I can remember going to church as a little kid doing my best to sit quietly during the sermon, being fed Cheerios from mom’s purse and creating intricate works of art on the back of the bulletin. My older brother and I knew all the necessary signs of course, we knew how to tell if this was going to be a brutal experience or just a minor hiccup before we could start enjoying our Sunday. If the two big candles on the altar weren’t lit it meant there was no communion (a welcome sign) and you knew that once the offering plate came down the pew you were as good as done with the service and on to far more interesting things.
As I’ve grown up in the church I’ve often struggled with the realization that not much has changed (this is especially terrifying because I’m a pastor and should have moved beyond the need for Cheerios). For it is not just children squirming in the pews that find church to be somewhat similar to doing time. Many of those gathered together in church struggle to get through a service. The common phrase we always hear about someone who confesses Christ but won’t be found in church on a Sunday morning (or almost any other time) is that they don’t like “organized religion.”
Now churchy types like to think this is a claim that they don’t like doctrinal distinctions and traditions that divide fellowship. Maybe they’re sick of the fighting and polemical tone of many mainline denominations. But I am beginning to wonder if what they really mean by saying that they don’t like organized religion is that they are simply tired of deciphering the signs hoping the service would be shorter. In other words, they ran out of Cheerios and gave up playing the game.
In fact I don’t think this reality is lost on those congregations that continue to draw large numbers. They pull out all the stops, assuming the congregation would rather be somewhere else they seek to hold their attention by every means necessary. With highly developed market research based strategies they employ the best of PR campaigns to invite and hold the attention of their members. This can go to great extremes on both the high-church side as well as the hip-contemporary style. Check out pastor Hess’ article from last week and you’ll get a good sense of things.
The thing that troubles me is weather these aren’t just other forms of distraction, like coloring on the bulletin cover or eating Cheerios. In other words, are these simply means to keep us in the church till the end of the service? If so, why? Whats the point of making it through the service, is it just to say we’ve done it, we’ve endured it yet again?
What seems to be missing from the whole conversation is a serious discussion about the quality and importance of preaching. If proclamation is the living Word of God killing and making live here and now, then isn’t this where we ought to focus our efforts? In the end wont everything but the Word simply fade or loose its draw like mom’s Cheerios? We need to be engaged in this discussion, we need to focus on the state of preaching – everything else seems to be distraction.