02 December 2008

Six Flags Over Jesus

“Yeah, that’s good. I guess I was thinking a little less theologically and more practical philosophy of ministry stuff. For example, missional is the opposite of attractional. The attractional church puts on the dog and pony show to get people in the door. Being a sacramental church seems to free us from the need to put on some other program. I’ve been feeling very whiny lately about the way modern evangelicalism has put a lot of pressure on po’ widdle me to provide a full service church for religious consumers. In a sacramental church I imagine I could say, “Look, I’ll minister the Word and sacraments. Y’know, the stuff that gets you to heaven? You want any of that other crap you can do it yourself.” ”

This was a quote from a Lutheran pastor on another blog. It encapsulates well one of the issues I have with the modern evangelical church model. I’ve been involved with various contemporary evangelical churches for over 20 years now. And as my previous mentions on my religious mutt background attest, they aren’t confined to one denomination or any denomination at all. These churches span the spectrum including Assemblies of God, Southern Baptist (my parents’ church, not mine), United Methodist, non-denominational charismatic and non-denominational non-charismatic. To varying degrees, all of them have a sort of “all things to all people” approach. Now, don’t take that to the nth degree or anything. All of them are solid, Bible-believing churches well within the evangelical mainstream doctrinally. And these churches are run by and attended by many, many people who love God. But their ministry approach definitely reflects this notion.

Here’s the problem: it is an exhausting and expensive model to maintain. Almost every one of these churches have activities and “ministry opportunities” going on all week long. There are home cell groups, men’s ministries, women’s ministries, Bible studies, children’s church, nursery, Sunday Schools, singles groups, divorce care, puppet teams, drama teams, a contemporary service, a traditional service. The sheer amount of manpower to head up all of these things and keep them running year around can be staggering. Factor in that when it involves someone that has the gift of teaching or another specific talent, and that there aren’t necessarily a ton of those people in a given congregation, the burn out potential is rather high for the handful that get called on all the time to run these things.

Then there’s the praise band, the orchestra, the choir, the audio/visual team, the props team. The bar has been seriously raised in this regard over the years. Not only do you need people with the expertise to do all this stuff, but also, it’s not cheap. Lighting, sound gear, video equipment, computers and software…the stuff you find in many contemporary churches rival what you’d see at a rock concert a few years ago.

And what is the effect on the congregants? I don’t want to paint everyone with one broad brush, but this game of oneupmanship between churches (state of the art technology, elaborate children’s ministry classrooms, etc) tends to create a consumerist mentality. We shop for a church based on superficial concerns. Rather than settling into a church where true fellowship happens, we get lured by the sheer deluge of opportunities. Collective activity replaces real community. Cool and “relevant” (the most tired and overused word in Christian circles) presentations and videos overshadow that which has sustained the Church for 2000 years: the ministry of the Word and the sacraments.

Also, the net effect of the money and manpower that it takes to keep all these plates spinning and working to their full potential is that there are a lot less people-hours and dollars going toward the church reaching past its own four walls and just ministering to itself and instead reaching its community. How often do we hear conservative Christians rant against government welfare programs and the taxes needed to sustain them while pulling up every Sunday to a concert hall with a pint-sized Six Flags Over Jesus right next to it?

What if the church focused on having a reasonable worship and educational space that is conducive to the sacred (read: you’re allowed to have it look pretty and have an aesthetic that denotes that it’s a place of worship, not a warehouse, gymnasium or someone’s oversized living room), resisted the temptation to just keep building and building rather than church planting and then focused those resources of people and money toward serving the community they live in? All kinds of possibilities come to mind but some ideas would be: weekly free car repair for single women/mothers, free tutoring services for kids in a disadvantaged area of town, organizing volunteers to help the homeless, linking up with existing ministries like Habitat for Humanity, putting our pro-life beliefs into practice by starting a program and fund to encourage women locally not to abort but to give their child up for adoption (and having many more Christian families consider this other than when they can’t have biological children), organizing and funding free health clinics for the uninsured.

I could go on for days. You could probably think of many others. These are the kinds of things we could be doing…if we weren’t taxing ourselves with programs, ministries and expenses that leave us tapped out both financially and physically. And I will guarantee you, if we started handling church this way, concentrating on being (as the quote put it) missional and sacramental rather than attractional, the reputation of the Church and Christians in this world would be much, much different. You don’t draw people to Jesus by your amazing technology and Swiss Army knife ministry approach. People are drawn to Him the same way they always have been, through love and serving.


separateunion said...

I actually wanted to write a blog along the same lines as this one, but I haven't had the time to sit down and write a blog in quite awhile. The whole attempt to be relevant is what turned me off to the church for quite awhile. Being involved in Campus Crusade, I saw all these fake people attempting to convert others, and the way we were supposed to go about it made me feel like a used car salesman. It was going back to the traditional/liturgical church that brought me back into the fold.

Ragamuffin said...

I'm in a period of just questioning a lot of things. The tough part when discussing this is that various people will always stand up and object because they, or their kids or someone they know is being ministered to by these church programs. Or they have a friend that came to church and got saved and never would have even come if it wasn't for the hip, contemporary presentation.

But I just wonder if we understand what the side effects are on the church at large and how it may be taking our focus off of more important things.

separateunion said...

God can use any situation, but just because God did use a situation for good doesn't necessarily mean that the situation IS good. We need to have the discernment and wisdom to understand how what we are doing affects the body of Christ as a whole.

By saying that we need to be relevant or that we need to do certain things to get people to come to church or whatever, we're not putting our faith in God to bring those people to us. We think that what God gave us isn't good enough, and if we just create the correct formula, we can save the world. It really is a pointless endeavor because nothing we do changes things unless it is part of God's will.

Sara said...

I can see points for both, but overall I have to agree with you. I don't think there's anything 'wrong' with a lot of the modern churchy stuff, but I think way too much focus is put on it. I personally am more of a homechurch type girl, but I guess it takes all kinds.

I wish the church didn't waste so much money though.

Qatfish said...

God can use any situation, but just because God did use a situation for good doesn't necessarily mean that the situation IS good.

I agree with separateunion. The patriarch Joseph was not claiming it's a good thing to sell your brothers into slavery when he said "you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today." He meant God can bring good out of any circumstances, even bad ones.

Ragamuffin said...

But of course, the question for them is, is the program-driven model an evil that God uses in spite of itself, or is it a good in an of itself? Is it just another manner in which the Gospel and Christian teaching and ministry can be distributed to those that need it?

Ragamuffin said...

A quote I saw that explains well another issue I have with the "attractional" model:

The attractional model has sold its soul for a place at the table of culture only to find out that it is perpetually ten minutes late.

With very few exceptions, the other problem with this "hip, relevant" worship trend is that the Church is never actually either thing. They are perpetually behind the culture in terms of what is really current. It's like "culture-lite" and those who are really in tune with the culture yet outside the church see it from a mile away. It comes off as strained and perhaps a little desperate. Like someone not comfortable in their own skin so they try to be whatever they think the cool kids want them to be.

And the target is constantly on the move or "perpetually ten minutes late." Or in the case of the American church, about 5-10 years late.

Qatfish said...

of course, the question for them is, is the program-driven model an evil that God uses in spite of itself, or is it a good in an of itself?

I'd be happy if I found people even asking the question. I've met far too many who simply leave moral reasoning at "God's using my act for good, therefore my act must be good in itself." People justify all kinds of things this way, like using Chick tracts. :)

They are perpetually behind the culture in terms of what is really current.... It comes off as strained and perhaps a little desperate.

Total agreement.

Stacey said...

This is a huge problem in churches today. Even while attending Protestant churches, I found that I was much more comfortable in a large established church (like the Assemblies of God as opposed to the church plant around the corner). I think the problem comes from lack of focus and balance, like many of you have already said, but also from a lack of support and guidance.

In attending a couple Catholic churches, I've been so impressed with how effective a church it is. The mass is a short homily (so we can pay attention) and off you go, fed your weekly food. But when you get home and open your bulletin, you see all these programs you can make use of. There's classes, social groups, charities (working with local programs like crisis pregnancy clinics, harvesters, etc.). And it's all done on an area wide basis, so all the parishes "share programs" so to speak. There's a liturgical year planned, so there's only one stewardship Sunday instead of hearing every month how important it is to tithe. The ability comes from a history and heirarchy in which they've done these things, seen how they work, have programs all planned out. There's a support system so these things are possible. But they're extra. There's a balance and the sacraments and Word are always at the center.

There's my plug for the Catholic Church. I get excited.