Why does it have to be so complicated?
Because I crave simplicity in my life and my ministry, this is a question I find myself wrestling with more and more these days.
My life has become so complex.
Sixteen years into our marriage, now with four kids and a dog, my wife and I are finding a busy calendar crammed with appointments, ball games, birthday parties, school events, and . . . the list goes on and on. Add to that a church calendar filled with meetings, studies, and luncheons, and I’m presented with so many choices and demands that it wears me out, along with the rest of my family.
And so I seek to simplify my life. I strive for a less cluttered schedule that will allow me to actually enjoy my family. I make decisions not to be gone every night. And in our attempts to take control of our family’s life, my wife and I are discovering ways to trim from our calendar and choose the things that make the best sense for us.
Complexity and Clutter
Complexity and clutter have also found their way into the lives of our churches. What started out as small groups of believers meeting in homes, as we see in the book of Acts, has turned into churches with buildings and staff teams and calendars that offer endless opportunities for fellowship and growth and, many times, plain old busyness.
And to be quite honest, I’m tired of it. I crave a simple church.
When did the church become so complex? I can’t seem to recall the answer from my Bible college church history class, but I have to believe the church—or should I say, the American church—of the late 20th century is where things became so cluttered, so full of options and choices.
In an attempt to reach more people, or maybe to satisfy those who were already in the pews, the church began to offer more and more programs and opportunities. Some were for people growing in their faith. Others were simply for social interaction. Men’s ministry. Women’s ministry. Singles ministry. Older adults ministry. Wednesday night dinner ministry. Small groups. Bible classes. Affinity groups. And in all those are endless opportunities for one to be at the church building every night of the week.
Now don’t get me wrong. These ministries are not wrong or bad. In many ways, they are meeting some very tangible needs. But somewhere along the way these opportunities all seemed to become equal. The majority of people will commit to doing something church-related one hour of the week, and we give them the option of choosing a Bible study or a night of shuffleboard. What kind of message are we sending when we offer so many choices knowing that the majority will choose only one?
Decluttering and Simplifying
Two years ago, the leadership at the church I serve began to think about decluttering and simplifying. One of our leaders picked up Thom Rainer and Eric Geiger’s Simple Church, and soon we were reading the book together as a leadership team. In fact, Christian Standard did a cover story on that topic at the very time we were reading through the book.
We read it, digested it, discussed it, and retreated to work through the process of simplifying. We made decisions about our program, kept things that contributed to our process, and cut things that didn’t. We outlined a simple process for discipleship for our church, a procedure to help people get connected to God and to one another in his local church body. And this is what we discovered: if we gave our people clear steps for what they should do next, they responded.
One of our clear next steps in the process was to grow our small groups. By ensuring that church life isn’t cluttered with program after program, we have seen a dramatic increase in small group participation. And the change isn’t seen just in the number of people. We’ve also seen the power of those small groups: lives are being transformed, needs are being met within the group, and servant hearts are being developed as they look outside their group to the needs of others. God is using our simple church approach to really make a difference in and through the lives of our people.
And this is where I see the future of the church. In a world filled with all kinds of clutter, isn’t more clutter exactly what the church should avoid?
A “simple church” is in many ways countercultural to the world around it. Our world is filled with options. Just look at your local supermarket today compared to 20 or 30 years ago. The number of product choices is overwhelming. The cereal aisle alone has so many options, I find myself avoiding it, especially if I have my 4-year-olds with me!
In a matter of minutes, I’m able to grab my iPhone, check my e-mail, catch up with an old friend on Facebook, follow the Twitter feed of people I know well (and of those I don’t know at all), read a page or two from a book, track my finances—and that’s just the beginning. And this is all in the attempt to make my life easier. But really, all it has done is add more noise to my life as I impulsively and constantly check and make sure I’m not missing out on anything “important” in the world.
When I think of one church body, centralized around one purpose, one mission, one clear path for growth and discipleship, I can’t help but think of how God can use that body to do great things in its community and in the world. If we remove the clutter that fills our church calendars and give people a clear, simple process for how they can grow as followers of Jesus, we allow room for the Holy Spirit to work in their lives and in the life of the church.
Is it an easy process to become a simple church? No. Is it a process that possibly can make a huge difference in the lives of your church members? I believe the simple answer is yes. A simple church allows people to know exactly what they need to do to grow in their faith and how they can be a part of what God is doing in and through the church. And a simple church frees them up—and in fact encourages them—to spend time with the people around them who need to know Jesus, instead of spending seven nights a week in a church building.
Isn’t that really the heart of our Restoration Movement? We have historically said we want to look to the ways of the New Testament church. And when I look at that church, I don’t see women’s auxiliaries and men’s suppers and singles’ mixers. I see believers gathering together for worship, study, prayer, for breaking bread, and for sharing the Lord’s Supper. I see people serving one another out of love and going into the world to share the message of Christ.
I see a very simple church . . . one that I long for.
Matt Bortmess serves as senior associate minister with Rochester (Illinois) Christian Church. He also leads Front Porch Creative, a graphic design firm focused on helping churches make great first impressions.