August 1, 2007

Trendy Churches

A friend recently invited me to his church. When I asked what time the service began, he was quick to correct me: it wasn’t a church “service,” it was “the Sunday experience.” He seemed to think that this terminology would make it seem cool, maybe irresistible. It was at that moment that I knew I was in trouble.

First of all, every imaginable event—including tying your shoes and brushing your teeth—is an experience. To call something “the experience” makes about as much sense as calling the letter H “the letter.” It’s not “the letter”; it’s “a letter”; there are lots of other ones.

Such semantics are about as ridiculous as when Christians tell others that Christianity isn’t a religion, it’s a relationship. Or when they say that they’re not religious, they’re spiritual.

There’s nothing wrong with being religious, so long as you subscribe to the right religion. And there’s nothing wrong with a church service, so long as it’s a good church service.

But back to my friend. He invited me to his church. I said sure, why not. So Sunday morning came and I went to “the experience.” And let me tell you—it was quite an experience.

The worship service is what I imagine a rock concert would be like. (Given that I never go to rock concerts, I can only surmise here.) The music was loud and there was dry ice on the stage, causing fog to rise up around the worship leaders (“performers”?).

After the music ended, a hip, well-dressed pastor came onto the stage and gave a sermon. Of course, they probably don’t call it a sermon, and he’s probably not a pastor. Bear with me; I’m still learning.

He ended his seeker-friendly sermon (“rap session”?) by quoting the church’s life verse (“He is able to do immeasurably more than we could ever ask or imagine…”). A few people then applauded. I could have sworn that I heard some girls sighing in ecstasy, no doubt in awe of the pastor’s designer shoes. Snaking my way through the church’s foyer, where hoards of people were helping themselves to free espressos and donuts, I finally made my way to the front door.

Needless to say, not a very religious experience for me. Heck, I would have settled for a spiritual one.

Admittedly, many of my qualms over the church boil down to personal taste. I don’t like dry ice, or designer shoes, or espressos. But even when I put my personal likes and dislikes aside, I can’t help but feel that the church, and all like it, are lacking something, that they’re just not what churches are supposed to be.

Outreach is good. Adjusting your language to reach a culture is sometimes necessary. But I honestly wonder whether these trendy churches often do more harm than good.

First of all, outreach is the last thing the American church should be focusing on. Morally speaking, Christians today don’t seem to be any better than unbelievers. And I’m not just talking about all those big-haired televangelists. I’m referring to your average, everyday Christians, the Christians we meet in PTA meetings and grocery stores and real estate offices.

I’m sad to say it, but Christians tend to be an unholy bunch. We rally against same-sex marriage bills but practice a debauchery and hypocrisy that far exceeds anything you may find on Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. As Ronald J. Sider, author of The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience, writes, “Whether the issue is divorce, materialism, sexual promiscuity, racism, physical abuse in marriage, or neglect of a biblical world view, the polling data point to widespread, blatant disobedience of clear biblical moral demands on the part of people who allegedly are evangelical, born-again Christians.”

In the same way that a city experiencing a surge in crime needs to dump more tax money into its police force and after-school programs and not, say, its tourism department—in the same way, Christians today need to root the sin out of their own lives before trying to get outsiders to join.

But there’s another reason these trendy churches need to go. Simply put, they don’t seem to be all that Christian.

Christianity contains both happy news and sad news, and you can’t have one without the other. The happy news, of course, is that Jesus offers us the gift of eternal life. The sad news is that we’re sinners, that we’re the reason Jesus died, that every new day requires us to repent of our sins and pick up our crosses and suffer for Him.

Both aspects—the happy and the sad—make up the Christian message. A church, therefore, that just focuses on one aspect is not really Christian. Which brings us back to the trendy churches.

The trendy churches just want us to be happy. Spend a few weeks in such a church and your self-esteem will be higher than a woman who’s just been given a makeover on Oprah. Neither the sermon nor the church’s life verse nor the rockin’ worship service nor anything else will cause you to meditate on the sufferings of Christ. Nothing will encourage you to confess your sins to God; in fact, nothing will remind you that you’re a sinner who has something to confess.

It is for this reason that I’m drawn to traditional churches. Sure, the organ music can be hideous. Sure, the pastors can be ugly. But none of that matters. Christianity isn’t about good music and stylish entertainers; that’s why we have MTV.

I’m not saying that all churches need to have the Eucharist every week or that they need to sing hymns and recite liturgy. And I’m certainly not saying that they need to bring back organ music. (I personally think flatulence is more edifying.) All I’m saying is that Evangelicals today could learn much from traditionalists.

And those old foggies, in turn, can learn much from their more contemporary friends. For instance, where to go for a good deal on pants or how to make sure that all the girls in your class think you’re really cool.