How does a pastor find a church when he is between churches? What does his family do when their life has been built around the routines of church life, and then the rhythm changes?An unexpected journey, it eventually led us to a surprising destination. After thirty years of worshiping and serving in mostly non-denominational evangelical or fundamentalist churches, we chose to become members of a mainline congregation—a Lutheran church (ELCA).
The rest of the story...
In retrospect, this should not have been so surprising. My own studies and experiences have led me to question many aspects of the contemporary evangelical approach, particularly in the area of ecclesiology. I have long been a contrarian against conventional church culture and practice, and found it difficult to not to laugh (or cry) at the all too common assumption that following Christ is to be equated with participating in someone’s clever church program.
My critiques grow out of a personal disillusionment, not only with certain church practices, but with a much larger culture—the culture of American middle class suburbia. At its root, my critique is that contemporary evangelical churches have, by and large, uncritically adopted the perspectives and values of American suburban affluence rather than allowing the story of the Bible, Jesus, apostolic Christianity, and the history of the church throughout the centuries, to inform their ecclesiology and practical theology.
In this post, I will give a general outline of three areas of dispute that caused me to look away from the contemporary evangelical church to other options when we were looking for a church home. Succeeding posts will add detail.
THE CENTRAL ISSUE: Worship (lack thereof)
Worship in the evangelical church has consistently followed patterns established by the American revivalist tradition. The “service” is essentially a stage show. Music and other elements prepare for and build up to the main event: the sermon. After the sermon, the preacher calls for response through an invitation. The “actors” are those who hold forth on the stage. The congregation is the “audience.” The preacher is the “star.” The sermon is like a sales pitch and the invitation gives the listeners the opportunity to buy in. This inevitably leads to a performance mentality on the part of those on the stage and a spectator mindset for those in the audience. Even those who do their parts with best intentions can’t overcome the unspoken messages they are sending.
Let me say unequivocally—this is not worship. I'm not saying that these services don't serve a purpose, particularly in mission settings, and it's true that some may find a way to worship while they sit in these shows, but on the corporate level these types of services are not designed so that God’s people may offer worship to him. We chose to seek a church that prepares and practices worship, not a stage show.
THE PASTORAL ISSUE: Hey Look! I’m an Entrepreneur!
It seems the primary models for church leaders today are celebrity megachurch pastors, successful business leaders, and media-savvy spokesmen. The successful pastor’s study has been transformed into his office, complete with a staff to insulate him from people who might waste his time. He imposes his will (sorry, vision) upon the congregation. His main tool is not his Bible but his Blackberry. He dresses cool, refuses to stand humbly behind a pulpit when he preaches, and majors in “practical” messages filled, of course, with pop culture references.
Eugene Peterson once said he was horrified to hear himself answer an inquirer’s question about his work with the sentence, “I run a church.” But this is the evangelical model, and it has run amuck. We chose to seek a tradition in which the pastoral role is defined and practiced differently.
THE MISSIONAL ISSUE: Living in the Temple
Large, “successful” evangelical churches now have “campuses” filled with buildings in which a multitude of programs take place. Those who defend them say that they are designed to attract the community so that they can hear the Gospel. However, they are much more successful in providing safe, “Christian” environments for the faithful and their families. In my generation, we have also seen the establishment of an alternative Christian culture that has created a world of its own, from homeschooling conventions to stores filled with “Jesus junk,” from Christian amusement parks to creation “museums,” from lucrative music and publishing industries to media empires. Christians need not ever leave the evangelical fold and venture into the world. And many don’t. Since, in the suburban world we relate to others according to “networks” rather than “neighborhoods,” believers can plug into the evangelical network and never have a meaningful conversation with a non-Christian if they so choose.
The evangelical church has become an artificial cosmos unto itself. It is of the world, but not in it. We chose to seek a tradition and church practice that is more organically related to real life and Jesus’ mission in the world.