It was a Sunday morning and my first visit to this particular church. After carefully choosing my route through the foyer as to avoid any possible human contact, I found my seat and slumped down into the more than adequately padded pew. The sanctuary probably seated 500, but there were only a handful of people in attendance on this day, and not a single soul was sitting within 20 feet of me. As the organ droned on, I found myself surrounded by an endless diorama of stained glass and enough sculpted wood to make me wonder if a single tree was left standing in the Pacific Northwest. Then suddenly, as if perfectly synchronized with the crescendo of the Prelude, two distinguished looking men in flowing black robes strode into the sanctuary and gingerly seated themselves in unison on the matching mini-thrones planted on opposite sides of the altar. Like a trained lab rat, I immediately began fumbling for my bulletin. And yet, I felt a strange sense of comfort as I remembered that the standard order of worship is a sacred thing that few seem to deviate from in any significant way. As the service began, the announcement was made that today was this church’s 140th anniversary, and by estimating the average age of the congregation, it seemed quite possible that some of its founding members were in attendance. Though you would think the atmosphere would be one of celebration, after crawling our way through a couple of those hauntingly familiar dirges from the 17th Century, this service actually felt more like a funeral. As we stood with our hymnals poised for what seemed like an eternity, the words we had all been secretly longing to hear were finally spoken, “You may be seated.” As we settled ourselves into the crushed velvet, the Senior Pastor slowly arose and took his position behind the massive pulpit that seemed to be elevated unusually high above the rest of us.
The sermon that followed had to have been one of the driest, monotone messages in human history. And though I can’t recall anything he said that morning, I do remember how excited everyone became when a trucker’s CB radio broke through the air waves over the church’s antiquated P.A. system. It was like a breath of fresh air in an otherwise stuffy, and most certainly sleep inducing environment. It was just the bony elbowed nudge I needed to make it through the rest of the service without passing out. During the closing Hymn, first and third verses only of course, I began calculating my escape route. Which door could I get to the quickest? Was it possible to get out to my car without having to talk to anyone? How will I evade the well-meaning ushers who tried to give me a visitor badge on the way in? It was at that point that I thought to myself, “I’ll never be back here again.”
As I reflect on that experience, I have to chuckle at the “you’ve got to be kidding me” factor that surged through my mind as I endured the morning’s proceedings. But even more so, I came away from that event with a deep sense of grief in my Spirit. Even though I’m admittedly not a big fan of the more traditional or liturgical styles of worship, I’m convinced that it was not those elements of the service that left me so cold. Even many “contemporary” church services seem to exude that same kind of soporific impotency. Often, the only difference may be that they’ve had some sort of image make over. Replacing hymns with choruses and the organ with guitars might be a step in the right direction, but any mortician will tell you that no matter how much we try to dress up the dead, there’s really no adequate substitute for a body filled with life and breath. I wish I could say that this Sunday morning scenario was an isolated incident for me. But in fact, this was just one in a string of many similar church experiences I’ve had over the years. And though I was genuinely disappointed by the apparent absence of the Lord’s presence in that service, sadly I was not that surprised.
It’s no secret that the majority of people in this country are no longer attending church. Even many believers seem to be disenchanted by the notion of committing themselves to any local congregation in a significant way. Despite some of the more positive statistics concerning Christians, there’s a marked and seemingly growing lack of interest and subsequent decrease in involvement in the local church as a whole. Not long ago, in the city where we were living at the time, five churches from a particular denomination closed their doors in order to combine their ministries into a single congregation because they could no longer support themselves individually. Some might try to put a positive spin on this kind of “transfer” church growth, but no matter how you slice it, this is not a good sign.
Without question, there are significant pockets of spiritual renewal and many healthy and growing local churches in the U.S. But we must not ignore the multitude of sick and dying cells that are often right next to them. As Paul said in 1 Cor. 12, the body’s “parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it.” Let’s be honest. When we’re enjoying all that comes with being a part of a relatively healthy local church, it’s tough not to become overly focused on our own little corner of the kingdom. When we’re not really suffering, it’s easy to forget those who are. Would you say that most of the churches in your community are in good health and growing? Or maybe it’s your church that’s struggling. Either way, based on the anemic nature of so many of our parts, it seems quite clear that we are due for the next reformation.
It’s been nearly 500 years since Martin Luther slammed a nail into his 95 theses. After all those years, the way we “do church” really hasn’t changed all that much. And for most believers, Sunday morning is still the central focus of the Christian experience. More often than not, one’s faith is more readily identified by where we go than by who we are. When asked, “Are you a Christian?” the most common answer will be something along the lines of “I go to First Baptist”. In theory, we’d probably all agree that Christianity is not an event that we attend regularly. But in truth, that is the way we often think of it. Church has become more about where we go than who we are. This is a problem. So much so that, in many respects, the Sunday morning service has become a pitiful substitute for the abundant lifestyle we were created to enjoy. In the 1500s, church leaders were telling people that they had to pay a fee to get their loved ones into heaven. The motive was to fund the construction of lavish cathedrals. Now we might feel pressure to hold revival meetings or conferences in order to make the church’s mortgage payments. Say what you will, but a healthy percentage of church leaders spend a lot more time and effort maintaining our buildings and programs than we do actually interacting with the people in our congregation. “But we have home groups” we protest. That’s great, and we need more of them. But who are we really doing life with? How many people know and care about who we really are? The person we are when we’re weak, or tired, or unusually fleshy? How often are people in our home if for no other reason than we just enjoy hanging out with them? Not some pre-programmed agenda driven meeting, but genuine, mutually gratifying relationships that would survive with or without the Sunday-go-ta-meetin routine.
One of the core precepts of the next reformation will be the re-discovery of genuine community. Because of the transient nature of our culture, many of us have not lived or functioned in an actual community for many years. If we are 30 or younger, chances are we’ve never experienced the kind of small town living that not so long ago was the norm for most Americans. For example, most of us have little or no relationship with our neighbors. Why is that? It’s not because we don’t want to get to know them, it’s that we don’t want to invest in a relationship that probably won’t go anywhere due to the fact that one of us will most likely be moving again soon. The vast majority of us no longer live in Mayberry where successive generations grow up and eventually die in the same small town… where everyone knows the Sheriff or the town drunk on a first name basis. I’ve only visited the town I grew up in once or twice in the last couple decades. We’ve moved so many different times, I’ve lost count. But like so many others, we’re starting to realize that there is something of primary importance that seems to be missing as a result of our nomadic lifestyle. We must somehow re-capture the kind of genuine community that makes the Christian experience not just tolerable, but actually enjoyable.
In short, although there will always be a need for meetings, we need to admit that many of our “services” just aren’t cutting it anymore. It’s time to be honest about the ineffectiveness of what we’ve been doing on Sunday morning so we can get passed it and on to whatever is next. We’ve been stuck in some kind of comfortable quagmire. Our routine has defied experimentation and exploration. We must somehow shift our focus from having good meetings to living out our faith with each other in the real world. We have to get beyond this dry place that we’ve camped on for so long. It’s time to move out. We are way overdue for the next reformation… a paradigm shift no less significant than the one Martin Luther ignited. The following series of articles is the foundation of my personal 95 theses. If you choose to read on, please know that I’m still “fleshing out” many of my thoughts and ideas on this topic, so I would really appreciate any input or comments. The next reformation is calling.