I'm not going to try to be eloquent or clever here. I'm just going to vomit out something I've been thinking about a lot lately: Church. Not my church; church in general. A certain way of doing church actually. My thinking about this kind of church peaked this past weekend when I spent time with a small denomination Seventh Day Adventists. It was a youth event. Something I rarely do, especially alone with my acoustic guitar. But these kids were so different from other kids I've spent time with. They listened. And afterwards they talked with me for over an hour - about Napoleon Dynamite, Mormonism, favorite classes etc. But they also asked great questions and, without being show offs at all, could incorporate scripture and and life experience into the conversations about their beliefs and how they differ from other denominations. They spoke naturally about community service and volunteering at church. I can't describe it well; they were just mature, more mature than most youth I meet and definitely more mature than I was at their age - maybe even at my age today.
One pastor explained how they do church, how they've always placed training above entertaining. And how the fun still happens but it's just not the center of their youth ministry and it's not all a kid remembers when she grows up. This is different - he said - from event driven churches. What's an event driven church?
Event driven churches supposedly think of church as that thing that happens on the Sabbath. Event driven church staffs put the bulk of their time, thought, money and people into Sunday morning - into those three or four hours when members and "seekers" are on the church premises together in one room singing and listening. The event is "big church". The church service is a well done concert, is entertaining, is engaging, is articulate and excellent in every way, it's everything the church has to "attract" people. It is an attraction, a spectacle. It's the front lines of doing church. That room, those few hours on Sabbath. That's the focus of the church. The main thing.
Seekers, it's reasoned, will accept Jesus if we can get them to come to and accept church, and they won't come to church unless it's cool, simple, perfect/excellent and makes scripture instantly applicable in four easy steps beginning with the letter P.
Everything else - more detailed bible study in smaller groups (Sunday School or cell groups), one on one discipleship (if it exists at all), service to the community (ditto), evangelism, mercy showing, peace making, counseling, global missions, teaching of any kind outside of "big church" - these things come second, a distant second sometimes, to the event of Sunday morning's largest gathering or, for many youth groups, the event of Wednesday night church services - their largest gathering.
The event model of church isn't bad in and of itself. I love how well event driven churches do Sunday morning services. Incredible creativity and professionalism. It's not what they're doing wrong in their church service that I'm pondering today (that's just methodology), it's what they might not be doing that leaves me wanting something more (I think this has something more to do with theology: what Jesus cares about beyond the church service.) What happens, for instance, when a young person graduates from high school and moves off to college where they're unable to find a church that provides the same level of excellence their home church provided on sunday morning? What if the church service was all the ever knew of church, because that's what was emphasized the most by the church? What happens when that college church - taking in lower offerings because of the lower incomes of their college congregation - is fresh out of jumbo trons, smoke machines and strobe lights? What happens when church is boring by comparison there or in the smaller town that student moves to for their first job? What happens when all their faith consists of is a people called church (not an event) and a book called the bible (and not a power point presentation) and sermons named for chapter and verse (not named for the latest blockbuster movie or TV show) and opportunities to serve (not opportunities to sit and hear and see)? What happens when the preacher wears a suit or the band is replaced by an organ or a guy with a guitar struggling to get through the four chords he knows?
What happens is 90% of evangelical young people leave church when they graduate from high school, perhaps in part because it's hard to find a church outside the big city willing to bend over backwards to please the crowd while teaching the crowd. They grow up and get bored with anything less than the entertainment level and excellence of home. That - I was told - doesn't happen to the same degree in Adventist churches. People leave, but there's no mass exodus after graduation, perhaps because their faith goes deeper than a Sabbath event and seeker preaching.
I'm pretty convinced, after five years of travel and church services across the country, that we do event church services not because they "reach" the non-Christian better than other kinds of church but because they retain the Christian. They retain me. And I'm convinced as well that event churches in general - the one's I've been to - don't do a good job of taking "seekers" deeper and farther in their understanding of Christianity after they've prayed the sinner's prayer. These churches instead offer simple surface teaching in "big church", Sunday school, midweek bible study, small groups and in the requisite on campus book store. This is especially odd since these churches often attract professionals with degrees, sometimes even advanced degrees. It's as if we pastors think folks can design a building or perform surgery but are too stupid to understand scripture. It's as if we think a fifteen year old can learn Algebra and build a web site but can't moved beyond Daniel and the Lion's den in his faith. So we have churches full of believers taught like seekers. Don't we?
We've got some pastors coming here to SHLOG.COM who work in such churches. I'm not attacking you. I do things this way in fact. But I'm wondering if I should and I want you to help me think through this. Think about this with me. Honestly. Your Sunday morning is packed, but how hard is it to get nursery volunteers? Your people love the video clips you run but how involved in the drama of those hurting around them are they? You put your best and brightest, your largest staff and financial appropriations, the bulk of your care and attention and planning into Sunday morning services and you do it very well but how much are you investing in teaching Sunday school teachers how to teach, in making sure what is taught is true and well presented, in discipling the next generation of pastors? You can tell what a church loves buy how it spends people and money and time can't you? Where is yours spent? In meeting physical and spiritual needs of people around the world, in creating disciples who follow Christ and have a deep and thorough understanding of scripture and are able to talk about it and reason as Paul did outside church walls? In connecting people to needs inside and outside the church, in being the solution and the hope of the world? In bringing Heaven's perfection here now to our relationships and communities? Or in creating an event in your building designed to get people signed up for Heaven SOMEDAY when they die? What do you honestly worry most about: the number of people coming to your church or the number of people leaving your church more like Jesus? One pays the bills and the other might not right? Or is it more about philosophy than economy? Not sure it is for me.
I'm not irritated with anyone in particular. I hate print because motivations are so often communicated by eyebrows and hand gestures aren't they? I just admire denominations like Adventists who, as uncool as they may seem, do discipleship and service very well in spite of their less entertaining Sabbaths. And I was an evangelist for the event church model for years,, fought with "old" guys with words like "relevant" and "cutting edge" and now I feel very wrong for having done so, and I see more and more the downsides to drinking that Kool-Aid, the damage it's done to me and others. I'm for a moment wanting more boring church services or less time put into them, but I'm wondering if we can put the same amount of care into what's taught (not just how it's taught) and into other purposes of church like missions, service, justice, mercy, community etc. I'm thinking a lot about the things we/I care about most and the things Jesus seems to have cared about most. I wonder if He would spend $250,000 on a big screen, $100,000 on a catwalk and intelligent lighting, thousands more on plush interiors or would he build a housing project for low income families or spend more on mission work, start cottage industries in unused church space, buy sonogram machines for crisis pregnancy centers, train the unemployed, pay people's bills, start a free medical clinic, provide free counseling for members, give scholarships, fund the underground churches of the world, train foreign pastors in theology etc etc.
Would he demand that members of his church volunteer to work in the nursery as parts of the "body" of Christ or would he pay outsiders to do that for them and essentially let them off and teach them that they have no responsibility to each other? I wonder if he would sign any warm body up to teach Sunday school and then let them say and teach whatever they felt like without ever checking in or would he train teachers as Paul trained Timothy even if it meant there were fewer of them? Would he start a baby church that watches taped sermons every week from the mother church's pastor (man, this is happening a lot now) or would he invest in discipling a pastor to teach there instead? Would he insist on music from a band in every service or insist on service to the community from every Christian? What would matter most to him? Would he so over-stress the importance of entertainment in church that his youth group would walk out on Toby Mac for being boring (ours did a few years back) or would they be respectful, eager to learn and listen even to an old guy with a guitar - though of course they'd/we'd all appreciate entertainment - just not demand it? Would his youth be cool or disinterested in cool, above and beyond cool? Or could even Jesus get teen agers to stop caring what people think about them?
These aren't rhetorical questions for me. I don't have the answers to most of them but I'm asking because I don't like some of what doing church the event way has done to me and to so many of us? Do you? IKON is full of young people who've given up on church but for whatever come to IKON because it's not emphasizing the same things. Is that good? I'm not sure. Is there a different way? What's that look like? Can we make Sunday services important and excellent but not the top priority or at the very least make other aspects of church a priority as well? What do you think?