A Reflective Christian

All for God’s Kingdom

Why I do not like to go to church (Part 3)

Lack of meaningful fellowship

One of the major metaphors in Paul’s language to describe the church is the “body of Christ.” He envisions an organic teamwork that fuses together to act as the incarnated Christ in the world since Jesus had ascended.  However, in order to do that, there must be a deep sense of fellowship within the confines of the assembly of Christians.

The problem is, the societal rules and habits that determine our behavior in society in general are also the same rules we tend to live by in the church setting. One principle that holds true in social gatherings for ages where most people are single is that “attractive” people tend to spend time together. Another one is intellectuals gather together.  In other words, the old adage “birds of a feather flock together” describes the primary (though by no means exclusive) determining factor for social groups. Unfortunately, this hold true for the majority of social contact in the church setting.  Commonly known as cliques. But the problem isn’t with cliques per se, but rather it is a symptom of a deeper problem within the context of the church.

I have witnessed one exception to this rule. And it isn’t even really an exception, but it is an uncommon cause of group cohesion. However, it is also witnessed outside of the church in select pockets. Activist minded people also tend to clump together, despite their social, behavioral, and physical features. The thing that is held in common amongst these people is a mission. When this intangible, immaterial thing that does not describe a people directly is the cause of unity, the proverb “opposites attract” seems to play out as true. In reality, there are opposites in many regards, but they are united in their common cause.

And this isn’t truly THAT infrequent. Corporations work under this model. Many person who, at least in theory, work together to research, plan, create, and sell goods and services. These corporations accomplish things that those people could never accomplish apart from them holding a common goal, broadly speaking,  in mind. However, what distinguishes this from activism is that corporations are largely the function of extrinsic motivation, such as a paycheck, whereas group activism is caused by in large by intrinsically motivated persons.

The church as it stands, lacks this cohesive cause to fellowship. Particularly in Protestant churches, the word of unmerited grace stands as a major motivating factor for church attendance. While this notion is certainly biblical, the Bible as a whole in the First Testament and the Second, testifies to God’s reward for the faithful and punishment of the faithless.  However, where preaching emphasizes the unmerited grace pole, the most that tends to be help in common between the majority person in the church is a individualistic reception. Social groups within the church, then, form not because persons perceive they have received grace. Instead, the rules for unity go back to rules and habits they learned in their social upbringing.

The mission of the body of Christ is barely served then. Social pressures from the pulpit and from the pews is a motivator for the occasional service, but it lacks any motivation that is strong enough to give people a strong sense of mission, which leads to a unity with other persons with the mission.

There is no reason, then, for persons in the pews to actively seek other persons, either in finding fellow Christians to serve the living God and in actively seeking places of personal service to others. If they already have a group of persons that serve their other needs, there is little reason for unity across the entirety of the church. There is little in common.

However, the problem goes a bit deeper. Frequently on Sunday mornings, there will be a time alloted to give a little exchange of words to other persons around you.  The average time for these moments of fellowship? A couple of minutes. Partly, this goes back to the pragmatism of trying to finish the service within an allotted amount of time. However, it is also a factor of “social awkwardness” that inevitably results when times go longer with people are rather unfamiliar with each other.

When persons who are not familiar with each other are not talking but yet they stand looking at each other, there is that “awkward” feel to it. While there are many things that go into new people getting to know each other, having a topic where both people will engage each other is a very important consideration. But what do random persons in the church have to talk about when they aren’t there because of commitments to God and the Christian mission? Talk about their own experience of God’s grace, a major reason persons might come? Essential to a certain degree, but topics that revolve around oneself can not serve as the sole foundation of growing fellowship between persons.

Also, in America, due to the overall scientific, analytical mindset, to speak of an unscientific spirituality is very uncomfortable to more intellectual types. Thus Christian talk becomes largely the realm of the more affective types. Unfortunately, they too go to an extreme where emotional considerations largely determine their topics, their speech, and their behavioral patterns in the Christian community, with little critical reflection on cause of the their affective experiences. Personality, in this instance, largely serves to split the two types in the context of Christian fellowship. So intellectual types only reach their own, and emotional types their own. And each group has their own social mores that finds the persons of the other group as being in violation. For instance, “Why does theology matter, as long as you love Jesus?” Or an intellectual temptation, as I am prone to” is to largely exclude the role of emotions in religious life.  Therefore, the divisions are further reinforced. Then emotional types continue in their way unabated with nothing to bring them to live in the entirety of reality, and the same for intellectuals.

This is why talk and expounding upon the Christian story is important. Story begs analysis at some level, and story automatically incites experience at some level. But where church is centered around either overly abstract, denarrativized propositions or a more ecstatic, emotive aspect, unity between different personality types will not happen.

While I could continue for many pages, the essence of this whole post is that fellowship in the church is largely a factor of person having things in common outside of the Christian mission and story and the unwillingness to preach of God’s actual, and not theoretical, punishment of evil and reward of good even for Christians in lieu of an exaggerated message of undeserved grace. Instead, the social logic and rules of the world seep into the church that is called to be a holy, behaviorally separated, body of believers. The fellowship problem is a problem and causes other problems, but it stands as a symptom of a deeper problem.

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January 30, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | | 1 Comment

The percieved behavior of the church to homosexuality

As I was sitting in United Methodist Theology intensive course the past couple days, our professor Dr. Seamands emphasized that the proper Christian response is both the extreme of zeal for truth, and that of extreme compassion for persons. Another, more cliche, way of talking about this tension is “love the sin, hate the sinner.” Christians feel it necessary to talk about this because we have a sense of perceived guilt in Christianity as a whole in the past and present. And in many ways, some Christians have overemphasized truth.

Nevertheless, I would dare so that we are convinced that i it is such a rampant problem because we have heard about it from so many people and we hear of the occasional instances of hatred towards homosexuals (and others). We are convinced by a few anecdotal instances and then a whole perception that are validated when the occasional instance occurs.

However, this perception is also strengthened by another phenomenon of human psychology. As I have noticed with many of the students who responded in class to this issue in the Methodist church, people were rather quick to emphasize the compassion aspect of dealing with the issue. It is almost an automated response now.  Such an automatic response wouldn’t happen unless we were talking about something that might seem to be contradictory of compassion, either in supposing outside interpretation or our own interpretation of what we are talking about.

Allow me to throw this hypothesis out there. I would say that much of our current perception in the church is subtly reinforced because we have been taught that any response that can not directly be classified as compassionate is immediately construed as lacking compassion. In other words, much of our feeling of corporate guilt as Christians is not because of the extreme reactions of hatred (such as Fred Phelps as an extreme of the extreme), but because we have been culturally taught that any thing that doesn’t fall into the definition of compassionate and loving is immediately contradictory.

Now this isn’t exactly a new brilliant idea that we have taken societies definition of compassion and love. However, in explaining the psychology of our self-perception as a church, I think it is critical to understand that. These, at worst, minor infractions of compassion continue to reinforce our perception of our own guilt, but when we envision our guilt, we  would tend to envision it in it extremes.

The result then, is that we rapidly lose the tension between truth and love, because we constantly perceive infractions against the principle of love. Thus, while the statement that we must hold these two principles is true of our Christian words, actions, and beliefs, the emphasis upon this tension in our cultural context leads to the gradual loss of the pole of truth.

January 20, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | Leave a comment

Why I do not like to go to church (Part 2)

Before I dwelve into my second critique, I first want to make sure I do not give the wrong impression about my criticism of church preaching. I am not advocating a particular method of preaching, per se.  For instance, I do not maintain that preaching must take upon a narrative form, though one might get the impression of that when I talked about God’s story as the central basis for preaching. I am not speaking as much to form, except against the forms that require particular types of content, such as an exegetical sermon.

Overly structured worship service

This might seem rather counter-intuitive critique. Either that, or one might suspect me to be very low church and probably charismatic. But my criticism isn’t against particular parts of the worship service that are structured, taking upon the form or a ritual. Rituals are very important in my mind and are incredibly lacking in many worship serivces. Rather my criticism is about the entirety of the worship service. More specifically, the order of worship and the time allotted to it.

Ask anyone who frequents a worship service what they think the ideal time for a worship service should be, and a good percentage of them will say something around an hour.  In that context, when I hear people asking for the Holy Spirit to come down to their worship service, I translate it as “Come within the hour, Spirit.” To be very blunt though, this goes back to the idea of humanity trying to control the nature of spirituality and its time by particular methods.

When we want to have a good visit with a friend, an hour is generally on the low end of the scale for the amount of time people will spend with someone. Why then, when we want to have an encounter with God, do we place the upper limit to within an hour to hour and a half at a worship service?

There are many answers to that question. First, the nature of how worship is set up so that the congregation is relatively passive the whole time does not accord well for an encounter with God, much less to keep at it for over an hour. The attention span fades relatively quickly. But that goes to another critique I have that I will save for later.

Then, with the more popular churches that have their services broadcast on television, they feel the necessity of completing the service in the allotted time because the programming requires it.

Another answer is that we have places we want to be. For instance, there are many jokes after a 11 AM service about certain churches getting out before the others so that they can get to the restaurants. And these are light hearted to a degree, but it does show that getting to lunch is in the back of the minds. Other places we might want to be is on a couch watching the football game during NFL season.

But this is not simply the fault of the congregation though. They have been trained to think that a worship service will fit within the rest of their schedule. It goes back to the methodical way we as worship leaders have  tried to control the worship setting, and accommodated to the schedule and attention spans of others.

In addition to the fact that we have constrained the time in which the encounter at worship can occur, there are other consequences. How can we expect the prayer time of individuals on their own to move beyond a few moments? The rhythm and form of our worship settings is transferred to the individual Christian life outside of worship settings. Instead of practice a form of a “holy inefficiency,” we have been trained to expect results immediately, and that an encounter with God comes primarily based upon certain activities on our part.

Which leads me to the second part of this critique. Almost all worship services have a very recognizable pattern from week to week. For instance, the church I attended this past Sunday has the same pattern it had the couple others times I had visited before. About 3 worship songs, a time for prayer requests and prayer, another worship song, the sermon, then a final worship song.

Don’t mishear me on this criticism. I have nothing wrong with sort of a rhythm to a worship service. Rhythms can and are very important in worship settings and in life as a whole. However, rhythms benefit us humans. But if an encounter with God is an event that involves both ourselves and God, an overly detailed and formulaic rhythm does not allow for us to listen to God, who may come in any way, at any time, for any reason. While God may come in the context of our detailed formulas for worship, God is not bound to that. But if God is trying to speak without coercion, but only with a willing congregation, one that has already set the order of worship down in detail will not be very open to that, but will be looking forward to the next part of the worship service.

Perhaps some believe, or at least feel, that in moving the persons in a certain way, that God is automatic to bring himself to those persons. But this takes away the initiative of God, makes Him simply an automaton, and places his presence under the control of the form of worship. Christian spirituality relies upon two initiatives, and not one.

Now I do not have many concrete ideas as how to restructure the worship setting to keep the benefits of rhythms for us, while allowing for God to speak when He will. Both are essential too, because a rhythm-less worship will be much more prone to the stray wanderings of the mind, that would all to frequently and presumptively be claimed as the leading of the Holy Spirit. Plus church rhythms will help create rhythm for the Christian life outside of the worship service setting.

I also have no concrete solutions to the time crunch we give in worship. But what solutions there would be, it would not come down to bowing to the concern of television programming. Nor would it bow down to the NFL or other events as a determining factor. Lunch can also be provided in the church (God forbid we eat in the sanctuary!). These forms of accommodation might be more effective in numbers, but that form of pragmatism may very well stifle the chance for an encounter with God if God wants to wait to speak.

January 18, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Why I do not like going to church (Part 1)

Surprising coming from a minister the past two years on hiatus and seminary student? You might think so, but I have met enough of people like me to know that there is a strong contingent of us.

Now when I say I do not like attending church, it is not a cop out to cease to being part of a Christian community. This is not a selfish justification at go-it-alone religion.  Rather, I do something else, which I also dislike: church-jumping.

There a strong sense of discontent about the way worship services function. While I do not have many concrete solutions (nor any that have actually be tried by fire), wisdom comes from seeing where there are problems and moving from there to a solution. Nor am I the first to ever say these things.

What I hope to do then is to give a series of critique of the ways church worship is frequently done, in the hopes that it will move others and me to pursue wisdom.

Lack of good preaching

Probably one of the most thrown about criticisms of worship services. There are about as many styles of teaching as there are number of churches. Nevertheless, in my experience they all suffer from some of the typical elements that I believe make the teaching lack real substance.

First off, many sermons move too quickly to the moral exhortation. While I have the conviction that the reason for orthodox teaching is partly to ensure proper practice, moralizing sermons fail to engage the whole person. It makes a simple moral statement that has likely been oft repeated in that church and other churches and maybe in culture. If people aren’t following it now after the thousands times they have heard it, why would it suddenly move them now?

God and His work is what enables us to live as His Son did. But when we move too quickly to the prescriptive part of a message, we fail to provide the full grounds by which we can fulfill the message. We live by God’s will because we trust God with the concerns of life and death that might force us to choose to neglect our Christian duty. Trust is the essential foundation upon which obedience must be built upon for it to stand. But when in our preaching, we do not focus so much of what God has, is, and will do but on what we should do, we do not stir the trust of God in people’s hearts that is necessary to take upon our own cross

But not all sermons are moralizing sermons. Many are expository sermons that focus on a particular text. The preacher goes through the meticulous details of a particular Biblical text, dissecting it to try to bring its full meaning out. However, these sermons are way to cognitive. They fall upon the Enlightenment mindset where we must validate everything we say. However, the average person gets lost in all the details. How are the supposed to get from A to C when they get lost at A or B?

And even the more intellectual ones frequently get lost into a deep analysis of the text (speaking from personal experience). Furthermore, where analysis is the primary mode of a particular worshiper, they  place the text under their control by their knowledge and goals. How are they supposed to grow when they are lost in the analytical mode and not coming to God with open hands? How are they supposed to be lead by the Spirit, when they fall into purely leading themselves by textual and historical analysis?

While exegesis of the Biblical text is critical on the part of any preacher, it must be a background exercise that gives them a better understanding of the story that is occurring. For those of us who are leaders of the flock, we have an authority bestowed upon us. If we indeed have that trust from the listeners, we need not have to going into a thorough exegetical analysis of the text in the sermon. There are places when an exegetical point might force open a rather closed, selfish, and anachronistic understanding of the text, and there is a place for exegesis in teaching of the Bible itself. But the preachers must act as Jesus did in the Sermon on the Mount, teaching with authority, and not as a scribe who wrestled with the minutiae of the text to derive their teaching.

In addition, much of our sermons rely too much on analogies and illustrations. There are times and places for them, but the more one uses them and the greater amount of time they take up, the more they serve as a distraction. I have remember many a sermon where I learned more about the pastor’s family than I really did about God’s work in the world in Christ through the Spirit.

Also, the proliferation of  emotional material frequently is used to try to get force behind the behavioral prescription. While the emotional life is essential to the Christian life, when the things that drive our emotional responses are not so much based upon what God is doing, but upon our analysis of other stories that we read through our moral lenses of justice, injustice, love, struggle, etc., we are appealing to a form of self-willed morality, instead of one that is energized by the very story and work of God.

In summary, most of the content of preaching relies very little upon God’s story and work beyond a logical justification for a certain moral exhortation. And when we do appeal to God’s side, we appeal to metaphysics, abstract theological concepts, and hidden spiritualities, instead of the actual historical stories and proclamations of God and Christ witnessed to by the Bible. The classic sermon is primarily an exercise in self-will, cheap emotions, and cognition.

There are more criticism I could provide on preaching, but they also fall under other more generic criticisms that apply to places beyond the sermon, so I will leave them for there.

The last few sermons that I have given, I have tried to move towards this style of preaching, but the habits of old are hard to break. And to travel in a dark forest with no made path is seen is also a hard task with many mistakes that come along the journey. May the God of wisdom reveal to us how to truly proclaim Him!

January 17, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | Leave a comment