On Facebook recently, Scot McKnight posted a link from the late Michael Spencer's blog "I-Monk." The blog is being maintained and now has "Chaplain Mike" as the primary writer.
The blog's entry was entitled: "A Rant from a Loser in the Worship Wars." As I read the post and the comments that followed, I couldn't help but notice a continual mind-set that strongly suggested consumerist preferences.
At one point, the blog read:
I’ve got to believe with all our emphasis on “creativity” and “innovation” today, we could easily imagine ways to include the older folks and the ones who appreciate more traditional forms in our worship services and in other important ministries where their gifts could be honored and used.
I like the challenge in this, but I still see a perpetuating dilemma where the form remains an obstacle. There remains the dependency on a small number of events at one location for a limit span of time in addition to getting people to come. Along with that is the hierarchy created by the professional/laity distinction. Today's institutional church is still an ecclesiastical theater district. Having been on the platform, performing, as well as in the pew, passively taking in, I've seen the rotation and shuffle that takes place from the front door to the back door. Every church building has both.
When I was in high school, I was involved in drama and theater. During my junior year, 3 of the high schools in our area took a combined trip to Washington, D.C. and New York City. Included in the package were three large-scale theatrical productions. The first was a dramatic play "An Enemy of the People" by Henrik Ibsen. It was at one of the many theaters situated on 45th street.
I recall how I was amazed at the number of theaters on the street, as well as the throng of people all dressed up entering the various buildings. As our group walked into our theater, we were given a few curious and cantankerous stares. Despite the educational objective through our attendance, we were undoubtedly out of place.
The following night, we returned to the Imperial Theater, in the same area, to see the musical "Two by Two." This was a highlight as I vividly recall seeing Danny Kaye in the starring role as Moses. He had broken his leg, at some point during production, and was in a cast on crutches. Again, there were people bustling about to get to the theater of their choice to enjoy their evening.
The final production that our high schools chose for our educational pleasure, was supposed to be the apex of our learning. Some brilliant person secured tickets for the Italian opera "Don Giovanni" performed at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. Our seats were scattered throughout the theater, so we weren't able to sit together. Add to this, the fact that we had just finished a 10-hour bus tour of the city, the sedative music of Amadeus Mozart, an Italian script, soft velvet reclining chairs. All I remember was the fine-dressed man next to me nudging me from my slumber with his elbow, and his Margaret Drysdale-looking wife gawking at me condescendingly. My friends around me, and I, decided to hit the subway at intermission and head back to the hotel. To our astonishment, we saw half the high school student group on the train doing the same thing.
What's the point of this story? I believe the ecclesiastical vista resembles a theater district of preferential choices. Standards of measurement are dominated by consumerist mind-sets. What's good for the goose is not necessarily good for the gander and vice versa . It is a fact that there is a competitive spirit in a large majority of isolated parishes, despite platitudinous denial. Everybody really wants the same thing – to get people to come to their place. It is the drive behind every conversational comment that begins with "we do...." I know, because I have uttered it as well as heard it in certain ecumenical settings. This reality is apparent by two very simple words in the title to the blog: "Loser" and "wars."
Look in ye olde Yellow Pages (all 5 versions from your driveway) under "Churches." You'll see hooks like "You're Invited!", "Something New", "Experience the Difference" and "Grace Filled Community." Google "Churches" and type in the nearest significantly sized metropolitan area. I'll go out on a limb and wager that the number of theaters pales in comparison. I'll even bet that pizza joints are outnumbered. Have you ever heard anyone say that they were "church shopping?" It so easily flows off of the tongue.
All for what? ...the purpose to get people in the what? The building.
It is now my belief that the call for a return to authentic gift-exercising community is valid, where buildings and paid staff are not a distracting priority. I think we may be headed that way anyway like a reverse diaspora - given the economy and a more globalized culture. In a recent Wall Street Journal article, it was reported that many church-nouns are undergoing the threat of losing their structures. The author states:
Just as homeowners borrowed too much or built too big during boom times, many churches did the same and now are struggling as their congregations shrink and collections fall owing to rising unemployment and a weak economy.
Sacramento Vineyard Pastor, Johnny Zapara utters something indicative and profound, in the article, when he concludes:
"A building does not make a church. We will find a way to continue,"
“A way to continue…” I think I have learned of one.
I am aware of the continual caveat of portraying an elitist bias with the way I shed light on a consumerist mind-set. The danger is always to proclaim that everyone's problem is to look for "something better" and subtly act as if I know something no one else can discern.
I only speak as one who has been in the midst of the platform/pew paradigm and one who has been able to step outside of it. My own transformation has not been without challenging my notions and habits. A critical self-analysis revealed that the source of my apprehension was based on subjective things like job security, and modus operandi. Once I got into the water, it wasn't nearly as cold as I anticipated. It keeps getting warmer like a sulfur-heated mountain spring.
In his 2005 book, Revolution, George Barna reveals that a growing number of people are seeking spiritual growth outside the institutional version of the church. Some mistakenly assume that Barna is calling for a mass exodus, when he is merely observing what is taking place on an increasing level.
Our economy and culture is continually changing, just as it was when the Church-verb was in its infancy. God often works most effectively through such climates.
There are many Followers of Christ who see the yeast in the dough value of a more comprehensive gift-exercising gathering. Exploration and divine discovery are taking place by significant, yet intangible growth rates. I've seen this first-hand like I have not seen in many years of prior ministry. People who never even considered a walk with Christ and alongside others who follow, are finding themselves immersed in death-to-self-raised-in-Christ transformation.
There are no marketing or public relation requirements, just a simple call to authenticity and intentional engagement with our present-day culture on a daily basis. The parabolic fields are white for harvest.