You may have been in one of these churches. They got their traffic cops out in the parking lot directing people. They got their Starbucks-derived café in the lobby. They got their marketing materials prominently placed in obvious locations. You can drop your children off at the “KidzTown” entrance (wow, it looks just like a mini-theme park!), and then enter into the “sanctuary” for a one hour “worship experience”. The band is made up of pasty-white teenagers with tousled hair and lots of rips. Hope your ears can take the heat, because, baby, this worship music is LOUD.
After enduring a few of the latest Top 10 hits in the Christian radio scene — sounding almost, but not quite, as good as the original CD — you settle down for a few dozen minutes of watching the 30 year old celebrity pastor strut his hip-casual-but-not-too-casual-just-so-you-know-he’s-more-than-a-regular-guy stuff up on the well-lit stage. It’s a bitchin’ message, man — full of plenty of anecdotes, funny one-liners, a handful of Bible verses just to make sure you know which religion you’re listening to, and a few Hollywood-quality video clips for good measure. There’s a call to action at the end, where you can fill out some of the marketing materials they gave you in order to “plug into” the life of the church (i.e., programs), and you’re done. No, wait, not quite, because remember, you do need to give away part of your life savings to the church (somebody’s gotta pay for all this equipment, brother!) so God can bless you.
After being fully blessed by your sacrificial giving to the Kingdom of God, you can go out and pick up your kids who had such an awesome time in KidzTown, and enjoy another cup of latté from the Starbucks-lite café before heading off into the world and living just like all the other suburban middle-class Americans do.
Is this really the best modern Christianity can come up with?
Let me back up a bit and make something quite clear: I have nothing against contemporary worship music per se. In fact, I listen to a lot of it and love it. I have nothing against church cafés — in fact, I think it’s a great idea. I have nothing against making sure kids have a good time in a fun and enjoyable atmosphere, I have nothing against young pastors who dress somewhat like it’s the year 2014 and not the year 1849, and I have nothing against sermons that are relevant to people’s daily lives. I even believe that God does indeed bless you when you give sacrificially to ministries that are pouring their hearts and souls into helping the lives of real people who are struggling and need a touch of God’s love.
The problem is when the milieu trumps the mission. If you have to have all of those hip, relevant things in place before you can transform lives with the mind of Christ, the love of the Father, and the power of the Holy Spirit, then you aren’t doing it right. Yes, there are megachurches with 10,000 strong congregations that are making a huge impact in preaching the Gospel and setting people free from sin, sickness, and selfishness. There are also 10-person churches meeting in parking lots at 3:00 AM in the morning that are making a huge impact in preaching the Gospel and setting people free from sin, sickness, and selfishness. No one church model is alone in its ability to reach people. We need all models, and in fact we need models that haven’t even been invented yet.
If your church looks an awful lot like the rest of the world, and smells almost the same as all the other cultural aromas out there, then something is seriously off-balance. I remember hearing a story about a “Christian” music store that had a large poster matching up secular pop stars with “Christian” pop stars. If you like Britney Spears, check out this artist. If you like Justin Timberlake, check out that artist. If you like Beyoncé, check out this artist. Yep, we’ll sell you a sanitized and sanctified alternative for all of your favorite worldly stuff. Amazing, isn’t it? It’s almost like we use this magical cleansing product called Christianizer™ that you can spray on any secular cultural phenomenon and poof! It’s now Christian, replete with plenty of Jesus sprinkled on the top for good measure.
Let’s get back to basics and that which eternally matters.
The world needs what we often don’t actually have: forgiven lives lived with radical love that reflects our supernatural faith in a supernatural God. We have to stop looking to the world in order to copy what they’re doing. God is so much bigger than that. If we really want to reach people, we should be inventing a Kingdom culture that is more beautiful, more excellent, more innovative, and more meaningful than anything else the world has to offer. We need to possess such deep wisdom, such serene peace, such problem-solving potential, and such creative power that we attract those who are burned out with the mediocre sinkhole that is modern American consumer culture.
40 years ago the hippies realized that something was wrong with the mainstream world they lived in. They rebelled against an artificial, plastic culture and looked to communes and harmony with nature and ancient pagan practices to bring them into a better place. Then an amazing thing happened: many of those hippies became disillusioned when their quest brought them to a dead end – peace and love proving to be strangely illusive – and they went on to find something that would finally quench their thirst and nourish their souls: Jesus. The Jesus People movement of the 70′s was one of the largest periods of revival in American history. Entire church movements and networks sprung up out of nowhere as the former hippies who weren’t welcome in established churches started their own, and the face of Christianity forever changed as these people found a more authentic, more real, and more community-minded faith. But somehow, in the intervening years between then and now, we’ve lost that revelation. We’ve forgotten that it’s not about buildings and programs and products and checkboxes and marketing materials and movies. It’s about people. It’s about God’s creation and His will to restore it. And it really is all about peace, love, and understanding – the kind that can only come from the Savior of Mankind.
I am happy to have a church that is “seeker-friendly”, but I am even happier to have a church that is “Jesus-friendly”. Here’s an idea: let’s turn off the video projectors and lighting systems and guitar amps more often and spend more time to meditate on the goodness of the Lord and on loving each other earnestly and without prejudice. Maybe, in the end, that’s all we really need.
Update: further along these lines, read this excellent article by Frank Viola, one of the lead proponents of the organic church movement, in which he shares 10 reasons why he left the “institutional church” and sought the “ekklesia.” For the record, I myself fellowship in an organic church.