Knocking the Church is the Easy Part

What to do with claim after claim after claim of the church’s irrelevance? In a recent piece in Faith Today columnist Sheila Wray Gregoire (p. 21) says that Sunday mornings “have to change”–that’s in the column’s title. She reports that what she needs isn’t anything polished and certainly not much of a sermon. What she needs is discussion and community. The reason? She and her husband have busy schedules and can’t find time to share their faith Capture4with others outside the Sunday morning hour. “Our needs have evolved,” she writes. We don’t need a worship centered on teaching: she has her Bible app with multiple commentaries. “Information is not in short supply—community is. In our fast-paced, media-driven world, we crave authenticity and connection, two things our modern church services don’t deliver.”

I have no doubt that Gregoire’s life is hectic and that Sunday morning doesn’t do everything for her. I’m not sure it should though. In particular, worship should not substitute for the network of relationships every human needs. Worship is a profoundly different sort of event. I’m surprised too at the tone of Gregoire’s column. She’s quick to generalize (mistakenly connecting long sermons with dying churches) and quick to pat the modern person on the back (as one whose desires and pace of life are beyond question). She’s also quick to dismiss historic forms of Christian worship and quick to say what it is that modern church services do and don’t. It’s odd too that the column notes the Vatican recommends eight minute sermons but doesn’t say anything about the liturgy of the Eucharist that surrounds it. Surely the recovery of the celebration of Holy Communion/Eucharist goes some distance toward engaging us as relational persons (probably more so than discussion). How many of us really need more ‘discussion’ in our lives?

Writing in the Canadian Mennonite Ryan Dueck expresses a pastor’s frustration with the ‘five reasons the church is terrible’ genre. Here’s the heart of his piece, “Top Five Reasons why the Customer isn’t always Right”:

. . . I must confess that I almost, without exception, find these kinds of articles spectacularly irritating. Perhaps you might be thinking, “Well of course he would say that. He’s employed by the church!” And you might be partly right.

But most people who know me well would likely say that I am not exactly averse to criticizing the church when the church deserves it. I even agree with some of the well-rehearsed critiques levelled in these types of articles. Churches can do more to create space for honest questions and doubts. Churches should teach more holistic theologies. Churches ought to be more “authentic”—abused and overused as this term is becoming. Churches must seek to be more welcoming and inclusive and less rigid . . . and to serve better coffee. Yes, yes, fine. All of this is probably true.

But even as I would gladly acknowledge that the church is far from perfect, these articles still annoy me, and for one simple reason: Almost without exception, they seem to assume that if people don’t like, aren’t attracted to, or can’t be bothered with church, it must be the church’s fault. The customer is always right. Right?

Wrong. Sometimes, the problem is precisely the customer and her cocktail of perceived needs/wants/expectations of the church. This should not be surprising, of course, if we take Christian theology seriously. (We mostly don’t, but that’s another matter.)

I don’t really want to pit Gregoire and Dueck against each other, though it’s hard not to. Read them both and see what you think. Many of us are probably on one side of the ledger one day and on the other the next. The church’s cultural heyday in the West is long gone, and it doesn’t take any particular skill or courage to knock it. What takes skill and courage to do is to point a way forward, to remain faithful amidst the acids of consumerism and to re-engage the ancient sources of the church’s worship life. It is there, pitched between these two short essays that the challenge of curating worship today lies: inviting busy, frail and faulted people into worship of the God who calls all things into being, even when we’re not interested.

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