Mental Models of Church
Everyone has a model of the way a church should work. As Peter Senge writes, mental models are deeply held images of life that shape the way we think, believe, and behave. Often we are not even aware of the effects they have on our behavior, but these models are expressed in our language, actions, and attitudes. For instance, how often do we say, “I’m going to go to church”? For most people that means attending a worship service in the sanctuary. If you asked someone in the book of Acts about “going to church,” they would have likely assumed that you were meeting with another person. Church usually gathered in a household, and the people “lived” the church whether gathered or scattered. From Corinth to Ephesus to Jerusalem, the church adapted to the needs of their community and shared the gospel as the Spirit led them.
Today, our models of church should change over time and adapt to the needs of the society in which we minister and the conditions we find ourselves in. We’re not the same First Baptist Church we once were 50 years ago—or even 10 years ago. Over the last 166 years, we’ve used a lot of models to describe the work of First Baptist. We’ve been the church that started others churches across Tallahassee. We purchased an airplane for missionaries in Brazil. We’ve been the lighthouse on one of Tallahassee’s hills shining the light of the gospel. We’ve been the Christian Life Center where we’ve played volleyball, held family nights, and shared a meal at lunch. We’ve taken our children to the church for Weekday education. We’ve been the church on a First Love day in the community. We’ve mentored a child at Sabal Palm elementary. We’ve traveled on choir tours, mission trips, retreats, and camps. We’ve been First Baptist Church for 166 years. All of these and more describe a model of the church. All of these continue to be right and good and necessary for the continued work of the church.
Every five years or so, healthy churches adapt their mental models based on the needs of their community, their spiritual gifts, God’s call on their lives, and the leaders that are a part of the congregation. When we’re focused on Jesus and making decisions based on scripture, the Spirit will lead us to be the church here in Tallahassee as God needs for the next few years together. The model I’m proposing is based largely out of the experiences of the church in Corinth in Acts 18. In the face of opposition, Paul had a vision from God. “Don’t be afraid, but speak, and do not be silent; for I am with you, and no one will lay a hand on you to harm you, for there are many in this city who are my people” (Acts 18:10). For 18 months, he worked to plant a church that had several qualities. It was different than the Jerusalem church because of the Corinthian community’s needs. They adapted their model to address a sports-crazed, competitively-oriented community of Roman colonists. He met with people in the synagogue, faced opposition from them, but eventually the synagogue leader converted. The church was more than the location; it was also the gathering of refugees like Priscilla and Aquila who came from Rome. They worked together in their occupations, met in homes, and discipled believers like Apollos who later returned to Corinth and served there. This Corinthian model had several features.
- Organic. They had a fairly loose, nimble structure coordinated by Paul, Aquila, Priscilla, Timothy, Silas, Titius Justus, and eventually Apollos. They taught scripture, learned together, and served their community. They did so in a way that allowed them to adapt to their changing world. They coordinated their work with each other.
- Network. They were heavily networked in their world. One friendship led to another. Much like the fishing net that Jesus used in the Gospels, the Corinthian network was largely based around homes, businesses, and sports. The arena in Corinth was a venue not only for seeing people but for demonstrating the power of the gospel through the suffering of the apostles.
- House and temple. As a mobile group of people, they met in various places, including a house next to the synagogue, while they continued to work to convert people in the synagogue. Around here, we like to say we go from “church to church and house-to-house.” The marriage of Priscilla and Aquila was a powerful catalytic force in the lives of the community. They exemplified team ministry at its best working together.
- Spirit led and gifted. Later in Corinth, we see the way Paul called the people to work together. He said that they would unify around the gifts the Spirit gave them. The Holy Spirit deployed gifts that crossed the typical boundaries of a Corinthian society: athleticism, physique, race, gender, age, and economics. Women like Priscilla could teach; Phoebe could serve (she was in nearby Cenchrae); Apollos could be discipled and eventually teach others. We obviously don’t know the racial makeup of the group, but we do know that there were Jews and Gentiles converting in Corinth. Young men like Timothy were trained to lead along with more mature adults too. We assume Paul and Aquila were older mentors to the younger people in the congregation. We don’t know how they discerned who had what gift. I have a few guesses. The emphasis was not on the question, “What is my gift?” or “Who has which gift?” But they began to ask, what kinds of gifts does the church and the city of Corinth need for this particular season. What is my church and community calling me to do in Jesus’ name that can only happen because of the power of the Spirit working on us together?
- Mission Shelter. The house church sheltered people and sent them on mission. Priscilla and Aquila were refugees from Rome, but they were also unique missionaries. They traveled to Ephesus; Priscilla and Aquila discipled Apollos, and Apollos returned to Corinth. The church multiplied to other places. They were a refuge for people like Paul seeking to be sheltered from persecution, and the church also sent people across the world.
For 18 months, this model shaped their vision for Corinth, and Paul later wrote to these congregations encouraging them in their continued work without him. Think with me about the way our church can reach people for Jesus over the next 5 years.