If you could dream up the perfect church, what would it look like?
On days when I’m sitting in my real church and feel frustrated by something, I sometimes daydream about my ideal church: the one where I would feel completely understood, where my perspectives would be valued, where my gifts and passions would flourish. I dream about a church I would always be proud and never embarrassed to call home; a church so amazing that any non-Christian who visited would never want to leave.
My hypothetical dream church would look something like the following.
My dream church (hereafter simply called DC) would be located in a major world city, in a neighborhood with ethnic, cultural and class diversity, business people and bohemians and everyone in between.
DC would be architecturally contemporary and minimalist, environmentally sustainable (LEED-certified), with nods to classic church aesthetics. DC would be celebrated as a forward-thinking example of responsible urban design and sacred space, elegantly balancing practicality with superfluous beauty. The church’s sanctuary would be the architectural focal point and a venue with such great acoustics and layout (seating capacity around 1,200) that it would become a desirable venue in the city for concerts and other arts and community events.
Included in the church building would be a small number of offices, classrooms, a large all-purpose room, a bookstore and a fitness center. A small green space on the church’s property would include a community garden where wide varieties of organic produce would be grown. As part of the church’s energy efficient design, its roof would also be green, featuring an herb garden and quiet spaces for prayer.
In addition to the main church building, members of DC would own and operate a restaurant, coffeeshop and roastery in the building next door, all rated among the city’s best. Featuring ingredients from the church’s own gardens, the restaurant and coffeeshop would partner with the church in several ways while also maintaining a distinct identity and devoted clientele beyond the congregation (more on this later).
Mercy Ministries and Community Outreach
DC would be a church very much about embodying the love of Jesus in the community and demonstrating the transformative power of the gospel through mercy, justice and outreach efforts. Some of these efforts would be entirely church-driven but many of them would be partnerships for the common good with local non-profit and civic organizations.
All church members (including junior and high school youth) would participate in one or more service opportunities, such as: distributing food with local food banks, after-school tutoring, nursing homes visitation, volunteering at crisis pregnancy centers, women’s shelters or with the local anti-trafficking task force. In partnership with a local rescue mission, DC’s restaurant kitchen would cook free community meals on select weeknights. The church would would open its all-purpose room on several nights a week as an emergency homeless shelter.
As one of the city’s finest musical venues, DC’s beautiful church sanctuary would be rented out multiple nights a week as a concert venue. Local student band, orchestra and choral groups would frequently use the venue for performances. The church’s public arts and community events committee would organize the venue’s calendar and program lectures, concerts and film screenings year round. The church’s sanctuary would be a vibrant hub of the city’s civic life and arts scene.
DC’s lobby would serve as a community art space where artists from both inside and outside the church could display and sell their work. DC’s bookstore would sell Bibles and books but also artisan goods made by church and community members, as well as coffee beans from the adjacent roastery and single-varietal jams made from the church’s own organic garden. A percentage of sales from all these goods would go toward DC’s mercy and justice fund.
The church’s adjacent restaurant and coffeeshop would play an integral role in community outreach. Open all week, these eateries would provide community dining and study spaces as well as venues for poetry readings and concerts. The restaurant/cafe’s kitchen and wait staff would be partially funnelled from a local job training organization that helps homeless people, ex-convicts and unemployed people develop skills to earn a living.
DC’s fully equipped fitness center would provide another service to the community, offering various fitness classes, CrossFit and personal training throughout the week at rates cheaper than typical gym memberships.
DC’s all-purpose room and classrooms would be open periodically for outreach classes during the week, including Alpha for skeptics with questions about Christianity; Celebrate Recovery groups for those struggling with addictions; and a six-week premarital course offered a few times a year for seriously dating or engaged couples.
Theologically, DC would be conservative and Reformed, though not afraid to preach and celebrate the best contributions of Wesleyan and Pentecostal theology and even the occasional Orthodox or Catholic thinker (not to mention N.T. Wright!). The church would be thoroughly gospel-centered, Spirit-led and missionally minded. Both the five Solas and the charismatic gifts would be inescapable in the church’s day-to-day life. A portrait of Martyn Lloyd-Jones would hang prominently in one of the church offices.
Structurally, DC would be elder-led, with preaching alternating between elders and a few non-elders with preaching gifts. Only a few of the lead elders would receive full-time pay from the church. Non-elder paid staff would be minimal as the church membership’s high volunteer percentage would bear the load of most all programs and functions of the church.
Though Word-centric, DC would have a robust theology of the Holy Spirit and balance the tensions therein. Other things DC would hold in healthy tension: local and global mission, engaging the culture with truth and love, preaching the gospel and demonstrating it in deed.
Multiplication and church planting would be central to DC’s mission. As the church grew (mostly from new converts through outreach programs like Alpha), solutions would not be new buildings or bigger sanctuaries, but new church plants. As part of its church planting orientation, DC would be part of a global network of church-planting partners. This would result in a number of close relationships with churches both domestically and internationally, which would afford DC opportunities to send and receive ministry teams often for mutual building up and encouragement. New churches would be planted out of these partnerships and networks rather than solely relying on DC’s resources and members.
DC would have a robust, Kuyperian theology of vocation and an intellectual bent appropriate to its urban context. Except for a bit more on the Holy Spirit, the “Vision and Values” section of Tim Keller’s Redeemer Presbyterian sums up DC’s theology pretty well.
A typical Sunday morning at DC would begin in the lobby with single origin coffee roasted at the on-site roastery, as well as fresh pastries (chocolate blackberry croissants, maple bacon biscuits, lemon pistachio polenta cake, and so on) baked in the adjacent restaurant.
Worship services in the sanctuary would incorporate liturgy and creeds, confession, read and spontaneous prayer, an exchanging of “the peace,” 30-45 minutes of preaching, instrumental music and extended singing time before and after the preaching.
Music leading on stage would be minimalist by modern evangelical church standards. Bands would be largely acoustic, with usually fewer than five musicians leading at any given time. Piano, acoustic guitar, string trios, and french horn would be regularly incorporated, as would a variety of music styles from other cultures and contexts. A beautiful organ (cherished not only by the elderly congregants) would figure prominently into at least one classic hymn each Sunday. Musicians would also be encouraged to write, record and perform new original music, largely inspired by biblical poetry and the Psalter.
Sunday morning services would always incorporate communion, with congregants standing and taking the elements collectively as an elder spoke the corresponding liturgy. Each Sunday morning would also end with a time of response, prayer, and a clear call to conversion. Planned and spontaneous baptisms would take place regularly in the church baptistry as multiple new conversions would be a weekly occurrence.
Following services, churchgoers would be invited to stay for a community lunch in the all-purpose room. Catered by the adjacent restaurant and prominently featuring the best of the church garden’s seasonal produce, these lunches would often linger for hours and hours, featuring wine and laughter that often splintered into bocce ball games on the lawn, coffee conversations on the roof, walks around town, tea and scones from the cafe or naps on the couches by the fireplace (there would be a fireplace reading room somewhere, complete with a collection of single malt Scotches made available for consumption at the behest of an responsible-but-not-stingy elder entrusted with the keys to the liquor cabinet).
Most members would stay at church for large parts of the day on Sunday along with their non-Christian friends and spiritually seeking acquaintances, as there really would be no more welcoming, relaxing, beautifully diverse and heaven-like place to be in the city.
Discipleship and Community Life
During DC’s corporate worship service on Sunday morning, children through grade five would have classes of their own, although they would all participate in the singing portion of “big church” once a month. Junior high and high school students would be with the whole church on Sunday morning but would have their own gathering on Sunday afternoon/evening after the community lunch. During this time, adult education classes in Bible, theology and apologetics would be offered as well, in cooperation with a nearby evangelical seminary.
Church membership and assimilation would be an emphasis of DC. A robust catechism course would be required for new believers and a membership class cycle for new members. Requirements for membership would include taking the class, joining a small group, volunteering for a serve team (see below) and tithing regularly. None of this would be a problem as the small group, volunteering and tithing participation rates all would near 100%. The church’s budget (half of which would go to church planting/missions and mercy/justice) would thrive accordingly.
Each church member would volunteer for one of the following serve teams:
- Food and Hospitality: the restaurant, coffee shop, organic garden, community lunches, meal trains, hosting out-of-town guests, and anything else involving food and hospitality.
- Prayer: pre-service prayer meetings on Sunday mornings, prayer for people during and after each service, prayer walks, prayer newsletters, the rooftop prayer garden, and more.
- Education and Outreach: adult education, children’s and youth classes, new believer catechism, nursery, small groups, Kuyper clubs (see below), Alpha, etc.
- Assimilation: greeting people on Sunday mornings, visitor information, follow-up, membership classes, helping newcomers find ways to get involved.
- Operations: technical and facility needs, groundskeeping, media/AV, room setup, lighting, stage management, etc.
- Music and Arts: music ministries of the church (including weeknight Evensong services), public arts and community events committee, lobby art gallery curating.
- Mercy and Justice: organizing partnerships and administrative needs related to DC’s mercy and justice initiatives, connecting church members with partner organizations to serve the common good of the city.
- Communications: church website, social media, emails, member database, printed bulletins, branding.
- Community Care: connecting relationally gifted members of the community to the counseling and mentoring needs of the church, with a focus on intergenerational discipleship and soul care.
Church members would also be highly encouraged to join a “Kuyper Club” as a way to deepen community and invite non-believing friends to a variety of interest-based, mid-week activities. These clubs would include things like:
- Inklings 2.0: A writer’s workshop for the literarily inclined
- Taste and See: For foodies to explore the local restaurant scene
- Holy Spirits: For those who like to sample rare scotch, bourbon, rum and other spirits
- Singles Supper Club: Where singles gather to cook and enjoy a feast together
- Running the Race: Training group for aspiring runners of 10ks, half marathons and marathons
- CrossFit: A CrossFit club which meets in the church’s fitness center
- Creation Appreciation: For lovers of God’s natural world, a hiking and camping club
- Augustine Society: A reading group focused on the church fathers and historical theology
- Robinson Society: A reading group focused on 20th and 21st century fiction
- Rothko Society: Takes regular trips to art exhibits and engages the city’s art scene
- Malick Society: Watches and discusses movies (not just made by Terrence Malick!) from the perspective of Christian faith
- Eliot Society: A poetry reading and writing group
In addition to these forums for discipleship and community life, DC would also own several homes and apartments in the city that would be rented out to members in the church as a way of building intentional community. These houses would focus on spiritual formation but also outreach and service, partnering with some of the aforementioned mercy and justice initiatives.
Always mindful of not becoming too large or too insular, DC would also have a robust leadership and church-planting training process in place whereby capable and trustworthy leaders would be constantly developed and then sent out to serve in new church plants or existing partner churches both locally and globally.
My Dream Is Not the Point
I’d be lying if I said that DC description wasn’t enjoyable to write. In fact, I could have kept going. I didn’t even get into my ideal color palette for the church’s website (organic shades of black, olive, and tan) or my preference for prelude music (pipe organ version of Radiohead’s “Everything in Its Right Place”). But you get the idea, and I’m sure you’ve had enough. There are few things more annoying than reading through someone else’s subjective vision of “the perfect church.”
I am a bit disgusted with how easy it is to describe in such detail my hypothetical “dream church.” It’s easy because this is how we’ve been conditioned to think. “Have it your way” consumerism is the air we breathe.
We curate our social feeds so that everything we see befits our tastes and leanings. If a Tweet annoys us, we unfollow that Twitterer. On Netflix we populate “My List” with all that our over-mediated hearts desire. If we start a movie and the first 10 minutes are boring, we simply remove it from the list and forget about it forever. Consumerism is about unlimited choice and unlimited speed. We choose exactly what we want, take only what we want from it and move on.
This mind-set has infiltrated the way we approach church. We think about church as a thing we can design according to our unique checklist of preferences. And if a church stops catering to our desires or makes us uncomfortable (the pastor says something disagreeable, worship music becomes too saccharine, someone speaks in tongues), we move on. There are dozens of other options in town.
Consumerism is chronic dissatisfaction. We’re always on the quest for more and better, hoping for new heights of satisfaction. The “dream church” is always a potential out there; the grass is always greener at the trendy new church in town.
We must debunk and destroy this toxic consumerist approach. It’s bad for our physical health and worse for our spiritual health.
If we always approach church through the lens of wishing this or that were different, or longing for a church that “gets me” or “meets me where I’m at,” we’ll never commit anywhere (or, Protestants that we are, we’ll just start our own church). But church shouldn’t be about being perfectly understood and met in our comfort zone; it should be about understanding God more, and meeting him where he’s at. This is an uncomfortable but beautiful thing.
This post is an adapted excerpt from my book, Uncomfortable: The Awkward and Essential Challenge of Christian Community (Crossway, September 2017).