Thursday, September 15, 2005

Making an Impression

I spent much of the day on Monday waiting for a mechanic to fix my pickup. My old Dodge will hit 200,000 miles this month and is starting to show signs of wear. Today it was a long-needed tune up and a replacement switch for my headlights (my night driving had been restricted the past few days!). With all the wear and tear I put on the truck, I'm glad I have a good, honest mechanic to take care of these things for me. I don't have to worry about being told I need a new buckle on the fan belt or that my timing chain is short a quart of grease -- I get the straight story from Greg.

Usually I'll sit and wait for him to finish the work instead of dropping it off and coming back later. Greg's shop doesn't have one of those fancy waiting rooms with cable TV, upholstered chairs and a stack of National Geographics from the late 90's. I sit in the office. The mechanic's office. The floor is cracked concrete with various grease and oil stains. In the winter a space heater warms the room, but when it's hot the center of the place remains empty. Two desks sit on opposite sides of the room. One is the gathering place for the other guys at work to have a smoke or grab a bite to eat. The other desk is Greg's. The computer monitor is almost crowded out by papers, parts books, sparkplugs, bits of hose, cigarettes, Diet Coke cans, empty packages, and assorted pieces which must fit into the average Buick somewhere. My seat is an old chair from a dining room set, long since discarded. I lean back against a large, off-white cabinet, it's doors streaked with reminders of grease-covered hands feeling for the door handle. The walls are covered with a type of wood paneling which dates back a number of years. Since the building is quite old and has had many tenants over the decades, I've often wondered who put up such dark wall coverings. A few assorted signs adorn the walls. Near the door, a dozen different business cards are stapled. The front windows are partially covered by two large sets of blinds, leaving about a foot on either end open to the sunlight. In the rear corner is the restroom with matching wood paneling on the door. The fixtures inside that room are rust-stained, old and small. A hook and eye screw serve as the latch. Near the entrance is the door to the work area. The lighter pressed wood is covered in nonsensical graffiti. Throughout the room is the smell of oil and cigarette smoke.

I feel oddly comfortable in this room. I don't miss having a coffee machine in the corner, as Greg will offer me a Diet Coke from his lunchbox-sized cooler. The grease and oil don't bother me, as I rather expect that from a place full of people elbow-deep in engine parts every day. The rest of the surroundings are just simply a part of the experience. I remember shops like this as a boy, traveling with my Dad to get an oil change or a lube job. Greg's office fits right into my frame of reference. To be honest, a car dealer's waiting room seems much too sterile to have any real work being done there. But I would wager that a sizable majority of people would have the opposite feelings. Most would be uncomfortable with that office and certainly wouldn't sit there for an hour, talking with the workers and reading a book.

On Monday, Greg told me about his weekend at a small business workshop in Indianapolis. He and his wife stayed at the hotel where the workshop was being held. The room cost him $179, and Greg said that it sure wasn't worth it. It was simply a $79 room which happened to be in the right location. The staff was rude to him and the room was no better than the average Motel 6. All that expensive image which went along with the name on the hotel sign meant nothing to Greg. To him it was something akin to putting a tuxedo on a mechanic -- a lot of fancy hoopla covering up the average reality inside.

I've mentioned before that I'm working through Mark Waltz's book, First Impressions: Creating Wow Experiences in Your Church. I may do a few specific blog entries on some of the ways I've either hated or loved his ideas, but for now let me explain the premise. Waltz correctly states that people matter to God. The book is a compilation of various ways his church in Granger, Indiana looks to serve guests. The author talks about not simply average service, but extraordinary things which make a visitor say "Wow!" Most of the things to this simple country pastor seem over the top and showy. It reminds me of trying to put my mechanic friend, Greg, into a tuxedo.

I have no problem per se with things like valet parking, huge atriums, coffee shops with discounts for visitors, armies of greeters stationed in layers or shuttle buses with seats arranged in a U allowing you viewing access to the video presentation of the church's various ministries. Where I have the problem is when we use things like this to impress people. To me, there is a difference between impressing and serving. Comfort is one thing. Luxury is another.

How about these two extremes?

Lakewood Church Posted by Picasa

This is, of course, the former Compaq Center in Houston which now serves as Lakewood Church. Joel Osteen's flock has been in this building for a few months now. Certainly a large group like Lakewood needs a big building, but this? I can't speak to the luxuries or lack thereof, but I would imagine the facilities are very nice. It doesn't quite seem like a "church" to me, but I can accept it as such. Then there is this:

Isaac Long's Barn Posted by Picasa

This is where my denomination was born. That's right, we were born in a barn! Back in 1767, Isaac Long's barn was home base for a series of revival meetings. At one meeting the two founders of our denomination first met and a friendship was developed. The barn had a reputation for being used frequently for religious meetings, but it was still a structure built to house animals.

I imagine that somewhere between the two extremes is where we must be. Although my Savior and my denomination were each born in a barn, that doesn't mean we must meet weekly in such surroundings. On the other hand, I wonder exactly how much luxury we should worship in. The church is maintained by gifts which are given to God's service. Is it serving God if we dwell in luxury? Is it the best use of His money?

I read the comments from someone who used to work for a major ministry broadcast and wondered why the facilities needed to be so upper class when some of the donations came from people scrimping and saving on a bare bones income to send a small gift to that ministry. Indeed. I am always wondering if my church is using the money given to God through it in a manner pleasing to Him. I don't want to worship in a barn, but I don't need a palace either. And I realize that everyone isn't comfortable in a dirty, greasy mechanic's office, so I'm not sure exactly how to draw the line.

At the end of it all, it comes back to presenting Jesus Christ. I want everyone present on Sunday morning -- faithful member or visitor -- to meet and experience their Creator. I want people comfortable so that they can concentrate on that experience and not on the stains on the carpet. However I don't want them to go home with a feeling of "Wow!" about the church and no feeling whatsoever about the One we meet together to worship.


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