Saturday, November 14, 2009

Why is church dull?

Why is church so dull? A psychotherapist diagnoses the Sunday ritual. - By Stephen W. Simpson - Patrol Magazine

Ok, let me start by saying that Patrol Magazine looks like a pretty standard "post-evangelical" liberal webzine/magazine that makes its living in part by taking shots at conservatism. I certainly don't endorse all or even much of what they write. I am sure that I would have a vehement disagreement with many of the writers on a myriad of issues. Having said that, I find that the substance of what Stephen Simpson wrote to be right on target. It is very thought provoking and the issues it raises are worthy of consideration even if (or perhaps especially if) you find yourself in disagreement with what is being said.

You may also find the title of the article offensive and provocative. I am sure that is the intent and by getting in a froth out of the gate, you kind of are reacting exactly as expected. I will also say that if you are honest, even a "good" church can be kind of dull. At churches that are vibrant and exciting, I am in agreement with this statement from the article:

As much as postmodern evangelicals bandy about the word “community,” our gatherings have changed very little. Stylistic alterations might add some hipster flair, but the focal point of the liturgical week remains theater. A dozen or so people perform for a few hundred that sit, stand, kneel, pray, and sing on command. We squeeze real community into the gaps, between events with a hierarchical structure. Not only is this a long way from Biblical models of the early Christian church, it’s a breeding ground for messy group dynamics. And, again, it’s boring.

Church today, whether a cathedral, a mega-aluminum warehouse, or a little wooden building in the country, has little in common with the New Testament church. In the first century there was still teaching, prayer, and worship, but the early church was about community. Paul’s letters paint a picture of people living together and collectively figuring out what it meant to follow Christ. The authority of the leaders and teachers wasn’t a forgone conclusion. They were in dialogue with their congregations. Paul himself often had to defend his position of authority and many of his letters are part of an ongoing doctrinal debate. You get the sense, however, that even theological issues were somewhat secondary. The focus was a meal, not a class or a worship service. Some early Christians enjoyed the community meal so much that Paul had to tell them to tone it down because they were partying a little too hard.

Nowadays, it’s hard to imagine most Christians getting too carried away having a good time together. Church is an adjunct to professional and familial communities. We get up on Sunday, drive, park, sit, listen, sing, pray, chat, and go home. Even if we’re involved in a small group, the relationships are usually secondary. The early Christians learned and grew through relationship. It’s plastered all over the New Testament. Yet, we still structure our religion around one guy, and it’s not Jesus.

Churches often grow for the wrong reason. If you don’t find church boring, it’s probably because of a talented preacher. He’s smart, but moreover, entertaining. Big, active churches are cults of personality, not communities. Try to imagine the Mars Hill in Oregon without Mark Driscoll. Try to imagine the other one without Rob Bell (though at least he had the wisdom to abdicate his throne). Try to imagine Lakewood Church without Joel Osteen. You can’t. When the focus turns to Christ, it’s because a showman gets our attention first. We don’t find God in each other. The Body of Christ has an enormous head atop a weak, flabby body.

I find myself in a lot of agreement with that. As I have said before, you don't get huge turnouts to hear the local country preacher preach, you get huge turnouts to hear the famous preachers preach because they are enjoyable to listen to. Ask anyone involved with a Reformation Society how easy it is to get interest in a meeting with a relatively unknown pastor versus how easy it is to generate interest in a "name brand" Christian leader. Even the idea of community, one of the most vital aspects of the New Testament church, has lost almost all meaning in the modern church. Relegated to an occasional "fellowship meal", a handshake in the foyer and perhaps a small group under the supervision of the pastor, community has become secondary, losing out to "relevance" on one end of the spectrum and "doctrinal precision" on the other. In my mind, the gathering of the church can only be relevant if it is firmly grounded in Biblical orthodoxy aand doctrinal precision is woefully incomplete if it fails to include the community of believers as more than an empty ritual.

What I find most troubling is that it seems that the liberal, theologically squishy brothers are often closer to the mark on "the church" than my conservative, theologically orthodox brothers. There is a definite struggle within the conservative wing of the church between brothers like Tim Keller, Mark Driscoll and Jim Belcher on one hand and John MacArthur and the White Horse Inn gang on the other. What is worse, these conversations about the purpose and function of the chuch are virtually verbotten among many brothers as if any question of the traditional model of the church is borderline heresy and tantamount to church abandonment. I think the reaction in some corners to Jim Belcher's Deep Church is demonstrative of how ingrained this defense of church tradition has become. When you are unable to differentiate between church traditions like liturgy, paid clergy, ritualized services on one hand and Gospel issues like how a sinner is justified, there is a deep problem with your theological system.

I would encourage you to read the whole article and comment on what he says.

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Jeremy Lee said...

The following seems to be the thesis of this article: "In the first century there was still teaching, prayer, and worship, but the early church was about community."

If I am reading this correctly, he is suggesting that the single most important aspect of the NT church was community. This thesis makes fellowship with brothers and sisters more important than one's fellowship with God. Certainly, church involves community, but this statement goes too far. Maybe church is boring for this person because he is too self-centered rather than God-centered.

The author is right to be concerned about churches that are centered on personalities. In addition, I agree that "church [has become] an adjunct to professional and familial community." These trends are tragic.

However, to reject preaching for dialogue suggesting that this is what Paul did is a enormous mistake and a misreading of Paul's letters.

The author argues: "Paul’s letters paint a picture of people living together and collectively figuring out what it meant to follow Christ." Paul's letters reveal nothing of the sort. Most of Paul's letters were written to church's who were experiencing trouble with false teachers. In Paul's letters, he unequivocally rejects false teaching, and he warns the churches to do the same thing. Where is the dialogue and learning together. Paul speaks authoritatively as the mouthpiece of God.

Church may be boring for a variety of reasons. The preacher may be boring. I've been to plenty of churches that have boring preachers. But, the congregation may be at fault because of their sinful hearts that do not want to hear or heed the Word of God.

Arthur Sido said...


Like I said, I don't agree with everything these folks say but they raise good points. I would ask where we see monologue sermon preaching among the assembled church in the New Testament? I would also say that the surest sign of fellowship with God is showing fellowship and love to one another. There is a vital balance between teaching and fellowship.

Jeremy Lee said...


I agree that there should be a balance and that is why I responded to the blog. This guy has no balance.

And, you are 100% right when you say "the surest sign of fellowship with God is showing fellowship and love to one another."

I think one of the problems with the church today is the consumer mindset, that is, what am I going to get out of this. When this is our motive to worship, we commit idolatry. In reality we are worshipping our selves and our desires.

The reason Christian's gather is to worship God, who is worshipped through the word, sacrements, prayer, song, and fellowship. The God of the Bible must be the center of Christian worship not any person or activity.

Ed Pascual said...

Once I saw Joel Osteen's name in the article, I cringed and had to stop reading. I'm sure there were good points in the article after he was mentioned.