Consumers vs. Community

One thing I do envy my faith’s more liturgical cousins is the concept of the parish.

In a parochial system, unless you live on a border, you don’t really worry about which church you go to.  You don’t shop around to a dozen different churches, weighing pros and cons of pastor likability and off-key choirs and hard pews, sorting through congregations like a consumer, before finally (if at all) settling on “your” church.  No.  Instead, in a parochial system, you go to the church in your region.  You may not like the homilies this church’s priest gives, and you may not quite like the sort of music they play at this church, but you suck it up and go anyway, because you know that enjoying songs or sermons is not the purpose of going to church.

Somewhere, somehow, a consumer mentality has crept into the evangelical community’s approach to church.

The purpose of going to church (this mentality says) is to get something out of it.  A consumer, after all, purchases goods or services from businesses with his or her time and/or resources.  Yet the average churchgoer does not return Sunday afternoon with goods, so what service does he or she expect to have in return for two hours and a grudgingly given tithe?  The answer, it seems, is an engaging sermon and exciting worship music, perhaps good food afterward, perhaps a skit or two, perhaps a solo performance and a few jokes told.  In short, the consumer expects to be entertained, or the consumer will take his or her business elsewhere.

Consider — the attendance of “megachurches” spirals ever upward, into the thousands and tens of thousands, into sizes so unmanageable that individuals can slip in and out of service without having spoken once to a living soul…  yet the overall church attendance statistics in America steadily decline.

Consider — the many Christians that stay at home and listen to Joel Osteen on TV or Harold Camping on the radio in place of physically attending a fellowship, claiming that “having church at home” is just as good.  (I’m not talking about shut-ins or the handicapped, or a once-in-a-while thing, but those Christians who simply are not part of a network of other Christians because they’re already receiving their sermon-and-worship fix.)

I’m going to shock you now.

The real purpose of church–the true heart of why Christians meet once a week–is not to hear a sermon.

I know, I know, I can hear the shocked gasps.  But I’m not done yet.  The real purpose of church is not to worship God through singing, either.  It’s not to pray, either.

Okay, for those of you who have just had apoplectic fits, I’ll wait until the EMTs arrive.  …everyone done?  Okay, good.

If the purpose of church was either of those things, watching a televised sermon and singing along to canned music would be plenty good enough.  But the fact is, the real purpose of church is community.  Do y’all know what the New Testament word is that gets translated “church”?  It’s ekklesia–it also means “assembly” or “gathering of people.”  The basic bare-bones purpose of going to Church is to meet with other Christians.  It’s that elusive concept of “fellowship.”  And it’s not just suppose to happen in the big building with the pointy roof, either.  It’s supposed to happen in houses and apartments and in restaurants and in bars and in schools and at workplaces…

It’s the gathering.  The moot.  The community.  The people get together… and then the stuff happens, all the continuing “stedfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers” (from that great how-to manual for the Church, Acts chapter 2).  (Notice the closest equivalent to the sermon, the teaching of doctrine, is just one of a list here, not the focal point.)

Community is something you can’t do proper-like by your lonesome in your house, even with a good Internet connection.  It’s something you can’t do with the dude on the radio.  It’s something you can’t do if you don’t get together with people, and fairly often too.

And I can’t help but wonder.  I wonder, if the concept of church-as-community was really understood, would Christians still leave a church for no other reason than that they don’t like the style of singing?  Would Christians be more forgiving of pastors with preaching styles that aren’t quite like theirs?  Or even the reverse–if the concept was understood, would Christians be able to stay in a church that was cold and didn’t reach out to its members, or a church that was overlarge and didn’t know its members, or a church that was business-like and didn’t care about its members?  If Christians didn’t treat their churches the way they treat movie theaters, but rather as surrogate families, what revolution would take place within the American church!

Now I’ve probably gotten rather preachy in this post, but I try not to point anything at other people that I don’t point back at myself.  So you–yes you, reading this blog–why don’t we grab a couple friends and head to my house, or your house if you’d rather, and just have us some church?  There’ll be food, and couches to sit on, and beer for those that like beer and soda for those that don’t.  And we won’t have a sermon or even a lesson, but we can talk about what’s going on in our lives, and maybe other Christians will be able to share some insight or advice or helpful Scripture.  And we won’t have a professional worship band, but we’ll sing our little hearts out to One Whom We Love, and if we’re a little off-key hopefully our neighbors will be tolerant.  And we won’t have long and dramatic prayer sessions, but just some quiet prayer for each other and helping each other through the hard times.

And, in the big mass-gatherings more traditionally thought of as “church,” when the pastor isn’t entertaining us or the worship isn’t contemporary enough (or too contemporary) for our liking, maybe we can drop the consumer mindset and just laugh–because this is our family up there preachin’ and singin’, our family who’s annoying us or irritating us, and we love them, and despite all the little irritations we wouldn’t run out on them.

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