I’ve been reflecting here, at least over the past couple of posts, on things that seem to separate the world of the Christian community known as the church from the rest of the culture at large. One of the exercises that was introduced into a group seminar at a small groups conference I attended several years ago was to try to put yourself in the position of “unchurched Harry and Mary,” and look at what it might be like to even get to the point of visiting a church, as well as how they might react if they did. To help with the exercise, a video had been made showing what the experience might be like from driving on the parking lot to heading back to the car when the worship service was over.
So “Harry and Mary” pull into the parking lot of a mega church. They are arriving just a few minutes before the service to avoid too much contact, so there are no parking spaces close because latecomers have already filled the few designated “guest parking” spots. They walk in just as the service is beginning. There are no seats in the back, so the usher shows them to the third pew from the front. They are handed a bulletin with the “order of service” which they try to follow, but aren’t familiar with anything on it. There’s a praise team leading some songs but the tunes and words are unfamiliar. Some people appear to be doing a form of dance, with their hands raised, moving from side to side, waving them from time to time with intense looks on their faces, while others just stand with frowns on their faces, and some people don’t sing. No one has explained why everyone is doing this or how this is part of worship, and when it is over, no one says anything about the words that have been sung. A plate is passed, some people drop envelopes in it, others drop checks or cash. No explanation is offered as to what this is for. Suddenly, the service turns solemn, and someone reads words from a leather bound book, and then asks everyone to bow their heads while they recite some flowery, poetic language. Then the mood switches abruptly as the pastor comes to the platform, tells a couple of jokes to lighten the mood, and launches into an explanation of a text from a book that neither of them have. Halfway through the service, they realize that he is using a Bible, and there is one in the pew rack in front of them, but they can’t find the text he is speaking from. Suddenly, after forty minutes of a message full of words and phrases they don’t understand (we identified over a hundred expressions in this one particular sermon that an unchurched person might not be able to understand or have a frame of reference to identify) the congregation stands, the praise band does one final number they don’t know, and people start leaving. On the way out, no one speaks to them. They walk to their car, out in the far reaches of the parking lot, wait twenty minutes for the traffic to clear so they can leave, and reflect on what they have just done and why they have done it. Chances are pretty good they won’t be back.
So, we wondered, if that’s a typical experience, what happens when something or someone says or does something that leaves a negative impression? Suppose there’s a meet and greet time and no one approaches, because the church is so large, no one knows who is visiting for the first time, and who comes every week? Suppose it is the Sunday of the “Cantata,” and there’s nothing but a musical presentation of arrangements and songs not even familiar to regulars in the congregation? Suppose the pastor steps out of line and inserts political perspectives into his sermon, or goes on a rant about some religious group or social issue? As a group, we concluded that, 1.) it is virtually impossible for people who have been in church all their lives, or at least, a good portion of it, to be able to identify with people who are completely unfamiliar with it, and 2.) there are way too many things happening in a church worship service that are unexplained, unfamiliar and meaningless to people who don’t know what is going on.
“Here’s the point: God didn’t send his son into the world to judge it; instead, he is here to rescue a world headed toward certain destruction.” John 3:17, The Voice Translation.
So, that’s the mission and purpose of Christ’s church, not to judge the world, but to help him rescue it because it is headed toward certain destruction. Sometimes it seems that what we do as a church is better suited to judgement and pushing the world over a cliff ourselves than it is to rescuing it.
Now, before I get into these next thoughts, I want to say that I firmly believe Dan Cathy, the company exec from Chic-Fil-A who made a strong statement in support of Biblical marriage had every right to express himself as he did. First of all, he didn’t just decide to pontificate on his own, he was asked for his opinion by a Christian-based media outlet and he responded. He expressed what he believes to be a Biblical view of marriage. And, in fact, what the Bible has to say about it is pretty simple. A man leaves his father and mother, a woman leaves her home and the two become one flesh. Though there are examples of polygamous marriages in the Bible, including a couple of Old Testament examples where God seems to bless those involved in spite of the plural marriage, it does seem clear that the ideal is one man and one woman. That is the most common, most widely accepted interpretation of Biblical marriage among Christians of all stripes, and it’s not a hostile or judgmental position.
So here’s the point. I’m not going to get into evaluating the response in support of Dan Cathy by those who packed out Chic-Fil-A restaurants on August 1. They were also exercising their free speech rights, as were those who came along a couple of days later for the kiss-in and boycott. Based on the mission and purpose of Jesus coming into the world, not to judge it but to rescue it, and the church’s purpose to help accomplish that, how can Christians fulfill that mission when a situation like this demonstrates a very wide, deep gap between them and people who are out there in the world?
There is a commonly held belief among many Christians that God somehow holds us responsible for the behavior of everyone in our country, as well as the laws it passes, and that the United States operates under some kind of covenant relationship with God. I can’t find any evidence for that in the Bible, and in fact, what I see there is the opposite of that. Since Jesus came, the covenant God offers is with people who accept it by engaging in a relationship with his Son. We are held accountable for our own behavior in that covenant relationship and, thankfully, we can experience full forgiveness and restoration as a result of it. But our country is not a nation in the sense that Israel was a nation. And there is not a covenant relationship between our country and God, based on following the moral law he handed down. If people are going to be able to enter into a covenant relationship with God, which will rescue them from destruction, they will have to find Jesus through the people who already know him.
It is not easy getting out of the judgment business, and into the rescue business. Perhaps, if it were as easy as lining up to buy a chicken sandwich to make a statement, we would be more successful at it.