While traveling Way Down South recently I visited a church that, were it to be measured against the standards of today’s loudest progressively sympathetic Christian voices, should have been fully devoid of the One True God, the Resurrected Son, and the Holy Spirit.
It had no stained glass. No middle aisle. No pews. No hymnals. No narthex. No prayer labyrinth. No organ. No choir. No robes. No passing of the peace. No Eucharist. No liturgy. No church-calendar readings. No congregational responses. No worship folder. None of the things, in fact, that 50 years ago people poo-poohed en masse as being the killers of real faith, only to now become the frame from which people poo-pooh the other end of the tunnel from whence they recently evolved.
Instead, this church had a coffee bar. Comfy lounge chairs. Three large screens. Two Hollywood-caliber cameras. A sound-booth. Head-sets. Stage. Stage lights. Fog machine. Full band (contemporary worship, mind you; not marching or concert). Plexiglass cage for the drums. Projected lyrics. Advertising-flyer style bulletins. Lots of denim. Lots of middle-aged white people.
But: also lots of non-middle-aged non-white people. Lots. Lots of people who should obviously know better than to attend a non-traditional non-sacramental non-denominational pseudo-psycho-church that caters to contemporary styles and issues in a way that leeches the gospel dry of all its power and beauty and meaning while also robbing the kingdom of its beautiful diversity and mystery.
Right? We all know that churches like this have sold their souls to something devilish, have nothing of substance to offer anyone, and are entirely bereft of anything sincere, heartfelt and holy.
We know this because people have told us this. In no uncertain terms. Over and over and over again.
This church was so obviously the quintessential failure of 21st-century Christendom – nothing but a deep pit of hypocrisy hiding behind a shallow facade of religiosity guaranteed to suck the very life out of any who are stupid enough to cross its threshold.
And if that weren’t bad enough, the preacher was a partially balding white dude with a hipster goatee, wearing distressed jeans and a dress shirt, both untucked at the bottom and unbuttoned at the top, who started his sermon with a funny personal anecdote. Somewhere out there, his name is probably entered into The Book of Those Who Are Inherently Patriarchal and Entirely Obtuse (especially in regards to all significant social issues of both his immediate context and the larger world; tantamount to a Pharisee of the worst kind even on the best of days).
Here clearly was a full-blown loser of a church, a gathering of people that exemplify all that is sickly wrong with God’s kingdom today.
So you can imagine my surprise when I noticed the congregation’s diversity, both in age and ethnicity; you can imagine my shock when, after parking in some remote out-lot, the middle-aged white guy who stopped to offer me a ride in the official people-mover turned out to be quiet, kind, self-unimportant, and entirely gracious; you can imagine my confusion when the loud and foggy stage music was overshadowed by the passionately engaged voices around me; you can imagine my bewilderment when the (obviously self-centered, attention-seeking, power-hungry) preacher opened his Bible to the book of Luke and began reading, then exegeting, the Holy Scriptures; you can imagine my surprise when I heard about the various satellite campuses, each with its own distinct preaching pastor (because, um, Livestream of the Famous Guy?), each committed to the spiritual formation of its younger members; you can imagine my disbelief when there was not a single mention of the straight-to-hell-ness of certain members of society; you can imagine my incredulity when the pastor asked for personal responses (while eyes were closed and heads were bowed) just once before quickly moving into a meditative benediction; you can imagine my skepticism when there was not a single self-promoting self-congratulating self-righteous declarative pronouncement from the front (or back or side for that matter).
And I hope you can imagine my delight and joy when I met and sensed and heard from God at that supposedly God-forsaken place, worse (they say) than all other God-forsaken places precisely because of its claim to being God-centered. You can imagine my deep satisfaction at having worshipped in spirit and in truth in that warehouse-ish block of a building that is (they say) obviously bereft of anything sacred or profound. You can imagine my humble chagrin at having realized I was not in a church that is (they say) indubitably infused with deep levels of insincerity that beckons and then subsumes the vapid souls of its automaton members.
I hope you can also imagine my utter self-disappointment and disgust when I realized I’d been ready to blindly accept the well-crafted and distinguished-sounding words of a few people who project the intellectual ability and spiritual discernment to accurately pronounce scathing judgements on all the other people.
Perhaps one of the things that is most wrong with the church today is how swiftly and thoroughly so many of us are willing to loudly point out what is most wrong with the church today. (Perhaps that is exactly what I am doing here…)
There will always be things wrong with the church. Always. There will always be need for honest examination by individuals and selfless reformation by congregations. Always. There will always be a journey of additional sanctification and wider revival. Always.
But I doubt whether we need many more analyses, diagnoses, assessments, or indictments of the Church-at-Large. There is plenty of ill-will to go around already. What we need is more evangel, in doses and degrees that only the Spirit can provide, and only when the people of the church invite and embrace it.
Let’s get to it, shall we?