Saturday, February 04, 2006

Tailoring To Idolatry

I've noticed that over the past year I've blogged a great deal about what a church is supposed to look like and to be. Maybe this is just the struggle I have with my own congregation, trying to figure out which things exist for comfort and which exist for worship. Comfort can be a wonderful thing, but comfort can also draw us away from our worship. Same thing with tradition. Tradition can be meaningful for some and boring distraction for others. In the meantime, folks like me are left wondering if people are just going through the motions of worship or if something holy is really striking them. And how do I reach the folks whose "worship" is nothing more than vain repetition?

David Wayne at Jollyblogger has written a couple of great posts this week. Post DaVinci Code America is about the challenge of witnessing to today's culture when the Bible is not seen as authoritative. The other is The Myth of the Sinless Sinner, where David talks about the need to recognize and identify sin instead of simply sweeping it under the rug. Here's the quote that set my mind to spinning:

How do I reconcile my desire to tailor a church to the needs and values of a particular community when in fact the essence of idolatry is to have a church which is tailored to meet my needs.

That's the simplest form I have ever seen for that question. It's an important thing to consider. When I turn to Scripture, I see Jesus meeting needs. First of all, He met physical needs. But interestingly when Jesus was meeting physical needs, He pretty much let the petitioner call the shots.

"What do you want me to do for you?"

I can't think of a time when Jesus was asked in faith for something that Jesus didn't grant that request as asked. At Gethsemene, Malchus didn't even ask and Jesus restored his ear. It seemed to please Jesus to heal, to drive out demons, to raise the dead.

But at the same time, Jesus met spiritual needs. However in this venue, Jesus called the shots. Spiritual healing was non-negotiable. If you wanted to come to Jesus it was on His terms.

So what does this mean to the local church? Perhaps the best lesson we can pull from Jesus' ministry is that we are to meet physical needs and spiritual needs, but Jesus still calls the shots on doctrinal issues. Which sounds nice and everything, but how in the world can we apply this?

In matters of cultural preferences, is it good to cater to a person's comfort? Cushy chairs, theatre seats, contemporary music... things like that? Personally I don't see a problem provided we remember that the spiritual content is not to be watered down. But even the liturgy of a worship service becomes so routine that folks can be seen mentally checking off the items on the order of service.

The church's outreach should be designed to be ready to meet both physical and spiritual needs. Neither should be ignored. As Jesus showed, our physical need outreach should be dictated by the needs of the people around us. Don't open a food pantry for folks in the rich side of town. But meeting spiritual needs must be afraid to confront sin. An outreach to homosexuals should not in any way infer approval of lifestyle, but at the same time should show love. Love sinners. Hmmm... where have I heard that before?

Still, I cannot hope to bring a new family into our local church if we cannot meet that family's spiritual needs. I cannot invent a youth group out of thin air for that one teenager. I cannot start a praise band in a congregation without musicians simply to give that father a chance to play. And that's where things start to get a little confusing. As a pastor trying to meet that family's spiritual needs, I am to direct them to a place where their needs can be met. In short, I'm supposed to send them to another church. That goes against the grain, especially in a church like ours which stuggles for every gifted, mature Christian we can get. And so the temptation is to tailor our ministries to attract people instead of working toward attracting people with the Gospel and a worshiping, loving community of believers.

Perhaps the reason why I blog on this topic so often is that I have so many frustrations, so many beliefs, and so many ideas, but none of them seem to make a dent in the situation. The concepts are there, but the resources -- physical and spiritual -- to make them happen are sometimes next-to-impossible to find.

8 comments:

Jennifer said...

It is very wise of you to recognize that sometimes we have to send people to another church that can meet their spiritual needs. I don’t think I have EVER seen that happen, and I’ve seen many cases where it should have happened. My old church would basically grab every new person who walked in the door and hold them hostage. If they left for another church where they could grow, they were demonized and bad-mouthed, right from the pulpit even. That is shameful.

R. Stewart said...

"But even the liturgy of a worship service becomes so routine that folks can be seen mentally checking off the items on the order of service."

I think this is one of the reasons why my church stopped printing an order of service in the bulletin (which is now used solely for announcements.) Our services vary in format, too, quite a bit which reduces the chances that people tune out due to repetitive service syndrome.

Large churches have some of these same problems, and a host of others. My dad's been a small church preacher all his pastoring life, with churches of between 20 and 200 people. I'm aware of the frustrations all too well.

julie said...

I wonder if individual churches have an individual calling. One church may be uniquely equipt to help people in a certain situation, while another has other a different set of gifts to bring to the table.
No, that doesn't work since every body has all the gifts present to function...
Good questions.
We certainly need to remind ourselves and each other that the church is not about us or for us, although we may benefit from being a part of it. It's about glorifying God.

rev-ed said...

Jennifer - It is a rare tactic to allow others to leave. The situation I've seen it most has been in church planting. A church will "give" some people to be a part of the original core group of a new church. Outside of that, I've rarely seen it.

Ron - I'm always amused by churches who call themselves "non-litergical" since they have their own litergy -- just less formal. Every once in a while I like to mess with people's expectations for a service, like preaching three 7-8 minute sermons throughout the service, or ending with an extended prayer time. Throws 'em off!

Julie - I do believe that individual churches have been called for different tasks, just as individuals have been called for different ministries. The catch is, the church mustn't neglect it's other responsibilities. A church called to support foreign missions cannot neglect local missions or evangelism. A discipling church cannot neglect service to the poor or winning converts to disciple. Often a church will take on the ministries which are the pastor's strong suits.

A Human Bean said...

This is a very intersting post because it strikes at the heart of what the church should be. I am part of a very large church (5,000+), but we meet in eight differnet locations, so some are larger than others. Our smallest is still about 100. However, I find myself drawn to the simplicity of the House Church Movement. These House Churches give up a lot in regards to "program," but gain in intimacy (or that is what I hear.)

R. Stewart said...

"Ron - I'm always amused by churches who call themselves "non-litergical" since they have their own litergy -- just less formal. Every once in a while I like to mess with people's expectations for a service, like preaching three 7-8 minute sermons throughout the service, or ending with an extended prayer time. Throws 'em off!"

We've done that (sermon broken up throughout the service.) We've also moved the communion portion or the sermon to the beginning or middle of the service, had services of all music, changed the method by which we collect offering or serve communion, set aside time for small group prayer, etc. The idea is to keep church from becoming a habit. Alas, our senior pastor just left, though, so I'm not sure how much of that "non-liturgical liturgy" we'll retain. I rather enjoyed it since it meant I had to focus on the meaning, not the habit.

Plus, it was interesting to see the looks on the faces of visitors who didn't know what to expect. I imagine I'm the same way when I visit a Catholic church (when to kneel, etc.)

Kristen said...

Ed wrote, "Every once in a while I like to mess with people's expectations for a service, like preaching three 7-8 minute sermons throughout the service, or ending with an extended prayer time. Throws 'em off!"

Not kidding here: at a church I used to attend, the pastors decided to vary the order of the service one Sunday. They were rewarded for their ingenuity by tons of phone calls from indignant churchgoers...furious that the ORDER of the service had been ALTERED. :( I was always really sad about that. You know that someone who would get all upset about the order of a church service just doesn't know what it's all about.

rev-ed said...

Kristen, I heard many times about pastors who changed the order of service only to be called to a special board meeting when the service was over.

Sometimes we just plain miss the point.