Today’s Church Follows an Old Testament Model
Moses Explained the Three Key Elements of Worship and We Still Follow Them
Our churches today function in much the same way as outlined in the Old Testament. We follow the Old Testament model for church. We pursue these same three key elements. We meet in a building, hire paid staff to represent God to us, and have an ongoing need for money to keep the institution afloat and moving forward.
We often hear the question, “Where do you go to church?” This is an inquiry about location. In standard usage, the word church refers to a place not a people. It’s a structure more so than the community that meets there.
This mindset is pervasive within the church, but it’s universal outside it. In short, people go to a church building to experience God. The implication is that we can’t connect with him at other locations or through different situations. We want a Sunday morning service in a church building.
We go to church. We connect with God. Then we go home. Once we leave the parking lot, we revert to non-church mode and resume our everyday life.
Most people, both those with a religious background and those without it, view a church without their own facility as suspicious, as second rate, or even as somehow less than. People assume—both those inside the church community and those outside it—that this church without a building will one day mature to a point where she can have her own place to meet. Then she will be a real church.
In addition, for many churchgoers, the thought of attending in a non-typical space is an anathema to having a true worship experience. They feel that to truly connect with God they must travel to a dedicated church building.
This is part one of an Old Testament model for church.
The second element of today’s church is the staff. In most all cases they are paid employees. Yes, sometimes volunteers help, donating many hours of their time each week, but despite their generosity most churches rely on paid personnel to function.
For small churches, the paid staff is the pastor alone, while for larger congregations it’s a pastoral team, made up of full-time and part-time paid personnel.
A church-growth expert once advocated that a single pastor could sufficiently shepherd a congregation of up to 150 people. Beyond that level, the sole pastor requires help to address the needs of the congregation and deal with the details brought on by this expanded scope. The expert had a formula for that too: each additional one hundred people in the church required one more staff person. This formula seems to track at the various churches I’ve been part of over the years.
In the same way that most people expect to go to a dedicated worship space on Sunday, they carry expectations of the paid staff who work there, especially the minister. Just as the people in the Old Testament lined up each day to see Moses, overburdening him and keeping him busy from sunup to sunset (Exodus 18:13), we tend to do the same for our clergy today.
This is part two of an Old Testament model for church.
Collectively we insist that our ministers be available for us whenever we need them. This includes a crisis, such as a death, health scare, financial need, lost job, or wayward child. We also want them there for our celebrations. This means our family births (baptisms, christenings, or dedications) and our weddings (officiating), even milestone birthdays and anniversaries. We also presume their support for our own God-honoring initiatives. And we freely dump our burdens on them in the form of prayer requests. When we call, email, or text, we expect a quick response.
They’re here to serve us. That’s what we pay them for.
Then when they wisely refer us to another person who can help us, just as Moses’s father-in-law recommended him to do (Exodus 18:14), we react with indignation. We withdraw our support for this leader who we feel slighted us (2 Corinthians 6:12). And we seldom do this silently, often resorting to gossip and even slander (3 John 1:9-11). Sometimes we launch a campaign to replace our once-esteemed leader. To add weight to our hurt, we may threaten to withhold our support of the church. And to our shame, we sometimes follow through (Malachi 3:6-12).
The third key element of today’s church is financial support. She needs money to function, lots of it. We often refer to this need for money as tithes and offerings. Some churches call for pledges and then urge people to meet their financial commitments each Sunday.
Over the years I’ve heard many ministers plead for money from their congregations, insisting that we must give 10 percent of our income to the local church. I’m not sure if they’re merely parroting what they heard others say, don’t know their Scripture, or don’t care, but the Bible never says to give 10 percent to the local church. Remember, the Old Testament tithe went to fuel the national religion.
In a typical church most of their budget goes to cover facility costs and staffing. This often approaches 90 percent of the total budget and sometimes requires all of it, only to still fall short. This doesn’t leave too much money—if any—for ministry and outreach.
But lest we complain about the size of our church’s budget and our leader’s calls for financial generosity, remember that this is our own doing. We’ve brought this upon ourselves. We expect to meet in our own dedicated worship space. And we hire staff to serve as our liaison between us and God. These things carry a price tag, and our church budget reflects it.
This is part three of an Old Testament model for church.The kingdom of God will advance more powerfully when we move from an inward focus to an outward emphasis. Click To Tweet
A Kingdom Focus
Though it’s true that some churches are exceptions to this—and take exception to what I’ve just written—they are the minority. To need less financial support usually stems from one of two things. The first is having a non-typical meeting space. And the second is enjoying a lot of volunteers to do the work that normally falls to paid staff. In some cases, both elements are present, which allows for much more of the congregants’ giving to go to ministry and outreach, instead of buildings and payroll.
This allows them to move from an inward focus to an outward emphasis. Every church should strive to move toward this outcome. The kingdom of God will advance more powerfully when we do.
[Read more about this in Peter’s upcoming book, Jesus’s Broken Church.]
Peter DeHaan writes about biblical spirituality, often with a postmodern slant. He seeks a fresh approach to faith and following God through the lens of scripture, without the baggage of made-up traditions and meaningless practices. Read more in his books, blog, and weekly email updates.