Say, Mary, how about if we go over to First Church this Sunday morning? I see in the paper that they’re having that famous Christian speak.”
“Well, honey, I don’t know. I noticed that Second Church is having that recently converted rock star, and I think the kids would enjoy that. And we can catch the sacred concert and prophecy film over at Third Church in the evening.”
Let’s face it: we live in a spectator society. From football to the movie theater to the ubiquitous American altar known as television, we are programmed to sit passively while the performer croons, “Let me entertain you.”
Quite often the church unwittingly caters to this mentality. We assume that we are called to compete for spectators. So we attempt to put on a better show. We advertise in the papers, we put our current attraction on our marquees, and pray for a packed house.
After all, if our goal is to cram as many people into the building as possible, then we had better have the most entertaining show in town. (God help us on Super Bowl Sunday!) The church with the most people wins.
To plan, staff, and implement such successful programs requires a team of ingenious leaders. We rack our brains and comb through ministry magazines to garner the latest ideas. If we want to succeed (which, being translated, means have a large audience) we know we’ve got to keep those hits a comin’! The bottom line is growth. The staff had better perform. Annual reports are just around the corner!
I’d like to suggest a radical alternative to the approach which views the church as an entertaining program: The church is the household of God (1 Tim 3:15; 1 Peter 4:17). We are God’s family.
Everybody knows that. But I’ve been to enough churches and talked to enough of my pastor colleagues to know that very few churches operate primarily on that premise. But make no mistake about it: the two approaches have very different implications for church leaders.
Families gather for fundamentally different reasons than audiences do. Families don’t come together primarily to be entertained. They enjoy sharing life in an atmosphere where every person—young or old, successful or not-so-successful—belongs by virtue of birth or adoption or marriage into the family.
Family leaders don’t feel pressured by family members to come up with creative programs for every gathering. The members don’t threaten to join another family if the entertainment doesn’t meet their expectations. Indeed, the only expectation for families is to be together, to share life openly, and to love and be loved.
To be sure, family gatherings require some organization and leadership. Someone has to plan the menu, buy the food, prepare it, and clean up after the meal. But that is a far cry from producing a program. If all the members do their part, the planning and work can serve to deepen relationships in the context of life.
THE MAIN ATTRACTION
As the family of God, the church should gather primarily unto a Person, not a program. Christ is our main attraction. He has promised us his presence as we gather in his name. And we gather with persons, the other members of the family, to enjoy and edify one another.
Many Christians today assume that by attending the program at a local church they have fulfilled the command not to forsake assembling together (Heb. 10:25). But in the context, that command entails stimulating one another to love and good deeds and encouraging one another. An audience doesn’t have much chance of obeying that command; a family does.
So how, as pastoral leaders, do we turn the corner? First, the change must start with the leadership. If we encourage the entertainment approach to ministry, our people will fall in step. It’s the cultural mentality. So we must teach people that the church is primarily family, not attendance at a program. Since we’re talking about swimming against the cultural stream, it will be a constant struggle to re-educate.
As pastoral leaders we must provide structures where family-type gatherings of God’s people can occur. If our only official church gatherings consist of auditoriums filled with passive spectators watching the performers on stage, our talk about the church as family will fall on deaf ears. We need gatherings small enough for people to act like family. We need meetings structured for every-member-ministry and open sharing (as in 1 Cor. 14:26). How else can we stimulate and encourage one another?
Could we have lost something the early church enjoyed by our insistence that if we don’t gather at the church building, it isn’t officially “church”? The early church saw itself as God’s family, and they met primarily in homes. Most families do.
Gathering in homes isn’t binding on us today. But if the church is primarily family, not program, then it may be of more than antiquarian interest that the early church did gather in homes. In our church we provide such an opportunity on Sunday evenings. We have divided up the congregation into somewhat geographic groupings. We gather in homes to meet with the Lord and one another. There is freedom for singing, encouragement or exhortation from the scriptures, the sharing of personal experiences and concerns, and prayer. We climax the time around the Lord’s Table, followed by light refreshments.
Of course, not everyone will like meeting in homes. Many enjoy the comfortable anonymity and escape from responsibility afforded by attending the program in the auditorium. It can be threatening to open your life to other believers. It demands a lot of commitment to take the priesthood of believers seriously and make a personal contribution to a meeting. It’s much more fun to be entertained.
But we’ve never been commanded to put on the best show in town. We’re called “shepherds,” not “program directors.” We’ve never been told by God that success is a full auditorium.
Our task is to shepherd God’s flock, giving oversight to his household, the church. We must lead God’s people to experience the church primarily as family, gathered unto the living Christ. So what’s playing at your church this week?
Published in Pastoral Renewal, December, 1985