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Thursday, October 12, 2017

Between Museum and Megachurch

I’ve been to a few churches lately. And I’ve got some questions. Maybe you do too.

Two weeks ago I visited a tiny congregation. Everything about them — the building, the furniture and the people — was redolent of a past generation.

Not near past. Long past.

The Museum Model

This was no “blast from the ’60s”, unless you meant the 1860s. True, there had been some updates. The carpet was relatively recent, the chairs (formerly wooden butt-punishers) had been replaced with modern, padded units, and the walls had been given a coat of fresh, white paint to brighten up the former cream-to-caramel tones of the main room. The formerly-towering platform had been supplanted by a more understated, low one, with a decorous little stand replacing the older-style, bulging pulpit. Even the ancient light fixtures had some of those new soft-white bulbs.

But still, it was in no sense a “new” place.

For one thing, everything in the auditorium still pointed decisively in the direction of the lecture stand, signaling that preaching was still to be the uncontested order of the day. For another, they still had an organ (an instrument whose modern uses are rightly reserved to hockey games and funerals). The oversized gospel proof-texts on the wall (still KJV) had received new paint along with the walls. And over all that, the very air of the place bore smell of timeworn hardwood paneling, nuanced with the dust of century-old hymnbooks.

It just was an old place.

The congregation, too, had some dust on them. To sit at the back, one would have thought one was looking at an open pack of Q-tips®. White fluff floated above stooped shoulders, and the aesthetic was only broken by a few darker heads and the bobbing hats of the women.

Sitting there, I was impressed with both the sincerity and persistence of the people in that church. Those are not small qualities, folks. But they are not enough. It was clear to me that, absent a new wind of change blowing through there, a dozen years would likely see this congregation in real trouble by dint of sheer attrition by death. Then what would become of the Lord’s testimony in this location?

Who could say?

The Megamodel

Two weeks later I was sitting in the overpriced auditorium of a major megachurch. Two giant screens blared the lyrics of modern Christian pop songs (some of them converted hymns, minus all the difficult theology), while a rock band bounced about enthusiastically beneath. On the stage — and a real stage it was, with banks of lights and massive woofers and tweeters, stood not one giant cross, but two — plus a jury-rigged archway designed to illustrate the preacher’s main point.

Hundreds and hundreds of people eventually streamed in for the service, miraculously all seeming to arrive at the same (late) moment, and parked themselves in comfortable, pull-down theatre seats. Not that they got to use them much. Right away they were all on their feet … not in enthusiasm so much as by necessity — you can’t see the stage if there are people standing in front of you. These congregants were of various shapes and sizes, some from early university and others all the way up to post-retirement age. (The teens and children had been farmed off to their own programs, each larger and more elaborate than some whole churches.) This congregation was also really multicultural, drawing a bunch of drop-ins from local colleges and the university.

Sound and Fury

The program was laid on. Nothing was expected of the congregation except that they should sing on cue, bow their heads, and express enthusiasm when somebody on the stage said something enthusiastic (determined by vocal inflection or, if that failed, by fist-pump). The songs were a pastiche of anthems culled from the bargain-bin of the local Christian bookstore, full of inexplicable riffs and awkward bridges, and adorned with lyrics of dubious theological merit.

No more than a tiny portion of the congregation could actually anticipate well enough to sing. It didn’t really seem to matter, though, and everybody appeared to have adapted to this state of affairs by just sort of mouthing along half-committedly, falling temporarily silent and bewildered at those moments when the musical blandishments became too elaborate to follow, then jumping back in again when the music seemed, for a few lines, to make sense again. But it was pretty much the band on stage that mattered anyway … the congregation couldn’t hear itself sing, other than perhaps the person directly on one side or the other.

The ministry — well, when it came, it came almost as theatrically. The speaker (or “pastor” as he was now called) leaped enthusiastically up onto the stage, exclaiming something like, “How’s everybody doing today,” and rolled right into a hipster gospel message. That lasted about half an hour.

Ultimately, he had perhaps a little less content than the guy at the older meeting; but he was pretty much on the same page — the point was to get the gospel over to new people, in case anybody present happened not to be saved. And at the end, he made the purpose of the crosses and archway clear: all congregants were to shuffle forward through the arch, and present a note card he had exhorted them to write earlier at the foot of the largest and gnarliest cross. This, he said, was our way of putting action into the message he had preached.

Now, all of this clearly involved a huge effort in time, effort and dollars. From the size of the congregation, I could guess that this place would likely outlive the “museum” church I had attended two weeks earlier. But I wondered: Was it any more likely that this church would succeed in presenting a testimony to the Lord for very long? It was far too slick, too commercial, and far too passive, I thought, to succeed in making disciples, in keeping its message unadulterated by modern, consumerism, in activating its members or in preserving some vestige of theological soundness. In any machine that elaborate something is bound to break down.

No Third Option?

Well, now for my questions:

Firstly, why are these our only two options? Why today is there so little open space between the museum and the megachurch? Why are there not congregations that have modernized, but in a principled, cautious and theologically-sound way?

Question two: if the traditionalists are so obedient to the Spirit of God, why do all their meetings look the same, unchanged from the old Scots-Irish pattern of a hundred years ago? Does that mean they think the Spirit of God has only one pattern for all churches worldwide, in all time periods? Where’s the fresh air from the Word, if the Spirit is so active?

Third question: If the megachurches are so wonderfully innovative and free-thinking, so modern and so relevant, how come all of them fall into the same patterns too? Did the Spirit of God declare that a particular mode of spiritual expression developed in suburban Chicago in the 1980s was the template for all modern churches? And why is it that no sooner do they become megachurches and their firmness on doctrine, from hymnology to pulpit, seems to go into the dumpster?

The Middle Way

I’ve got more questions. But these three are really tied in together in this: where is the Christian option today that is both:
  1. Relevant to the real-world way we live, challenging our particular follies or improving our ancient habits and moving us aggressively forward in practical obedience to our Lord, and
  2. Counter-cultural to the direction our society is moving, indicting (not colluding with) the sins of the present age, and speaking the gospel in such a way as to pull down the current walls raised up against the knowledge of God?
What I’m finding is that today, there doesn’t seem to be much space between the museum and the megachurch, and I’m not sure either is of the Spirit of God. So I’m asking why this is all we have.

Maybe because the middle way is, in practice, the hardest kind of work to do.

Cookie-Cutters

You see, the traditionalist patterns of the museum church are already set. The job of the local congregants then becomes merely to service the running of those traditions indefinitely. Adjustments can be kept very small and few, and the pattern has already got all the features it needs to run programmatically. A little money, a little effort, and not much soul-searching will keep it going … at least for the foreseeable future.

On the megachurch pattern, the job is a lot busier. More has to be invented. Things have to be modernized quickly. Many, many programs must be initiated and sustained. Leaders and servers must be located and assigned jobs. Information must be published, and above all, money must flow. But increasingly, all megachurches are starting to look and operate alike. They have their own traditions — new ones — which allow them to install and operate the elaborate machinery of their programs. And we must not underestimate the convenience of “professionalizing”. The “pastor” (or rather, each of the “pastors”) has his job. So do the “worship” leaders, the announcement-makers, the prayer-team members, the small-group leaders, and all the functionaries who oversee each of the other sub-programs.

Harder than either of these models, though, is the middle model. That is, the church that is not modernizing in a programmatic way, but is rather modernizing by rediscovering and applying scriptural truth and patterns to what it is doing. That’s really a lot of work. Because it means that the congregation cannot simply ride on its traditions, nor simply reconfigure itself by some prefab megachurch model.

Creative Christianity

In fact, it’s not really a “model” at all. Models are preset. The local church that is in obedience looking to the leadership of Christ is obliged to look around at its current situation and see where the Lord is leading them to make changes. They are adapting to the unique situation and challenges that they have. And as such, they may not actually look quite like any other congregation at all. Their arrangements, their building (if they have one), their practices, their schedules, their routines and their habits are all derived from (a) the particular people they have, and (b) the application of scripture to making those people disciples.

But that’s a ton of work. And it takes a ton of soul-searching. And there’s really no point at which that can stop for the middle-model church, because time keeps moving, situations change, and new challenges are constantly appearing. So constant review is part of the leadership challenge in these sorts of congregations. Moreover, it takes a lot of prayer. If the Lord didn’t give wisdom, didn’t provide people and means, or didn’t lead, then the middle-model church would be in trouble very quickly. It would be a church in a continual state of self-examination and revision. And who’s got the energy for that?

Realities

So maybe it’s not a surprise that I’ve never seen a middle-model church.

Or at least, I may have seen one once, but I’m not quite sure. I wasn’t there long enough to tell. But it did look like they were trying, and some wonderful spiritual things were going on there. True, there were moments when that church too lapsed into traditionalism or unfocused innovation; but for the most part, changes were happening, and happening for mostly right reasons. And because of this, that church has been a continual blessing in its community since its inception — not perfect, perhaps; but certainly a great deal more spiritually fruitful than anything I’ve seen come from the other two types of congregation.

I’m sure they have their problems. I know there have been challenges for them. But I liked what they were trying to do, and I think it was the right direction. Certainly they were putting effort into thinking about issues many other churches are just taking for granted; and I have to applaud their spirit … or maybe I should say rather, the Spirit … for inspiring their sincere effort to create a church dependent on the Lord.

Making the Middle

And I say this: If we have to be among some Christians (as we all do), we should seek out, or else create congregations that are committed to the middle way.

And we should all pray, “Lord, where there are those who still love your name and listen to your Spirit — not to tradition or to the spirit of the age — then however hard their path, let me be found among them.”

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