Tuesday, March 21, 2006

What's Wrong With Church - Conforming to the World

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I have already briefly discussed the charge leveled against many churches of being run like businesses. Provided we aren't losing the purpose of the church along the way, a certain amount of businesslike structure is necessary. But it's in this area where lines can become blurred after a while. A church is not a business, yet the two entities have some natural similarities. If leaders do not keep the true purpose of the church at the forefront of their minds, the church can morph into an odd reflection of just another business. The trick is being able to work within contemporary society without becoming just like it. A church must not conform to the world any more than a Christian should conform. But it happens.

In a way, it's odd that we think that conforming to the world is bad but at the same time see churches built to mirror what we see in society around us. How similar should the church be to the world? Where is that line? I'm not sure we could all agree on where to draw it, but most of us can easily see when it's been crossed (in our own subjective opinion, of course). And I think much of that is because conforming is mostly a condition of the heart and not simply a physical appearance. But we see it as "looking too much like" or "sounding too much like" instead of "trying to be just like" and I think we miss a great deal when we do.

It's easy to take shots at the church for thinking like the world. We do it all the time. The world likes things bigger and better. The church... well, same thing. Is there any real reason we count the people who attend each weekend? Is there a point to keeping a running score of the number of members in each local church? There must be, right? But to tell you the truth, I'm not sure why. To measure success? Perhaps, if your definition of success translates easily into numerical trends. But isn't the job of the church to not only make converts, but also to make disciples? It's not always about quantity, but quality. I've visited churches that are a mile wide but only an inch deep. How about you? Certainly it doesn't take a theological genius to distinguish between a church of 300 people and a church of 300 disciples.

So why do we count? Because we naturally determine success by keeping score -- just as the world does. If I am at a pastoral conference among strangers, I am certain to be asked three questions: 1) Where is your church? 2) Which denomination is your church a part of? 3) How many people do you average on Sunday? If the person knows the answer to #1 and #2, then it doesn't take long to get to #3. And once the answer is given, the questioner has mentally determined if my church is successful or not. Isn't that ridiculous? It is. But I find that I do it too. I'm trying to break that habit. But the world continues to work at forming me in its image.

One of the scarier complaints is that there are churches who are trying to be cool. It's hard to believe, especially when "cool" is almost always an anti-establishment term. Church is establishment. Yet some complain that churches try to slink away from what they have always been to be seen as something new. I'd call it the "hip factor" but the word "hip" isn't too "hip" these days. Therein lies a problem. If a church tries to be cool, it had better keep up with the times. Each generation -- X, Y, Boomer, Buster, Whatever -- has it's own image. To conform to each preference is impossible.

But beyond that, is the issue of why we would appear to conform. Do we try to appeal to Generation Y to reach them or to not look out of date? Some charge it's nothing but surface change with no real desire to reach the next generation. I'm not sure that is accurate, but again appearances are subjective. It comes back once again to the state of the heart.

The hot button issue of the past few decades is music. Some charge that putting a drummer with a trap kit in the sanctuary is not only conforming to the world, but falling in line with Satan! I've read the propaganda from those who claim that specific music styles are "of the devil" and are sacreligious to use in a worship setting. "If it wasn't written by Fanny Crosby or Charles Wesley, we'll have to put it to a council vote." You know the type. But I'm still hard pressed to find the Satanism in Lord, I Lift Your Name on High or Shout To the Lord. Maybe I'm just not spiritually discerning enough.

Finally there is the emphasis in many churches placed upon having the best. Certainly this attitude is nothing new in the church. For years it was an unwritten rule that those attending church would dress in their "Sunday best" to show respect for God. These days it is assumed that excellence is to be the goal in everything the church does. Polished music teams, flawless technology, spotless facilities, entertaining services. God help the poor soloist who is a little "pitchy" during her song or teacher who stumbled through a prayer. We want to project the best. But like wearing our best clothes, our motives can lose their way in the pursuit of excellence.

Many stories have been told of poor folks who felt very unwelcome in a church because their best clothes didn't measure up to the church folk's expectations. I've also heard from people who were embarrassed that their best singing or playing wasn't good enough for their brothers and sisters in Christ. Many times I've heard from pastors who were told they weren't good enough or that their messages "didn't feed" the right people. Somehow the average Christian in the pew can go through a transformation so they he or she can determine what is worthy of God or not. That isn't a matter of having the right heart, but a matter of thinking like the world. God is not honored by the biggest and best building if it isn't built to bring Him glory. God is not glorified by the most beautiful voice if the song is sung to garner human approval. In this sense, far too much in the church has been conformed to the world.

But in most things we face a dilemma: being conformed to the world outwardly is seen in different ways by all kinds of people. Since the hearts of those involved cannot be known, charges of being too worldly are easily made and subjectively proven. The "right" way to worship or to dress or to do anything in the church is often seen through the periscope of each person's preferences. Fights are easily picked. Offense is easily taken. Churches are easily torn apart. Innovative ministries are often squashed for fear of looking too much like the world instead of being used to the glory of God.

Yet there are still many churches who are guilty of conforming to the world for no other reason than the comfort and reputation of the people who attend. Congregations fight over which is the biggest and most popular within a community while some seekers are brushed aside because they aren't rich enough or cool enough to add to the net value of the church. Paul wrote,

"Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind."

When the mind is renewed, the heart will be also. And when our hearts and minds are transformed by a genuine desire to grow as Christ's disciples and to bring others into that kind of relationship with Him, then we are not shaped by the world but by the Creator.

Up next: You and Me.


Carol said...

Ed, here's something that's been niggling at me for a while...

Don't you think different people are fed by different people? That God can use a lot of different types of music or programs or preachers to draw different people to Himself? I'm thinking that, as long as a church remains biblically rooted in the gospel of Christ, the secondary matters are disputable. Or is there more to it?

rev-ed said...

No, I think you're on the right track. I don't think every church should look the same or even do everything the same way provided they are trying to honor God by their goals and their methods.

Jennifer said...

It’s funny – my church is very small, number wise. But I believe we are truly reaching more souls than a mega church. We run the gammut from little old ladies in tweed and sensible shoes to teenagers with various piercings and strange hair. They all worship together, whether we sing Shout to the Lord or Amazing Grace. They all engage in the message. They all participate in community outreach. Not to increase numbers, but to share the blessings that God has poured on us. It’s the first time in my life I have been part of a church that is ALIVE. Now, I intentionally “dress down” for church because we are in a poor area, and I want the poorest of the poor to feel comfortable there. Does that mean I’m conforming to the world?

rev-ed said...

No it doesn't, but I bet I could find a few codgers who think you are. Poor deluded codgers.

julie said...

"It comes back once again to the state of the heart."
This statement seems to summarize every issue we discuss.

Great post.

A Human Bean said...


I think you actually summed up salvation - the state of the heart.


Erica said...

I really enjoyed this. Not many people are willing to essentially tell the church they are doing something wrong, yet often it is something that needs to be done.

Jack-Malaysia said...

Hi, my name is Jack from Malaysia.
I may be 2 years late from reading this post. And I randomly stumbled upon it while searching for inspiration for a skit im doing on the theme of Romans 12:2.
Yes, I agree.
Sometimes in the pursuit of perfection, we forget some of the simplest things.
That it doesn't really matter to God.
What matters, simply is the heart.