Seeing as how I have a break from my duties at my home church, I have decided to follow my own oft given advise and venture out to other churches just to see what the cultural landscape looks like and to stretch myself a bit. A couple of weeks ago I went to an evangelical high Anglican church. I was wanting to see something a little more traditional and according to the latest news about red wine and health, I needed a shot of the real thing. It was a rewarding experience. It was also interesting to be at a church that was not to concerned about whether I was there or not. There were no greeters at the door, no one really noticed when I came in, and they did not say anything to me as I left. This is not a criticism, but just an observation. They did not let anything take them away from their reverential service in which things were done in a particular order. Because of this, it was not their purpose to fill the pews with guest. If a guest came in, great. They could stay and worship, but they were not going to do back flips and moonwalk for anyone but Christ. This week I went to a church that was just the opposite. It was much more charismatic in its style and had an overkill with regards to recognizing newcomers. From the moment we got in the parking lot, there were signs welcoming us along with parking lot attendants waving. These guys were so enthusiastic, you would think that they had been trained at Disney World. The signs pointed to valet parking for first time guests. I would have taken them up on the offer, but pride always rules (oh, and then there is that awkward feeling that you are supposed to give them some money even when they say they don’t take it). We were greeted by another enthusiastic character, a very nice young man, who led us around. When we told him we were first time visitors, he said “Oh, VIPs?” We then were introduced everywhere we went under this title “VIPs” (Very Important Persons). When others would hear that we were VIPs, they would have a look of excitement mixed with anxiousness. The anxiousness seemed to come from an underlying understanding that their church was focused on bringing in newcomers. They led us to the children’s area. Here most of the kids were playing video games along a long wall which had the game consoles built into the wall. The room itself was a huge room that must have been designed by the same person who designs Chuck-E-Cheese. Seriously! (Although this is not as cool as the church a went to a few months ago where you had to climb a jungle gym two stories high and then slide through the wall in the foyer into the Children’s area). There was an elf that met the children at the door. Also in this room was a store that had Barbies, action figures, Brats Dolls, and all of the most popular items that you would find in a Toy-R-Us catalog the day after thanksgiving. In order for kids to get the merchandise, they had to say a memory verse and earn store credits. You know what is coming. The first thing my kids say to me is “Daddy, can we start going to this church?” Can you blame them? For kids, this was a dream church.
Well, I really try to keep an open mind about these things knowing that one persons church is not another’s. But I had yet to go to the main service. As we walked in, I had to dodge the camera and squint to see the stage. It was dark and there was production smoke everywhere. We sat down and listened to an incredible performance by the worship team who sang many songs I was very familiar with. They were Christ centered and I sang along. I even put my hands up in the air for the first time when they told me to (hey, when in Rome). My wife looked at with the “I cannot believe that YOU are really doing that” smile/laugh. No really, she had the I-am-hiding-my-face-because-my-husband-is-in-one-of-those-weird-aggressive-moods-and-he-is-going-to-make-a-fool-of-me look. In reality, it was very good. It could have been an opening act to a U2 concert.
After the worship, then came the announcements. That is where things really got interesting. Instead of the normal Baptist list of things giving from a random person from the pulpit, the lights went dark and there was silence. On the screens up above there were prerecorded announcement videos. These were not just your hey-I-got-a-new-digital-camera-and-I-am-now-a-professional-editor videos. But they could have been aired during the Super Bowl. Yes, they were that good. And funny! They went through four separate announcement. The first was to welcome special guests. Then one for the men’s ministry, followed by one for the women’s ministry and one for a marriage seminar that was coming up. All the videos had a different theme and was a top rate production. They were funny enough to be on Saturday Night Live (ok, that is an exaggeration, but they were funny–kinda). I could not believe how much time and energy must have gone into making these videos. And they do it each week! (I can’t even get one short video commercial for RMM–blast it!).
Then comes the sermon. The message itself was good and helpful, but better suited for a Zig Ziggler seminar on self-motivation. He used Mark 7:33 to teach that Christ wants to deal with us each individually and wants our words to be for edification because what we think, we are. How did he get this you ask? Well, let me show you.
Mark 7:33 Jesus took him aside from the crowd, by himself, and put His fingers into his ears, and after spitting, He touched his tongue with the saliva; “Jesus took him aside”=Jesus wants to deal with us each individually
“Jesus spit”=Jesus had to form the saliva in his mouth before He spit, therefore, we are to let Him form our words.
“[He] put His fingers into his ears…He touched his tongue…and his ears were opened and his speech impediment was removed” (v. 35)=sometimes we don’t hear people rightly because we already have the wrong words in our mouth. Therefore, we have to have the right words in our mouth.
Well, at least the principle are true generally, even if it has nothing whatsoever to do with the text. God does want us to listen to others and he does want us to think about what we say. As well, I believe that their is an individualistic way in which God wants to relate to us.
Once the service was over, I went and drug my kids out of the amusement park (literally) and then began to reflect.
A few points of observation (the good, the bad, and the ugly):
I really think that these people have the best of intentions
They did represent excellence in arts and entertainment and thereby bring glory to God
They were very outreach oriented
They had Starbucks
The focus on entertaining newcomers caused them to lose the focus of truth.
The focus on entertainment took resources away from the training of the pastors to accurately handle the word of God–the very foundation of truth from where the idea of Church comes.
The focus on entertainment smacked of irreverence. I am not one of the high church mentality, but doesn’t the purpose of worship and study of God’s word call for seriousness at some point? There was never a time when I felt that these people knew what it meant to fear the Lord.
I want to be really clear. I don’t have anything against amusement, entertainment, or fun. I don’t even mind it in church to some degree (I wish that some preachers would just try to entertain A LITTLE). If they had just called this an event rather than church. Call it a Christian concert, carnival, parade, entertainment production, or whatever, but please don’t call it “church.”
The sad fact is that there was no educational program for people to grow deep in the faith. There were plenty of opportunities for service, outreach to the community, and fellowship, but nothing that helped these people understand the why of what they are doing. I don’t necessarily expect these type of churches to do church the exact way that I would tell them, but at least have as one of the involvement suggestions a program like The Theology Program to encourage your people to know the God they are serving.
These people had no connection to the past whatsoever. They would have no idea about the history of the church outside of the history of their local gathering. What are they connected to? What makes them think that they are qualified to bring all these visitors in? Don’t thay feel the least bit of a need to have a heritage? Are they not accountable to anyone past or present?
The biggest fear that I have is that this is representative of so many well meaning people who start churches. I imagine the person who started this particular church grew up in a very boring church and set it as his primary goal to someday have a church that was fun. That is nice, but totally destructive. The pews are filled with people who are weak and possible totally unestablished in the faith since they really don’t know what it is outside of “Jesus loves you and wants you to have a wonderful life.” Many claim Jesus, serve Him, and lift up their hands in praise, but what happens when someone or something challenges their faith? Where are they going to turn? To the shallowness of the entertaining commercials or out of context self-help lessons? Where will they go when the foundations are destroyed? It is this context that give unfortunate illustrations to books like Walking Away From the Faith by Ruth Tucker. “I was a Christian who used to go to church every week, served on the welcoming team for years, lifted my hands in worship each week, went to other countries and built churches, but I have found out that it was all false.” Really? What I want to know, is did you ever find out that it was really true in the first place.
I could go on, but this experience has confirmed to me the desperate shape that the modern church is in and the need that we have for theological renewal. When things get tough (and the will), you will people will turn to what they truly believe and the enterianment, laughter, and fun will serve no purpose. May God grant us a mindset to give people their true needs, not their felt needs.
Theology first, mission second, fellowship third, and if there is any room, throw in some entertainment.