In this stage of life and ministry, I find myself pondering nuts and bolts Christianity, as well as the purpose and mission of the local church. Many talk about the approaching demise of what is often called “institutional” or “formal” church, being for the most part that gathering on Sunday mornings or through the week where Christians come together for corporate worship, prayer and teaching.
These ponderings have launched us into this series of posts. They have taken shape as pitfalls of our Western, post-modern understanding and practice of Christianity.
Thanks to a combination of the Declaration of Independence (the right to life, liberty and happiness ~ misquoted on purpose) and the spread of democratic ideals, the American Dream has reached the four corners of the earth. It has also infiltrated our understanding of spirituality and church life.
Everyone wants to attend a megachurch.
Thanks to television (basic networks as much as “Christian” TV) everyone can get a glimpse of the biggest and brightest. Preachers speak to crowds of all ages, from suits to the casually dressed, and all are wide-eyed and expectant to hear from the man of God. Worship teams comprised of talented and classically trained musicians provide the backdrop for trained and educated vocalists, working together to lead the congregation in hymns and contemporary song. High tech video and graphics accompany every element of the service. The children’s and youth programs are full-service, equally attractive, and filled with volunteers willing to give you a break from your kids.
We watch services, listen to worship CDs, and read the latest book by the megachurch pastor. We get energized and excited and feel that Holy Spirit rush flow through our own spirits. And then, on Sunday morning, we head out for our own church.
Often we’ve dragged ourselves and our kids out of bed, then rushed and fought through getting ready and driving across town. We pull into the parking lot with the cracked and peeling sign and see the same dozen or two cars that we haven’t seen since last Sunday. Inside we scramble to get our kids to Kids’ Church or Sunday School (if your church is able to offer either of them), and still find a seat before we make ourselves too obvious to everyone else.
Then, through a lens tinted by what we’ve seen, heard and read through the week, we nitpick and take issue with so many facets of our church that aren’t good enough. They’re not as appealing or contemporary or comfortable as they were on television. “The music is old-fashioned, and there aren’t enough instruments or singers.” “The preacher is boring and long-winded.” “Our stage is dull and lackluster.”
At the end of service we leave anxious to get home in time for the television version of our favorite preacher. “What was my pastor’s sermon about Sunday? I’m not sure. But Charles Stanley preached on . . . And Joel Osteen talked about . . .”
We wish we could tell our friends about our church, to have them hear the name of First Christian Church and know exactly what it is and what it’s about. We want to related with pride that we’re a member of the biggest, brightest and best church in town. We’d love to walk through the local bookstore see our pastor’s name on the bestsellers list. “And have you heard the latest CD from our worship team? Wow.”
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think megachurches are evil. It’s just that for all of the popularity, exposure and brand recognition these churches have, they represent a small percentage of churches in North America and other “Western” countries. A large percentage of the rest of Christian churches struggle to emulate, to become the Austin Powers’ “mini-Me” of the megachurch personality the pastor or leaders find most appealing or compatible.
Do you really think, though, that God asks us to go to church to make it famous? To fill large stadiums so we can be on television and write books and be known in the community? Is that what “church” is all about?
Jesus didn’t tell us to be famous; He told us to be servants. Paul said he was a slave, a bond servant of Christ. Jesus told (He didn’t ask) the rich young ruler to sell all he had. “If you want to give it all you’ve got . . . go sell your possessions; give everything to the poor. All your wealth will then be in heaven. Then come follow me” (Matthew 19:21, The Message). He told the disciples, “If anyone desires to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35, NKJV).
Is this the kind of Christianity we’re following? Are we known as servants of one another, or of our communities? Doesn’t Scripture say we’ll be known by our love? I don’t think a glowing with video announcements is the best medium for communicating love, do you?
Everyone wants to be part of a megachurch, but why? Is it because they understand that they can pool resources and advance the Kingdom through projects, missions, and resources? Or is it because they can slip in and out of service or miss a few extra Sundays without being noticed? In most larger churches the majority of attenders don’t connect with others aside from a handshake before the pastor’s message. Sure, the sanctuary is large and the gym and fellowship facilities are state of the art; but how often do people lose out on community?
Are there ways to solve that? Of course there are. But it’s a lot easier to tell who is involved in volunteering or small groups in a smaller church than a megachurch. For some people, Famous Christianity finds it roots in Lonely Christianity. They don’t really want the relationship, the accountability, being interested and invested in others who are interested and invested in them. “That’s far too messy.”
But our search for Famous Christianity is leading to another pitfall. It’s pulling us down into Infamous Christianity. We’ll unpack that one next.