If you’ve ever felt lonely and unimportant in church, there’s a good reason: You are alone and unimportant.

From 11 to 12 Sunday, you’re just another pretty face in the crowd.

Though surrounded by others, you’re cut off. Custom walls you off in your own space and silences your voice – except for song or responsive reading.

Surrounded by an audience of trainee mutes, you can find it as lonely as a solo trek across Antarctica … after you’ve eaten all the sled dogs.

The service would be exactly the same without you. You know that. Your impact on it is like an extra gallon of water going over Niagara Falls.

What’s wrong here?

The heart of your church is the Sunday service, where the communication pattern is as useless as a cell phone without batteries, where you sometimes feel a desperate need for something like a TV remote that would enable you to point it at the pulpit and change channels.

No matter what you have on your heart – the greatest joy or deepest sorrow – you are not allowed to share it during the service. Ever.

Fellowship is confined to the foyer afterward, please. (Unless you’ve figured a way to fellowship with the back of someone else’s head.) Try to talk, and the ushers will ush you out. Post hastily.

This, my friend, is not biblical. Saint Peter would have wept.

In fact, many of the early churches almost demanded you share something every week. They even expected you to sing for them (aaugh!) Even solos!

But now you can’t say anything longer than “Hallelujah!” – if that. As a result, you’re often more of a spectator than a participant, and your church feels more like a theater audience than a family.

The Babylonian captivity of the church begins

How did we ever get into such a fix? Well, in the 320s, the church suffered the worst disaster in her history. We lost the three key freedoms that powered the early church to success:

  • open worship

  • open sharing
  • open ministry

Emperor Constantine had issued the Edict of Milan in 313, allowing Christians to do their thing without being eaten by lions. Yippee.

Trouble was, he soon outlawed house churches, which were the heart of the close, family-type relationships of believers. Throughout Christendom, he professionalized the church and turned over the gatherings to the pros (who were often government officials or pagan priests just the week before), leaving them to do almost everything … while we sat and watched.

Lay men found themselves stripped of initiative and power, like newly captured slaves. Lay women were quietly relieved of what little responsibility and leadership they had. (By about 450, even the congregational singing faded to zip, as we turned over the music to professional choirs of men and boys.)

We fell into Spectator Christianity, where loneliness doesn’t end at church – it starts there.

The key malady

Today, at the end of the beginning of the third millennium, we’re still fighting the fallout from that massive collapse. Do any of these sound familiar?

  1. apathy

  2. shallowness
  3. worldliness
  4. failure to tithe
  5. pastoral burnout
  6. teenage dropouts
  7. fear of evangelism
  8. flabby self-discipline
  9. maxed-out schedules
  10. a chronic shortage of strong men.

I’m claiming that all of these maladies and more are caused mainly by one master malady: the hierarchical, closed church, in which laymen are passive observers while ministers are overworked insiders.

The Reformation was a great start on fixing the church, but fell way short in regard to our structures. It succeeded marvelously in getting back to sound doctrine: sola Scriptura (placing the Bible above the Church), sola gratia (salvation by grace) and sola fide (through faith, not works). But it never got us back to the New Testament church pattern that we see in Paul’s letters (like I Corinthians 14:26). It simply exchanged the priest for a minister and put a sermon in place of the eucharist (communion). To Luther’s disgust, not many people got saved, either.

However, in the first wave of “The Great Awakening” (early 1700s), thousands of people did get saved. Their hearts were warmed through the Wesleys, Whitefield and the Moravians. The missionary movement began.

Still, the two-caste system of clergy and laity persisted, keeping the laymen “in their place” in silent rows … while driving pastors nuts with overwork.

The good news today, though, is that the house church community is growing rapidly – even in North America. You may be able to find a “simple church” home group near your town. Try house2house.com or hccentral.com/directory (or outreach.ca/cpc in Canada).

Or start your own. It’s time to move our gatherings back into our homes. Wouldn’t you say 1,700 years is long enough?

Note: This column is updated and adapted from Rutz’s 1992 best-selling classic, “The Open Church.” A few copies are still available at openchurch.com. Rutz’s current book “Megashift” can be ordered at WorldNetDaily’s online store.

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