The polished services at large churches today may be earnest, but spiritually, they can miss the mark.
My friend Jennie is a singer with a worship team at a local "megachurch." Recently, while rehearsing songs for the next day's worship service, she found herself experiencing a deep sense of union with God. As the music faded away, she stood in silent worship, then noticed someone speaking her name. "Jennie," called the worship leader, observing the rehearsal from the front seats, "when you're worshipping, don't forget to keep your fingers evenly spaced on the microphone. Thanks, everybody. Take a break."
The July 20 Star Tribune story "What makes a gigachurch go?" reminded me that among the faithful and earnest leaders of large and small churches across the country with whom I work as a retreat leader, the temptation to obsessively control the details of the "product" is constant and strong. I do not judge the motivations of the church highlighted in your article, but in candid conversations with pastors in retreat settings, I regularly hear that their need to control arises from a range of fears -- a fear of disappointing God, their congregations or their bosses unless they belt one out of the park every Sunday morning; a fear for souls that will be lost unless those people can be attracted to come to their churches and believe as they do, and the fear that really makes them shiver -- being ignored as culturally irrelevant.
I've come to believe that these fears -- and the sleek, minutely controlled, image-oriented Sunday services and ministry programs they produce -- are too hard on pastors, staffs and volunteers. Not because they're a lot of work. Those of us who work in the church are called to sacrifice and are ready to do it. But because they can rob Christian leaders of something precious -- a sense of inner integrity between the gospel values quietly spoken by God into our souls and the pragmatic, numbers-oriented forms of ministry we feel pressed to market. Such inner spiritual schizophrenia is too big a price to pay to achieve glossy, theo-techno events that are technically perfect but which some would say trade perfection for a more ancient Christian value -- grace.
What is true about weak and frail human beings like us is that, more than perfectly coiffed and timed religious services, we need places and spiritual leaders comfortable with wearing the imperfections and brokenness that their congregation members struggle with every day.
I know all about the financial, ego and religious forces that tug at those of us in professional ministry to produce impressive and airtight spiritual products, because I give in to these forces very often. But Jesus said, "You'll know a thing by its fruit." The granddaddy of all megachurches, Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago, was shocked to find in its recent church self-study, REVEAL, that large and growing attendance and perfectly orchestrated weekend services do not ultimately create in those who attend our stated goal -- inner moral and spiritual transformation toward Christlikeness. That result, they found, is the effect of practices that existed long before churches had the technology to massage and guide our every feeling. At the head of the list is simple and low-tech personal listening for God through Bible meditation and prayer.
I feel some anxiety that these views will be felt to criticize my brothers and sisters who serve God so earnestly and unselfishly. I offer them as one perspective about what it means to offer Christ in a culture hungry for lasting meaning.
Joel Warne is director of WellSpring Life Resources Inc. in Plymouth. WellSpring offers Christian leader and lay retreats, counseling, and small-group resources.
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