I’m confused. Just when I think I start to figure things out, God says, “Calm down Michael.”
As many of you know, I often like to take a break from my church and explore what is going on in other places. Today was one of those days. Due to my confusion, I don’t have a pulpit with me right now. Therefore, I am comfortable revealing names and places. I went to Life Church today. This is not so unusual as I have been there before. The main campus is just a couple of miles down the street.
Life Church is one of those things that makes someone of my tradition scratch their heads. I have scratched a big portion of my hair out today. Life Church is somewhat of a phenomenon. It has become quite legendary due to the way church is done. They are more technologically savvy than Paramount pictures. Let me just briefly describe the service today to help you out.
This summer the theme has been “Life Church at The Movies” (or something like that). When you walk in there are huge posters that are done in the theme of Toy Story. These are the kind of posters that we would have to create a separate line item at the Credo House to cover. They were visually stunning. But that is not even half of it. In the lobby, everything is decorated according to a movie theater/Toy Story theme. “Decorated” is a bad word as it was much more than just decoration. It was a movie theater entrance. And a nice one at that. On the other side of the lobby, there were artifacts from the Toy Story set. You would not believe it. They had a twelve foot etch-a-sketch. I think it actually worked! Andy’s room was set up perfectly in a separate roped off area. They even had an eight foot tall game machine like the one that the aliens were taken from in Toy Story 1 (you know . . . those guys who say “you have saved our lives, we are eternally grateful”). I could go into more detail, but you get the idea.
Wait…I have some pictures.
The idea during this movie series is to show twenty or thirty minutes of an inspirational movie and then draw lessons from it. Today the movie was “The Blind Side.” Last week it was “Walk the Line.” The messages were great. The typical motivational seminar type stuff with some Christian justification behind it. Not too much scripture. Certainly not any expositional preaching.
Now I need to back up a bit…
I am from a tradition that is in a love/hate relationship with this kind of stuff, with hate tipping the scales more often than not. Its called by many names: “seeker-sensitive,” “seeker-friendly,” or the more pejorative “seeker driven.” I went to seminary when all this seeker stuff was hotly debated. Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Church was the book to read and your spirituality was based on how much you hated it. The biggest and, for many, most definitive criticism of the “seeker” mentality is that while there is evangelism that happens, discipleship can hardly be found. Like a friend of mine often says, “Tastes great, less filling.” Michael Spencer used to call this movement the “Evangelical circus.”
Now, I have to come clean and admit something here. There is a sense in which those like me actually want these type of churches to fail. That is hard for me to admit. In fact, I am thinking about taking that line out. But it is true. “See . . . I told you so” are words that are often on the tip of my tongue ready to be interjected at the slightest hint that the “seeker” churches have compromised or failed. What a terribly sinful entanglement that I have. I admit it. There is no justification for that.
Okay, back to the story…
I sat down by some big biker dude. He was awesome. Long hair, bandanna, and long ungroomed beard. For a moment, I thought he might be a prop for the set. Then I looked across the church and saw that he was not so uncommon. None of these people looked like “churchy” people at all. The majority were under forty and dressed in the same thing they were going to wear for the rest of the day (or the same thing they wore last night). Did I mention flip-flops? Lots of flip-flops (including mine). Concerning my biker neighbor, I did not know anything about him. I did not know what sins he struggled with, how his marriage was, or what he did the night before. However, I could tell that he was glad to be there and he seemed to really love Jesus. I was glad he was there too. In this place, for better or worse, the curtain between the church and the culture was wrent in twain. The atmosphere was one of grace and excitement.
Was the lesson impactful? For me, it was a 3 on a scale of 10. Sure, I felt a bit of conviction “to go,” as the message said, “and find someone in need and be an influence upon them.” But it is one of those things. In order for it to really have any chance of lasting beyond a fly in the ointment of my conscience for the day, the conviction level must be above a 6. Otherwise it is just one-day-guilt. I normally respond better to those messages that are grounded in Scripture and illustrated by a movie rather than grounded in a movie and illustrated by Scripture. (There, got my one cheap shot flowing with snarkiness out. I feel a tincy bit better.)
However, there was something different going on there. Something that was intoxicating. Something that my spirit had been deprived of but I failed to realize it until now. A spiritual anti-depressant if you will. It was the power of the Gospel. But not this alone. It was the power of the Gospel as it was proclaimed to so many people who had never heard it. From what I understand, there were hundreds, even thousands, of unchurched people there. Seems right. It is a “seeker” church. That is what all the production is for: to get unbelievers to come hear the message of Christ by whatever means (within reason) necessary. We were informed that over four-hundred people accepted Christ last week during the “Walk the Line” message. Now, I take those numbers with a grain of salt. However, I would not be surprised if there are not a lot of people who are being ushered into the kingdom at this church. Whatever people might think of Craig Groeschel (the lead pastor) and his philosophy of ministry, he gives one of the clearest presentations of the true and uncompromised Gospel that I have ever heard. It is this that is so exhilarating. To witness the evangel (the Gospel) being proclaimed to so many in need is a vitalization, for me, of what we are about. You must understand, being from this part of town and growing up living on the other side of the Christian train tracks, these people represented hundreds of my friends and acquaintances that I grew up with who I could never get to come to my church or show up for a Bible study, but were sitting there willingly listening to what Christ has done for them and how to be forgiven.
It has been a long time since I have wanted to stand up and cheer, but today I jumped off the wagon of evangelical stagnation and was reminded about why we are here. It is this vitalized celebration of my heart that has confused me. I want with all of my stubborn being to say how wrong Life Church, the new Mecca of seeker churches, has got it. But I can’t.
What I have been coming to realize over the years is that there is simply no one way to do church. I think that this is a strength of Evangelicalism. We can stretch in many directions. Evangelicalism has its arms open wide to a varied set of liturgies, from high church formality to Toy Story lobbies. Neither do I don’t think that there is one transcendently right way to do church. I am not arguing for seeker churches, but I am not arguing against them either. They have their place, and I think it is about time to recognize how God is using them in spite of all our “yeah, buts.” There are some churches that are good at the discipleship, but lack in outreach. There are some churches that are good at community, but lack in strong teaching. There are some churches that are good at connecting with the past, but have no connection to the present. And there are some that are good at converting the lost, but don’t know what to do with them after.
I have yet to find the perfect church. I am coming to think that our territorialism is the biggest problem. We want to throw rocks at the church across the street for not having the strengths of our church, while not recognizing our weaknesses. We have a distorted self-defense that clinches its fist when people are not doing things the way we think they ought to. While I think churches should be as balanced as they can, maybe the individual churches should unclinch their fists and begin to hold hands with those who don’t share their strengths but do cater to their weaknesses. I am not so sure that we should see ourselves as “belonging” to any one church.
When Paul would write to the churches, he never addressed any particular group or gathering within the larger whole. He did not write one letter to the “First Baptist Church at Corinth” and one to the “Evangelical Community Church at Corinth.” While I am sure there were many individual house gatherings by that time, all having strengths and weaknesses, he wrote to “the church at Corinth.” No territorialism. No rocks. No preference. Everyone saw themselves as parts of the whole. It is the whole that needed the message. This is how he wrote to all the churches. I figure that were he to write to my church, it would be addressed to “the church of Oklahoma City.” The problem is that we are so busy throwing rocks, criticizing each others’ weaknesses, and territorially worried about our own church’s budget, that we would probably not recognize the other churches and share the letter.
Do churches have gaping holes of weakness? Certainly. Is discipleship a hole in Life Church. I think it is. Does Life Church need to change their style. No. What they are doing is incredible. Where else would my biker friend feel welcome? They, like all local churches, need to recognize that they are only one part of something bigger. Having gapping holes of weakness does not mean that we have to have gapping holes of neglect. If Christ-centered churches saw themselves as a part of a larger community of churches, then we could all work together to provide the balance that is needed. Then people like me could do more celebrating than criticizing.
Today, God helped me to celebrate the “Evangelical circus.”