“What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up…Let two or three prophets speak and let the others weigh what is said. If a revelation is made to another sitting there, let the first be silent. For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged, and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets. For God is not a God of confusion, but of peace.” I Corinthians 14:26, 29-33, ESV
The summer following my freshman year in college, I got a job as a door to door book salesman. I needed a way to help with the expenses not covered by scholarships and grants, and this job, mostly work with little time for play, did the trick. I wound up deep in the hollows and hills of West Virginia with a partner who split the sales territory of Mingo and Wyoming counties, and the rent on the single wide, one-bedroom trailer for which we paid $50 a month, $25 each, including utilities. It was a cultural experience I will never forget, and it was the perfect place to earn money and save most of it. Not only was there little for a college student to spend it on, in small towns where the sidewalks rolled up at 5:00 p.m, but the people who lived there were so gracious and generous, it was a rare day when someone didn’t invite me to share lunch and dinner.
Sunday was our day off, and left my partner and I with plenty of opportunities to accept the many invitations we received during the week to attend church. In the course of about 10 weeks, I literally knocked on half of the doors in two counties, and literally met half of the people, while my partner met the other half. Church experiences were nothing like I had ever experienced before in the little Freewill Baptist, Old Regular Baptist, Primitive Baptist, Pentecostal Holiness and Pentecostal Oneness churches we visited. We’d go to one church on Sunday morning, and another on Sunday night, always warmly welcomed and included. Most of those worship experiences were intense, involved a lot of people, were not designed to be “sit and listen” sessions, and offered little in the way of entertainment, or musical talent. But they were full of the Spirit because the people who attended them weren’t looking to be entertained, or to hear good music or a good sermon, they were looking for an encounter with Jesus through the Holy Spirit. I kind of got the idea that when you are looking for that, you can find it pretty easily, especially if the distractions are removed.
We have a lot of Christian churches around us who can take a lesson from those mountain folks regarding how to do worship. In spite of our sophistication, our wealth of talent, our abundant resources, our gorgeous sanctuaries and all of the theatrics that surround the Sunday morning service, we don’t always find Jesus in worship. In fact, he’s covered up by the byproduct of most of those things.
Our consumer culture has led us to a “sit and listen” experience in church. We go, not to find Jesus or encounter the Spirit, but to do our religious duty in such a way as to hold our attention and keep us from being bored. Our church services are rehearsed and planned performances of a few “up front” people with talent, or looks, or both. Most worshippers are passive observers in the rows of pews, an audience trained to measure the value of the service by “how good” it is, and how much it appeals to them. Churches which are able to attract a larger audience, and thus accumulate larger amounts of financial resources use them to improve the entertainment value of the worship, hiring the best available musicians and the best available preacher, relying on their talent to hold the attention of the pew sitters, and motivate them to contribute when the plate comes by. There is singing about Jesus, and talking about Jesus, designed and packaged into a sixty minute theatrical production so that people will have the feeling, when they are leaving the building, that they “got something out of it.”
Lay that kind of experience down next to the principles of the scripture and the teachings of Jesus, and it becomes obvious why those who have discovered the real Jesus in the pages of the gospel, as his words and his example have ministered to the broken, sinful life they have led, and it is not hard to see why people who weren’t raised in the church have trouble seeing the Jesus they’ve come to know in the trappings of traditional American Christianity. With all of the theatrical talent, dramatic presentation and dynamic oratory, it might be hard to recognize moments when the Holy Spirit visits. How would you distinguish between one of those musical climaxes, or a crescendo of oratory, and a moment when the “still small voice” of the Holy Spirit moves? It is also hard to tell what attracts the crowd. Is is the sense that the Holy Spirit moves in worship, or is it the quality of the music and the celebrity status of a preacher who either captivates you with his dramatic oratory skill or keeps you from being bored to tears?
The problem with church, when there are certain expectations related to the quality of the music and the preaching, the evaluation of it by expectations of “good” music and “good” preaching, is that its survival and existence depend on what it is able to do with its resources, and not on the leadership or the power of the Holy Spirit. Ken Cole, in his book Organic Church, says
“When church is so complicated, its function is taken out of the hands of the common Christian and placed in the hands of a few talented professionals. This results in a passive church whose members come and act more like spectators than empowered agents of God’s kingdom.”
It’s hard to find Jesus in that kind of environment.