Early this week, this caption in the Straits Times caught my attention:-
Religious fire pit in Toa Payoh used for barbecue.
Thereafter it kept me thinking. Mm...using a place meant for religious activities, in this case, a designated pit to conduct taoist rites and offering, for personal and family leisure, that is, a barbecue outing. I see a parallel here in the churches. Taking this news as a metaphor, I can think of 6 uses of our modern churches that depart from its original purpose.
1) As a social gathering. This is unavoidable. Many famous atheists including the late philosopher extraordinaire Bertrand Russell enjoyed the gregarious culture of the church. The people factor is infectious. If no man is an island, then the church is great place to meet people. We flourish through social interactions and many find their life partners there too. Frienships are also forged and ties are strengthened when people come together. But what is unavoidable is also that which distracts the most. There is always a risk that we attend and stay in church because of the company and nothing else. For some of us, the attraction is in the numbers and big churches today lack neither the numbers nor the opportunity to make the social connection. Some churches tend to measure themselves against the three Bs: buildings, budgets and bodies. And at most times, it is the latter (bodies) that exerts the greatest hold over the people. In our eagerness to meet people, mingle with the crowd and regale them with our knowledge, accolades and spirituality, we often bypass the one person whose presence and attention we need most. No points for guessing who that person is. I think Dietrich Bonhoeffer puts it well, “Anyone who loves the dream of community more than the Christian community itself (warts and all) becomes a destroyer of the latter even though the devotion to the former is faultless and the intentions may be ever so honest, earnest and sacrificial.”
2) As a personal, exclusive club. This is another unavoidable outcome that flows from the first usage above. As the numbers get bigger, people will invariably polarize. People with certain interest will gravitate towards group with similar interest. It is therefore not uncommon to find cliques forming within the church that discriminate against members who do not see things their way. Although such discrimination is not blatant or open, they are felt nevertheless after a while and they all add up. For example, I heard of a cell group that endorsed Calvinism wholeheartedly and believed that only those specially elected were saved. Such doctrinal differences can be divisive and those who did not accept their view were generally tolerated. The key word is tolerated. Most times, such toleration percolated through the group's patronizing smiles, condescending squints and arm-length association. Sooner or later, the toleration will reek of discrimination and the lone ranger will soon feel alienated. Friendships and faith can be undermined because of such unspoken discrimination.
3) As an entertainment center. I guess this is a very tempting reason for people to join the church, especially the megachurches. The annual passion plays, the exciting church camps, the high energy stage performances, the awe-inspiring media and video presentation, and the larger-than-life preachers all elevates the church into a carnival-like, mediagenic, pyrotechnical prominence. When the wisemen were looking for the manger where Jesus was born, they followed a star over Bethlehem. Nowadays, just entering the sanctuary of a well-equipped church, you will literally see stars. The ambience is electrifying. It is like a night in a visually stunning pop concert. Gone are the days of monosyllabic welcome, monochromatic wall colors, and monologue-like sermons. I can therefore understand how the attraction can be irresistible. But this is unfortunately the same reason why some members are losing their spiritual bearings after a while. As the environment gets more complicated, the vision also gets less focused. This is also where the church becomes more of a “feel-good” entertainment hotspot rather than an unpretentious place of personal devotion and worship. In other words, instead of becoming more relevant to God, the Church becomes more relevant to the world. The keen observation of Carl Braaten in The Gospel for a Neopagan Culture is instructive, “The church is tempted to become relevant to the people of this culture by using their wishes and criteria rather than those of the church. Evangelism is then driven by a market or consumer-oriented mentality. The church can “meet people’s needs” as people define their needs. Thus the people who may have little or no recent experience in the church develop the evaluation of the church and the church struggles to fulfill their expectations.”
4) As a personal wishing well. I once heard a testimony about a member thanking God for blessing her with a timely win in the national lottery. For the undiscerning, this peculiar kind of testimony never fails to whet their appetites for the same blessing. The enticement is like a kid going into a giant Toys R Us store and filling up his trolley with all that he can carry totally free of charge. Although many would be discreet about making their Christmas shopping list public to the god they view as their divine Santa Claus, it is undeniable that the promises of the Bible may be misinterpreted by them to mean that God is their personal celestial butler or their uncondtional material provider. Some may even come to Church expecting more blessings than sacrifices. Somehow our needs come first and God seems to be the means of fulfilling them. Here, the words of Os Guineess hit the nail on the head, “The exaggerated half-truths about the church’s needing to meet needs...breeds unintended consequences. Just as church-growth’s modern passion for “relevance” will become its road to irrelevance, so its modern passion for “felt needs” will turn the church into an echo chamber of fashionable needs that drown out the one voice that addresses real human need below all felt needs. After all, if true needs are a first step toward faith and prayer, false needs are the opposite. As George MacDonald observed, “That need which is no need, is a demon sucking at the spring of your life.” Alas, the ferris wheel of greed is further greased up by the pulpit teachings of prosperity preachers who make personal enrichment an inalienable right of the believers. There is in fact a dubious teaching that is making its rounds which gives the impression that those who serve a big god should expect big things from him. And the only limitation to such unlimited blessing is the believer’s limiting faith. I guess the irony is that the people who are truly profiting from the prosperity teachings are the teachers themselves.
5) As a platform for the ministry of self. This is one usage of the church that is most hard to detect but most unsurprising since the journey of faith is always one of self versus God. The tussle is almost endless. For some, the self unfortunately wins with God taking second place. But such carnal and empty victory is often discreetly masqueraded on the stage or in the ministry. Leaders are particularly vulnerable to this adulteration. As the church gets bigger or the ministry gets more successful, the attention and adoration also follow suit. With attention and adoration, the leaders will start to believe in their own invulnerability. And invulnerability invariably nourishes pride and pride inevitably elevates self. This cycle is not only vicious, it is also viciously self-reinforcing. I recall 2 Corinthians 12:10 which reads, “For when I am weak, then I am strong.” For those who privately believe in their own invulnerability, it is a case of “for when I am weak, then I am not strong.” In the book The Emotionally Healthy Church by Peter Scazzero, I learn that one can be “spiritually mature while remaining emotionally immature.” The author went on to list down some very interesting observations about leadership as follows:-
* You can be a dynamic, gifted speaker for God in public and be an unloving spouse and parent at home.
* You can function as a church board member or pastor and be unteachable, insecure and defensive.
* You can memorize entire books of the New Testament and still be unaware of your depression and anger, even displacing it on other people.
* You can fast and pray a half-day a week for years as a spiritual discipline and constantly be critical of others, justifying it as discernment.
* You can lead hundred of people in a Christian ministry while driven by a deep personal need to compensate for a nagging sense of failure.
* You can pray for deliverance from the demonic realm when in reality you are simply avoiding conflict, repeating an unhealthy patten of behavior traced back to the home in which you grew up.
6) As a competitive corporation. It is strange that this last form of church usage is even considered here. Isn’t the church set apart from the world? But the reality is that megachurches do compete with one another whether they admit it or not. There is always this my-church-is-bigger-than-yours or your-members-are-defecting-to-my-church mentality, which is of course kept close to one's chest. Running a megachurch is often a case of running a business. As members and money roll in, the church becomes bogged down by regulations and rules, protoccols and procedures, doctrinal stasis and inflexibility. Suddenly, filling up the seats becomes a sales quota to meet. Church staff are all suit up to offer their best side without showing the side that really matters. Members’ feeling are treated with kid gloves; especially the influential and rich ones. And the services become a series of weekly clockwork arrangements with zero tolerance for errors. As the church grows even bigger, partly as a result of people attracting people, it becomes less souls-oriented and more program-oriented. Even the winning of souls turns into a competitive sport between churches. Soon, the leadership becomes inward-focus and the staff under pressure are expected to produce tangible results; most of which are measured against a worldly benchmark. In the end, the irony is that the same qualities that helped the church to grow into a spiritual behemoth are also the same qualities that caused her to become bloated and overbearing. Alas, I guess there is no one-size-fits-all solution for the problems that come with runaway church growth. Each leadership will have to come to God in their own way to borrow His lamp to light the path under their feet. One author puts it this way, “I stopped waiting on the Lord for a growing church and started to simply wait on the Lord for him alone.” (Peter Scazzero)
Let me leave you with this poem by John Newton about growing as a Christian and about how God works in ways most disagreeable to our human expectations.
“I ask the Lord that I might grow
In faith, and in love, and every grace,
Might more of his salvation know
And seek more earnestly his face.
I hoped that in some favoured hour
At once He’d answer my request,
And by His love’s constraining power
Subdue my sins, and give me rest.
Instead of this, He made me feel
The hidden evils of my heart;
And let the angry powers of hell
Assault my soul in every part.”