CHURCH IS boring. I don’t ever recall hopping out of bed on Sunday morning jazzed about the sermon, even when the preacher was good. I’ve never driven to church in anticipation of hearing the choir or the worship band, even when they included remarkable musicians. When I went, it was to see my friends. I wanted to talk. Sunday school and Bible study were okay, but breezeway and parking lot conversations were the most invigorating. My utmost communion with the Body of Christ didn’t even happen on the church premises. That happened in some loud restaurant that offered free refills of Diet Coke that helped me power on past noon and large portions that would render me unconscious fifteen minutes after I got home.
Now that I have kids, I don’t really get to have church anymore. Our four year-old quadruplets (all natural, so step-off, octo-haters!) keep us scurrying during the breaks. I go to church for them now. Statistics on church attendance, especially for men my age, suggest that I’m not alone. Maybe the problem isn’t me, after all. Maybe something is wrong with church.
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 Mars Hill in Seattle 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.
Though pastors give “servant leadership” lip-service at leadership conferences, few enter the ministry out of a desire to submit and suffer for others. How could they? How can we expect our leaders to be authentic when theater is the center of our religious week? How can someone consent to shepherd the flock as a Man of God without being narcissistic? Any leader in the modern church needs at least a little bit of narcissism to survive. No one is drawn to such a job unless they enjoy power and attention.
A little narcissism isn’t really the problem. We need to like ourselves and have a healthy sense of entitlement. But when these traits reach a clinical level in the form of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), it’s poison to the body of Christ. In my fifteen years as a psychotherapist, I have encountered few human systems so consistently dysfunctional as church staffs. I’ve heard of pastors doing things that would make the most ambitious CEO’s blush. Though most of us only hear about this when a high-profile church leader’s grandiosity leads to recklessness, most of the time acrimony and dysfunction continue behind the scenes for years. When we rely on the talents and titillating vision of one man instead of the slow, silent life of community, it’s easy for people to get hurt.
After spending a thousand words twitting the Sunday service, I should probably come up with an alternative. But I don’t think that’s a good idea. I’m too narcissistic as it is, and I don’t want to be the one to tell you how it’s supposed to be. We need to decide. We need to figure out, once again, what it means to follow Christ together. This is a plea, not a prescription. I want church to be fun again. By fun, I don’t mean entertaining or topical or cool. I can get that at concerts and movies, and they do a much better job than the church ever will. No, I want to talk. I want to listen, but to a friend instead of a sermon. I want to be taught, but only if I can ask questions and participate in dialogue. Mostly, I just want to eat, drink, laugh, and enjoy other people. That’s where I find God.
Correction, Nov. 19, 2009: This article originally stated that Mars Hill Church was in Oregon, rather than Seattle. It has been updated.
ART: THE SLEEPING CONGREGATION (1736), ENGRAVING BY WILLIAM HOGARTH.
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