Dirk, thanks so much for your good thoughts and gutsy gospel endeavor to plant a new church. Church plants and campus ministries are the R&D department of our denomination, and I need to listen well to the issues and struggles you encounter.
I like your instincts. You recognize something is off in how we understand the church. I feel that in my bones too, and I’m convinced we must allow mission to organize and shape our church life.
I’m equally certain, however, that we have been discipled by our consumer culture. It has seeped in way deeper than we ever thought, shaping even our expectations of church and worship. Worship has become a commodity that we take in or casually take a pass on, depending on our lifestyle preferences and personal tastes: Did I like the music? Did the sermon feed me? Was it at a convenient time/place for my busy schedule? Did it deal with the issues I care about?
Church plants sometimes get accused of selling out or dumbing down to be relevant to culture, but I find many established churches equally, if not more so, shaped by this individual-focused consumer mind-set; they just have code words that mask it well: Was the worship “uplifting”? Did the sermon “feed” me? These may be valid questions, but notice that the reference point is still me!
We’re all “drinking the Kool-Aid.” Our consumer culture has formed us all into American Idol judges, rating our experiences of church and worship. Of course, the problem is that you can never worship or meet Jesus from the judge’s seat.
Speaking of idols, your conference presenter’s question about your queen—“What do you trust way too much?”—is really an idol question. In what do we place our deepest trust to grow our churches: a kickin’ worship band or sublime organ, a compelling preacher, refined liturgy, small groups that meet our felt needs?
Notice the assumption within the question—that ministry tools and the right strategy will build your church. I find techniques, helpful as they are, easy idols for us church leaders and people of the pew, who are so desperate to see churches flourish again. Instead, what we need most is a change in lifestyle. We need to center our lives on Jesus.
While I’m tempted to chuck the whole worship show, I’m holding out for the practice of public Christian worship to reclaim its countercultural edge again. Where else do people gather together with others they usually don’t associate with, to focus on Someone other than themselves, and pay attention to news that mostly contradicts their personal assumptions and challenges their idolized cares? Lashing ourselves to the mast of weekly worship might be the most important practice for the church to orient our lives around Jesus and resist the siren call of consumerism.
To do that, we’ll need to help people reimagine worship within God’s mission, to understand it as a relationship (covenant) renewal ceremony, where our unique identity in the gospel is formed and fed, where the reality of the resurrection is reinjected into our living, where we’re formed in the way of Jesus and learn to live yielded lives to the King. That’s hard work, especially when we’re groomed to bow to the authority of our desires. But that makes it all the more vital that we give the best of our thought, prayers, and energy to this reimagining.
So how can we call people to follow Jesus in a way that doesn’t force them to make massive cultural leaps, but find in Jesus the most hopeful reality for living in our world? I hope that we can continue this conversation, because together we’re better.