(I wrote this a few years ago – re-issued for your reading pleasure)
“Laudator Incognito” or (roughly translated as “secret worshipper”) filed this report from a recent Sunday morning excursion to a local house of worship: I visited one of the larger churches in the area, our own home grown mega variety. We arrived a few minutes before the service started and easily found a parking spot. The building looks new with a much publicized recent addition though the layout is confusing. Inside lots of people were walking around and having a snack in the large hall. The doors were opened for us but otherwise we were not officially greeted until we went to the worship area and got a bulletin from an usher. The bulletin was all news & announcements of the gazillion things going on – and there was lots happening! What stood out besides the lack of a printed order of service and the blank page for sermon notes was the dire need for volunteers for childrens minstry. We were tardy for the start due to a restroom excursion and so had to wait for the usher to let us in, standing outside while a call to worship was played on the big screen. We were allowed to enter and take a seat during the opening prayer which I found odd (later the oh-so important “call to worship” was replayed at the end of the service and turned out to be testimonials the pastor had recieved via email about how wonderful worship & preaching of the church was). The worship band played 3 songs. The over-50 leader looked like he was trying to recapture his teen years in the early 60’s with his dress and persona. 1 of the songs was familiar though played with electric guitars and a different rythym than written for it was a little more snappy. He chatted to us about the importance of worship and how he wasn’t going to let those stones cry out louder than he – but it was still pretty mellow. Some folks raised their hands and looked genuinely estatic. No one around me was singing or they were singing so quietly as not to be heard. The pastor, dressed in the requisite clergy uniform of Dockers et Polo shirt, then asked us to pray for some missionaries the church supported. We were to do this in our pews together but most seemed did it silently alone. During the offering he started his message with a humorous story about his family on vacation. He did this with lots of energy but it was hard to recall how it applied to the topic which was worship. The scripture was 1 Cor. 14 but it remained unread. A few verses were displayed on the big screen during the message but unfortunately we didn’t get to hear the whole thing read aloud. No history or context were given for the passage. No exegesis. A passing remark was made in reference to but no explanation of tongues or prophecy was provided – nor why this was an issue the apostle addressed. 4 principles were deduced from the passage about how we are to worship God at “______ Church”. I can’t remember what they were – I think they were flashed on the screen but it was too fast for me to catch to write down. I think they had something to do with being God focused but intelligible and relevant those in our area as we worship at “____________ Church”
The rest of the message was a lengthy explanation of how as a task oriented pastor he developed goals and strategies to reach those goals. He then provided more testimonials about how “_______ Church” was reaching those goals by comments sent via email. I started to feel like I was in a stock holders meeting and was being given the year end pitch about company performance. The focus was on how we do things at “______________ Church” with lots of explanations for any visiting pagans and by the way what a wonderful job we’re doing at “_________________ Church” because “look, all these people say so!” and underlying was the message “aren’t you glad your here to be a part of all the wonderful things happening at “__________ Church!” He concluded with a vague question which I don’t recall. Then the band played 2 more songs – one an oldy-but-goody and the other a tune that highlighted the female singer’s ethereal soprano range complete with reverb for that extra touch for channeling the Spirit. Afterwards came the benediction and we were on our way. Except they played the “call to worship” again – the one with all the testimonials of how great “_____________ Church” is. So – what did I learn? First, since I’m a pastor (and worse a small church pastor!) with some gray hair I won’t pretend to be objective. I have my bias. But after years of extensive therapy I’ve been told its got nothing to do with pew envy. Basically what I learned is what a wonderful church “_____________ Church” is & how lucky I was to attend! I left still not knowing the meaning of the passage referred to. Of course that’s the problem – the text was not “exposed” but only referred to. The message focus, purported to be worship was not exalting Christ but self-exalting – “Ain’t we doing a great job”! The experience of worship felt disjointed with no real ryhme or reason despite all the explanations. While I shook a few hands I felt a stranger. I could think of no reason to return to “________ Church” even though it has the reputation of the happening place to be, is viewed as a success and offered as a model of growth. Is this what it means to be a success to today as a pastor and as a church? It reinforces what I concluded during a mission trip overseas a few months ago – God is not necessary in the American church. All you need is a charming personality, cool programs (if you can find the volunteers) and lots of property. I’m not an apologist for smallness or irrelevance. However, I have to wonder what happens to people over a long period of time when the focus is shifted from exalting Christ to exalting “________ Church” and a pastor sounds more like a corporate coach then a herald of Jesus Christ. I return to my small church to preach again. I will attempt to make sure I focus on Jesus Christ and his saving work and less on the power of human charm. I see the wisdom in developing further a well-thought out structure that is theologically and biblically grounded in the triune God and the historical patterns of the church through the ages. And while I’m considered an ecclesiastical failure I look forward to praying with people whose name I know and can drink coffee with afterwards. Who knows, maybe some of those church shoppers will get tired of being sold how wonderful “__________ Church” is and come over to find out what real church is.