Sunday, February 13, 2005

left feeling cold

So we had another uninspiring (at least to me) sermon today at Zarephath Community Chapel. The text for the sermon was Colossians 3:12-14. Paul exhorts the readers to clothe themselves in righteousness, and zips through a few things to illustrate what he means: Be compassionate, be gentle, be kind, be patient, be humble and vote Democratic (just kidding).

As I saw the text, I figured, "Hey, this is a great passage to preach from!" It contrasts with the categories of fallen behavior Paul mentioned in the previous verses, and there are so many things you can use it as a springboard for. You could give concrete examples where Christians can be compassionate instead of supercilious, such as gay-right issues; ways to be kind, such as welcoming seniors into your lives, or pitching in at a food shelter; and so on.

Nope. The sermon focused more on the line about forgiving as we have been forgiven, which could have been a great message too, if the pastor had discussed areas where it's hard to forgive, such as a spouse's infidelity, or the countless unthinking indifferences and insensitivities that bedevil human relationships. Instead, at least from what I took away, the sermon was about how great it is to have been forgiven — not by other people, for specific wrongs, but by Christ for our general sin. And even then, the people he asked to share about how nice it is to be forgiven were teens or preteens who had nothing specific to share, just that they enjoyed being forgiven.

Well, yes, I suppose I do too, but isn't something as weakly expressed as that so general as to be utterly meaningless -- especially when the person who confesses to sinning "a lot" has no idea what the heck she's talking about, except at some basic level? These are kids, for crying out loud. What do they know about being attracted to someone other than your spouse, about being so frustrated with your children's screaming that it's all you can do to restrain yourself, about having to forgive a malicious, backstabbing co-worker or a lying, indifferent employer for the ways they keep hurting you and tearing you down? What do they know about having your heart torn out of you because you wanted what you can't have, and you took it anyway, or about dealing with old griefs and pains you thought you buried 20 years ago?

What does such a sermon like this one, treating such an in-depth passage in such a cavalier fashion, do, but make us feel good about ourselves and how lucky we are to be forgiven while the rest of the world is going to hell? It's good to be reminded about grace, but when every sermon — or at least a vast majority of them — is about the redemption Christ offers, and how believers will be spared from God's wrath, I can't help but feel someone's missing the point. Is that really all there is to the gospel? If so, why are we exhorted to bear fruit in keeping with repentance? Why all the talk about a transformed life if there's no evidence of a transformation?

This sort of shallow thinking, which seems so common in evangelicaldom, is one of the reasons I no longer consider myself an evangelical Christian, despite the doctrinal similarities. The gospel has to go deeper than that. Christ calls us to holiness, which means not just a restored relationship with the Father, but a restored set of relationships with our fellow men as well — a real and recognizable community. In fact, it's really impossible to get the relationship with God restored if you're out of any sort of fellowship or relationship with a larger community. If going to church and singing "Amazing Grace" once a week (or even three times a week) is the end-all-be-all of the faith, then why does Christ talk so much about our responsibility to other people. It's one of the two prevailing themes of his preaching, along with "No one gets to the Father but through me."

A friend of mine whom I call Respectfully Brian P. (because that's how he always signs his correspondence) suggested that this approach to sermons is probably deliberate. They do the same thing at his church, and when he talked with his pastor about it recently, he was told it was because they're making the church services "seeker-friendly." In other words, the Sunday worship service is meant to vapid and void of meaning because that's all non-Chrsitians and new Christians are supposed to be capable of understanding. In other words, the worship service is meant for evangelism, and growth is meant to take place at the small group Bible studies most members don't attend.

Pardon me, but that's bass-ackwards.

I'm all for churches being seeker-friendly. By that I mean we don't have a someone at the door to greet you who acts like he's your best friend, even though you've never met before. (That screams "phony" to most people.) It means we avoid buzz words like fellowship, grace, blood of the Lamb, saved, Holy Ghost power, and so on. Put it in simple, straightforward talk that's accessible to the man in the street, because anything else sends a message of "We belong and you don't."

Dumbing down the message is about the stupidest thing a church can do. People who are wrestling honestly with life's questions are going to be turned off by a church that gives pat answers for everything like, "Omigosh, Jesus is just so cool, you know!? And, like, following him has made my life just so much better, you know? Like, totally!" Anyone who knows diddly about Christians knows that our lives aren't perfect, that we still screw things up royally for ourselves and the people around us. And anyone who's been following Jesus for any amount of time knows he usually makes life worse for us, dividing members of families against one another, and bringing pain after pain to our lives. In fact, that's what he promises us. It'snot our happiness that is his chief concern -- it's the glory of his Father.

Christians who tell you that Christ has made them happy all the time either are simple-minded or in denial. Making happiness and the ease of the Christian life the official teaching of a church is inexcusable. Lying to people is a horrible way to bring them into a relationship with Christ.

Going by church tradition and by biblical record, the meetings held on the Lord's Day, i.e., Sunday, are believers' meetings. Those were meetings where the early Christians got together to celebrate the Lord's supper together, to encourage one another, and so on. Especially during periods of persecution, it would have been disastrous to bring someone to church who wasn't a Christian already.

In terms of evangelism and outreach, it makes far more sense to get someone involved in a small group, because that's where the relationships form, that's where people are going to be more honest and open about their doubts and struggles, and that's where you're more likely to get a nonbelieving friend to come out and return again and again, because of the intimacy of the group.

The dumbing-down of church services "for evangelism" is one of the all-out stupidest, most lame-brained, ill-conceived ideas ever to be blamed on the leading of the Holy Spirit in recent American church history, not to mention one of the most condescending.

(That's not to say that small groups should be dumbed-down either. I've never been at a Bible study with a nonbeliever who complained it was too deep. Honesty, brokenness, Christlikeness -- these are the things that will really win people over to Christ, not keeping everything at a beginner's level.)

The sad thing is, Rob Cruver is a decent preacher. I don't doubt his commitment to the Lord is real, but I can't help feeling empty inside after church each week. Heck, I feel empty inside during church each week.

I'm supposed to meet with him a week from Thursday, when I hope to spring some of this on him, in a loving and respectful way. I'm not sure what I hope to accomplish, really. The meeting is supposed to be to discuss ministry opportunities at Zarephath, which is essentially what I want. I don't want to be plugged into a standard ministry slot, nor do I want to stage a confrontation where we end up angry at each other, each convinced the other guy is missing the point or otherwise a hopeless case. I'd like to generate honest discussion about what I would like to bring to the church and whether it matches what the church wants from its attendees and members.

If not, I guess it'll be time to move on, and I'm really sick of looking for a new church.


Fortunato said...

Obviously today's Sunday morning service is a blip on the map, much better suited for 'corporate worship' than a deep and detailed sermon. (It doesn't help that we've simply pencilled God in for 90 minutes once a week and think it's enough.)

Being a worship leader means I've been in the arguments about "what songs are acceptable" if we are to be "seeker friendly."

That smacks far too much of an advertising campaign. I prefer the word "sensitive" or "considerate" (in the terms of being sensitive to where people are and how to communicate with them, first by speaking the right "language") and drop the "seeker" out of it.

If they show up at church in the first place, they're seeking -- they want to make a connection and find God. They WANT to communicate and listen to what we have to say.

If they're being forced to come to church (whether directly or indirectly), they're not seeking and thus will not make any shift in attitude unless it be completely by God's grace. What's the point in dumbing down a service in an ill-fated attempt to win those who are not interested in the first place? (They're looking to criticize and find something wrong, and invariably they will; and it's far better to be criticized for loving God than for being vapid).

So who are we dumbing the service down for?

To cut to the chase, seekers are looking for something real, and this 'realness' involves community -- people who take in interest in them, people who actually seem to care, people who do not hide themselves and remain faceless even after repeated visits. That's the face of Jesus -- not the ineffectual, irrelevant picture often offered as part of the misguided marketing campaign of some churches.

I'd rather have them witness the power of God during a service through changed lives than spoon-feed them an intellectual argument (i.e., manipulate them like I would an audience or consumer base) to get them to do what I want.

If it's about a relationship, the old concept of "seeker service" doesn't work anyway. You can add numbers to the church roster, but the people aren't really connected to God -- so the numbers simply aren't there anyway.

BT0Q said...

Some good thoughts about being, or not being, "seeker friendly." My experience here is being part of a church that decided to hold back what we would allow the Holy Spirit to do on a Sunday morning, in order to be more palatable to seekers. Yes, it is possible to hold back the Spirit -- He will not force Himself where He is resisted. The critical error was that we thought that letting the Spirit move would somehow turn off newcomers, make them feel uncomfortable, or somehow scare them away.

In fact, seekers are there to seek something; and we better get busy giving them the only thing that we have that is worth anything at all -- a genuine encounter with God. (Not that we "give" anything to anyone, or that we somehow have the ability to "grant" an encounter. All that we do is corporately seek to be in God's presence, and perhaps others who are with us will somehow sense something different, something strange, something unusual. Its in those moments that we are looking to God to accomplish something in our midst, and in the hearts of the seeker. Its then that we practice what we say we believe – that God is already at work in these people, and that he can use these times to reach them wherever they are at. In some sense, we are all just seekers.)

We certainly need to do our best to eliminate unnecessary barriers to seekers. That includes working hard to use normal language instead of our easy evangelical catch-phrases (saved, born again, saved by the blood, redeemed, sanctified, etc.). Nothing wrong with these, except that only those in the club know what they mean, and even some of them don’t. So if we do know what “saved by the blood” means, why don’t we try to explain it now and again, just to get everyone on the same page?

Eliminating barriers also means explaining to newcomers what’s going on. Why is everyone kneeling? What page should we be on? What song are we singing? Didn’t we sing this verse, like, 20 times already? It also means not embarrassing them (“OK, I see that we have some visitors with us today – why don’t you stand up and introduce yourselves?” “OK, or I could just shove this pencil in my eye instead!”), giving them some space, and giving them the opportunity to get more information.

Actually, if you are involved with helping your church become more “seeker friendly,” the best thing that you can do is go visit some churches, preferably not in or even remotely close to your denomination; best is to another religion! You will start to get an idea very quickly what kinds of things are important to visitors. You might learn that one of the best things that you can do is give newcomers a chance for a quick exit.

I can’t resist another barrier. How about starting the service on time? Visitors will reliably arrive the first time at least 15 minutes ahead of the advertised start time; they are not sure of the directions, want to be sure to get an inconspicuous seat, and perhaps think its courteous to have their butts in the pew at the beginning of the service. If the rest of the congregation arrives 15 minutes after the start time, you are looking at 30 minutes that will suck the life force out of any visitor. And you can be sure that they won’t be on time next week – they won’t come at all.

Perhaps my first point, though, is most important of all – we need to be real. Real with God, real with newcomers, with each other. Do we sin, have problems with our spouses, do we get bored in church, sometimes doubt that its real, fight with our brothers? Sure. Is there forgiveness for those things, power to overcome, and grace to move past them? Absolutely. We have to be sure we have something worth giving away before trying to give it away. Our Sunday morning service should reflect who we are, or else we are just fooling people, and visitors can smell that a mile away.

Anonymous said...

are you done complaining yet? telling people your negative thoughts? say something positive not what you don't like. and if you don't like it tell the pastor instead of spreading slander across the web. you sound sorry and weak. finally, if you don't like the church then leave!

marauder said...

Done complaining? Heck, no, I'm barely getting started!

1) It's cold outside.
2) I cut myself shaving.
3) The bread wasn't done when I took it out of the oven this morning. What the heck is up with that?
4) Your hair looks really ugly.
5) I have a really bad itch on my back that I can't get.

To your other comments, heck, I spoke to the pastor of that church ages ago and presented my concerns to him. We had a really good talk.

The problems I'm describing aren't limited to one church. I had thought it was pretty clear from the post that I'm talking about a larger problem facing Christianity in America today, particularly evangelical churches. It's one of the reasons people are leaving evangelicalism in droves and returning to older denominations or just plain leaving.

Slander is spoken. If it's in print, then it's libel. And for it to be either, it has to be false and it must be demonstrably written with a defamatory intent. Editorializing is something else, and only the weak hide behind charges of slander and libel when they hear something they don't like.

I left Zarephath years ago, and evangelicalism years before that. Still with Christ, though. I must fully confess to weakness.

But trust me on your hair. You really need to do something different with it.