A friend of mine preached a sermon yesterday on experiencing the presence of God. I don't recall exactly what he said, but it put me in mind of an image I've had lately of a choir singing to an empty auditorium, as a type of the American church. That started me thinking further, and I recalled this passage from the minor prophets:
I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!
— Amos 5:21-24
What if God has left the bulding? Would we even know? The news Amos brought must have seemed like a shock to the Israelites when they received it. The feasts they were celebrating were the ones that God had commanded they celebrate for all generations, the music was good, and if that was their style, I'm sure the Israelites "felt the presence of God" when they worshiped. If God isn't listening to our worship, and doesn't want our offerings, how would we even know?
It's not just a rhetorical question. Music is a great way for us to cover up our emptiness and feel spiritual. Younger churches in particular like their worship like they're having a rock concert. The music is loud, and the pounding pulse of the music beat induces an adrenaline rush that we all-too-easily accept as a sign that God is really moving in our midst, especially once the church reaches the tipping point and everyone's properly excited. Older-style charismatic churches play this game too: leaders launch into praise choruses with fast tempos and then at midway switch into slower, more worshipful songs. The pace and tone of the service is so well sculpted and so structured that if you go to the same service long enough, you realize what's happening and you can't help but ask whether these weekly moves of the Spirit -- which too often have tears right on cue -- are really nothing more than clever artifice. Nor are older churches, with their familiar songs played on the familiar sound of the organ, exempt. Sentiment for a familiar hymn, the safety of structure, and sculpted regimen are just as good for filling in the void as adrenaline and masterful manipulation.
What if God has left the building? Would we know?
One of the comforts of fundamentalism is that it provides surety. God is this way. To understand the Bible, you have to use this approach. Anyone who commits these sins is going to burn in hell forever. Among themselves at least, evangelicals aren't quite that severe -- at least many aren't -- but there's still a tendency to reduce God to clever sayings, tidy cliches, comforting Scripture verses and attitudes pertaining to divine sovereignty, grace, Christ's essential friendliness, and the coming judgment on the ungodly, non-Christian world. What if we're structuring our churches, our doctrines, our Bible studies, and our lives just so we can hide from ourselves the fact that God is sick of the insincere flattery we shit out of our mouths every week about how much we love him ("If you love me, you will obey my commands"), want to see his kingdom come on earth as in heaven ("Do not be hearers of the word only, do what it says"), and how we love everyone (except gays, liberals, conservatives, blacks, whites, Arabs, Jews, Muslims, environmentalists, George Bush, Bill Clinton, James Dobson and Benny Hinn)?
Sometimes I wonder if God has told us fuck off, and we were so busy listening to ourselves being spiritual that we never heard him over the din.
If so, we'll probably be the last ones to notice. A friend of mine who is a Buddhist by philosophy told me a few weeks ago that he actually had been an evangelical Christian for a few years, back when he was a teen. He finally left the fold because he was sick of all the junk in the church. Another friend of mine has said a few times that the attitude of other Christians toward her because she is gay has driven her away from any sort of church-based corporate worship. Yet another friend, raised Catholic, can't say a good thing about Christianity, although like the other two, remains intrigued by Jesus and by his message.
Usually when I read stuff like this online, there's some piece at the end that wraps it all up and points to a sign that the church still has it together, or that somebody else over yonder is showing us how to get back on track. Some really daring people will give three or four easy steps to put things right.
I suck at giving comfort. Deal with it. What if God has left the auditorium? What if he doesn't want our money, our religious holidays, or even our worship? How would we even know?