Erik writes in this month’s Outlook:
The preacher and writer Tim Keller recently tweeted:
‘God doesn’t tell Moses, “Tell them, I am what you want.” He says, “Tell them, ‘I am what I am.’”
He also, in a paper outlining the changes that take place as a church grows, noted this:
‘The larger the church – the more planning and organization must go into events. More lead time is necessary to communicate well. A higher quality of production in general is expected in a larger church and therefore events cannot simply be just “thrown together.”’ – ‘The more high quality aesthetics must be present.’ – ‘The larger the church, the more the music becomes an attractor on its own.’
A consequence of this tendency is that the larger the church the more people may be inclined to relate to it as consumers, rather than as worshippers committed to a fellowship. They come along because they like the ambience and the music; they find the experience uplifting – entertaining even. But if they have ‘something better’ to do, or they would rather simply have a lie in, then they will give church a miss for that week. It isn’t commitment that gets them there, but consumer choice.
Such choice may be exercised in other ways too. For example, some may choose to attend services on some Sundays of the month and not others because the services on those other Sundays, ‘don’t suit them’.
And of course, the larger the church, the less those who attend will be missed. Their absence may not even be noticed in the same way as it would be in a smaller church, where everyone knows everyone else.
Statistics and anecdotal evidence would suggest that, in general in the UK, those who habitually attended church twice on a Sunday are more inclined now to attend once; those who attended three or four times a month attend two or three times and so on. This can partly be explained by the fact that more people have family who live in another part of the country and so weekends are spent elsewhere than in our home town. That is understandable. But how many attend church elsewhere when they are out of town on a Sunday?
The real concern here is not just what this makes church – a consumer choice – but what it makes us – consumers. Consumers who may not necessarily seek ‘the God we want’ (because we’re worth it?), but who will seek God when we want; when it suits us, when there is nothing more attractive on offer.
Some will cry that you don’t have to be in church to worship God. Indeed, Romans 12 says the whole of our lives should be an act of spiritual worship. But I would suggest that we are far more likely to worship God with our lives if we make a priority of gathering with his people to worship him on Sundays. Our Sunday priorities may reveal more about our life priorities than we are comfortable to acknowledge.
As sons and daughters of the living, ‘I am what I am’ God, we are called to much more than consumerism. Consumerism is essentially an individual pursuit. We are not isolated individuals, as Archdeacon Sam reminded us so powerfully recently. We are the body of Christ, and each of us is called to play our unique part in building up the body. We belong to one another and have a responsibility to each other. We thrive and flourish, not when we get everything we want, even the god we want, but when we are in right relationship with the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and with each other.
In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul paints a wonderful picture of what the church should be. The late John Stott entitled his commentary on Ephesians, ‘God’s new Society’. We are God’s new society. Our life together should challenge the consumerism and individualism of Western culture. We do a great disservice to God and to our brothers and sisters in Christ when we make even our worship a consumer choice. That is not why Christ died, nor why he gives gifts to his church.
‘So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.’ Ephesians 4:11-13
God does not pander to our choices, but calls us to worship and equips us for service.