I cannot believe it happened and I often caution against it. It was a bright and relaxed Sunday morning and I was feeling a little lazy and all without the slightest tinge of guilt. I had the Sunday off and was not preaching. I meandered to the bathroom got washed, shaved and ready for church, when suddenly we were plunged into the depth of a family crisis. Which church should we attend? As the decision maker it was up to me to cast the deciding vote and herein lies the problem. I found myself thinking more like a consumer than a worshipper.
This shift in mindset is all too subtle. We reflect on what a church offers in terms of its music, children’s ministry and the reputation of the preacher and after due consideration we cast our vote accordingly. Holiday fever may excuse such a temporary lapse of discipline, but what if such considerations eclipsed all others? What if I permanently thought of church, more in the terms of what it offered rather than what I could contribute? Attended only to receive and not selflessly give. As the shorter catechism puts it, ‘Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.’ Yet so quickly we are obsessed with our satisfaction levels rather than the glory we can attribute to God. We measure a churches capacity to deliver when our children are pleased, the worship meets our taste and the sermon purely motivational, rather than an exposition from God’s Word.
It is not that these things are wrong they are clearly not. Our children should be happy at church, even if we have to train to be such. A sermon should motivate us and the worship should inspire us. However, they are not the only considerations regarding our attendance.
As attendances increased at Scrabo Presbyterian a seeping anxiety saturated my heart. Why are people coming? Why do they want to make this place their spiritual home? Many enjoyed the contemporary praise and informal structures. Others liked the style of preaching and a significant number felt it was a good place to raise their children. I understood all of this and had spent much time building the infrastructure that supported it. But I couldn’t help feel that a reversal of these things would facilitate their departure too. What would they do when the songs became less appealing and the sermons didn’t cut it? What would happen when less creative youth workers replaced the existing crew? Would the church empty as quickly as it had filled? The boxes they once ticked with approval would slowly be erased, leaving them simply – ticked off!
Our church was placed in the middle of a large Protestant housing estate. It had a reputation for being tough. A strong paramilitary presence with a significant amount of anti-social behaviour. Like all major housing projects it had its fair share of social problems in health, education and housing. Many lived below the poverty line but coupled to these diminished resources was a poverty of aspiration. Some had been the victims of abuse, discrimination and violence. They often felt abandoned by the social majority, a statistic without a voice and visible presence. As a consequence they had lost hope. Too frightened to dream they took up a posture of resignation. Convinced the future would be a sad replication of their past.
However, as the church retreats into the sanctity of four walls it can hide from its responsibilities. Willing to anaesthetise itself against the suffering of others it acts like a jilted lover. What we once loved, we now hate. In our frenzy of disapproval we have divorced the world with the appropriate exclusion order set in place. We are frightened to be contaminated by its seduction and it must be kept at a safe distance. Yet, whilst we may no longer need the world, the world definitely needs us. It’s dying a painful death and we sing louder to block out its cries. Disabled by its own brokenness we inadvertently hide the remedy. Sadly when consumerism rather than servanthood marks our mentality, we fiddle while Rome burns. How unlike Christ’s example, when he declared, ‘I came into the world not to be served but to serve and give my life as a ransom for many’. When serving others is not prominent in our considerations for church attendance, we are in danger of self indulgence and all too human manifesto.
Think of how blessed our churches and communities would be if we joined one that needed us, rather than one that appealed to us. A church that felt the pain of the worlds brokenness and ran too it, rather than away from it. A church were individual preference gave way to social responsibility. To reframe an old adage I surely must not say, ‘What can my church do for me but rather what can I do for my church.’ As we sit in church next Sunday lets metaphorically turn to our neighbour and say, ‘how can I love you more, serve you more, provide for you more?’ How can I stop chasing after my own desires and begin to pursue Gods? Our ancestors coined a phrase, God first, others second and ourselves last’ it’s time to rediscover an old truth. To factor in servanthood when choosing a church. As a result, seeking God first would leave us truly satisfied. With these altered perspectives we will be amazed at how suddenly inspired the preacher has become, how creative the youth worker actually was, and well the worship, it was just – awesome.