Saturday, March 26, 2011

Repost: Gospel Grocery Stores

This is a repost of one of my more popular posts and I think it really gets to the heart of some of the biggest reasons we have moved away from the institutional church.

An interesting story recounted in Total Church:

The Bible calls the church a family. It describes the church as a community that shares together. The church is a body whose members perfectly fit together. We belong to one another. Our friend's church was neither a family or a community. It had no vision for involvement in its immediate community. The truth is, it was not really a church according to any New Testament definition. It was a preaching center. You drove to their large parking garage for your weekly dose of religion just as you traveled to the out-of-town supermarket for your weekly groceries.

(Total Church, pg. 194)

That definition describes an awful lot of churches, big and small. We have had a similar experience in a large Baptist church in northern Kentucky. We sat in the same place every week, down to sitting in the same pew, and we sort of recognized the people around us. The people on the other side of the "sanctuary"? Not a clue. They were anonymous people in their Sunday best. We kind of knew the people in our segmented (younger married adults w/ kids) Sunday school class but virtually everybody else was just an anonymous guy in a suit or woman in a dress we jostled with in the foyer while collecting our kids from the nursery. We went there because they had a big youth and childrens program and because the preaching was consistently decent (unlike our prior smaller church where the preaching was poor at best, the fellowship was sketchy and the only kids in the church were ours and the pastors).

Why do we go to grocery supermarkets? Why is there a new Super Wal-Mart springing up daily? Because it is easy, quick and convenient. We go to a supermarket instead of raising our own food because it costs us less, it is predictable and it takes less time. Rather than work all week to grow, harvest and prepare our own food, we go to the store and get what we need in one fell swoop. I can walk into a store right now and in half an hour get enough food, in sufficient variety, to feed my entire family of ten for a week. I don’t know the other people shopping and I don’t need to because knowing them is irrelevant to what I am there for.

The church is treated much the same. We can get all of our religion in one stop and it only costs us some time and a check in the offering plate. I can go to one of dozens of local traditional churches on Sunday morning and drop my little ones off in a nursery to have a little activity but more importantly keep them out of my hair so I can “worship”. My middle school kids have classes, my high schoolers get classes with a hip youth pastor. My wife and I can go to a prepared Sunday school class and then sit in a pew for an hour, sing a few songs, listen to a prepared talk and then head out in time to be home for lunch.

Many (most?) institutional churches are grocery stores for religion. Quick, easy, in and out and plenty of different ones to choose from. This one makes you mad? Go shop somewhere else. Your only attachment is selection, price and service or in the case of a local church music style, preacher and denomination. It makes little difference to me if I go to Wal-Mart, Meijer or Krogers for my groceries. It impacts the store but only a little. There are lots of local churches I could go to that would be the same way, ranging from hip churches with cool music to somewhat more traditional, orthodox churches. No one would notice us if we were careful (although with eight kids, when we show up at a church it is like chum in shark waters and it is hard to blend in). We could show up a few Sundays at one church and then go somewhere else for a few weeks. We could maintain a great deal of anonymity beyond a smile and handshake.

The church should be more like a community garden and less like a supermarket. That might mean we need to spend a lot of time together. We might get a bit dirty in the process and there are going to be disappointments. Things might not turn out like we hope. If you have a garden and plant tomatoes, sometimes some of the tomatoes will have bugs in them or turn brown or fall off the vine before they are ripe. Sometimes it rains too much and sometimes it rains too little. If you go to the grocery store, you can pick just the best looking tomatoes and pretty much know what you are getting. It may not taste as good as a home-grown tomato and it might have been soaked in pesticides before it was shipped from California to Michigan but it is predictable. We demand too much predictability in the church, we want to know when to show up, what to expect and in what order. Deviate from the “order of worship” in the bulletin and people will be in mass confusion. Lots of people defend the institutional church by pointing it out that it is full of imperfect people but we try to make the gathering of the church as homogenous and easy as possible.

Gardening is hard work, dirty and unpredictable but the rewards are often wonderfully and immeasurably better than “store bought” produce. The church works in much the same way. Unplanned and unscripted is scary because you don’t know what you might get but I would much rather have somebody stumble over a thought or endure periods of silence than sit through another carefully scripted service designed to deliver the maximum religion for the minimum cost. The church is not something we can cram into a couple of hours a week and the goal of church should not be to get in and get out as quickly and efficiently as possible so we can mark a check box on our religion shopping list. Sermon? Check. Singing at least three songs? Check. Shaking the preachers hand? Check. Out at noon and lunch away from the rest of the church by 12:30? Check.

The church is not a list to be completed, it is a life to be lived with one another.


Swanny said...

Great analogy. Thanks for the wonderful perspective.

100% agree.

Aussie John said...


I know it's boring to have someone saying,"I agree".

What an excellent word.

I am in complete accord.

That last sentence says it all!