I went to church yesterday for the first time in what was, admittedly, a long time. I won't say I don't like church any more (my mom reads this blog, after all); but I will say that there is a bit of a cynical knot at work inside me, that mostly shows up when I am in buildings that have crosses on the roofs. As I sat down with my friend and the service started I texted Leah, my fellow cynic, about my current locale and she responded like the good friend she is: "Look with new eyes, Ashley."
Through my new eyes I found that my thoughts were the same, but perhaps formed with less urgency; and in this I found myself thankful for Leah's reminder. New eyes or not, though, I still had those questions. I took notes during the service -- not about the sermon, but during -- writing my ideas down instead of letting them build up. Church attendance fills my head with ideas.
Here's what I was noting. Pardon, of course, that these thoughts seem unrelated.
The church my friend and I went to was largely dominated by the elderly, or the well-on-their-way. We sat at the back, and so it was easy to see the vast amount of greying heads before us. That is, the heads were grey until my eyes met the stage. The band that day was composed of all young people, none older than 30 by the looks of it. I should clarify that I do not think it's bad that young people are involved; but as I surveyed the room I couldn't help but wonder: where do the older ones fit? Sadness hit as I wondered if they fit at all, and then still further: would they want to? Our world quietly dismisses the elderly and overvalues youth. Do our churches do the same?
We were greeted in the sanctuary by loud music on the overhead speakers and a quickly flashing projector screen; no image staying longer than 30 seconds or sitting still while it was up there, and the "background" music was loud enough that hearing conversation was an effort. The giant, wall-to-wall windows at the side of the sanctuary were covered with large blackout screens (so much so that I didn't notice there were windows there, until the service ended and they opened us up to the natural light, and a beautiful view of the horizon), thereby forcing our eyes to the only available distractions, at the front. All the songs we sang were written within the past five years, and by artists that are also young themselves. The feeling in the sanctuary was not one of sanctuary, but rather, of busyness; and though this church is an aging staple in that community - no age or age-old-wisdom showed in their presentation of themselves. As I sat there and waited for the band to play, for the band to stop, for the sermon to be over; I thought of how many times I had felt this way in church. The answer? Sanctuary in a sanctuary is rare, so far as I have seen it.
The pastor spoke ironically; charging us, during a modern-second-service with it's own catchy "Title!", to be counter-cultural. He labored that our world has chosen things that the church should not: all inclusiveness, non-exclusivity in salvation, and so on; and then urged us to read up on the fires of Hell, so our repentance could come quickly. He boldly stated that we need not focus on a God who "loves us" (quoted words: spoken with a degrading whine), but rather on the exclusivity of Christ and our obligation to do what he asks. In essence, the goals he pressed upon us were to live against culture in every facet, rejecting all forms of change, submitting only to obligatory tasks and reminders of the eternal furnace. Also pressed: movies are evil.
The combination of everything, from the absolute chasm of ages between those presenting and those in the audience, to the constant noise and the drone of images on screen, to the pastor of this same church half-yelling that we "Can Not Afford to Play Church or Treat it Like a Social Club"...this combination wore me out. I found an orange in my purse, peeled it where I sat, felt the sting of fresh citrus in my nostrils, and wondered where The Church had gone.
It all seemed so ironic, that a group should be so intent on attracting people who come from the very same culture it rejects. The church, much like (and it seems, in following) current culture, is about Newness - or at least as far as appearances are arranged. We love a new pastor, after all (because the last one was aging) and new music, and new programs, and new service times. Newness is not bad in and of itself, but is really amoral and can foster brilliance. But sewn into this fabric is an awkward midpoint: the ideas we have so readily adopted in the church are the same ones oft' condemned by 'us'.
We bend to culture by separating the old and the young; into the early and late services, into the youth and seniors groups. We've gone along wholeheartedly with the need for constant renewal, prettier bigger buildings, higher offering goals and attractive spokespeople. We try to appear culturally relevant to a culture we later reject. If we are to be different, then let's be; not for the sake of being counter cultural, but for the sake of integrity. Let's move from our hearts, and not towards the condemnation of the very people we say we want among us.
As I sat there in the pew, thinking about things like newness and history, projectors and outreach programs, sermons and smart graphics, I wrote this question in my notebook: What do we value more as a church? Our people or our cultural relevance? I put the dot on the question mark and sat quietly listening. I felt the buzz of the electric boxes and the congregational breathing. I looked at the older people sitting in front of me and all across the room, and wondered how deeply we have gotten ourselves in. Would a modern church let an 73 year old lead worship?
There's a "hip" joke in there somewhere.