Maybe Church is About More Than What We See


I’ve tried hard not to write about this. Really hard. I don’t want to be the guy that has to weigh in on every controversy that erupts in evangelical culture. And yet, when Donald Miller wrote about not attending church and “graduating” from traditional church, it generated a lot of angst in me. My frustrations come, not because I don’t understand his point, but because I relate a lot to his feelings about traditional church. I am somewhat of a reluctant pastor who passionately loves serving the church. What I mean by that is, it was never my intention to be a pastor, and when I got fired from my first church job, I wanted to walk away from the church.

But I couldn’t. As much as I wanted to, I couldn’t.

I love the church, and I believe a lot of what we see on the surface of church isn’t necessary to the Christian faith. But that doesn’t mean we should throw it out. Church, as with most spiritual things, has the surface thing we see, and then there is the thing behind the thing. If all we see is the music and the lectures and the frustrated parents who spent the morning wrangling kids into clothes to get them to church on time, then we have to wonder if it is worth it.

If all I’m doing is giving a lecture I don’t want to do it. For one, I’m not that good of a lecturer. Two, there are a lot of others who are better than me. Thousands of podcasts and sermons are available online, most of which are probably better than me. If you want a lecture, listen to Tim Keller. He’s better at it than me.

If all I’m doing is giving a lecture then I am wasting my time.  A good portion of my week is spent studying the Bible, reading commentaries and theological books, praying, and writing all in preparation of giving a good lecture on Sunday mornings. But if I’m just giving a lecture, then all that is pointless. Seriously. Because 90% or more of what I say on a Sunday is already known by those sitting in the congregation. And an even higher percentage is forgotten by Tuesday.

If all we are doing is singing songs, then we should stop immediately. Immediately. Because it is weird. No where else in American society do adults gather in a large room to sing songs together. You could argue it happens at a concert, but people don’t gather to sing songs, they gather to hear a band or singer. The closest you could find is a karaoke bar. Which is weird for other reasons. If church is just a Sunday morning karaoke bar, then we should stop. Now.

If all we are doing is putting on a concert, then lets admit there are a lot of better concerts out there. And while we are at it, let’s also admit that no one likes a concert at 9 a.m. on a Sunday morning.

If all we are doing is gathering once a week for community, then we don’t understand community. Being in the same room with the same group of people for an hour a week and then spending fifteen minutes chatting over cheap coffee doesn’t constitute community. The old guys who meet at the same diner for breakfast on Fridays have better community than we do.

If all we are doing is lifting a cup of grape juice and dipping some tiny squares of cheap, crustless white bread while standing over a heavy oak table, then we serve the worst appetizers ever.

If all we are doing is singing songs and listening to lectures, then to hell with it. Because that’s not enough.

But maybe that’s not all we are doing. Maybe I am not just studying the Bible and commentaries and theological works to prepare a lecture. Maybe I am entering into the presence of God, on behalf of the people of God, to deliver the word of God.

Maybe it isn’t just a lecture, but a submissive act of subverting the narrative imposed upon the people of God six days a week by orienting and reorienting ourselves around a narrative of grace.

Maybe we aren’t just singing songs, but maybe people who are vastly different than one another – mothers and father, young and old, men and women, black and white, widows and widowers, rich and poor – are joining their many voices into one voice and declaring something together.

Maybe we aren’t just lifting a cup with cheap grape juice into the air while we recite some words. Maybe we are acting as hosts to the Table of God, where the presence of God rests uniquely as it invites people to a space of grace and equality.

Maybe we aren’t just coming together to find community. Maybe we are involved in an embodied, liturgical rhythm that informs our lives about what we value. Maybe the act of getting up, dressed, moving, coming together, isn’t about community, but is about liturgy. It shapes us. It involves us. It reminds us. Even the most contemporary non-liturgical churches requires the liturgy of coming together.

Maybe we aren’t gathering in tribes, but we are gathering in a local place to remember that as we gather, all tribes gather and will one days sing together with one voice to the one Lord.

Because if it is about that, then I want to be a part of it. Even if it is boring and difficult and maddening and uncomfortable. Because the thing we see on the surface is connected to what’s behind it. And what’s behind it is beautiful and rich and wonderful and mysterious and inspiring.

If church is about all that, then I’m all in.

photo credit: ACOUSTIC DIMENSIONS via photopin cc

  • Lawrence W. Wilson

    You’re right on, of course. And I think there are two dynamics driving the “I’m a Christian but I don’t need church” dynamic (which I, too, have felt). One is the hyper-individualism of our culture. The other is the devaluation of community by the church itself. We’re not selling our core “product” anymore. No wonder we’re losing “customers.”

  • Carly Gelsinger

    I think you’re on to something here, although I have to say sometimes I really can’t see past the form church takes place in. It all feels so empty. Why does modern church require us to look beneath all this stuff you talk about here? The trappings of the church – the sub-par rock concert and everything else you point to here – are at best, distracting, no? Perhaps it’s a presentation problem. If it really is about a tribe of people entering the presence of God, why does it so often not look like that?

    • Nate Pyle

      I think that is a great question, Carly. For me, I like church to the Eucharist. To really understand the bread and the wine, you have to look past the form. Otherwise it is just some bread and wine. Same with baptism, you have to get past the person getting wet to see the dying and rising with Christ. Inherently we understand this with the sacraments and accept having to look for the thing behind the thing, but with church we seem to have lost that. I don’t know if it is hyper-individualism, consumerism, the failure of the church to communicate and point to the real thing, or even the competitiveness of churches that has gotten in the way.

      All that to say, I don’t have concrete answers. Perhaps Don’s post did exactly what it was supposed to do, it forced me to clearly state what I believe. Now begins the work of making it more visible in my church.

      • Carly Gelsinger

        Thanks for your response, Nate. I think it could be a combo of all those things you mentioned. Now I have a lot to think about…And I hate thinking on Saturdays. 😉

      • sk

        we have made church about the outward… about music, and lights, and staging, and showmanship. There is a side of me that thinks we have made it an “outward- in” experience when me thinks it should be an “inward-out” experience. I like a good sermon (and hope I offer one). I love good music! I like it when it all comes together. But I think the church has made the means the end. And people have bought into that error… and so leave worship with much the main mentality as if they had gone to a movie… on a scale from one to ten…. it was….

  • Chad Schuitema

    Nate, what you have described falls under pretty much one mental model of “church.” What if through genuine community that meets elsewhere at other times you engage in all these things? Do we have sing? I think what Don was saying in that he has worshipped in a greater way through serving is also an option – whereas your mental model seems to be church service. I’ve worshiped at funerals sometimes in a more sacred and meaningful way than I have in church. Couldn’t there be another way to have all you talk about in this blog in another setting? I’m not talking about leaving the church, but couldn’t it be that there are alternatives to what you suggest as church?

    • Nate Pyle

      Good stuff, Chad.

      Here’s what I’d say, if there is a genuine community meeting elsewhere engaging all these things then you have a church. I do not think one has to ascribe to a certain model of church to attend church. A traditional Sunday morning church is not better than a Thursday night church. But I didn’t hear Don saying that. I heard him saying, “I’ve graduated from church” and now I just do community. That’s where I would disagree with him. I think it telling that he focused on “lectures” and “singing” and failed to mention anywhere the sacraments. I don’t know how you can talk about church with out talking about the sacraments.

      I’m not a huge fan of singing. Doesn’t melt my butter. But I do think singing is important as a liturgical act. Colossians instructs us to sing hymns and spiritual songs together, and then we have psalms. Singing is about singing in my mind, it is about the communal act of doing something together to confess our faith.

      As to new mental models – I think the shift needs happen around the role of corporate worship. Many churches are structured so that, intentional or not, it is communicated that Sunday morning is the purpose of church. I want to be in a church that Sunday morning is an expression of something the church does.

      Does that make sense? Where would you push back?

      • Chad Schuitema

        I appreciate your response, Nate. I would agree that worship should be an expression of the community to God, but I would go so far as to say a vast majority view Sunday morning as the thing. As pastors we share a huge responsibility in that as well, but the church is significantly out of alignment with its purpose as the body.

        When worship becomes the only thing or even the main thing – that doesn’t seem to line up with the body’s purpose as described in the New Testament. I would point to churches in China – those that need to be secret – from what I understand there isn’t 45 minutes of one person speaking and some electric guitars. But what there IS, is genuine community and the glorification and living out of God’s Word. There is a group of people banded together to be on mission for Christ in subversive ways. And I would say that is perhaps more the church than most of what we see here in the U.S.

        So if Don is saying he graduated from lectures and singing I wouldn’t agree either. Graduated implies you have learned what you need to know and are moving on. I don’t want to take the posture of knowing it all, but I deeply desire a church that doesn’t meet for 20 minutes of singing as prelude to a 45 minute lecture. No matter what we think is happening behind it.

        And to the sacraments…what I see in the sacraments is a sterilized, individualized religious routine that churches do on a schedule. That sounds extremely cynical, I know. But what I see in the story of the the travelers on the Emmaus Road and Jesus is the sharing of a meal around a table! with intimate connection. That’s NOT what I see happening during communion at most churches. Just try and change the accepted practice of communion one Sunday and hear the grumbling and you’ll know that this isn’t about and community coming together to celebrate the death and resurrection of Christ.

        • Jeff Ostrom

          Pretty much with both of you. I used to be deeply involved in a megachurch and one thing we did, Chad, is renovate communion. We started by doing it differently each month for six months to get feedback. What we landed on (and they continue to do) is encourage a group format. If it’s a family, a parent comes down and gets the elements they need to partake with their family. If it’s a bible study group or something else, one person does it. The words of institution are up on the screens, and we wind up with a hundred little “churches” that bind together in a way that’s impossible for one massive crowd of 1500.

          One big thing that I’ve been puzzling on is the overarching worship environment. The typical mode, whether cutting-edge contemporary or so traditional as to still use Latin, is seating facing a stage/altar/pulpit which is where the music and preaching take place. In our culture, though, I think this sends subconscious cues that church can/should be entertainment — and that’s the ruler by which parishioners judge how “good” it is… In reality, GOD is the audience for worship and the members of the body – way back to the cheap seats – are the “performers.” I wonder if there’s a physical setting or configuration that can set us up for that…

          Every U2 concert I’ve ever attended has been a more profound worship experience than what I get at church. We’re also commanded to not forsake coming together — I just feel like we’re woefully short on opportunities for those who have moved past the level of mere consumers…?

          • Chad Schuitema

            Jeff, I like what you say here – especially about U2! And I agree, we are not to forsake coming together. But I would pushback on the idea that God is our “audience” for worship. Maybe we have different pictures of what an audience is, but I picture God sitting in an auditorium by himself with us on stage performing our worship for Him. I just don’t think the “audience of one” type of language is helpful in this discussion – for me, that is.

    • Andrew

      Chad, we could worship in other places, in other formats, and on different days, but that is not the model that we were given in scripture. We go to church because that is what Paul did, it is what the Corinthians, the Ephesians, the Phillipians, the Colossians, and all the other members of the body of Christ did.
      The Bible tells us to engage in service and to engage in church. Do both. Its a plus that you can have great worship at funerals and in other environments…but we are called to be both a body unified in Christ spiritually, and to be unified in a physicality. The building doesn’t need a steeple or a rock band but it requires people’s attendance.

      • Chad Schuitema

        Andrew, I’m not sure what we currently have is the model given in Scripture. In fact, I’d really disagree with you on that. Read “Pagan Christianity” by Barna and Viola and you’ll see this differently. The early church was born out of the synagogue and if you do any study on how Jesus would have worshiped in the synagogue it is much, much different than today’s worship band, preacher driven model we have. Much different. Every person of the community took turns reading the Scriptures out loud and then talked about how that Scripture was fulfilled by them in their living out of their faith. Today, it is all audience/consumer in a pew during worship. The first churches that Paul, Timothy, Peter and the other apostles “went to” as you describe looked NOTHING like what we have today.

        • Andrew

          I didn’t say that the format was exactly the same (because it isn’t) but I do assert that church was led by ministers of the faith and that the apostles helped establish each church with the appropriate system established in 2 Timothy (if I remember correctly). I don’t like the model of 1 hour church services with watered down sermons, weak theological foundations, and individualism. We tend to go to church to check it off of our Pharisaical list we keep in our heads. Nonetheless, Paul warns for us to not neglect to meet they met daily, which is good, but they made sure to meet as a church body. I’m not sure where you are grabbing information on the paradigmatic element of church. When I read scripture I see Peter preach and people respond. I see a pastor or a leader (apostle) and the people listening and responding. The pastor is the teacher and the image of a modern shepherd.

  • Nathan R. Hale

    This is one of the best responses to this issue I’ve seen. Sometimes, to continue participating in “the church” doesn’t seem immediately useful; it’s simply hard work…but hard work with an eternal purpose that will ultimately produce much joy.

  • Brett Francis Anthony Pavia

    My questions have to do with where do we actually encounter Christ what your describing. I guess I hold a more liturgical-sacramental spirituality, one that believes that everything that takes place in the Divine Service, worship service, opens windows for us to encounter Christ in His mysteries and transform us into His likeness. To ever go to a worship service and not think this is the case is completely sacrilegious and done in vain.

  • Adam Porter

    Forgive the mental latticework not quite coming together. I’m simply launching thoughts into the Interwebs like skeet this morning…

    To me, the resultant dichotomy you describe comes from labeling any format as the de facto “church.” When only priests could read and understand scripture, it made sense for everyone to gather in a central structure and listen to one guy deliver a lecture. That gave that guy – and his administration – tremendous power and, of course, that power corrupted.

    Today, as you said yourself, people already “know 90%” of the stuff being preached. Two solutions to that, I suppose.

    1 – talk about the aspects of theology and biblical history that people don’t know, the stuff that comes up in conversations with educated ex-Christians and nonbelievers.
    2 – turn the lecture into a two-way discussion and dig deeper into the topics. This would necessitate smaller, more intimate groups, and it would reduce the hero status of the average mega church pastor, but it would be more engaging and much more impactful.

    Now, to engage this question from a different angle…

    In practice, the only benefit the “corporate worship” offers that cannot be experienced in a more meaningful way in a smaller, less structured setting is the sheer psychological impact of numbers and the power of crowd funding. Hundreds or thousands gathering together “for one purpose” offers a more fruitful opportunity to “make the ask” for funding. Of course, this is changing through online giving, but specific shared vision still promotes larger donations.

    That corporate machine also necessitates infrastructure that provides employment, social presence and political clout. These benefits might seem crass or hyper practical, but in a “seeing is believing” culture, that “big” church on the corner has more “reality” than scores of invisible “house churches.” When 20% of the people support the vast majority of the “work” this matters.

    • Andrew

      I would say that 9 times out of 10 my pastor preaches a message I know but I don’t really “know.” When I read scripture the same thing happens. I read a passage I know…but I still find more buried under the surface. I don’t think that the two options is a valid argument. Logically its a fallacy of false options.

  • Mark Williams

    I think it is a more basic problem. I think that McChurch has co-opted the term “church” and convinced evangelicals they own the only franchise options. I would posit that evangelical churches, for the most part, are not churches in the Jesus sense. Yes, I do attend a group that meets in a room once a week on Tuesday night and sings Shape Note hymns. One third atheist, one third Jewish, almost no evangelicals (i.e. nobody telling us condescendingly they know better).

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  • s_e_ray

    We live just a few miles away from Christ’s Community Church in Indiana, and know the spiritual panoramic fairly well. Many the churches in our area, large and small, look a good deal like the photo. Professional or semi-professional worship team, lights, huge LCD monitors, churches filled with activities, children’s programs, community systems, social outreach, missions. Very well developed product of the social gospel, but surprisingly little that emulates biblical Christianity. Of course that seems to be paradox, to list all the attributes of a “Peter Ferdinand Drucker” approved post-modern church and then dismiss its spirituality. In the Western culture pressed by the retirement mentality, Church in some places have been geared to specialize in activities, fun, friendships, tolerance, all under a religious banner, but very little emulates the change of heart that understands, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” Our culture is entirely bent around serving self-interests and entertainment. One church here with over 5,000 attendees has a prayer chapel and on prayer night, 4 to 6 people show up… for years. Our family could not contend with the pretentious brand of Christianity that has largely contaminated this area (Fishers, Geist, Carmel) and have since transferred to a downtown Indianapolis (city with 835,000 pop.) church with no glitz or glory, to serve with grass-roots Christians working with the homeless, orphan, drug addicts, prostitutes, and marginalized. An old church building that once was a Methodist landmark off Rural Street, now a decrepit structure and crusty basement with shoddy implementations. Sound system is poor, floor is creaking, the environment is often cold due to poor heating, but every old wooden pew is filled with families and children clothed with anticipation of the Lord’s presence. Every elder dedicated to serving the down trodden and spiritually needy. That’s the difference. They understand sacrificing self and the world for the needs of others, along with others who serve with them. Other colleagues of a similar awareness, don’t find the average Christian grasps the crux of the matter, the Ladocean Spirit is like a prince in the air, holding a gripping sway. Everything listed in the post are the same details the religious leaders in Christ’s day took inventory and gloried in. They were experts at the law, studied and prepared their words with excellence, well versed as apologist, they had many followers, reputation, skills, but they were rejected by the Lord as having all the outward trappings while lacking a proper heart. Does anyone honestly think the post-modern church is any different than the systematic religious order of Jesus’ day? Has the institutional church in any century been short of being utterly misguided? The body of Christ is after all, are those “who hear my voice will follow me” not the buildings or organizations, denominations, or parachurch entities. Christ came declaring the Kingdom of God is at hand and man ushered in the institution. We need servants with praying knees, no thought for tomorrow, their raiment or provision, for the Lord takes care of all these things. As a director of Missions for years now, we work with church leaders who operate like this in Peru, India, Pakistan, Honduras, and many other impoverished nations. Christians are to serve in simplicity without a heart for the world (James 4:4), but the lifestyle of Western hedonistic Christianity has an addictive stronghold, that few can be pulled from without great struggle and yes, denial.

  • Bill

    Good post. I’ve been struggling with this too. When I was growing up nearly everyone went to church. Unless they didn’t, and everyone else knew who they were and it cast a shadow over them. The church one went to was the church in your community where your ancestors went and your descendants would go, whether the preacher and choir were any good or not. It was part of the community to which you belonged, for better or worse and like it or not.
    Those kinds of churchs now have a handful of very old people still attending. The younger people who still go to church go to the suburban mega-churches, in part because they’re more kid-friendly. I know this because we did it and it actually had a good impact on my life. But how can a congregation that size, with a preacher on a stage instead of a pulpit and a professional sounding rock band instead of a choir and old piano, be a community? Isn’t it true that most often the congregation is just an audience. It really does seem more like entertainment (lecture/concert) than a community gathering.
    We stopped going when our kids grew up. Now we’re affiliated with an intentional neo-monastic community of believers (about a dozen or so) who live in the inner city and share life and faith 24-7. We’re rural farmers so we just join them when we can. But it is real community.

    I wonder if that kind of community is the future of church in America.
    For those who still find (and help create) genuine community in “church” then that is a good thing. It seems to me that those who are going because its just what you do on Sundays are becoming fewer. I expect more and more people will find ways to express faith and Christian community outside of “church.”
    Thanks for the excellent post on this important subject.

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