I’ve always been fascinated by magnets. It’s pretty cool when you think about it. These little things stick to metal and can hold things up just by their magnetic force. If you were like me, you’ve also taken magnets and tried to push them together. One year my mother-in-law gave me a set of Magnetix, which you can use to build shapes and structures. They’ve got pretty strong magnets in each end, and it’s nearly impossible to get the opposing ends to touch.
For most of my life the church has been playing the relevance game. The church didn’t change its approach for a good half a century or more, and as a result, culture went flying by. At the same time, the speed at which culture was changing also greatly increased.
Today the church finds itself immersed in the flood of secular society. We took the relevance thing to the extreme and jettisoned nearly every meaningful expression of our faith because it was old and outdated. We’ve not just thrown the baby out with the bathwater, we’ve actually undermined our very foundation.
No, I’m not saying the church has to go back to the methods of the 1940’s and 50’s. There is nothing wrong with changing methods. At least that’s what all the leadership experts say. As long as the mission stays the same, it’s all good.
But, as I’ve written about quite a bit in my series on the church (read more here), through this process of “relevantization” we led the people in our churches into a big and dangerous lie. A lie that actually stands in direct contrast with Christianity.
What is the lie?
Well, the basic operating system of the secular society is built on the belief that we deserve to have everything we want, how we want it and when we want it. That’s how our world operates. That is the driving force or “magnetic pull” of secular society. I know this not only because I see it and read about it, but because I experience it. There are lots of things I want to be a certain way that aren’t that way and I spend a great deal of time trying to make them the way I want them to be. And if I’m not mistaken, you do the same thing.
The basic operating system of Christianity is to deny yourself, to die to the life you want for yourself, stop trying to save your life, lay down you life for your brother or sister – basically the exact opposite of the operating system of secular society.
The lie we have brought into the church that has been wreaking havoc for decades now is that we can bring secular society together with Christianity. We have believed that the two can somehow come together to create a space where people can get church the way they want it and that by getting what they want they will choose to come to our church over other churches.
(The church has basically only been moving people around for the last 30-40 years. The bulk of church growth in one church has come at the expense of the loss of people in other – usually smaller and older churches. This is not quite what Jesus had in mind either.)
We have trained generations of Christians to believe that they deserve to go to a church that offers them the programs and services they want for the stage of life they are in. We’re telling people they deserve to do whatever makes them happy when it comes to church which is about dying to all those things.
The two ideas aren’t just different, they’re not even oil and water, they’re actually opposed to each other.
That’s not to say that Christianity is actually fighting against culture. That’s not what I mean at all. We aren’t opposed to people outside the faith. Too many Christians live that way. But the way of Christ – which is a way of life – is opposed to the way of life of secular culture.
In fact, Christianity has been plagued with individuals and groups who have succumb to the lure of secularism. So many churches have split because half of the church wanted grey carpet while the other half didn’t see anything wrong with the purple. The group that wanted the grey wanted to be more relevant and the church that wanted the purple didn’t want to spend the money. Churches have split of pianos and pews. I took quite a bit of heat when I moved a section of orange padded pews out of the sanctuary at one church and replaced them with chairs that better matched the carpet. Other churches have split over doctrinal issues, issues that exist in large part because of their predominance in society. And everyone can support their side with a verse, albeit usually taken out of context, but a verse nonetheless.
Add to that all the Christian pastors and leaders who have fallen to the lure of secular society whether financially, egotistically, sexually and so on.
We are supposed to be different, but for the last 40 years or more we have been obsessed with looking more and more like secular culture. We are supposed to be a light to the people outside of Christianity. We are supposed to represent a way out of the chaos of secularism. Instead we’re doing the opposite. We’re trying to use secularism as a lure to draw people into something that’s entirely different, only, when they come into our “different” people discover it’s not all that different.
What should we do?
It’s actually quite simple: stop making every decision based on what we want. That’s actually what we’re supposed to die to. We’re actually supposed to deny ourselves not indulge ourselves. Modern Christianity seems to have become one indulgence after another. We took worship and turned it into a profit-driven product. We took preaching and turned it into a comparison. We took the organic nature of the living organism of the church and turned it into systematic, corporate pursuit for our own vanity.
So, the church you’re going to isn’t as cool as the church down the street. So? You’re church may not be as culturally trendy as that church, but that doesn’t mean God isn’t using your church to make a difference. Your pastor may not be as cool as Steven Furtick and your worship leader might not be as passionate as Bethel, but he’s YOUR pastor. He’ll be there for you when you’re sick or struggling and need some guidance and encouragement. Good luck getting that from Furtick. I get it, I love his preaching too.
So, your church doesn’t have the programs for your family that the church offers down the street. So? Maybe instead of following the desires of your heart you could get involved in creating that ministry in your church. The father of one family that left our church quite a while back told me the reason they were leaving was because our kids program just wasn’t working for their kids. Then he asked, “I have to do what’s best for my family, don’t I?” I can’t quite remember how I responded back then. I wasn’t quite as bold then as I now.
What would I say now? I would say, actually what’s going to be best for your family is to stick it out. Research shows that the kids who get experiences catered to their preferences are the most likely to leave the church when they grow up. But the kids who worship alongside adults, serve alongside adults and from middle school on start to learn what it’s like to be participate in a group where you have to make constant preferential compromises, well, those are the kids who endure in church.
A pastor who’s been in the ministry for longer than I’ve been alive said at a pastor’s lunch that he’s had at least 10-20 times more people come to his church over the years than he currently has attending. And that’s not visitors. He was talking about people who would come for a year or three or ten and then decide to move on. He said that he’s had to just learn to love people while you have them. I’m working on that.
But, I’m not very good at it. You see, I’ve always been a bit of an idealist. When I hear a pastor say that we just have to learn to love them while we have them, what I hear is concession. (I’m not being critical of this pastor at all.) We have this huge glaring problem in the church, and no one really seems to be working to solve it. It’s broken. It’s not the way it’s supposed to be.
We’re supposed to love one another unconditionally. In case you don’t know, unconditionally means without conditions. If there are conditions that cause us to stop loving the people God put us in community with then we aren’t loving unconditionally.
We’re supposed to be different. We’re not supposed to elevate our needs (which if we’re being honest aren’t really needs, they’re actually preferences and desires) above the needs of others, but we do it all the time. We fight against one another to get what we want and if we don’t get our way, we’ll go somewhere that will give us what we’re looking for.
We’re just not all that different anymore, myself included. Yes, Jesus will always build His church and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. Yes there will always be righteous remnant who will stick it out through the thick and thin. I’m so thankful for those who do.
But, I can’t help but wonder if we’ve stopped trying to be the ekklesia, which literally means the called out ones and have chosen instead to embrace the magnetic pull of the culture that actually opposes God’s plan.