Spencer Burke has an article in the upcoming issue of Leadership Journal that relates to my recent post on consumerism (ht: Brother Maynard). Here’s a quote:
Is the problem that people in the pews keep upping the ante on their
demands, or is it that church leaders don’t comprehend the real source
of their discontent? Is it that people want too much, or that they just
don’t want what the church is currently selling?
He goes on to say that most churches are selling is the Sunday morning service, where a teaching in a building at one location is the main "product". While this made sense in ages past, it doesn’t anymore, because good teaching is available everywhere. You can download sermons from really good preachers any time you like, so many people feel that the church’s primary "product" (the Sunday morning teaching) doesn’t really make sense for them to "consume", because it doesn’t fit their lifestyle. If the product is a teaching, why come to a to a certain building at a certain location to hear it when you can download it later that week and listen to it when it’s convenient?
Burke seems to be suggesting that the church is perhaps not consumer-oriented enough, as opposed to too consumer-oriented. I can see his point, actually. If "consumer-oriented" simply means attempting to meet the real needs of the community, then we should by all means do that. And perhaps in our electronically-connected world, the church does need to re-evaluate the "services" it provides, and whether or not people are best served by what it is doing. A hilarious illustration of this can be seen by watching this clip from the TV show King of the Hill. All the churches Hank and Peggy visit seem to be totally ignorant of their actual needs. Except the new mega-church, where the giant high-def video screens attract Hank and Bobby’s attention (mostly because they watch the Cowboys game on the screens after church).
I think this is where we need to peel back some of the layers of tradition and custom and attempt to get back to the foundational reasons we engage in the activities we do. If our goal is to "present everyone mature in Christ" (1 Cor 1:28) or "equip the saints for the work of ministry" (Eph 4:12), then we need to examine what ways this is best accomplished in our culture. Where does teaching fit into the maturing process? How does Sunday morning fit into equipping the saints? Are there things we need to lay down, because of their irrelevance or ineffectiveness? Are there new activities we need to take up? Are there activities we do now that we need to continue to do, but for different reasons? And if our reasons for doing things change, we should probably allow the new reasons to transform the activity in new ways. There is also the question of what kinds of changes are wise and helpful in the context of an established church, and what kinds of changes might be better reserved for new, emerging churches. And can the established and the emerging work together in the kingdom of God, each honoring the gifts and calling of the other? That’s the kind of unity and diversity I am praying and hoping for.
This entry really is the key issue that needs to be faced.
Before the advent of the printing press, and of widespread literacy, going to “church” to receive teaching was a necessity, you mighy say. You didn’t own a copy of the Bible yourself, so how are you going to learn of Jesus? And even if you did have the money to have your own copy of the Bible, did you have the money to go through the many years of education necessary to acquire the literacy to read it?
Nowadays, thanks to our school system, we can all read. We can all go down to the local bookstore, and buy a paperback copy of the Bible for $5. If you have the initiative, you can read it, and learn it for yourself. So, there is no real reason to go to “church” nowadays. (The reason people still go is that they are too lazy to actually spend the time educating themselves, and would rather be spoon-fed by someone called the Pastor).
In the Roman Catholic Church, things are different. You still need to go to receive the Mass, and the other sacraments. It is a sin to miss mass. Brilliant! Total, and continued dependence on the religious leaders of that church!
So, the question that needs to be asked is:
What can you absolutely not do by yourself? For what reason do you absolutely need to go to church (where church can be defined even as a very minimalist gathering of 2 or 3)?
Answer that question, and the way will be clear.
Do you need to go to church do get teaching? Nope. You can read your Bible, and teach yourself, and if you are a real spiritual seeker, you will do just that.
Do you need to go to church to sing songs? Nope. You can sing at home by yourself.
Do you need to go to church to have the Lord’s Supper? No, you can buy wine and bread yourself, and eat it by yourself.
Do you need to go to church to be baptised? No, you can baptise yourself? Sound crazy? Google up John Smyth, first Baptist in America.
Benjamin Sternke says
j, your comments assume that “church” can be done in isolation from other believers, that the only point of “going to church” was to learn something.
I’ve taken a bit more sacramental view of gathering, though, in that I believe something very important happens in a gathering of the body of Christ that does not happen when individual Christians learn things or sing songs in their bedrooms.
While there have certainly been abuses of power by religious leaders, there are also myriad examples of leaders who have led with integrity and authenticity. I don’t think that gatherings of believers are just for pragmatic purposes (i.e. learning something from the Bible), but that they are formational times, when we become the Body of Christ in a way we are not when we are only alone.
Two books that have helped me immensely in this area are Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together, and Simon Chan’s Liturgical Theology. Check them out, I recommend, to see a bigger view of what happens when the saints gather to worship (not just learn!).
Silly me, I thought the blog would send me a notification when a new comment was posted. Sorry for such a late reply.
I would like to hear more about your views, particularly on the point that something “very important” happens when we gather. Could you phrase this in such a way as to convince a Christian that he should meet with other believers instead of going the eremtic route? What is this important thing that he is missing out on that he cannot get himself?
I’ll try to remember to check back in a couple of days.
Benjamin Sternke says
Hi j, sorry the blog doesn’t email you when comments are made on the post. I’m actually going to look into that – seems that would be a helpful feature.
The “very important” thing that happens when Christians gather has to do with grace being imparted to the community-at-worship. Over the past few years, I’ve come to see Christianity as inherently communal. That means it has to do souls-in-community praying and working for God’s kingdom to come on earth, not just isolated individuals going to heaven when they die. I think it’s only our Western individualism that insists I ought to be able to broker my own relationship with God in isolation from others.
I also have come to see Christian gatherings as essentially sacramental – (grace is imparted to the community at worship). It’s not a magical thing that automatically happens, but when worship is practiced faithfully in community, we are formed as the Body of Christ. We don’t just intellectually learn something that we can individually take home and “apply”, we respond to revelation as a community in the moment… The community worships together by singing in adoration, by confessing sins together (and to one another – that’s a discipline you NEED a community to do!), by hearing the Word of God read and preached, responding in prayer and celebrating the Eucharist (which, again, I see sacramentally, not just symbolically).
Again, if you check out Bonhoeffer’s book, and Chan’s, you’ll see a detailed account of some of these views. You might also check out David Fitch’s book The Great Giveaway – there’s some great stuff about worship and preaching in there that relates to what should happen in a Christian gathering.
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