The Reformation Era has left us in an interesting place. Exactly 500 years ago Martin Luther posted his 95 “protests” on the Wittenberg door, and with that the “protestant” movement was birthed.
Here we are five centuries later, and we have been in protest for so long we no longer know what we were protesting. Further, we have used the protest form of church for so long that we no longer know why it was designed. The lecture-based gatherings of the Reformation were created to show the people who were just then receiving their first printed Bible how to rightly divide the scriptures so they could be priests of their own homes and no longer need the priests of the State church. Further, Europe was completely Christianized at that point, which meant that most everyone attended church of some kind, be it Anglican, Catholic, or one of the new uprising/Protest (Protestant) churches.
Blinded by History
This information is particularly important for today’s church leaders, who need to assess why 85% of our “proclamation-event” churches are stalled or in decline, and why we are now closing 80 churches every week across the nation. However, the 500-year Reformation history and ecclesiology combination has made it difficult to see the foundational reason for our declines.
Spare Them the Lecture
Most leaders unquestionably hold the notion that the Reformation pattern of church is the only pattern of church. Though the proclamation-event form of church is not found anywhere in the scriptures, we unswervingly assume that when starting new churches we need to root them in traditional lecture-hall sociology.
I propose that the reason for our decline is not theological in nature, but sociological. It is not so much our cultural misalignments, such as “Christianeze,” irrelevant music, outdated programs, or overdressed clothing, that are to blame. Rather, it is the sociological setting we traditionally use – the lecture hall.
While lectures and performance-based gatherings resonate with Christians, they lack the ability to create a space in which secular people can interact with Christ. Lecture spaces engage the mind, but Christ is trying to speak to hearts. Lecture spaces are monological, but seculars need dialogue to navigate the great divide between the self-directed life and the Christ-directed life. And no matter how good a speaker may be, a lecture hall will limit the seeker’s need for dialogue.
I find it interesting how much Jesus used the dinner table when he was engaging “sinners.” According to Asbury Seminary Professor Christine Pohl, Jesus’ evening suppers were a constant feature in his schedule and an ongoing source of controversy because of the immoral and unseemly people with whom he ate. Crossen states that to watch a day in the life of Jesus would be to observe him mostly healing and eating.
The table practice of Jesus informed the house churches of the book of Acts and the Agape Feast church of the Epistles more than most realize; both versions of early church were centered around dinner-table sociologies that featured so prominently in Christ’s ministry. In fact, throughout Christian history, whenever the church centered its primary activity around dinner tables, it was profoundly effective at evangelizing pagan and Gentile cultures.
And yet, however effective the dinner table theology might have been through the centuries, present-day leaders overlook its power with regularity. Most do not see its thoroughgoing presence in the scriptures and do not recognize how deeply it is needed to engage the Gentiles of our day – the New Gentiles.
A Thought Experiment
If you still doubt the impact of lecture-hall sociology upon our churches’ ability to engage the lost, consider this exercise. Imagine I invite you to come to my house for a Bible study. Would you be inclined to come? Now imagine I invite you to come over for some of my wife’s wonderful cooking. Which invitation do you find most compelling? If you are like most people, the relational and experiential opportunity of a dinner is more compelling than a Bible study. This is especially true for unchurched people and helps us see why many churches seldom see an unchurched person in their midst.
At their core, most church services are still Bible studies, and most seculars still need a relational sociology to observe Jesus intervening in their lives. The dinner table is just such a place – a relational place – where saint and sinner can sit together and hear Jesus together.
Once we set aside our proclamation-event assumptions, scales fall from our eyes, ecclesial blindness dissipates, and our Lord’s great desire to inhabit the dinner table emerges. In a holy moment, we begin to see that the dinner table is one of our Lord’s favorite “heaven-meet’s-earth” locations. It’s eye-opening for most leaders just to know that Jesus actually has a favorite “time and place” in human sociology to pour into the lives of people – especially the lost ones.