We need to upgrade the operating system for the church. A good upgrade does a few things. It makes the operation simpler and more intuitive. It also is more powerful in accomplishing all its important tasks. Finally, a good upgrade opens up the software to whole new markets that would never have tried to use the product in the past.
There have been two major upgrades in Church formation since Acts that have changed the entire system. The first occurred dramatically during the rule of the Emperor Constantine. The church shifted from an underground, grassroots, organic movement to a more institutionalized organization. I believe that the second is occurring now.
The first century church was church 1.0 in its various minor differences. The Jerusalem church would have been the original church 1.0. Antioch would be church 1.1. The Galatian churches started in the first journey of Paul and Barnabas would represent church 1.2. Corinth would represent a change to 1.3 as Paul added some patches to the way he approached church. The Ephesian church would be church 1.4. And so the changes went on through two centuries of church life kept simple and organic by the oppression and persecution of ten different Roman emperors. Heresies emerged and were purged. There was the establishment of regional bishops and the institutionalization of some of the forms of Christianity during this period, but over all the church remained a grassroots, marginalized movement under the heat of intense persecution.
Everything changed in 313 AD when Constantine declared that the empire would not only tolerate Christianity but restore to the church all lost property. He was the first “Christian” emperor and Christianity went instantly from the margins to the mainstream and everything changed. Christianity became the state religion and the church did not change much from that point on. This was the shift to Church 2.0 and all its eventual variants.
Over the centuries, after Constantine, the Western church has evolved in many ways, but none have been a significant systemic change. There was the establishment of both the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church and for hundreds of years there were very little changes. The Reformation split the Western church into the Roman Church and the volatile protestant church—or church 2.1. But as an institution, in spite of the differences, the institutional system remained mostly unchanged. The Anabaptists were set lose by the reformation (and persecuted by it) but it was just a change from church 2.1 to 2.2. Whether the church adapts to reach coal miners in the 18th century England or postmodern pilgrims in the 21st century, most of the changes have been patches and plug-ins to the Church 2.0 system. Whether you are talking about high church or low, Pentecostal or Reformed the church has remained in the 2.0 range of upgrades. From Baptist to Brethren, from Mennonite to Methodist, the changes in the system are relatively untouched over the centuries. Music or no music? Pipe organ or electric guitar? Tall ceilings with stained-glass widows or meeting in a box building without windows, the actual system of church has gone relatively unchanged.
You have the priests or pastors, the Sunday service with singing and a sermon, the weekly offering, the pulpit with pews and the church building. These have been constants since the forth century. Even if you move the whole show into a house instead of a church building, if the system hasn’t changed you have only shrunk the church, not transformed it. Changing the style of music does not upgrade the system. Turning down the lights and turning up the volume is a simple patch to the same old system. Choirs and hymns or praise bands and fog machines, kneeling or standing the system is changed very little. Sermonizing with topical messages or expositional ones is not changing the system just making minor adjustments. Sunday Schools or small groups as secondary learning environments are not a systemic change at all, just a variation on the same old operational system.
While most of the advances to Church 2.0 over the centuries have been plug-ins and patches to the same old system, there have been anomalies along the way. Usually, these anomalies are the result of rampant persecution that drives the church back to the old default system. One could say that these are examples of going back to the Church 1.0 system, because their 2.0 system crashed in the face of extreme heat. The radical Anabaptist churches are like that. The Chinese house church phenomenon is also a departure from the expression of the Church 2.0 system. But these experiments are really not the norm and have not, to date, influenced the church as a whole in any permanent fashion, except perhaps to say that they are part of the learning that has led to this new operating system—Church 3.0
I believe that the second major shift is occurring now in our lifetime. Many people want to go back to the beginning again. As much as I am enamored of what I learned about the church of the first century we simply cannot go back; we can only go forward. Granted, if we did go back it would be a vast improvement on where we have been more recently. But I have to ask, could we do even better than Church 1.0? Some may find that even such a question is heretical. It is only a question, but it bears consideration.
Can it be that we can actually improve upon the first century church? A careful study of Acts reveals that even in the first decades of the church there was profound improvement as people learned from experience, so why not more so today, building upon the foundation of two thousand years of mistakes? I believe it is possible. I think we can see the awesome impact and rapid spread that the first century saw, but we also can benefit from two thousand years of learning as well and utilize the technological advances we have available today.
Imagine if the apostle Paul could buy an airline ticket and be across the world in twelve hours instead of twelve years. Imagine what he would do with the internet and the ability to see events unfold globally and instantaneously. Our ability to understand culture and translate languages today is built upon two thousand years of mistakes and the successes they produce. Perhaps more than any other benefit we have is that we can look in hindsight at how easily the church was overcome by institutionalization—where the church is no longer people in relationship to one another, but an organized system—and move forward armed with that knowledge. The early church flew blindly into a trap of a religious hierarchical system that kept her in the dark ages for hundreds of years. History can train us for the future if we listen to it. No, church 3.0 is not a shift downward in church life or quality. It is an upgrade in every sense of the word, perhaps even above the early church. Why would we suspect that God would be content with us going backwards? Why wouldn’t he want us to grow and develop in better ways?
The best upgrades do a few things. First they allow for greater power in what you want to accomplish, and church 3.0 is a huge boost in raw spiritual power. Every part of the body of Christ can function at a much higher level. A second thing you may look for in an upgrade is to move to a simpler and more intuitive ways of using the system. This upgrade to the church 3.0 is certainly that in so many ways. It is built upon simplicity and potency bound together in a way that increases speed and power in the influence that the church can and should have. Thirdly, upgrades take advantage of the latest discoveries in technology and help you interact better with all the other electronics you may use. Church 3.0 is far and away better at being fluid and mixing with multiple expressions of church structure and overcoming the world’s obstacles. Fourthly, an upgrade should have greater capacity to accommodate much more information, functionality and storage. Finally, some cool new features in an upgrade should significantly improve the system’s performance and make it much more fun to use. Church 3.0 is so enjoyable it is quite common for those who have made the switch to comment that they could never go back to the old system.
Do not be deceived into thinking that this is just another patch to the same old system; it is a radical change from the core of what church is. Church 3.0 has rebuilt the function of the church in every sense from the smallest to the largest capacity.