How Simple Is it … Really?

Life is complicated, but you know that. We take some of the complexity for granted. For example, our language is incredibly complex. If you don’t believe it just try to teach it to someone who doesn’t speak it. Yet we use our language without giving it another thought.

Other aspects of life present us with complexities that we can’t get around. The bureaucracies associated with automobiles – from getting a driver’s license to obtaining a registration. The time, study, paper work – it can not be avoided.

What about “Church”? Is church simple? More and more people are saying it ought to be. In fact there is a new United Methodist Congregation about to launch in Grafton, Massachusetts where there is no building called a “sanctuary”. The “altar” is the dinner table and the plan is to meet every Thursday evening for supper. Those who attend will help in the preparation. The “sermon” will happen during the meal and is meant to be a conversation starter. There will be candles and prayers and blessings and music – not necessarily traditional church hymns, but music of some kind. The name of this embryonic parish is “Simple Church“. The first “service” will be held on Thursday, September 18.

Coincidentally, as part of my preparation for a sermon I will be sharing I am re-reading a book called “Simple Church” written by Thom S. Rainer and Eric Geiger and published in 2006. The authors write: “After hundreds of consultations with local churches and a significant research project, we have concluded that church leaders need to simplify.” The authors cite Northpoint Church – a church that “started simple” and has grown from a handful of people to a congregation numbering around 20,000 today. Pastor Andy Stanley says: “Complexity dilutes your potential for impact.” The metaphor Stanley uses at Northpoint is that of the “Foyer to the Kitchen”. The goal of the ministry is to bring people into a relationship with God, with each other in the church, and with the people who live next door to them in their neighborhoods. The “kitchen” represents the place of intimacy, of close friendship. You know you have a good friend when you don’t have to ask permission to get something out of their refrigerator.

It is an interesting point of intersection between the new church about to begin and Northpoint which has been around for several decades: “Simplicity” is represented by the table. It comes to life in the ordinary act of eating together. There is, however, a catch.

If you have already clicked on the two links – one for “Simple Church” and the other for “Northpoint”, you will notice a profound difference. “Think small,” says Simple Church. That hardly suggests a worshiping congregation of 20,000 people. Northpoint was birthed in simplicity; it has morphed into a mega-complex of buildings and programs; and yet it continues to thrive.

“We have a ‘stuff’ problem,” declares the web site for Simple Church. It might be a bit disingenuous of them to lament the preponderance of buildings and all the related concerns when they are, in fact, meeting in a parsonage. When “church” consists of six, eight or ten folks around the dining room table, that’s one thing; when it is defined by a membership in the thousands that is quite another.

We know the story of Northpoint Church. We don’t yet know what the story will be regarding Simple Church. More important to me: What is the state of the church of which I am a part – First UMC Burlington? We have all the encumbrances Simple Church laments. Are we in over our heads with complexity? Do we need to scale back and just have supper together?

I can’t say for absolute certain, but my guess would be that our church – and almost every other church – began with people who simply wanted to worship and be in fellowship together, with the hope that their faith and ministry would have some redemptive impact on the world around them. Time, however, has a tendency to eat away at simplicity. Whether beginning in married life together, moving into a new home, or starting up a new organization, what begins simply has a way of getting complicated – sort of like what happens between the first grunts humans uttered and the intricate languages that have evolved.

The Shaker hymn tells us ‘Tis a gift to be simple … A gift indeed; and one that is so very difficult to hang on to.

Mark Demers

Want to talk about sex, politics, spirituality? So do I. I grew up in a religious home in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Our country was reeling from assassinations and the devastation of the Viet Nam War. Looking for something beautiful, I got a degree in music, married the love of my life and had children. Looking for God, I then went to seminary. Looking for something that might transform the world, I became a local church pastor. Now, I’m always looking for people who want to talk about important things. I cherish conversations with emerging leaders, people who are antsy to try an idea they believe would change the world for the better. I’d would love to hear from you.