For those of you who remember that I was writing a blog series a couple of months ago, welcome back! To those who don’t have a clue what this is all about, please read the first two posts in this series: Look Normal, Smell Different, and Look Different, Smell Old. And now, without further ado, on with the show!
In this series, I have been attempting to bring to your attention some of my thoughts regarding the most common approaches to “doing church” in America that have been detrimental to the healthy growth and strength of God’s Kingdom on earth. Today, I would like to talk about the rise of the “let’s attract people in the world by looking just like them” church movement that, while admirable and in some ways even successful, has made some major blunders in its quest to “reach the lost”.
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 emo 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 looking at, 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 well-paid staff members…excuse me, I mean 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-like café before heading off into the world and living just like all the other suburban middle-class Americans do.
Whew. Well, I either just heard an AMEN! or a flurry of agitated protestation. Let me back up a bit and make something quite clear: I have NOTHING whatsoever 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 like the year 2007 and not the year 1849, and I have nothing against sermons that are relevant to people’s daily lives. Actually I like all of those things, very much. I even believe, strongly, that God does bless you when you give sacrificially to ministries that are pouring their hearts and souls into furthering the Kingdom of Heaven.
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.
I get really concerned, even frustrated, when I see people confuse their pet church model with the Bride of Christ. I don’t care if you have lots of people going to your church and being entertained with all of your really groovy ministry efforts. I don’t care if you have people filling out cards with the “I’ve accepted Jesus into my heart” box checked. And, please, don’t point to your number of public baptisms as evidence that your plans are working. I know people who have been heavily involved in churches their whole lives, baptized long ago, talking all the Christian lingo and saying all the “right stuff”, and their lives are a total mess and mirror that of the most screwed-up heathens. All the church programs in the world can’t give people the one thing they need the most: a supernatural encounter with the Lord Almighty.
If your church looks just like the rest of the world, and smells the same as all the other stuff out there, 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 Beyonce, check out this artist. We sell 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.
We need to get back to the basics. We need to get back to focusing on the things that really matter, living with radical love and with the fruit of our lives reflecting 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 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 modern 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 networks and denominations 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!
I am happy to have a church that is “seeker-friendly”, but I am even happier to have a church that is “Jesus-friendly”. May we never lose sight of the fact that it’s not all about the latest Christian clone of Kayne West, or of Harry Potter, and it’s not about having a better video projector or theatrical lighting system than Bubba.
It’s all about Jesus!