Pastor JD Greear said something in a sermon that got a lot of attention this past week. Clips circulating on Twitter showed Greear chastising people for not practicing hospitality in the church, showing up to service late, leaving early, and neglecting the lonely.
As summarized in an article on Christianity Today, in the sermon Greear stated “You treat church like a religious show.” Then, pointing at his online viewers, he says, “When people say that the church … feels like a big production, you’re the problem.” The video cuts to a wider camera angle featuring him standing on a large, well-appointed stage, in front of an audience sitting in movie-style seats and flanked by at least two massive hi-def screens, one of which features the pastor himself.
The irony of this, and Greear’s seemingly lack of self-awareness, was not lost on many. After all, how can Greear chastise people for treating Sunday mornings like nothing more than a religious show, when he is seen as propagating the very thing he’s ultimately being critical of.
You reap what you sow.
And while I want to show nothing but charity here to Greear, as in the broader context of the sermon , he’s trying to fight against larger cultural treatment of the church as nothing more than religious entertainment— all to which I say nothing but amen!
But in fighting against the thing he’s sorta helped create, such would be the equivalent of a bar owner complaining about all the drunks that frequent their establishment. He might wish people drink more responsibly, but at the end of the day, he’s ultimately happy to sell as much booze as possible.
And lest anyone think I’m trying to single out Greear here, I’m not, as I don’t know all that much about him and his ministry, and what I have heard largely tends to be good, I wish in this podcast to draw attention again to a theme I’ve talked about several times in the past before, and that simply has to do with the way we do church.
In the Evangelical and Pentecostal circles I’ve run in over the years, I can’t help but notice how increasingly our churches have become platform centered. And although we tend to lack a formal liturgical structure like you might find in the so-called “high church” traditions, we have a structure that has become practically sacrosanct just the same.
So much so that if you go to your typical church service today, you can almost always expect the exact same format, with little variation. Every service starts with some brief greeting and announcements, shaking of hands, 3-5 songs, an offering, a sermon, a final song, maybe an altar call, and a final time marked with prayer and a benediction.
And regardless of the size of the church, all this happens on a stage, with everyone more or less looking on in a passive sorta way. At best people might clap and sing along, or shout amen, but generally speaking audience involvement is pretty low, and sometimes even frowned upon.
Over the years I’ve stirred a little trouble by looking at all this and wondering why we can’t change the formula a bit? Maybe church shouldn’t be so platform centered? Maybe we should have multiple people share on Sunday mornings? Maybe some of that sharing should be rather spontaneous, instead of part of a well scripted act of oratory and formal sermon preparation delivered by professionals? Maybe we should do the sermon first, and the singing last? Maybe we shouldn’t have cameras everywhere that broadcasts a sermon to 10 other campuses where people watch on jumbo screens?
Yet here we are. Stuck to a formula that grew out of the great revival movements of the 18th and 19th centuries. In those days much of Christianity centered around traveling charismatic preachers and a group of singers who’d float from town to town, preaching the gospel and starting churches. People would gather in mass around their preaching and singing performances, and then start churches that followed the structures of these revival and tent meetings.
Such has been a feature of the Evangelical movement since the days of Wesley and Whitfield, and it’s always existed throughout the centuries. It’s a feature, and not a bug.
But in the past 15-20 years or so, we’ve really taken this basic format and baptized it in steroids. To the extent that our Sunday morning church “experience” is now more or less a slick rock concert, featuring a specially anointed Ted Talk level speaker. Increasingly, everyone on the stage is a paid professional performer, and everyone in the audience is just a spectator that shows up to be entertained.
As the article I cited earlier from Christianity Today so aptly pointed out, the medium has become the message. When the primary center of a church is what happens on a Sunday morning stage, where everyone is a paid professional performer, you’ve essentially communicated that everyone else is just a passive spectator, whose only real purpose is to come to church on time and to be entertained with religious content.
And while guys like JD Greear might be sincerely trying to fight against that by making some pretty bold statements from the pulpit, he’s ultimately fighting a losing battle that he cannot ever hope to win. Because the medium has become the message. And there’s no chance you can challenge or change that so long as you continue to reinforce in your actions the very thing you preach against.
My proposal today is a very simple one.
Maybe, just maybe!!! we shouldn’t turn church into something centralized around a performance that happens on a platform for people sitting in pews?
The church is supposed to be a household of faith, the family of God, and a community that ultimately gathers around Christ.
We should resist any notions that turn the church into a theatrical performance or play, an elaborate production to be merely consumed.
While there’s a place for platforms, when what takes place on a stage is the centrality of our Christian experience, we’ve deeply erred.
Our Christian experience should focus on gathering together around a shared meal, and living out our faith together, as we share our lives in Christ.
It should not be centered around what happens on a platform on Sunday mornings. And while there certainly is a place for such things in the life of the church, I can’t help but notice when I read the pages of the New Testament, that the 18th and 19th century revivalist based format that we’ve baptized in steroids is nowhere to be found in Scripture.
Instead what we read about are groups of people who primarily gathered together to share their lives together in Christ, to dedicate themselves to following the teachings of Jesus and the apostles, to share a common meal together, to pray, to sing, and to mutually encourage one another in their faith.
And while there were special times of gathering together in larger audiences to carefully listen to someone preach a lengthy sermon, or series of sermons, such wasn’t the primary focus of the life of the church.
What happened when the church gathered in living rooms and at dinner tables was of primary importance. And if we operated as such, sermons like Greear’s, where he’s encouraging everyone to not be tardy to church, or to leave early, would be an unusual thing to hear.
If we read the pages of the New Testament correctly, church gatherings were more of a potluck type event, than a Sunday morning performance put on by paid performers for people sitting passively in pews.
Today, we aren’t anywhere near that. Which deeply grieved me. And apart from burning everything down and starting over, I’m not sure how we ever get back there. It’s hard to unshut a door.
But, one thing is for sure, we won’t get there as long as we continue to feel the need to put on elaborate religious productions for people to consume like it’s their favorite TV show.
And we certainly won’t get there as long as we continue to financially compensate people for putting on such productions.
In the end, the only reforms we’ll see to all this is when people have a change of appetites, and when those who primarily responsible for doing the cooking start giving us meat instead of cake.
Such will ultimately only happen when all parties involved hunger for a church centered around Christ, and Christ alone. Until then, we’ll only continue to see more of the same, and things continuing to drift in the direction we have long been headed down.