A year ago our congregation was visited by a family of five – wife, husband, and three kids. They looked like the kind of family every church secretly covets; good-looking, educated, well-ordered, and young. From all accounts they enjoyed our fellowship. They were already familiar with several members of our church and their energy was obvious. After three weeks, I felt confident they would join our congregation and mission.
After three weeks, they never came back. I can’t say why they left.I suspect that after a lengthy questioning of me after worship service, I didn’t dislike the same people they disliked and I didn’t read the Christian books they read, and I didn’t listen to the same preachers they listened to.
The same event occurred when a gentleman left our congregation because he couldn’t find the Bible I preached from, The Voice, at the local Lifeway Store. What’s more, collecting the offering before the sermon was a bridge too far for him. After all, if the sermon was good that day, he might be inclined to give a little more.
If you suspect my stories are wild outliers, sit down with your preacher or church leaders and have them share a few stories of their own.
Church can be a mixed-up, confused, and debatable entity – mostly because it means so much and can mean so many different things to different people.
For most people, church is a place where particular “performances” occur – singing, preaching, communion, and, good heavens, announcements. We don’t like to call them performances, but that’s how we think of them.
Performance – in part – is why preachers podcast, worship bands record and tour, and parishioners “join” churches they “like.” Performance-thinking has almost solely produced the contemporary imagination of the American church. From the blessings and ills of mega-churches, to the rise of celebrity pastors, to conference groupies, to small church anxieties about being “good enough,” to the revolving door of church members groping for a church where they are “fed” and “fits their learning style,” American churches are experiencing performance anxiety.
In short: If we like the performance then church is a benefit, if we don’t, we’re out. Collectively, American Christians have transformed church life into an episode of Iron Chef; let’s sample the offerings then declare a winner based solely on our taste.
But our tastes are the precise disease the church exists to cure.
When the Apostle Paul speaks of church and worship, he never speaks of performance. He doesn’t even speak of membership or joining. Paul’s language is much more gritty. Paul uses the word “body.”
In Paul’s oft-quoted, but seldom lived words about worship, the Apostle connects true worship with transformation and the renewing of the mind.
“Do not allow this world to mold you in its own image. Instead, be transformed from the inside out by renewing your mind. As a result, you will be able to discern what God wills and whatever God finds good, pleasing, and complete. ”
Over the last 20 years or so, this connection has helped many of us understand worship as more than what happens on Sunday. We eagerly proclaim that worship is connected to all of life,the day-to-day, the routine and mundane. Yet even in this acknowledgment, we somehow manage to cut Paul off at the knees and fail to grasps the deeper, more meaningful message.
For Paul, worship is not merely connected to daily actions, it’s connected to transformation and transformation is the aim of church.
“Because of the grace allotted to me, I can respectfully tell you not to think of yourselves as being more important than you are; devote your minds to sound judgment since God has assigned to each of us a measure of faith. For in the same way that one body has so many different parts, each with different functions; we, too—the many—are different parts that form one body in the Anointed One. Each one of us is joined with one another, and we become together what we could not be alone.”
– Romans 12:3-5
A Church At Odds
When Paul writes to churches in Rome, he pens his letter to Christians at odds. The Jewish and Gentile believers don’t care much for one another and if it were up to them they’d just as well go their own way. Like us, they’d select a church of their own liking, one, presumably, filled with folks that looked like them, talked like them, and fit their needs.
Paul is not concerned about their needs. He’s consumed with their transformation.
And before we hoop, holler, and cheer for transformation, we need to be honest and remember that when it comes to transformation, we seldom like it. We remember well our attempts at previous transformations – losing weight, getting out of debt, beginning to take God seriously, re-imagining our marriage amid hard times, readjusting to the management of our children when required, and the like.
Transformation, by its nature, is stressful, uncomfortable, and difficult. It ask us to submit to an alternative way of being — an alternative way of being that we could not and would not choose.
This being the universal case, perhaps the worst decision we can make when contemplating our church life is choosing one we like. An overweight, out-of-shape man has already chosen how many sit-ups are appropriate: None. That’s the way he stays overweight and out-of-shape.
Choosing a church (or non-church) where we “fit,” may be the strongest guarantee that we will never be asked to change. This, I suspect, is why we do it.
In church, as in the rest of life, we don’t want transformation as much as we say we do. We’d rather have comfort.
The best thing many of us could do is envisage church as an opportunity to embrace that which is outside of us, that which does not – at least on the surface – appeal to what we already are.
Being church requires actions and activities that we wouldn’t otherwise choose. While being church, we are placed among people we might not like to participate in activities we may not choose at a time we might find inconvenient in a manner we may not fit our style, in order to become, in the words of Paul, “what we could not be alone.”