For a moment, suspend everything you think you know about doing and being church. Pretend, for argument’s sake, that you’ve been transported back to the first century… even before the birth of the church. As of this moment, there is nothing that “looks like” church. There are no traditions, no creeds, no history, no clergy… nothing. With that in mind, what would you say are the non-negotiables of “church”?

For another way to think about this, look at the following list. Which ones were practices of the New Testament church, and which ones are simply traditions the modern church has picked up along the way?

  • Weekly gatherings of the saints for worship;
  • Sunday worship;
  • Congregational singing;
  • Church buildings;
  • Preaching for the edification of the saints;
  • Clergy-led prayer;
  • Recitation of creeds;
  • Weekly offerings;
  • Responsive readings;
  • Litanies;
  • Praying the Lord’s Prayer
  • Scripture reading/s during worship;
  • Inviting non-Christians to worship;
  • Congregational baptism services.

Would you believe there is only one practice on that list that the first church was known to practice? Weekly offerings … and those offerings were for the poor, not for the support of the clergy, paying the church “light bill,” or even for effective evangelism programming. I could go through that whole list item by item, but if you’ll pick up Frank Viola and George Barna’s book Pagan Christianity? you can read their rather excellent scholarship on the subject.

This is the last part of the five-step process for flipping a church into a fully missionally-driven church. If you’ve been following along, you’ve done some excellent soul-searching and internal evaluations of who you are as a congregation. You know who you are and you have a pretty good idea who your community is. The last step is to rethink everything you know about church and redesign it for the sake of those who are not yet a part of the Kingdom. If you are able to set aside all your preconceptions about what church has to be, you’ll be able to plan something that could well be life-transformational for those in your community. 

For instance, you may live in a community that’s pretty skeptical about anything that comes out of a Christian’s mouth. If that’s the case, then you’d probably want to rethink how you’d do “sermons.” It might be that the sermon time functions best as a Bible study that everyone has a part in. No lectures, no monologues, maybe even no didactic teaching. The sermon time might be a mad Google search on a topic and then connecting it with Scripture on the fly over a lively discussion.

You might live in a community that thinks it’s more important to fund mission to the homeless, or AIDS victims, or a battered women’s shelter than to pay the mortgage or upkeep on a church building. If that’s so, you might decide to do church in homes, in a restaurant’s conference room, in the park, or at the mall’s food court. Of course any of that might necessitate rethinking what “worship” might look like – mall management probably won’t smile at a three-hundred-member congregation standing and singing in unison while patrons are trying to eat.

The list of possibilities is almost endless. When we “rethink” church, we can adapt our practices to reach those outside the faith without the restraints we “think” we’re bound with. It’s a gutsy move – I know congregations that have decided to sell their buildings and do house churches or rent space instead. I know churches that meet in restaurants, don’t ever have sermons (that we’d recognize as sermons, anyway), and a few that don’t even take pass-the-plate offerings. But they’re all churches, and they’re all missionally driven. And missionally driven churches across the nation are reaching and changing their communities.

Question: What are some ways you’ve adapted your church to the community you live in, or to your unique values? Share your thoughts in the Comments section below.