2009 Top Five Posts – Refining Our Thoughts on the Contemporary Church

Wendy and I wrote this post together shortly after leaving staff at Streetlite.  It was a great time of clarity for us. 

Refining Our Thoughts on the Contemporary Church

I have spent almost every Sunday since arriving in Baltimore at Streetlite Christian Fellowship; but now that I am not on staff any more (and thus have no Sunday responsibilities), Wendy and I have the freedom to visit some churches we have always wanted to check out.

This past Sunday we had an incredible experience.  The church, which shall remain nameless, did everything perfectly. 

  • The front door was held open for us by a gentleman with a kind smile.  I immediately felt welcomed. 
  • The layout of the entry way was awesome.  Even though it was my first time at the church, and there were a ton of people coming in and out, the natural flow of traffic let me know exactly where to go. 
  • The welcome desk was well labeled and prominent on the left hand side of the entry way.  It was staffed with friendly helpful people; and there were no lack of easy to approach greeters with clearly visible nametags standing around expectantly hoping someone would ask them a question.
  • Beyond the Welcome desk there was a room full of breakfast treats and the smell of coffee was in the air (a huge plus for me).
  • A greeter identified us as visitors and led us to the Children’s check in area. 
  • The Children’s Sunday School Check-In Desk was also extremely easy to find.  Check in there was great.  One of the workers escorted us to the classrooms, explained to us the security procedures, and answered any and all the questions we could possibly have.
  • The worship service was impeccably pulled off.  The music was sincere, not showy in anyway.  There were multiple worship leaders, but it was extremely smooth and enjoyable.  The songs were relevant, fresh, and easy to pick up for someone who might not know them.  They did a great job of trying to help people engage Christ without terrifying those that might be new the the church experience.
  • The sermon was clear, relevant, and engaging.  The pastor’s points were well thought out and communicated.  My attention was held the entire time.  There were no unnecessary rabbit trails or rants.  It was challenging but not offensive, informative but not burdensome, fun but not ridiculous.  It was a good message.
  • After the service we went to get our kids and they were beaming.  Yes…that’s right…our kids loved Sunday School there.  Usually a new church experience will send them all into tears, but not this time.  They couldn’t stop sharing stories about how much fun they had.

This church is a well oiled machine.  They have it down.  They do all the things authors say you should do to create a wonderful church experience.  They pull off an excellent attractional worship service.  They totally set the bar super high. 

As we drove home I asked Wendy what she thought.  Reflectively she said, “That would be a very comfortable place to fall into, but there has to be something more.”   I agreed, “Yeah.  That was amazing…but it is not going to turn the city upside down for Jesus.”

Now, please don’t think we are being judgmental or critical when we say “there must be something more.”  You must understand first, I think this church is incredible.  I have attended a lot of churches, and I’ve never been to one that pulled off an attractional worship service like they did.  Seriously, four snaps in a circle.  Super rock’in awesome cool.

Also, please understand that I am very much part of this church, and thus I am about to be commenting on myself as much as my experience this past Sunday. 

I’m not a member or anything like that, but I celebrated as churches like this one over the years.  I applauded churches that risked everything, denied all contemporary wisdom, and fought the status-quo to become environments that were comfortable and inviting to outsiders.  I cheered as these churches put down the hymnals and put lyrics on easy to use screens; as they got rid of the traditional pews and went to more comfortable stadium seating.  I defended speakers that were struggling to give sermons in more “seeker friendly” ways.  I got fired up about worship music becoming more like the music my generation listened to.  I created environments that were fun, comfortable, and exicitng, and then instructed the congregation to “bring their lost friends next week!”  I’ve built crazy sets for Sunday mornings, hung flyers on door knobs, cooked pancake breakfasts, pulled off insane visual illustrations, put on Easter pagents and Hell Houses, delivered invitations with soft music playing behind me, and on, and on, and on…you see…

When I speak about the attractional church I am not an outsider.  It is very much a part of me; a part of me that now groans and aches.

So back to “something more…”

My problem is two fold:

First – I believe that the church is the only organization that can bring healing to the pain of Baltimore.  Because it is the only group empowered by the Holy Spirit, it is the only group that can bring dead things to life.

Second – the things that used to work, the things that used to excite people about coming to church, the stuff that used to bring people to the healing power of Jesus, now seems to be the status quo and are no longer working.  The people in my community that are disconnected from God are not attracted to our worship services any more, no matter how relevant we make them.  (This is not just my personal experience.  There are tons of studies out there now showing that less and less people every year are attending church.)  They don’t care what the music is like.  They don’t care how relevant the message is. They don’t care if it is welcoming an inviting.

You see, the attractional based model assumes that there are groups of people out there that would attend a worship service if that worship service was simply welcoming and inviting.  One author I read recently called these groups of people “window shoppers.”  The goal of the attractional church has been to create a beautiful window that would draw people in…but these groups are quickly diminishing.  Sadly, I think these groups are no longer in the neighborhood, but are rather in other churches that can’t get their windows looking nice. 

As Wendy and I worshiped in this incredible church last Sunday I looked out over the people and heard the Holy Spirit whisper in my ear (which is incredibly strange for me…not a usual occurance).  The sad and longing voice said, “I want to run wild here.  I want to do incredible things through these people, but they are not living dangerously.”

This I think is the major problem with the attractional church.  The primary activity of the body, the front door where people are introduced to the church, is focused on being comfortable and exciting.  It therefore, unintentionally, feeds the consumer attitude that is already present in our society.  People come, they sit, and they feed off the spiritual life of the few that are living on the edge.

Now, I don’t know yet how to fix this yet, but here are a few things I have come to believe firmly in the last year…

We have to stop making our front door (where people come to check us out) a worship service; we need to make it our lives.  People should not be encountering the Holy Spirit for the first time by watching believers worship.  They should be introduced to the Holy Spirit through the insane, crazy, wild, reckless, sacrifical love of Jesus that defines everything we do, every conversation we have, every moment of our existance.

We should not be know for our music, our teaching, our environments, or our kids programs.  We should be known for our humility, our brokenness, our passion for the poor, our acceptance of the outcast, our forgiving justice, our non-judgemental righteousness, and our generous giving of ourselves to others.

Our worship service should not be the first place we go, the place we show up to get charged up.  It should be the culmination of our week.  After living as Jesus in the battle field of life, our worship services should be where those of us who have Christ in common come to grieve and celebrate with one another the defeats and victories of the week.  

We must stop making the tools the point.  We have to recapture what Jesus meant when He said, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”  If we continue to make our worship service, our programs, our small groups, our activities, our spiritual disciplines the defining focus of what we do then we will follow the path of the phraisees and find ourselves crucifying the Son of God to hold onto our rituals and routines.

Let it be said that we carry in us the attitude of Jesus.  That we are people defined by our love for God and our love for others.  Let the world be amazed at how wildly we give of ourselves, at how recklessly we serve, at how humbly we live, and at how unsafely we love.  Let it be said that when you encounter one of us you never before felt so valued and cared for.  Let membership in our community not be defined by the where we are from 9:30 to Noon on a Sunday, but rather by our reputation in the community as people that live differently.

And let the cry of our lives be, “Jesus is Lord.  Tomorrow in eternity.”

This is my hope for the church.

Thanks for reading my rant.

2009 Top Five Posts – Refining Our Thoughts on the Contemporary Church

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