Urban pastor, missionary, author, scholar, lecturer and local church activist in Chicago: Howard Snyder is all of these. He has emerged as one of the most articulate spokesmen for church renewal, not because he has invented and promoted a new program, but because he insists on the Ephesians model of church life. From Brazil seven years ago, he burst onto the North American evangelical scene like new wine splitting old wineskins, with a book built on that theme (The Problem of Wineskins: Church Renewal in a Technological Age, IVP, 1975). Since then he has written The Community of the King and The Radical Wesley: Patterns for Church Renewal (both IVP), and is now working on a fourth book while completing his Ph.D. degree at the University of Notre Dame.

A life-long Free Methodist, Snyder was born to missionary parents in the Dominican Republic, educated at Spring Arbor College, Greenville College, and Asbury Theological Seminary. He served as a pastor for two years in Detroit, and then went to Brazil for six years, where he was dean of the Free Methodist Seminary. He returned to head up Light and Life International, a Free Methodist men’s organization, finally leaving it to devote himself to writing and to involvement in an urban church, the Olive Branch Mission in Chicago. In this interview with CT he develops his central thesis of the church as a gifted community, what changes need to take place in local churches, and how these changes can be effected.

Many people first became acquainted with Howard Snyder through your book, The Problem of Wineskins: Church Renewal in a Technological Age. What caused you to write it?

During my first year in Brazil I did a lot of reading and reflecting on my two years as a pastor in Detroit (1966–68). The Detroit riot was in 1967. The purpose of the church in the city was a major issue and I couldn’t give an intelligent answer to the question, What is the church? I would give some cliché, like the body of Christ, but I didn’t own it. I became interested in the poor and studied all the references to the poor in the Bible. In Brazil, the impact of cultural differences also prompted me to write. I became particularly interested in the New Testament idea of koinonia (fellowship). It was out of those reflections and my study of Ephesians that the book came.

Are you hopeful or discouraged about moving the denominational hierarchies toward looking at some of the issues of basic definitions of the church and church structures?

I’m quite hopeful in the broader sense of what’s happening in the church. There are a number of signs of people both rethinking and trying to reembody the church. But I’m not optimistic about major changes in traditional denominational structures. There’s a lot of resistance to that. But at the local church level, many churches really are wrestling with how they can more authentically be the body of Christ within their own traditions. A number of churches are finding ways to make their tradition and the Scriptures more vital by applying New Testament principles of church life.

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What has been the general response to your proposals?

I find great interest and acceptance, particularly by younger pastors and lay leaders. On the other hand, some people in leadership positions think my ideas make nice theory but that they are not very practical.

How do you respond to that criticism?

On two levels. One, the question is not theory versus practice, but what the Bible teaches. I’m willing to be tested on that basis. If I have pointed to things that are scriptural, then regardless of whether they seem practical or not, we need to find how to make them practical. Second, if what I have written adequately or authentically interprets Scripture, then it will be borne out in practice. I’ve been encouraged to find many local churches where the things I have written about are happening with some degree of vitality and authenticity.

You had a traditional seminary education. You were taught Methodist ecclesiology and traditional church structures. How did you discover your new ideas?

What impressed me, after I got out of seminary, was that we went through seminary and never really talked about the nature of the church. In our Western culture we have been so individualistic that we have not adequately raised the question of the church. For example, we tend to talk much more about Christian psychology than Christian sociology, because we are more attuned to the individual’s relationship to God than to the group aspect of the church. When I asked, What is the nature of the church? people always said Ephesians was the book on the church, so I studied it. That really put it together for me. Granted, I was reading other books and articles that raised questions about the nature of the church, but the thing that integrated the biblical perspective for me was Paul’s doctrine of the church in Ephesians.

The Book of Ephesians has been around for quite a while. Are you saying that you discovered something that other people never knew was there or that the power structures in the church either avoided or suppressed?

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As you say, it’s always been in Scripture, but in one sense the Bible is like a time bomb. It explodes at different times when truths are rediscovered, truths that have been submerged under other emphases or under the accumulated weight of theological and ecclesiastical traditions. There are a lot of very foundational things in Ephesians that we are not practicing. I’m trying to hold up Scripture as a mirror against the contemporary church. People must be directed back to Scripture, in the context of the local church and in small groups, and they must study the Bible inductively—not just asking what it says about personal salvation, but also about the corporate life of the church. It’s right there and it’s revolutionary.

What are some of these revolutionary—you also used the word foundational—truths that the Holy Spirit seems to be applying to the contemporary scene?

First, God has an overall plan of reconciliation that encompasses his whole creation—all things in heaven and on earth. His plan for the fulness of time is to unite all things in Jesus Christ.

Second, the church does not just receive that plan, but in some sense is an agent of its fulfillment. We are God’s workmanship created in Christ Jesus to do good works. To me, this suggests that we should do those good works that contribute to God’s reconciling plan.

Third, the church is the body of Christ. We are not saved to God divorced from our brothers and sisters, but we are made into a new community of people around Jesus Christ.

Related to that is a fourth truth: the actual functioning of the body. To be a member of the body means to be joined to a community of ministers to which spiritual gifts are given, not only for our individual benefit, but primarily for the sake of the body and for equipping the saints for the work of the ministry.

Let’s return to your starting point. You said that in Brazil you began to think of church structures as built-in obstacles. What do you have against structures?

I have nothing against structure in itself—it is inevitable. My concern is with the kind of structure. We need to teach people in the church the difference between the wine and the wineskins, to teach them the essence of the gospel, and then to create cells or nuclei of real koinonia in the body. We must begin to look not just at personal spiritual growth, but the whole nature of the body—the corporate life of the church, the priorities of the kingdom, and so on. Then we can develop the kind of structures that will feed, carry on, and extend the life of the church. In some cases more change will be necessary than in others. Structures that only tend to perpetuate traditional programs have lost the real impulse of the Holy Spirit, though they were once relative perhaps to a particular time, or to a particular community.

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The gospel is always new and produces change, but structures tend to become rigid with time. That’s what Jesus meant when he talked about new wineskins. We need always to renew our structures, to keep them doing what they were originally created to do—to extend and support life. Structures should be life-support systems. Instead, they are often just the opposite. We end up serving the structure instead of the structure serving the church.

What advice do you have for pastors who want to make changes in structures?

Change is threatening. Those of us who advocate change must also recognize the need for stability. Pastors often come to me and say, “I have a vision for a church more along New Testament lines, but I have a traditional church and the people are not open to those ideas. What should I do?” My answer is that the leaders in the church first of all have to be pastors and equippers of the people. They also should begin by creating small cells of life or fellowship among those in the body who are open to this and hungry for it. Then, if the Holy Spirit is in it, a natural process of renewal will begin. Eventually, when questions about structures are raised, some changes can be made in an organic, wholesome way. But to go in and abruptly change structures in a church is so threatening that it will be counterproductive and only create friction.

What are some structures that have outlived their usefulness?

This varies according to the local situation, and every church needs to diagnose its own institutions. We sustain them for the best of reasons, but we must look at the actual results. Take church buildings, for example. In many cases they are functional, but we need to consider the amount of money we invest in them, especially now when questions of energy, world hunger, and so on have come into play. We ought to consider other options, such as several churches cooperating rather than building separately, or using community centers or multipurpose buildings.

I don’t condemn church buildings, but often so much attention is given to the building that people do not give enough attention to ministry. In fact, ministry is determined by architecture to some degree.

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Another unquestioned structure is the assumed division between clergy and laity. This makes it difficult for us to affirm and work out in a practical way consequences of the fact that everyone is a minister and is called to ministry. All believers are the laity, the laos (the Greek word for people) of God. While God certainly raises up pastors and other kinds of leaders in accordance with the gifts of the Holy Spirit, their primary function is to equip the whole body for the work of the ministry. In most churches, we’re not beyond the point of affirming this in theory. It will become revolutionary for the ministry of the church when we really do equip the saints for work in the local church. Instead of having one or two ministers, we will have 200, or 300, or 400, however many members there are.

Where should the pastor start?

There are two reasons for starting with some kind of small cell group. First, it provides the context for developing the intimate relationships that are pictured in the New Testament: exhorting one another, building up one another, and encouraging one another daily. This is how the Holy Spirit changes people’s lives. It’s not just getting them involved in a program, or even in some significant ministry. Ministry grows out of renewal in people, based not just on their relationship to God, but also on the scriptural model of encouraging and building up one another.

Second, it also provides the context for getting a new vision of the mission of the church, a place for asking fundamental questions. The average church is bombarded with a choice of program options, but these programs do not raise questions about the nature of the church. Using small groups may sound like a retreat from mission, but this is where a new vision can be captured for the overall ministry of the church. A new power will enable the church to reach out effectively. That’s not guaranteed, but there’s a certain dynamic in small cell groups.

Pastors and lay leaders are subject to fads—going back to the 1950s. Now everybody is into small groups. We’re burned out going from one fad to the next.

You seem to be saying that we must turn back the clock and get back into community, small groups, intimacy, koinonia. It seems like they have been tried and some people like them and some don’t.

What you have outlined is precisely the problem. We sometimes hear that a church was killed by koinonitis. What has happened is that churches have added on small groups as another program. That’s not the point. Rather, we must recreate the level of community and raise questions about the nature of the church and the ministry. We must get beyond this program mentality.

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I don’t advocate small groups, period. We need to rediscover “community” as it is understood in Scripture. The life of the church is made up of worship, community, and witness. Most churches concentrate on worship and evangelism or witness. Because of our culture, we have not developed the intensity of community life that is normative for the church.

Some churches have brushed up against these ideas, but haven’t gotten far enough into them to see how they could be integrated into their church. So, after trying this or that, they have gone on to something else. Others have begun to see this vision for the church, as pictured in Scripture, and have learned how to build up the life of the body so that spiritual gifts actually do begin to function as avenues of ministry. Then believers really are equipped for ministry and a vision of the overall kingdom in the world comes alive.

What is “community”?

Unfortunately, we don’t have an adequate English equivalent of New Testament koinonia. “Fellowship” doesn’t do it; “community” is subject to misunderstanding; “communion” is a possibility, but most people associate that with the Lord’s Supper. I use community to mean the church as the body of Christ, the family of God. It means building up the church so that the figures, “the body of Christ,” “the family of God,” “the household of faith,” become sociologically real. We actually do become that kind of fellowship in the way we relate together in the church. Koinonia means “shared life,” not only in our spiritual lives, but also in our social and economic relationships. How this works out will vary from church to church.

Have you been able to carry out your ideas in your own local church?

I’m working with the body to create a greater sense of community. God speaks to the whole body, and we must try to develop a consensus for community—under leadership certainly—but using the gifts of all the people.

Going back to worship, community, and witness, I encourage the kind of worship that focuses on praise to God, but in a way that builds community through times of informal sharing. We aim for the kind of witness that grows out of genuine body life and then extends to relationships in the neighborhood. We’re not calling people to Christ separate from the church, but to new life in Christ and in the body. The primary concern is to build a deeper level of sharing and intimacy. We work primarily through small group Bible studies. We’re in the early stages, but we have agreed that part of our agenda is talking through these issues. Where that will lead, nobody knows. We trust the Holy Spirit to bring consensus rather than a predetermined goal. The specifics depend on what God says to the mix of persons in our particular fellowship.

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You are starting with a church of 30 people. How would you apply this to a church of 500 or a thousand?

Spiritually and sociologically, a church of over 200 can’t have the intimacy of community, unless that church is undergirded by a network of smaller cells. Therefore, in a larger church the key is such a network. It must not be introduced as a program, with the pastor declaring, “We’re all going to be in small groups.” That won’t work. Start with one or two cells and let the network grow. This takes much wisdom, but it can be done and will often produce renewal.

Aren’t these groups shooting off on their own threatening to the pastor, elders, deacons, or the session? Isn’t there a control problem? What about doctrine, such as the use of tongues in a non-Pentecostal church?

Yes, they do threaten the leadership, but that threat must be faced for the sake of meeting the deep human hunger for community. If that need isn’t met by the church, people will either starve or find other ways to meet it. It is much better for the leaders to take the initiative and provide opportunities for small groups rather than try to stamp them out because they might turn out to be charismatic.

The groups do not necessarily go off by themselves. The word “network” is important. These groups have functioned best where there has been both accountability to the elders and interrelationship within the larger church body. Small groups are best controlled not with an organization, but by keeping group leaders in touch with each other.

For example, the pastor could have a primary group of 10 small group leaders, from which other groups will spin off. There is a natural flow of information back and forth, producing not only an accountability structure but also a pastoring structure. Needs are reported to the pastor. Of course, if the groups are healthy, many needs will be met at the level of community, relieving much of the pastor’s counseling load.

Some pastors are threatened by small groups because they haven’t been trained to think of the church in organic terms but in terms of institutional programming. They don’t know how to handle cells. That’s one reason why small groups haven’t worked in some churches; people have tried to graft them onto a model of the church for which they are not congenial.

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You have talked a lot about the nature of the church. What is it?

“Where two or three are gathered together in my name”—that’s a minimal definition. The fundamental reality is, as I say, the community of God’s people. My definition focuses on the internal function of the body. The church is a fellowship of people who have been redeemed by the blood of Jesus Christ and have been joined to God and to each other. These people are ordained for ministry by God, who has given them gifts to carry out the priesthood of believers. The Holy Spirit releases the necessary gifts for the church to be redemptive in society.

You emphasize that all believers are ministers. What is the difference between the lay person and the professional?

Since every believer is gifted, the question answers itself when we discover our gifts and allow the ministry of the church to be determined on the basis of those gifts, rather than trying to squeeze people into already-existing forms of ministry. The challenge for the pastor is to equip the saints for the work of the ministry. But if he has the gifts, he also teaches, preaches, counsels and so on. He must be very capable in the area of discipleship, because the gift of discipling is essential, and the pastoral function is a discipling function.

The pastor’s priority is to invest in a group of people to the point where they become colleagues in ministry. When their own gifts are discovered and developed they become the primary persons to equip the rest of the body.

Parallel with this must come an expanded view of ministry, which includes not just church work, but involvement in the business of one’s neighborhood or town. If someone develops a significant ministry, the church should then consider part-time support, so he could be free to devote more time to the project.

Your concern for intimacy and community seems to run counter to the Robert Schuller model and also to the televised church. How does your emphasis buck the tide against both the super church and religion by TV watching?

The impact of the super church and the electronic church may be short-lived, or may be so subverted by the secular culture that it will lose any redemptive value. Perhaps 20 years from now people will have forgotten church-growth institutes and religious TV shows and be caught up in a much more authentic grassroots renewal of the church.

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Are you hopeful for the future of the local church or pessimistic?

I’m hopeful, because of what the Holy Spirit is saying to us and because of what he has promised to do for the kingdom through the church. I’m encouraged because there are signs that people are taking these things seriously. At the same time, this is a critical test for the church. I suspect that the most transforming movements in the church will not come from North America, but from Third World churches and churches in China.

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