I walked into the empty church. I turned on the lights, the computer, the sound board and the stage speakers. Eventually, the worship team trickled in. We said “hello,” setup our equipment, tuned our instruments and ran a brief practice. When we finished, we met together in the basement to pray, and when we heard the footsteps trickle in above our heads, we wrapped things up and joined the rest of the congregation. The organ played a prelude, the Pastor gave a welcome and then it was time to worship. I sang. The band played. We said “amen.” Folks took a moment to greet one another and after a few hugs and handshakes, we sat for announcements. An offering was taken and then we listened to the Pastor deliver his message. He closed his sermon with a prayer, we sang one more hymn and the the service was closed with a benediction and the Doxology. “Good service,” I’m sure most thought to themselves. “Another successful Sunday,” I confirmed in my own head. I mingled for awhile at “coffee hour,” caught up with some friendly faces, and then packed my guitar in the backseat of my truck and hopped in to grab some lunch. A thought dawned on me, (actually, it rushed in more like a storm) making it’s presence known before I could even turn the key… “I just spent almost three hours in church. I went through all the motions of another Sunday, and I honestly can’t say that I ever encountered God. For hours, I prayed and sang, listened and learned, but I can’t remember what the sermon was about. I led worship and strummed my guitar, but I can’t even recall the titles of the songs." I was so focused on the routine of the service that I had completely missed out on the true purpose of my being there. I spent more time worrying about whether the service was “to my liking” then actually connecting with the living God. When did I trade my "spirit" for my "religion?"
My momentary brainstorm that afternoon left a lasting impression. Perhaps it was God’s way of flicking me in the back of the head. Don’t get me wrong, it isn’t every week that I step out of church feeling like I “missed the mark,” but I don’t EVER want to feel that spiritual lacking. I just don’t like it. It reminds me of how selfish and inward focused I can be. I don’t want to just attend church, I want to be an active participant- and I want to strive toward conscious decisions that keep my journey vibrant and alive. Why? Because I know how easy it is to drift through the actions of Christianity. It’s pertinent to translate our religious “participation” into spiritual vitality, or else we’ll become just another fly on the wall (or in the pew!) Our actions alone should never become the center-point of our spiritual identity.
But, before you go jumping to conclusions about the direction of this reading, NO, I will not be using this time to needlessly tear down religion. At its core, it serves a wonderful purpose. It was never meant to be a hindrance. Religion (our system of faith, worship and belief) exists to promote spiritual growth and focus. The routines we cycle through every Sunday are not inherently dangerous to our walk. Our hugs, handshakes and hellos serve to promote fellowship. Our ministries, programs, and special events exist to increase our outreach. Even the nuances of a worship service (songs, liturgy, offering) remain in place for very good reasons. However, any “act” can quickly become destructive when it draws more attention than the God it’s meant to point you to. Be mindful of the “idol” church can become. Prioritizing your activity and attendance is a great habit, but placing them above your fellowship with the Lord (or believing they’re sufficient in kindling your fire) will bring great apathy.
Don’t sacrifice a “spirit-filled” faith for religious obligation. It can’t be enough to admire Christ. True disciples love and follow Him. Do not deceive yourself. Do you attend a church? Great! Do you serve in some capacity? Fantastic! But, when you enter that house of worship, are your eyes fixed on Jesus or fixed on the “fixtures?” Do you care about “who” the service is for, or just how it makes you feel? There’s a fullness in God’s “body” far beyond the four walls, the altar and the stained glass windows. Clinging to religion alone can make us critical. Church becomes an obligation. We become spectators and we start to base our attendance on what we “like” or “dislike.” It naturally leaves us wanting and dissatisfied. Why? Because we’re hunting for an imaginary church that can offer everything we’re looking for. Humanity says, “find a church that’s fun,” while the Spirit says, “find a church that feeds your heart.” Humanity says “find a church that suits your preferences,” while the Spirit says, “find a church that helps you serve.” When faith is dictated by personal preference, we major on the minors. How often must we remind ourselves that it isn’t about us?
The contrasting perspectives on “what’s important” in church are staggering. It’s a boxing match. In one corner, we have those who cling to “the past,” to the practices and traditions of elders and forefathers. There’s often a desperate grip on preserving the laws, the history and the heritage that have always been. “It ain’t broke. Don’t fix it. God never changes, so why should we?” In the other corner, we have those who strive for change, simply for the sake of “relevancy." There’s an evident desire to step away from what they deem “legalistic” and instead seek a “free” attitude that shifts its aspirations to the “experience.” “We’re not religious, we’re spiritual.’ We want to FEEL God.”
Both sides have some value. Both sides think their “way” is right, but we can’t force God into the shape we want Him to be. There are multiple ways of getting things right and a mountain of ways to get things wrong. We major on the minors again and again. We debate over the value and effectiveness of styles and methods and often neglect the God who says “I’m ready to talk when you’re ready to listen.” Our eyes focus on the aesthetics. Our minds focus on the distractions, and we end up missing the impact of the Holy Spirit because we can’t see past the junk. We promote (or demote) the tangibles based on their value in our eyes. We create dividing lines that simply don’t need to be there. Naturally, most of us fall somewhere between the two extremes, but does that make it any better?
Extreme “legalists” will often seek order in the service. Their desire is to adhere to the laws and customs of the church, showing their reverence by maintaining the status quo. Church should feel and function the way it always has. You may find such folks complaining if they can’t sit in their usual pew, or if the church bulletin doesn’t look the way it always has. They’ll focus on whether the Pastor is dressed appropriately or whether he remains fixed at the pulpit. They stick up their noses when a “worship team” plays anything "contemporary," and they would seemingly be more comfortable singing the same few hymns they’ve sang since birth. To be appeased, they must have things “just so.”
Extreme “spiritualists,” will often flock to whatever church offers the best worship concert. They’ll poke fun at the “past;” calling out the irrelevancies of “ancient” hymns and stale responsive readings. They’ll be on the hunt for the “hip” Pastor who can make them feel uplifted, but never convicted. Having “order” in church is simply out of date for them, and instead, it’s time to seek the “feel good experience.” Slap on your ripped jeans and take your coffee and bagel into the sanctuary, because the show is about to start! To be appeased, church must be fun and fresh.
Of course, these are examples, and extreme, sarcastic ones at that, but the back and forth of it all is enough to make you lose your mind. We scoff, but we’ve all been participants in some capacity. Yes, we all need to invest in a ministry that can feed our spirit (and enable us to feed others) but don’t miss out on “feeding time” altogether because you’re so locked into the style of its presentation.
What would the church look like if we based everything on a desire for truth and wholeness with God? What if we spent more time and effort being like-minded in spurring one another toward Jesus and less time arguing over preferences? What if we learned to plant our feet and invest in ministries rather than “church hopping” and always looking for something better? What if we unquestionably supported our church leaders rather than tore them down? What if we reminded ourselves that God just wants to be worshiped through our religious acts AND our spiritual experiences?
Remember the Pharisees? They were the stuffy, ill-tempered old men who were always heckling and prodding at Jesus. They were the worst, weren’t they? Always getting in Jesus’ way. Always telling him that he was wrong. Always calling out his ministry style because it wasn’t “right” in their eyes. They were so attached to their religion, so focused on their ideas of importance. They never knew how lucky they were. They were able to physically talk WITH Jesus, face to face and still, they couldn’t see or understand what He was saying. How ridiculous! They were given a first hand encounter with the living God and they still chose to focus on their own preferences. Hang on. Lower your pointing fingers.
“Another time Jesus went into the synagogue, and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Some of them were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal him on the Sabbath. Jesus said to the man with the shriveled hand, ‘Stand up in front of everyone.’ Then Jesus asked them, ‘Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?’ But they remained silent. He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored. Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus.” Mark 3: 1-6
Are we all that different? I mean, we don’t like when things happen outside of our approval. We don’t like faith getting too personal. We cling tightly to the acts we’re comfortable with, but don’t like when things break from the plan. Entertainment will not keep your spirit alive, nor will customs and laws. Our scripture shows Jesus, “deeply distressed” at the stubbornness of the Pharisees and I believe that He remains distressed at our stubbornness today. We argue about methods and interpretations and definitions of importance. Perhaps we could all step off of our high horses together and let Jesus do some healing. Allow Christ and HIS ministry; God’s hands and HIS Spirit to be the sole purpose for our priorities and intentions.
I once heard it said like this...We often experience worship services without experiencing any real worship. We conduct weekly studies without convening with the Author of our hearts. We execute our ministry works without relying on the One who can minister through us. We pray our thanks, our cares, our needs and our hopes without conversing with the Holy Spirit who inhabits them.
“We are so prone to digress from a relationship with Jesus to the religion that makes Him its object...We have church traditions and Christian methodology that give us the rules we crave. Whatever is done in legalism at the expense of spiritual vitality and true worship irks Jesus profoundly.” -Chris Tiegreen