The premise was simple: a Seattle newspaper sent thirty writers to thirty places of worship and had them take notes and write a brief article. It's a multi-denominational array - everything from Ba'hai to the Sea-Tac meditation room and much in between.
What intrigued me was the suspicion with which almost every writer approached the church. Is this something we cause in the "unchurched" naturally? Does it rise out of a series of bad experiences, perhaps even harmful? Are we really so intimidating and banal at the same time?
I hated to read about the crappy music and excruciatingly bad lyrics many of the "praise bands" forced upon worshipers. Is there really a hymn out there that sings "deep inside, I need more of you?" No wonder so many people think we're trying to subvert culture with our own bland form of spiritual must. Friends, let's get this straight once and for all: entertainment is not our business. If you want entertainment on Sunday morning, go to Blockbuster and rent a movie. That goes for bored agnostics and bored people in the pews alike - for crying out loud, stop expecting worship services to be a "show" (and those of you who CREATE that expectation with more focus on music and presentation than content should be ashamed of yourselves as well).
In fact, one can even make the argument that Sunday morning worship services aren't the means by which people come to be believers in Jesus. Frankly, Sunday morning isn't about evangelism immediately - worship is at its nature an interior conversation for the benefit of those who speak the dialect of the local congregation. Sunday morning worship is for us. Sunday morning worship is about equipping the saints for service in the world. It's a time for conversation with God, a time for recharging the batteries of your soul, a time to be reminded that all of us are more than just accidents - the lucky few who come to worship are to be told that the world is God's kingdom and we are privileged to be servants within it.
Now, of course, this doesn't imply that the church should be inwardly turned, nor do I mean to say that we can stop trying to make our dialect more understandable. While on vacation we attended worship at an Episcopal church and found ourselves bewildered by the bulletin and how to follow along in worship; if a lifelong Christian can't follow the service, how would someone entering the church for the first time feel? But neither should our worship be simplified for the lowest common denominator. Worship should challenge but not overwhelm, vigorously invite but not intimidate, graciously encourage but not cheerlead, and above all, joyfully proclaim the good news of Jesus in such a way that all present feel a desire to know that good news better.
It occurred to me that when the following is your mission, any hope of an authentic experience goes right out the window:
But look around. There are churches damn near everywhere in this town—old churches, new churches, mega churches, mini churches. And just what, we wondered, is going on in all those churches? What are they saying? What are they doing? What are they plotting?Yeah - that's the best way to find out why we in the church bother being the church. Had I met one of those writers, I might have challenged them to come back when they were actually interested in what it might mean to be a part of a spiritual community, rather than looking for a reason to bug out at the first opportunity. It's hard to have a conversation with someone who's not listening.
I've railed against our captivity to ourselves and the institutional church for a few years now, thinking that if only we could get past the adiaphora we idolize that things might be different. I still believe this is true: we are in bondage to ourselves, and our addictions to what we've idolized for years (unchanging worship, civil religion, cheap grace, a total lack of family interaction in faith education, control issues, cults of personality, do I need to continue?) do stand in the way of the Great Commission. But I'll admit that I was a little offended at the sullen attitude of the writers in this article, who (it seemed to me) came to worship determined to find fault. Finding fault in the church is easy - at least, it is easy in those churches who are honest about themselves. We can't control the attitudes of those who come to see what we're all about. But we can control our own interactions and how they affect everyone who walks through the door of a Christian worshiping community.
One writer seemed to have the experience on which we should be focusing as God's church. Granted, he has a history in the church; his father is a retired Episcopal priest. But somehow his dread at attending church with his father for the first time in fifteen years was overcome by the sense of community he felt while gathered with the members of one particular congregation. No, he didn't find all the answers (have any of you? If so, let me know, please!). No, he admitted that he's not likely to attend worship again next week. But this was one of his final thoughts:
...now I'm wondering if church might be something more than church after all.
And there you have it - something begins to work. God is still creating, for where there was no faith at all, now there is a question. God be praised, there's a question - and perhaps someone who will try to find the answer.