As I wrote about nearly 6 months ago, I once worked as a barista at Starbucks. You may love Starbucks. You may hate Starbucks. But one thing you cannot deny about Starbucks is that people know why they’re going to Starbucks.
There is a tangible value people receive by going. They also are immersed into an experience when they go.
Whether you like it or not, this is the world of today and it is the world of the future. The places of impact in our society are places where the value is clear and consistent.
No wonder the church is having a difficult time finding its place in today’s society.
Experiences in Evangelism
About a year and a half ago I started tabling at Cal State Fullerton. These experiences changed everything for me in my perspective on how college aged adults view church. And while there are some students who are decidedly hostile to any organized religion – especially church – most students are simply confused by the idea of church. In a world that competes to be clear and consistent in the value they provide, the church has not done a great job of communicating the essential good it provides on a weekly basis.
I remember talking to a certain student at Cal State Fullerton named Jameson. I tried doing my usual shpeel on him – one that at least got an assuring nod or polite thank you. But for Jameson he paused, looked at me funny, and asked simply: “Church? Why would I go there?”
Jameson’s response is not uncommon.
As the Christian worldview and the church have become more unrecognizable to our surrounding culture, the impulse by most evangelical leaders has been to buttress theological discussion with an emphasis on apologetics. While this has been helpful for those eager to have an extended conversation on what’s true, these tools fall short of addressing the real breakdown between church and culture.
The real breakdown has been an unclear and inconsistent value that the church tangibly provides people on the weekly. People come and go to church, sit in pews, sing some songs, hear some decent teaching, and go along there way (note: usually without taking the tangible experience of grace: communion). No wonder people are baffled by our belief system. Our denominations may have articulate ecclesiology, but by and large the execution of this ecclesiology seems currently too tied to antiquated forms and misdirected in its focus.
Evangelicals are known for being born again and people devoted to the message of the Gospel. And yet, much of this devotion is executed in ways that are too tacit, intangible, and otherwise impractical.
Ministry as It Currently Is
Missionaries come back overseas all the time with stories about how witch-doctors, shamans, demons were overcome by the name of Jesus and by the power of the Spirit. The majority of the world has been won over by power encounters. In spite of the push by evangelicals to insist on their cultural relevance, most of the world is won over by proven claims of authority. Prove your ability and nobody will question your relevance. Calls for relevance strike one as hollow as a LeBron James post-game interview. Dallas Willard has long argued that Jesus ought to be considered the “master of life.” But this still remains too tacit a confession for most Christians.
What remains is an unstated belief that the people who walk through our doors ought to be about what the leaders, the elders, the staff are about. This may take the guise of a stuffy Calvinist (and yes – there are unstuffy Calvinists) who say, “It’s important to belong to a church,” or a megachurch builder who brags about the numbers of new members, new communities, or new teams.
The resulting and deserved reputation most leaders make for themselves is of egomaniacs who cannot stand being said no to. The church is awash with personalities eager to make a name for themselves and, because of the cultural confusion of the times, the church has handed these types the keys to the kingdom.
All the while the real ministry to be done goes unsaid, undone, and unaddressed in either the pulpit, the pew, or the prayer closet.
The Value of Church
Imagine the scenes that Paul describes throughout his letters:
“When he ascended on high,
he took many captives
and gave gifts to his people.” (Eph. 4:7)
“And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.” (Col. 2:15)
“No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor principalities, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom. 8:37-39)
This is real story of the triumph of God, not only throughout all of history but in the lives of individual men and women. Triumph over sloth, greed, wrath, pride, envy, gluttony, lust. It is the real story that we live – and it is the real thing at stake.
But too often the “public spectacle” that Paul envisions is nothing more than a private show, tucked away in the confines of controlled spirituality. We whisper here and there of the ways that Christ has set us free. And so our Sunday services are never the parade that could be – that should be.
The message of the Gospel is that by Jesus’ triumph on the cross he has, at the very fundamental level of who we are before God, taken away our sin, our proclivity to death, and our condemnation. As a result, this has taken away any power that shame, fear, and guilt may hold over us – not only with God – but any person, institution, community, or otherwise.
Concerning the old Jewish customs of clean, unclean, holy, and unholy, Paul wrote: “It is for freedom that Christ has set you free… do not let yourselves again be burdened by a yoke of slavery,” (Galatians 5:1). This same liberty that involved the Gentiles in with the Jews is the same liberty that now washes over previous stratifications of society, over previous divisions of gender, over any oppressive prestige and influence that the world produces.
This is the Gospel and, rather unsurprisingly, it is the value that the church provides. Do you want freedom from shame, from fear, from guilt? Do you want it at a level that no amount of self-acceptance can provide? Do you want it (literally) staked in something outside of yourself? Do you want it buttressed up by the very promise of God – the being that cannot go back on His word – that he will never leave you?
Then come to church.