who are we?” “What distinguishes us from the world around us?” “What are we here for?” “How do we approach, worship and know God in an intimate and life sustaining way?” are of prime concern. Once function is satisfied, a form typically appears that may or may not look like another form in the next city or nation.
Experimenting with form before considering function is akin to rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic: The décor may look inviting, but the ship is headed for disaster.
If function becomes the subject rather than the pursuit of form, the question moves to “What is the true function of the church?” Perhaps if this question can be honestly answered, form will arise of its own accord.
One of the topics of greatest concern to many “church” leaders today is “what is the church?” “What is its true, biblical function?” “What does it look like?” “Where can I find it?” To answer these questions, one must return to the beginning, and to the Author and Founder of the church. It seems that many have forgotten the words of Jesus, “I will build My church . . . ” and He begins that building in us.
Looking at hearts should be a more critical concern than looking at systems or structures, frameworks or forms. Establishing Spirit-formed relationships, first with Christ and secondly with our neighbors should trump the most elaborately designed structures. When the requirement of function has been satisfied, form will appear effortlessly.
The church isn’t “out there,” it’s “in here.”
At the end of the day, and perhaps even the discussion, It’s not ‘How do we Do Church’ but ‘How do we Become Church.’