(I started this blog entry months ago and am just now finishing it, so if the first part sounds odd to those who know what I’ve been up to lately, that’s why…)
I had to drive back home from my parents house tonight, not really a long drive, but an hour and a half allows for a decent amount of reflection. I spent most of the time musing about the differences between various church services, and what some people consider “proper”. I grew up in church and gave my life to Christ when I was 8 — over the years I’ve attended services at more churches than I could even think to count, in a wide variety of denominations.
The past few years I’ve been gravitating more towards pentecostal churches (while searching for a new home church) and the overlaps between what people consider “pentecostal”, “holiness”, “full gospel”, and “charismatic” can sometimes make for some very unexpected experiences when one goes to check out a new church. Many of the people from the churches I grew up in hear the word “pentecostal” and immediately freak out, recalling stories of poisonous snakes being passed around during services, people barking like dogs, or just mass chaos.
I recently went to visit a church with a good friend of mine, they considered themselves old-fashioned holiness pentecostal, and they’d just come out of a 2 month revival. At one point during the worship service, amidst other things like crashing symbols, head-banging, isle-running, people dancing jigs, etc, I looked up to find the little 70-something year old pastor jumping 6 feet or more, from the very top of his lecturn down to the floor below the stage. I found this quite astonishing, given his age, and felt the need to tell Mom & Dad about it.
Services are markedly different at their church, and I’m sure they would be completely uncomfortable witnessing one like that. In any case, on the way home I was thinking about the differences and which of the various types of services makes the most sense to me, and why.
My thinking went like this… Church services can be about a number of things, depending on the congregation and why they’re coming to church.
Some people see church as a social club, or a weekly obligation. Services, then, are all about social gathering, ritual, visiting your fellow congregants, and putting in your obligatory time in prayer, communion, or whatever activities are seen as part of what you call “church”. Much like a board meeting, there’s an expected set of activities and an order to follow. The service goes best when everyone is calm, collected, and in their place, so that the event can run smoothly and people can get on with their lives.
Some people see church as a place to recharge after a long week. They come wanting to be entertained, get their fill of fellowship, have their emotions revved up and their heart refreshed. Services then should often get the kids out of the way (so that they get a break from parenting), and should knock their socks off. The music has to be positive, upbeat, and energetic. They want to get wound up, pumped up, and filled up so they have the energy to take on the coming week. The worship leader has to know how to stoke a fire, and pastor’s job is that of a motivational speaker. If people with this attitude are pentecostal or charismatic, they also want the Spirit to entertain them, so they want to hear tongues and see people dancing and running and get so worked up that they’re disheveled from the excitement by the time the service ends.
But are either of those things what church is supposed to be about? Is going to church supposed to be filling a social obligation? Should it be all about you and your needs? Or is it supposed to be about filling your obligation to God?
Yes, we often need recharged after a long week, church is a great place to meet people with similar interests, encouraging messages are great, and getting all worked up while singing can be a really great experience, but you can get all of that at a concert of your favorite band, or maybe at your local senior center, depending on your tastes.
God’s saving grace wasn’t offered as a club membership card. Christ’s radical sacrifice pulled us out of certain doom, and we should be excited about that. We should want to shout it from the rooftops (or twitter, perhaps, these days). We should be excited for every chance to draw closer to him. And yes, we can do it from home, it’s not necessary to wait til church time (and we shouldn’t wait) but we humans are so easily distracted by the everyday mundane and the slings and arrows of life, and sometimes that weekly meeting is necessary to refocus ourselves on what is important.
Part of a healthy church service then, I think, requires time to reflect on what He did for us, time to refocus and regain that gratitude that we had when we were first saved. Some of that comes in worship. Not just singing praise songs, but true worship — true focus on giving God the praise he deserves for his love and sacrifice — sometimes with song, sometimes with prayer, sometimes with testimonies and praise reports. And when we’re in the worst places in life, sometimes hearing others give those testimonies or praise reports, hearing others truly praising God, is enough to help us find our own way back.
When you go to a concert you may scream praise for the musicians, clap, yell and sing along at the top of your lungs. Why? Because you love their talent? Because the words they wrote mean so much to you? Because they’ve provided you with entertainment for a fee? When you go to church, do you sit on your hands and try not to fall asleep? Is God’s sacrifice such a small thing that you can’t even give him a shout or clap your hands? If you do shout and clap, is it to praise the worship leaders, instead? As if they’re really there to entertain you, to get you worked up, instead of trying to lead you to a closer walk with God? Is there something wrong with this picture?
Our commission wasn’t to come be entertained once a week for the rest of our lives, it was to go and make disciples. Just as we can’t train people to follow Christ if we’re not following Him ourselves; we can’t teach people about Him if we don’t know about Him, so part of our job as Christians is to be good students. And if we’re going to be getting together once a week to refocus on praising Him, perhaps we should learn more about Him while we’re there. That’s the whole point of having teachers and preachers, I think. Not to tickle your ears, tell you how great you are, inspire you, send you home with warm fuzzies; but to teach you, to correct you, to help you grow in your walk with God so that you can do a better job of going out into the world and spreading the good news.
“But what about the Spirit!?” you say. And to that I say: the Spirit doesn’t come to entertain us, either. The Spirit doesn’t show up just to give you a warm fuzzy, or a message in tongues, or knock you on the floor, or make you run around screaming. He’s not there just to serve you. If He shows up, and if you don’t drive Him away, He’s there about the Father’s business. Sure, depending on your personality type and how you react to Him sometimes that means you’ll get that warm fuzzy, or a message in tongues, or you’ll be knocked to the floor from the intensity, or perhaps you’ll get so emotional about it that you’ll run around screaming. But that is not the point of His visit, and if you focus on that — if you focus on your own emotional response — you’re missing a lot. Now, yes, the Spirit is a comforter, and part of His job is to comfort God’s people, but He is also meant as a helper, not for each individual but for the kingdom of God as a whole. (1 Corinthians 14 has a good discussion of all of this).
Sometimes it serves God’s purpose to comfort a person in their time of sorrow, sometimes the Spirit’s job is to chastise, sometimes to edify, sometimes to teach, and sometimes to fill a person with power and give them the right words to speak. What the spirit does with you in one service is not what the Spirit will do in every service. God’s voice may be in the fire one day and in the still small voice the next. If you come wanting to get riled up and excited with every service, God will not be able to have His way when He needs you quiet and reflective. If you come wanting to sit on your hands and have a nice relaxing time, God will not be able to have His way if He needs you to shout a message of encouragement.
God knows what He’s doing, and we need to let Him have His way in ‘our’ services.