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.