Perhaps by now you are wondering where I am going in this series. Do I have anything good to say about institutional churches? And if not, what is the alternative? I promise that I will answer both of these questions soon. Today, however, I need to continue my critique of institutional church practices. We must rid ourselves of the notion that contemporary forms of doing church are the only and forever best ways of being the church in the world.
The church will face many challenges no matter what form it takes or what means it uses to accomplish its mission. Jesus was persecuted and his message rejected. We can expect no less. The world is never going to welcome the call to repent of its immorality and idolatry. It loves the broad way of self-indulgence and pride. It’s not attracted to the way of self-denial and self-control. Holiness holds no appeal and righteousness excites no hunger or thirst. But sometimes the church creates problems it might not otherwise face by the forms it adopts and the means it uses.
Programs that Need Money
I’ve already spoken about money at some length. However I want to mention one more problem with money-driven churches. Contemporary churches instinctively institutionalize programs that need money and lots of it. Hence it needs contributing members and lots of them. This need introduces ambiguity into the church’s evangelistic witness. We are tempted to reduce the price of conversion from “repent and believe the good news” (Mark 1:15) and “take up your cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34) to “come and join our nice church.” The motto of every successful retail business is “The customer is always right.” If we set up the church so that we need to attract customers and keep them happy, how can we at the same time call them to “count the cost” of following Jesus (Luke 14:15-35)?
Family Friendly Churches
Since history began every member of most families worked to support the family. For most of that time, families could work together in agriculture, home industries, and domestic chores. There were no electronic media, no schools, no soccer practices, and no music lessons. Evening meals were taken together. But the rise of the modern economy and culture brought dramatic changes to family life. Increasingly, since the end of WW II many middle class children grow up in homes where both parents work in industry and children spend their days in schools, their evenings doing homework, and their weekends in sports activities. Parents expect daycare workers and schools to educate their children while they are at work and coaches to teach them athletic skills in the evenings and on the weekends while they relax.
And on Sundays modern parents expect churches to act like the daycares centers and schools on which they rely during the week. Church leaders respond to this pattern of expectation by providing child care, age segregated Sunday school classes, and a full range of youth programs. Churches feel pressure to hire children’s ministers, youth ministers, young adult ministers, and family life ministers. They build huge complexes to accommodate all these activities. Otherwise they will lose families to churches that provide them. In the meantime, parents fail to teach their children the faith or spend time with them modeling the Christian life, which is among the top two or three essential responsibilities of parenthood. Are we helping or hurting families by assimilating the church to the pattern of busyness that is the bane of modern family life?
Guest Friendly Churches
Before the nineteenth-century revivals that periodically swept the United States after 1810, church services were not really guest friendly or evangelistic in nature. For the most part, they were for insiders, the elect. After the Civil War right up to the present, the Sunday service became a time to “invite your neighbor” or to receive “walk ins off the street.” The sermons and all other public activities betrayed an awareness that the “unconverted” may be in the audience. The constant presence of outsiders guaranteed that the church could never conduct its meetings in ways designed to build up the church to maturity in Christ. The original purpose of the gathering was forgotten.
In my experience, most contemporary churches are stage centered. People come to watch, listen, and feel. The preachers, readers, worship leaders, musicians, and singers are at the center of attention. The church experience becomes performance and entertainment. If the performance is not satisfactory we go somewhere else. Center stage in the spotlight becomes a place of honor to be sought. The stage replaces the table, the music replaces the Eucharistic meal, and a feeling of transcendence replaces Christ crucified and risen.
Next Time: Don’t despair! We can do better.