Tuesday, June 7, 2016
Is How We're Doing Church Worth It?
In the Bible, Christians are taught that fellowship is important.
Don't "forsake the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another..." It's from Hebrews 10:25, and we use it as the Biblical justification for the thing we call "church."
In the Old Testament, God's people, the Israelites, had both mobile and stationary facilities where they would congregate for specific religious functions, such as sacrifices, worship, and preaching. By Christ's day, the temple of the Lord had become a glorified marketplace, with so much ordinary stuff taking place that at one point, Christ Himself clears out moneychangers who He claimed had turned "His Father's house" into a "marketplace."
After that, for a long time, God's people gathered in private homes. Then, after the Romans embraced Christianity, church buildings began to be constructed, approximately around 300 A.D. The largest Christian edifice of the church's early years was the magnificent Hagia Sophia, in Istanbul, credited to Constantine the Great. Almost 1,000 years after it was built, it was captured by Ottoman Turks and converted into a mosque, which is what it remained until 1935, when it became a museum.
Along the way, of course, our planet saw the invention of Europe's grand cathedrals, and then the far humbler chapels that still dot America's New England countryside. Our generation has seen the invention of stodgy megachurch facilities that look more like warehouses than houses of worship.
In post-Christian Europe, the grand cathedrals have become tourist attractions, relics of what people now consider to have been provincial fable-telling and cultural indoctrination. In post-Christian New England, the quaint, steepled, boxy churches have become restaurants, nightclubs, apartment buildings, and private homes. Buildings upon which centuries of congregants lavished money and effort are being torn down across France. In aging American cities like Syracuse, New York, and Detroit, Michigan, abandoned churches are being torn down after having stood for a fraction of the time their European cousins did.
A number of American churches have begun installing columbariums, where urns containing the ashes of deceased congregants are laid to rest, ostensibly in perpetuity. Yet how long will it be before many of these churches close, and their new owners wonder what to do about all those urns nobody wants anymore? At least older churches in the Northeast that had their own graveyards can be parceled off and maintained separately as the sanctuary gets re-purposed.
Here in Texas, as the state's population continues to swell, we keep building churches like it's the normal thing to do... even as churches in those parts of the country from which our state's newcomers are coming close up and fade away. You'd think we'd learn about the transience of church buildings and their congregations. You'd think we'd be smarter now about how much money we pour into buildings that may have a relatively short lifespan, at least as far as their religious purposes are concerned.
Why do we need all these buildings? Church buildings aren't mandated in the Bible, even though the Bible provides a historical precedent for them. Are hotel ballrooms really inappropriate for worship? For me, personally, I enjoy a mighty pipe organ accompanying congregational singing, but how many churches care about pipe organs - or even congregational singing, for that matter? Most churches today front a pop-group type band of singers on a stage, heavily miked and deeply amplified so it doesn't matter if the congregation sings or not. But if congregations did want to have a pipe organ, it would be awfully inconvenient trying to find a hotel that could store one during the week, when it wasn't in use.
Dallas' main symphony hall, the Meyerson Symphony Center, has a majestic pipe organ, but I don't think anybody uses it on Sunday mornings.
Some churches eschew fancy music altogether - whether it's with a pipe organ or "righteous" praise bands. They sing psalms a capella, which isn't necessarily a bad idea, as long as enough of your congregants know how to sing. After all, there's a difference between making a noise, making a joyful noise, and making a joyful noise unto the Lord, who expects His people to worship Him "in the splendor of holiness."
We humans love to complicate things, don't we? And we love our options. Choices are good, even for Calvinists, who believe in predestination. So we've come up with different ways to baptize, different ways to serve communion, different ways to take an offering, and different ways we expect preachers to dress.
Oh yeah - we groove with our preachers. We affiliate ourselves with celebrity preachers, buy lots of self-help books by Christian personalities, and go to churchy conferences with celebrity preachers as headliners.
We attend various Bible studies, and put our kids in Christian schools. We spend tons of money on salaries for religious professionals. In addition to our sanctuaries, we build Disney-esque romper rooms for children, first-class gymnasiums, bookstores, coffee shops, and (at First Baptist Dallas, anyway) computer-programmed fountains.
Churches used to build hospitals, but Christians eventually tired of having to pay the ever-escalating costs of caring for sick people.
We have over 100 versions of the Bible just in the English language. And that doesn't include all of those goofy sub-translations, such as The Golfer's Bible, The Everyday Life Bible, or The Precious Moments Bible, even as approximately 180 million people around the world today have no part of the Bible in what's called their "heart language."
With all of this "forsaking not the assembly of ourselves together," though, are we Americans doing church the way we're supposed to be doing it?
We're assembling, but are we discipling? Are we worshiping Almighty God, or are we worshiping the almighty dollar? We're busy and all, but is Christ our all?
The full text of Hebrews 10:25 - in the New International Version, no less - includes a curious end-bit:
"...not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another - and all the more as you see the Day approaching."
At some point, the church universal will be united with God in Heaven for eternity. And the "all the more" that we're doing right now will be a confection of activity that may or may not have any impact on that eternity.
Is church today worth how we're doing it?