Today is Holy Thursday, the day we remember the Last Supper, with the institution of the sacrament of the Eucharist (the Lord’s Supper) and the betrayal of Jesus by Judas. As you know, everyone sat on the same side of the table at the Last Supper, so Da Vinci could get a good picture.
Many churches do a foot washing as part of the Holy Thursday service. I’m sorry, but that’s just a little too literal for me. I’m not washing your feet, and I don’t know you well enough to let you wash mine. If I were called to that kind of service, I would have become a medical doctor. Maybe it’s part of being an introvert, but I prefer to emphasize service in other ways. But at least I’ll say this for the churches that do the foot washings – it’s a clear sign they’re not worried about what people will think. If you come in off the street with no church background and wander into a Holy Thursday service, you might think it’s weird when people start taking off their shoes – and it might even turn you off to the point where you never come back – but I respect the fact that these churches are willing to take that risk, to do what they believe Jesus told them to do.
If today is Holy Thursday, that means Sunday is Easter. Arguably the most important holy day of the Christian year. And many churches have long-standing and beloved traditions for celebrating the resurrection. My personal favorite is the Easter Vigil, usually a three-hour service on Saturday night which often includes baptisms and other initiations. On the other hand, many churches also fall all over themselves to try to make Easter into something that will entice the visitors and Chreasters to come back the next week. You know who the Chreasters are – those nominal Christians who only go to church at Christmas and Easter. This reminds me of the old joke: After church one day a grumpy guy is heard complaining, “I hate this church! Every time I come here we sing the same hymn: Christ the Lord is Risen Today.” Things that make you go, “Hmmm…”
The best examples of this trend are the so-called “seeker-sensitive” churches that basically make every worship service an experience that’s meant to draw in the unchurched or underchurched, with the hope that they will come back for more. But as I’ve noted before, the risk is that church becomes entertainment, catering to what people want rather than what they need, or following the latest fads of popular culture rather than the tradition. In Spiritual Blueprint I talk about the common objection of people who don’t go to church, saying “I don’t get anything out of it.” My response is: Who said you were supposed to get something? Eucharist means giving thanks – worship is giving more than getting. But of course it’s like anything else, you get out of it what you put into it.
So when did worship become entertainment? When did church attendance become ratings? And when did Holy Week become sweeps week? Why do we cater to the seekers? Why do we organize what we do around what we think visitors want (spending so much energy trying to figure out what that is)? The early Church was not seeker sensitive – you had to prove yourself during a catechism period that could last up to three years. It wasn’t the church proving itself to you, you had to prove yourself to the church. There was no consumer mentality, shopping around for the worship service that you liked the best. You either wanted to commit your life to Christ and to his body the Church, or you didn’t. And if you did, it was a sacrifice. I know… now I sound like the grumpy old man: Back in my day, we had to climb the stairs on our knees to get to church… and we LIKED it!
But I hope I’m making my point, which is that the whole concept of Church growth seems like a sell-out. Sharing our faith should be about introducing people to Christ and welcoming them into a community, not about growing a church. In fact, I would say that “church growth” should not be measured by how many people come into the church, it should be measured by how many people go out from the church to serve in the world in the name of Christ. In other words, the growth is internal growth – it’s the growing spiritual maturity of individuals who can collectively make a difference in the lives of people. It is so completely NOT about attendance numbers and building campaigns.
I’d rather have a smaller church that is counter-cultural and faithful to tradition than a mega church where people get all frosting and no cake. Yeah, I said it. That just happened.
To the local churches: Stop lowering the bar as if that will automatically bring in more people. Instead, raise expectations – make it clear that it’s a commitment to belong to the body of Christ, that attendance is not enough, membership requires involvement. Do what churches are supposed to do, and don’t change that just because you think it’s not what people want. If people don’t want the Church, that’s fine – but don’t try to change the Church into something else that they might want. It doesn’t work anyway, and it compromises the integrity of the community that Jesus founded.
To the seekers: Stop your whining about wanting spirituality without religion. Religion is tradition, and without it, spirituality is adrift. Cook or get out of the kitchen. Some day you have to stop seeking, and you have to find something. Step up and make a commitment. Yes, life is a journey, but you can’t keep wandering in circles – at some point before you get too old, you have to pick a path to be on. And don’t think you can treat religion like a salad bar, picking what you like and leaving the rest behind. That’s the sin of Adam and Eve, and by doing that you’re trying to make yourself your own god. You need a higher power, and it can’t be you. And you need something greater than yourself to belong to.
To the hurting: I know many people have been burned by a church, or by a clergy person. But don’t throw the baby Jesus out with the baptism water. If one particular community let you down, find a more healthy one. Isolating yourself from community is not the answer, it only makes it worse. Find a better church and let it heal you.
To the Chreasters: Please do come to church on Easter. But remember that what we do on Easter is to pull out all the stops, so to speak – all the bells and whistles. Most other Sundays it’s much more laid back, and more peaceful. In some ways it’s better, if only because it’s not so crowded (note the irony here of Chreasters like you making it more crowded). In any case, don’t think for a minute that coming once or twice a year makes you a Christian. There’s so much more to being a part of the body of Christ, and we want you to be a part of it. But just like cheering for the Packers in the super bowl does not make you a resident of Wisconsin, showing up to church on Easter does not make you a Christian. At best it makes you a window-shopper at the department store of religion. Think about whether it’s time to take the next step.
I can’t end without some specific words about Easter. I remember the words of the Nicene Creed: I believe… on the third day (Jesus) rose again according to the Scriptures… and I look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. The first statement leads to the second: the hope we have for eternal life is grounded in the resurrection of the One who went before us. I believe in heaven because I believe in the empty tomb.