Monday, August 16, 2010

Which Church Should I Attend This Sunday?

TITLE: Which Church Should I Attend This Sunday?
Written by: Conrade Yap
Date: 17 Aug 2010
Little children, guard yourselves from idols.” (1 John 5:21)
MAIN IDEA: Rise of the Consumerist Christian. The biggest hurdle to true worship of God is none other than our own selves. Beware the four mentalities that prevent us from desiring God.

Which Church should I go to this Sunday?  One of the phone calls that I dislike answering in Church on Sundays is the one from church members that asks: "Who is preaching today?" Wait a minute buddy. Does the identity of the preacher determines your going to church?

A good friend sent me a copy of Singapore’s national newspaper, The Straits Times last week. It was a special report published on July 17th, 2010, entitled: “Rise of the megachurch – Gospel & Glitz.” As the main English language national newspaper, what The Straits Times publishes frequently reflects the mood of the times in the small island nation of Singapore. The issue fills 11 pages that begins with a swanky coverage of the Megachurches, and ends with modest 1½ pages for small churches. Numerically speaking, even Megachurches receive a greater share of the reporting. It is like Walmart vs the mom-and-pop neighborhood shop. The former wins hands down.

The main idea expressed in that special report is that there are 2 kinds of fast-growing churches in the country. The first is the rise of the Mega-Churches (numbering in thousands of members), and the second is the multiplication of smaller and nimble ‘house’ churches that have less than 100 members. This week's edition of Sabbathwalk is my reflection after reading that report. I shall list down the four mentalities that Christians should avoid in their decision to go to Church.

A) The Shopping Mall Mentality
Like a shopping mall, a megachurch offers practically everything. There is a professional hip music band with excellent acoustics and sound system for an upbeat and uplifting worship service. The auditorium resembles a cinema where all attention is focused on what happens up on the stage, like patrons attending a symphony orchestra or a live play. Supported with tip-top technological audio-visual effects, the sermon is delivered by a senior pastor who has a great amount of charisma and showmanship. In fact, the quantity of the brochures, the visitor packs can easily fill the largest handbag of any visitor. They give out free books too!

One curious fact is that instead of keeping the shopping mall out of the church, two of the largest Megachurches in Singapore have their services inside shopping malls! Yet, this is not a Singaporean megachurch phenomenon. Nearby in Indonesia, people flock to shopping malls to go to church, albeit for different reasons. Singaporeans have greater religious freedom compared to Indonesia. In Singapore, people are quite free to worship while in Indonesia, there is a high sensitivity over the tiny Christian minority amid a huge Muslim population. Moreover, for the Indonesian Church, it is a lot more difficult to get a license for a Church building. According to a BBC report, being persecuted by merely being a Christian is a common occurrence.  I am not talking about these Indonesian shopping-mall churches which meet out of necessity. I am referring to the consumerist model often adopted by the megachurches in Singapore and the West.

The problem with shopping-mall type Christians is that they approach Church going like shoppers rather than worshipers. In the book, “Seeker Churches: Promoting traditional religion in a nontraditional way,” Kimon Howland Sargeant writes:
In an age that emphasizes the search for personal fulfillment, consumer satisfaction, and self-realization, it is not surprising that many seeker church leaders are determined to learn from America’s omnipresent shopping malls, which offer customers an almost unlimited variety of goods and choices, all packaged for convenience and easy consumption.” (Kimon Howland Sargeant, Seeker Churches, NY: Rutgers, 2000, p106)

Key Emphasis: One desires God in order to feel good and to consume goods. “Seeking God (the I AM) according to what my fleshly desires demands.

B) The Therapy Mentality
Living in the modern world is tough. Technology may have sped up the efficiency and productivity of many processes. Unfortunately, whatever time saved by these machines are quickly filled up with more plans and schedules by the insatiable appetites of humans to do things. When people’s heads and hands run so far ahead, is it any wonder that we need some space and personal time to catch a breather? Instead of taking a needed Sabbath, some Christians adopt a mentality of using the Church to meet their needs for a rest. They want sermons that bring them relief to their spiritual-aches, just like an aspirin to alleviate a headache.

This needs-based frame of mind is also called the therapy mentality. We see the sermon like some kind of a spiritual product to solve our spiritual problems. If the preacher does not preach to what I need, jump to the next Church on the line that will! My question, if going to Church is simply because of a need to get some kind of healing therapy, what happens when one does not have any need for therapy?

Key Emphasis: One desires God in order to feel healed. “Seeking I AM according to what my personal needs demand.

C) The Up-to-Date Mentality

Some churches like Liquid Church seeks to become 'living waters for a thirsty world.' (note: It is Christ, not the Church who is called stream of living waters.) Others encourage members to use technological tools like Twitter, and other social networking tools DURING services. Time magazine published an interesting article on the Twittering Church back in May 2009. In it, one example talked about members of a Church who are encouraged to ‘twitter’ their experience with God with their cell phones throughout the Sunday service. Mars Hill Church in Seattle is a well-known Church that does exactly that. They are doing a great job in terms of engaging people. My question is whether it is necessary to twitter during Church hours? Is there any compelling reason to encourage it during the Sunday morning service?

Why is it so difficult for people, especially the young to set aside 1-2 hours away from their digital gadgets? After all, once the Church service is over, they can have all the time in the world to connect, to SMS and to use the Internet to communicate whatever they want. Maybe it boils down to a lack of discipline or worse, digital addiction. If relevance is the sole purpose of Church, how then will people see Church any different from the rest of the world?

Key Emphasis: One desires God in order to stay relevant with the world. “Seeking I AM according to what the modern world demands me to become.

D) The Connecting Mindset

I remember attending City Harvest Church (currently they have 33000 members) in Singapore during the 90s. That day, as I made my way to the huge auditorium to attend one of their 5-6 Sunday services, the highly motivated volunteers and ushers would joyfully greet me with a smile. There were at least 6 people who casually came up to me and introduced themselves, to help me feel at home. I was impressed with the level of personal attention from the Church despite its size. In a nutshell, they tried to connect with me. That is a good way for introduction. My question is, will that be enough to be the main motivator for Church going?

One observation Church leaders of mainline churches have made is that the Megachurches is only a phase in the lives of the typical Church-shopper. After having ‘consumed’ whatever products offered by the Megachurch, once the fruits are picked, and the formulas are jaded, they will jump again to the next level of need: Need to connect with people.

Quite a number of members who left for a megachurch eventually return for a smaller setting. I remember one Church leader telling me that the young people are naturally attracted to the glittering image of being in the company of friends attending the prominent churches of the day. It is like going to a spiritual hypermarket. After a while, they return.

Key Emphasis: One desires God in order to relate, and for people to relate to us. “Seeking I AM according to what relationships I need.

E) Desiring God

The first four mentalities I describe above are all based on some form of human need. The danger is that they can easily be twisted to become 'Desiring Self-fulfilment' instead of Desiring God. First, beware the shopping mall mentality which is evident in many who attend Megachurches and hypermarket style church offerings. They meet the needs of people who like familiar stuff that they see day to day. They use Powerpoint in their office, and they expect Churches to do likewise. They compare the quality of the world and easily question why the Church should not adopt ‘best practices’ from the commercial world. We must not use the ways of the world as a substitute for the worship of God in Spirit and in Truth. Neither should we use our own humanistic needs as a base for deciding which Church to attend. It must start by seeking Christ. I like what David Wells said:
"The born-again, marketing church has calculated that unless it makes deep, serious cultural adaptations, it will go out of business, especially with the younger generations. What it has not considered carefully enough is that it may well be putting itself out of business with God.” (David Wells, The Courage to be Protestant, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008, p50)

The second type, the Therapy mentality is a more subtle one, where genuine human need for spiritual rest and recovery becomes confused with unhelpful, even unrealistic expectations on the Church, the pastoral staff and the Church programs.

The third type, the up-to-date mentality tries to play a game of perennial catch-up with the world. The problem is: How much catch up is sufficient?

The fourth type, the connecting mindset is relatively better than the rest but is still overly humanistic, in the sense that there is a lopsided focus on the needs of people. The way to meet needs is to allow God to meet our needs in God's time, not ours. Otherwise our thirst will never be quenched.

This leaves us with the fifth type, the path of desiring God.

What does it take to desire God and only God alone? It is a journey toward God alone. One way to test this is to ask ourselves if we will still pursue Christ without having our shopping mentality, our therapeutic requirements, our desire for up-to-date spirituality, and a need to connect with people? Take away all these. Will we still long for God? Are we so dependent on these spiritual ‘steroids’ in order to feel good?

I shall write more about desiring God next week. In the meantime, remember John’s warning in 1 John 5:21.

Thought: "It is important to remember that culture does not give the church its agenda. All it gives the church is its context. The church's belief and mission come from the Word of God. they do not come from the culture either through attraction to it on in alienation from it. It is not the culture that determines the church's priorities. It is not the (post)modern culture that should be telling it what to think. The principle here is sola Scriptura, not sola cultura" (David Wells, The Courage to be Protestant, p98).


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1 comment:

  1. There is a professional hip music band with excellent acoustics and sound system for an upbeat and uplifting worship service.