As has been the thread running through several of my articles, I have a huge dilemma I struggle with regarding modern evangelical mega-churches and “baby” mega-churches. If you have read virtually anything else I have written on the subject, you know the long-form version of my religious background. I never attended church growing up, hated it, didn’t want to go and viewed most clergy as self-righteous and condescending. As a I grew older and felt that proverbial “god-shaped” void, I began to voraciously read Christian apologetics books; C.S. Lewis, R.C. Sproul, Josh McDowell, and of course Lee Strobel. They answered a lot of questions for me and eventually, in 2001, I gave my life to Christ. It’s been a constant struggle to stay on the “straight and narrow” as it were. I am hot and cold in my faith, as is every Christian I would have to assume. But my faith has remained to one degree or another.
Recently I have begun to struggle, not so much with my faith in general, but with aspects of it and with aspects of the organized Church. Many Christians believe that it isn’t our “place” to question the authority of the Church (big “C” denoting the Church as an institution) or of the local denomination (or non-denomination as the case may be). I find it difficult to believe that God would bless us with this intellect and curious nature and this ability to discern these things if He didn’t intend for us to use it. Certainly, I am going to get a ton of mini-Billy Graham’s who will throw dozens of references at me showing me exactly the opposite to be true. If that happens, and the Biblical references are correct, then I will certainly modify my position.
The intent of my article is to express my concern with the tendency among “seeker-focused” churches to rely so heavily upon style over substance in so many cases. I have primarily attended one church since my salvation and I love it. There is no other church home for me. But I see many of these tendencies manifesting themselves and I would like to request some guidance and input regarding the subject from those more theologically well-read than myself. I can’t, with my limited biblical knowledge, determine the answers, but I intend to voice the questions and concerns.
As I have addressed in previous articles, the tendency towards hip and rockin’ worship bands is one defining characteristic I have struggled with. However, I have come to terms with that aspect of modern churches; God loves for us to make a joyful noise- it doesn’t have to be How Great Thou Art to be pleasing to him. The only aspect that still concerns me is the propensity for worship leaders and team members to allow ego and pride to creep into the equation. As a lifelong musician, I am relieved that I have found a measure of peace regarding this part of church services and hope to assimilate myself back into the fray at some point. I miss worshiping my God in this manner. There is nothing else like it.
A second struggle I have had recently is with the perceived lack of compassion and social skills exhibited by pastors and lay-elders. Perhaps my theology is faulty here, but it seems that a man serving God in such a capacity should exhibit a personable demeanor and the genuine wish to make those in his flock feel welcome. Many larger churches fail miserably here. As churches seek pastors and put them through their paces, personality and compassion in a visible form should be weighed heavily in choosing leaders. Our church has been at both ends of the spectrum in that way. We have some exceptionally loving individuals in our congregation, but I’m sad to say many people feel intimidated by our leaders, myself included, because of the seeming arrogance and condescension they perceive. Granted, it likely isn’t intended, but the average Joe or Jane visiting the church as a seeker bases everything on that first impression. Perhaps academic achievement and credentials should not be the primary criteria for leadership?
A problem I go back and forth with is the whole multimedia experience in many modern churches. Things are planned to the second. Lights are cued precisely to coincide with a dramatic entrance by an actor portraying a character in a skit designed to be “relevant” to the message “series” at hand. The skit ends, the light dim and the band moves onto the stage. A well-timed keyboard or guitar intro is precisely lit to accentuate a predetermined mood. A “secular” yet safe sone is hammered out. The song ends, the lights dim on cue and “boom” there is an “MTV” style video presentation or clip from a well-known movie with pseudo-Christian overtones. Lights up, a couple Praise and Worship songs, with everyone (save a few bashful ones) claps along more less in time and sings along. Then comes the message, generally light on the scripture, intentionally so, which usually is part of a series, which in turn is generally tied to a relevant and current pop-culture phenomenon. The message is, depending on the speaker and topic, usually very engrossing and applicable to the listener’s daily life. The hour is up, we pray, the band does one last song and we are dismissed. This is a typical Sunday morning service in any of thousands of “seeker focused” churches throughout the U.S. Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily.
There is nothing I mentioned that is contrary to God’s law, at least not that I am aware of. People are drawn to these services that likely would never set foot in a church otherwise. They want the “show.” The want to be entertained. The problem is that it seems to be a revolving door. You see a core group of believers week in and week out. But there are hundreds if not thousands of people who come for a week or two and feel nothing. They don’t get the message, they move on. Is there something we can do different to reach them and lead them to salvation? There has to be. I hear the Willow Creek defense. “They have x,000 attendees, they must be doing something right.” Is size the best measure of success?
Ted Haggard’s former palace is huge, yet their leader was a charlatan. He lied to those people for an extended period of time and they loved Him, as they still should, but they became too impressed with their size and effective marketing machine and lost sight of God. It has happened, is happening and will continue to happen. We need to have our guard up and be vigilant.
The TV commercials, radio commercials, and billboards I see for local churches, my own included, embarrass me. It cheapens our ministry and makes us look like Jimmy Swaggart lite to many people. I hear the opinions in my community and it angers me and makes me feel the need to justify it. I believe in the God of the Bible and I believe His Word and message should be effective enough to fill our seats. Let’s deemphasize the number of bodies in our seats on Sunday. It isn’t the key to our successful ministry. We need to do something with the people we have there, the rest will see our joy and our love for our church; THAT is what will fill our seats and grow our church.
For a church to have an advertising budget is a travesty to me. That money should be spent in more relevant ways. When I see a TV spot for my church and the first thought that comes to mind is that it is a new Mormon spot, my heart sinks and I feel shame that I have condoned this and made my church into a joke within the community. We should care about that as Christians. We can be relevant without forgetting Whom we serve.
One last comment: Everyone reading this who knows me will have a knee-jerk reaction to my comments and will likely become offended. I am prepared for that back-lash. I feel strongly enough about the subject to deal with that. Although I use examples in my life, I do intend this article to address all modern, evangelical, “seeker-focused” churches.