Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Grazing on Astroturf

One of the most puzzling conundrums of the church in the West is that in spite of the overwhelming availability of religious stuff, there are very few mature or at least maturing Christians. So many Christians are barely more mature than they were at the moment of conversion or they get to a certain level and then plateau. When you think about it, it is really incredible how many opportunities to "go to church", attend Bible studies and read the Scripture we have. There are hundreds of places online to read the Bible, Bible apps for phones and tablets, even a Bible in virtually every hotel room in America. We have "Christian radio", "Christian schools", "Christian book stores", "Christian television channels". Can't make it to "church" on Sunday? You can download one of thousands of sermons online or watch a "worship service" on TV. Political candidates trip over themselves to pander to religious voters by promising this or that. Even in a society that is increasingly secularized, it is nigh impossible to avoid getting religious bombardment at every turn.

So why are people not growing in Christ, not drawing closer to one another, not dying to self and picking up their crosses? Not even people in churches with famous pastors who are acclaimed as great Bible teachers. Even those people who are self-motivated, "self-feeders" tend to be mostly the theology nerds, wannabe theologians and amateur apologists, which doesn't really translate into disciple making grace dispensers.


The sheep are grazing on Astroturf.

What's wrong with Astroturf you ask? Sure it looks like grass. Sort of. It is green(ish) and sort of has blades like grass. At a glance it might be mistaken for the real thing but it clearly is not grass upon closer inspection.

Astroturf is great in some ways. It doesn't require much maintenance compared to grass. Whether it rains or not, or the sun shines or not, it looks green week after week. When a game is finished on Sunday afternoon and the crowds leave you can come back the next week and the AstroTurf looks exactly the same as it did when you left it. No mowing. No watering. No fertilizing. It is predictible and uniform, week after week with only minor maintenance. Whether it rains or snows, AstroTurf is the same. That might be OK for a football stadium (although I am morally opposed to playing football on AstroTurf or playing in a dome), it is not OK for the church.

God never intended for His people to be munching on fake plastic grass.

Jacob Sheep Ram
The Great Shepherd knows what His sheep need and He left pretty explicit instruction and example in His written revelation. His most glorious creation after He created man is the church, the adoptive family of a people who once were not a people but now are His. The church is where God's people are to be fed and nurtured. In order for that to happen the church should be lush pasture that feeds the sheep. Not just in studying Scripture, although that is a crucial aspect of being fed. Not just showing up for a 45 minute lecture bracketed by some singing. Really being fed means nourishment.

Sheep who are fed nothing but AstroTurf will die.

Sheep (and other livestock of course) on pasture are part of a natural cycle. They eat the grass and then they fertilize the pasture and the pasture grows back with the aid of rain and sun. It is a natural, kind of beautiful cycle ordained and instituted by God.

Sure pasture gets muddy. It is unpredictable. It depends on the weather. It is messy and far from neat. Walk around a pasture for very long and you are likely to twist your ankle in a hole or step in some manure. That is what you get when you are being fed with the real stuff!

Now I don't think you can only find true pasture in a certain church model. I have been in some simple/house model gatherings where nobody was being fed or encouraged or equipped. I have been in some meetings with (some) of the trappings of traditional churches where I was greatly edified and encouraged and equipped. Certainly there are aspects of a gathering that are more conducive to feeding others and being fed. I think smaller is better that larger. I think that a meeting where all of the brethren are allowed and encouraged to speak is far better than having only one or a few men speaking. I think that in a traditional setting most of the most crucial aspects of the church are suppressed and often discouraged.

What is truly important is that we have the church functioning in the ways that the Bible describes for feeding the sheep. So how does that happen? It happens primarily in the way we relate to each other...

Fellowship over meals where we laugh and love one another in the vulnerable and intimate setting of eating, something that may or may not take place during every single church gathering and may often take place outside of "official" meetings. Community where our lives overlap more and more as we grow together and not just "at church". A ministry model centered on mutuality and focused on "one anothers". A sense of sharing exhibited by sharing among the church materially/financially, sharing in suffering and in joy alike, sharing in the work of ministry and mercy and evangelism. The special feeding that can come only through exploration of the Scriptures in a community hermeneutic rather than a expert based hermeneutic. Growth through service and ministering to others, one of the most neglected ways we grow. If we never turn teaching into practice, teaching is worthless.

I am less concerned with where that happens. I mostly am concerned that it actually does happen. Every step we take toward simplifying church and make it more about mutuality, the better. Unfortunately there are too many local churches where the sheep are content to graze on AstroTurf even though they are starving. I am not focused on starting up a group that looks just right. I am far more focused on finding people who are open to what God has revealed, who are willing to lay down their expectations and traditions. God has surrounded each of us with people who are His and we need to go to them instead of expecting them to come to us on Sunday. In fact I am less concerned with the "official" church meeting at all and more with how the church relates to one another in our day to day lives.

I think we are entering a completely unique time in the church, a challenging time but a time of great opportunity. Perhaps I am being overly optimistic but I feel like we are entering an age of tearing down and building up, tearing down the crumbling structures of Christendom and all that comes with it: professional subcontracted ministry, endless cycles of giving and spending to grease the wheels of institutionalism, competition between factions and denominations and local organizations, the perverse blend of nationalism and patriotism mixed in with cultural Christianity, etc. and at the same time the building up of something far smaller and messier. Not to get all hokey and melodramatic but in my mind the church restored, growing like a flower coming up in the crumbled foundations of Christendom, is on its way. The true church has always been there, just under the surface but we rarely see it because of the religious trappings that dominate our culture, the fake and plastic AstroTurf that tries to pass for real pasture. There have always been those who humbly served God but rarely were noticed or recognized. I am looking forward to the day when we get rid of the showmanship and performance and money and get back to simple loving service. When we embrace the church as a family, a people of God who live lives of service and support for one another we will find the green pasture that God ordained and leave behind forever the AstroTurf that never changes and never nourishes.


co_heir said...

I am looking forward to that day as well. When it comes, I think we'll see a much smaller church, but a more effective one.

Aussiejohn said...


That analogy is so apt. I hadn't thought of that one.

Another matter to do with the same issue is that many, maybe most, of those, supposedly feeding the sheep have no idea that the stuff they serve up IS artificial!

Drewe said...

Interesting (and good) analogy... WE have access to SO much stuff - and yet much of it isn't more than fake grass anyway... I agree with you - a change is coming. In some way in Australia it is ahead of much of the USA - we are a post-Christian country now, where talk of God, open prayer, even talk of church is out. And now is the time, the opportunity, for disciples to really focus on what is important, rather than float with the institution (Which I know I did for many years) down a creek to nowhere (or maybe a set of falls...)

Arthur Sido said...

John, that is an issue of primary concern, that too many of our fellow sheep have placed themselves in the role of "undershepherd" and keep trying to feed other sheep astroturf, never even considering that it might not be truly feeding anyone.

Arthur Sido said...

Thanks Drewe, apt analysis. You and Aussie John should check each other out as fellow Australians!