Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Relevance, Part 3

A couple of things have happened in the last few weeks that inspired me to begin this series on relevance.  This will be the concluding post - but you may find this theme throughout much of what I write (both in the past, and in the future).  When I preach, when I write, when I do just about anything, I ask myself, what is the point?  And this becomes the question I have to ask about God, His Word, and His Church - what is the point?

For me, I've found meaning in God.  The Bible was a little more challenging - but once I moved past the cultural distortions, I have found great relevance in those words.  I'm still wrestling with the Church though.  I'm wondering, what is it that people are trying to do there?

I had the somewhat unique opportunity to plant a church a few years ago.  From the beginning, we knew we had the opportunity to design this community from scratch.  We sought to be real, authentic, relevant, and experiential - and, for the most part, we achieved that.  In addition, it was fun!

Unfortunately, we discovered that the denomination wasn't quite ready for a church that was made up of mostly unchurched people.  And, we discovered that the unchurched still had a lot of prejudice towards anything that remotely looks like a church.  We thought the denomination would throw resources our way when they saw the evangelistic successes; and we hoped the unchurched would be crashing our gates when they saw a church that spoke their language.  Neither of those happened.

A few weeks ago, my family and I attended an Adventist worship service not more than 25,000 miles from here.  This church is set in a semi-rural community and has been a shining star in North America.  Not only have they achieved some spectacular growth, they have an awesome facility, and they are an integral part of the surrounding community.

And yet, I felt out of place there.  This isn't too unusual, I feel out of place at most Adventist churches.  For one, I don't match the demographics of the membership (e.g. I'm younger, I didn't grow up in the church, my politics are more moderate, et cetera.).  But the real thing that makes me feel out of place is my view of what a church is about.  Let me explain:

I see the Church as a standing army.  Most people see church more as a place for fellowship.  To me, the purpose of gathering together is to be trained and equipped (discipleship) for the battle we face (evangelism).  Most church goers want to be encouraged and nurtured.  For me, eternal salvation has little or no motivation - what I need is salvation from the daily grind.  My walk with Jesus strengthens me, enables me to experience serenity, and keeps me out of the pit of hopelessness.  I hear a lot of talk about eternity from the saints in the pews.

I don't really see my salvation as the primary goal of my walk with God.  From my understanding of Scripture and Ellen White, I see this whole Great Controversy issue being about vindicating God and glorifying Him.  Yet, I hear a lot of talk from the average Adventist that leads me to believe this is a selfish pursuit for our benefit.  Don't get me wrong, I think our salvation definitely says something about God's character - but that isn't the end of the story.

So, a few weeks ago, I'm in this corporate worship "event."  The worship team was good, the music was good, the preaching was good, the prayers were good, the seats were comfortable, the ambiance was pleasant, and everything was good - so why did I feel out of place?

It wasn't relevant.  But it wasn't the content - it was the community.  The content was good, but there was no connection between the content and the community.

But this isn't an isolated example.  I've been to several hundred churches across North America (Adventist and others) in the last two decades, and I could count on one hand the worship services that went beyond people on stage and people watching, and were community worship experiences.  And, amazingly, most of those worship experiences didn't happen during a regularly scheduled weekend worship event.

So, I have to ask myself, what is the point?

What am I gaining from attending these services?  What is the benefit for my family?  Is it worth our effort and what is the return on our investment?

We have two kids (ages 4 and 2) and they receive a lot of benefit from the Sabbath School programs.  Adventurers, VBS, and other programs really benefit our kids.  We, and other churches, do a really good job "training" kids and preparing them doctrinally.  It is still our job, as their parents, to disciple them - to model and teach the spiritual disciplines (prayer, fasting, scripture, community, solitude, abstinence, etc), but the kids programs enrich our kids.

It just seems that preaching is often geared towards the lowest common denominator.  I'm not talking intellectually - for Adventists tend to be a pretty intellectual group.  I'm talking spiritually.  I don't see a lot of preachers pushing people to be experimental in their spirituality - or to take risks.  I need that - for I tend to rise to the level others expect me to attain.  I believe that is true for most.

Long ago, I moved past worship styles.  Whether singing hymns, or praise songs; whether responsive readings, or contemporary worship music; to me, it's about attitude, not style.  My attitude is that I want to have a face-to-face encounter with God.  I want to do this in my private worship and I want to experience that during corporate worship.  But it's difficult for me to experience this when the majority are not worshiping - or are not engaged.

So, I again ask myself, what is the point of attending corporate worship if I am feeling alone and isolated?

I'm different - demographically, philosophically, spiritually, and emotionally.  Demographically, I'm younger and not a lifer.  Philosophically, I'm looking for more than fellowship - I want to prepare for spiritual warfare.  Spiritually, I need more than doctrinal teaching - I want to be challenged; I want vision, I want a path.  Emotionally, I was created to express my love and devotion to God.  I have a need to connect, face-to-face, with my Creator, my Savior, my God, and my Friend - and a community of like-minded people.

Am I alone in these thoughts?  Am I the only one that feels this way?

If you want to know why the Christian Church is losing ground throughout the West, I don't believe we need to look any farther than ourselves.  It isn't style, it isn't comfort, and it isn't doctrine - it is engagement.  Are we real?  Are we authentic?  Are we relevant?  Are we experiencing everything God wants us to experience?

We need to move past the merely good and press towards the absolutely great.

 Posted by Gary Walter