A Lack of Sensitivity to Nonreligious People
Mehta found many of the things said in church about nonreligious people offensive. He tries to live morally. He is concerned about other people. He certainly doesn’t think of himself as evil.
Some churches read passages that refer to those outside Israel or the church as the enemies of God. Comments were made about the unchurched that assumed them to be immoral. The common assumption was that those outside of Christ are bad people.
Now, some of this is inevitable. Paul says in Romans 5 that before we were saved, we were enemies of God. Many passages speak of the damnation of those outside of Christ.
The point isn’t that churches should deny fundamental Christian doctrine. We really do believe we’re saved and those outside of Christ are lost. Rather, the point is to be sensitive to how we come across to those not familiar with our teaching.
[M]any of the churches I visited depicted those who were not Christians as being “lost” or needing to be “saved.” Every time I heard this, I felt insulted. What exactly do Christians think they are saving me from?
In many growing churches, there are more seekers in attendance than members! To a Christian, the terms “saved” and “lost” are quite clear. To the unchurched, the terms only sound offensive. Some churches have adopted a different vocabulary, referring instead to the “unchurched,” “seekers,” even “pre-Christians,” or in the case of one church, “the precious.”
Now, it would be a tragedy, of course, to forget that the lost are lost. The idea, though, is not to run the visitors out of the building before you have a chance to teach the seeker what salvation is about.
The doctrine that we are all lost until we have faith in Jesus is a tough teaching, but an essential one. Nonetheless, just as I didn’t talk to my children about sex when they were four years old, I wouldn’t recommend that anyone start teaching the truly unchurched with a lesson on damnation.
Too much time devoted to singing
Well, this one surprised me! But then, those of us who grew up in the Churches of Christ love to sing. Mehta says,
Generally, I enjoy the music I hear in churches. However, I’m convinced that a lot of Christians don’t care about it. How did I reach that conclusion? Because I saw plenty of people walking in late to services.
I have the impression that churches begin their services with music to serve as a buffer so that even if churchgoers arrive late, they won’t miss the “important” part (that is, the sermon). However, I suspect that as people began to understand that there would be an extended period of music, they started to come in later so they could skip the songs.
I find this hilarious, because it’s true, even though we deny that it’s true. I mean, suggest to your elders or staff that church begin with communion or the sermon, and I guarantee they’ll refuse! Why? Because they know many members will be too late for the truly important part of the service! They’d far rather the members miss the singing than the communion or the sermon.
In my own church, people often come in late and often leave immediately after the sermon. The obvious message to visitors is that they have better things to do than sit through the closing song and prayer or sing in anticipation of the “main act.”
Of course, although few churches mean to do so, we all are guilty of communicating to our members that the sermon is the most important thing. We adopted the Frontier Revivalism model of doing church, from the early 19th Century, and aimed the whole service toward the sermon, culminating in the “invitation,” plainly making this the main thing. And we pay the preacher the highest salary because we know, as Mehta has concluded, that having a great sermon is a bigger draw than having a great song service or communion service.
My own view is that we need to intentionally get away from building the service around the invitation. Rather, following a model Randy Harris used to use while he preached in Nashville (he may still do this), we should sometimes begin the worship with the sermon, use the sermon to point people toward God, and then, being properly prepared, worship through song, prayer, communion, and gift giving. Maybe not all the time, but much of the time.
Sometimes (at least monthly, I think), we should especially focus on the communion, ending the service with the Lord’s Supper, with the sermon and singing all pointing us toward — not the communion — but what the communion points us toward.
There are other possibilities. The point is that we communicate who we are by how we do worship. And what we communicate is that that the sermon is the most important thing and that the rest may be skipped. Hence, we teach that passive receipt of instruction is more important than participatory worship.
Worse yet, our persistence in arriving late and leaving early tells visitors that we place little value on our time together — even less on our time before and after church. It’s a terrible lesson to teach that we teach very effectively.
In fact, if church is so important, then people should arrive early. It seems completely disrespectful to me (and, I would think, to the pastors) when people walk into the auditorium five or ten minutes into the service.