Consumer Church or Kingdom Community?
If Jesus walked into church, would He recognize what's going on as the church? I'm not at all sure He would.
Some years ago now I was invited to preach to a large congregation at what I think most people would consider a very successful church. The "campus", set on an enormous suburban property, featured a large pond with a fountain in the middle of it, acres of parking, and a sprawling purpose-built edifice with a main auditorium that could hold at least a couple of thousand people, a comprehensive nursery, an entire wing for youth ministries, including a gym, classrooms, lounges and a separate auditorium.
The church had a staff of 75. As a visiting preacher, I was assigned a "minder" with a walkie-talkie to make sure I didn't get lost, and did get where I needed to go at the appropriate time. "Backstage" was a maze of corridors, tech, green and storage rooms; I was never out of sight of one of the many monitors that displayed what has happening "onstage". They were in the middle of a fund-raising program to expand.
I preached four times that weekend, basically the same sermon each time, because that was the only way they could accommodate all the attendees. That wasn't because I was popular; the senior pastor and his staff did the same thing every weekend.
In addition to a ton of in-house programming for every conceivable demographic within the church, they had a very active outreach department tasked with motivating and facilitating church members' engagement in a variety of evangelistic and "good works" activities beyond the church walls.
In fact, on the weekend that I visited, it was announced that church services would be shut down the following weekend in the expectation that most of those thousands of church members would participate in one of the wide range of service and outreach initiatives that had been arranged. Fund-raising for the church's expansion program would be suspended too, so that members could give elsewhere. One of the staff mentioned to me that it was a bold move, as the church could potentially lose hundreds of thousands of dollars in donation revenue as a result.
Two or three different bands, of eight to ten players and singers each, led the worship that weekend. Every one of them were crack musicians and all seemed genuinely engaged in praising God. The senior pastor was a godly, intelligent man and a terrific speaker. All the other staff members I met likewise seemed like really great, deeply committed people. I couldn't help but wonder how many pastors in the land would give their right arms to be in his position.
I also wondered, "If Jesus walked in here, would he recognize what's going on as the Church?" I'm not at all sure he would.
Really, as impressive as it all was, it didn't look much like Jesus himself, or the early gatherings of the church as described in Acts. I know the culture has changed drastically, and there are many things that just have to be done differently these days, but still.
If following Jesus means going where he went and doing what he did, our experience of church just doesn't seem to stack up. Isn't that the job of the church – to be his body in the world, to be present, act and speak as he did?
Shouldn't we be hanging out where the poor, sick, oppressed and demon-possessed people already are? Shouldn't we be healing lepers and blind people, embracing the unembraceable, driving out those demons, challenging religious and political leadership, flipping the tables of oppressive economics and maybe even raising the dead? What, in fact, would it mean to try to do any of those things? How would we interpret such radical action in our contemporary age and culture?
I don't even hear such questions being contemplated much in church services. We tend to focus on various aspects of personal piety and spirituality – much needed, in and of themselves – and little to none investigating how we could actually live out our discipleship communally in public, the way the church did in those early chapters of Acts.
While we're at it, how did we come to describe the gathering of the church as a "service", as if we were taking the family car to have the oil changed? How come we "go to church" and "do church" instead of "being the church"? Why does the phrase "worship experience" sound so much like something that might be offered in a Disney theme park? And how did we end up planning such experiences down to the minute with multiple assigned roles and rehearsed performances, directed (often) by professional staff and then deliver the product on a stage before audiences in rows of comfortable seating?
How on earth have we ended up viewing the church as having its essential being in what is, for all intents and purposes, a weekly theatrical production? Sure, we may do some mission trips or activities here and there, but let's face it: the vast majority of our time, energy and money go into a two hour show on Sunday.
It's hard to see how any of this accurately reflects what Jesus taught us – or tried to – in both word and deed. He himself established the litmus test for what the church being the church would look like, and made no mention of a top-notch worship band:
Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.
Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?'
The King will reply, 'Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.' (Matthew 25:34-40; NIV)
Notice the righteous' use of the pronoun "we". This wasn't one person or a family going downtown with bag lunches for homeless people once in a while. This was a community of righteous (or "just") people engaged in communal, on-going behavior – a way of life.
Of course, our Lord followed up with solemn words for those who didn't bother with any of this, despite believing that they were following him. To them he said,
Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me. Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life. (Matthew 25:46, 46; NIV)
What'll it be, then? Consumer church or kingdom community? Audience, or body of Christ in the world? Be stimulated, encouraged and entertained, or follow Jesus? I know what I want.
Greg Paul is a member and the founding pastor of Sanctuary Toronto, a ministry and faith community serving some of the most marginalized people in Canada's largest city, including those struggling with addiction, mental illness, prostitution, and homelessness. Greg is the author of Resurrecting Religion: Finding Our Way Back to the Good News, as well as several previous, award-winning books: Close Enough to Hear God Breathe; The Twenty-Piece Shuffle; God in the Alley; and Simply Open. He is the father of four children and married to Maggie, who has three children of her own.