I’ve been thinking a little more than normal, in recent weeks, about what we might call church culture – and particularly how a local church’s culture / ethos / first impression affects those who walk into our Sunday gathering for the first time or three.
Of course there is a sense in which guests should walk in and feel somewhat comfortable with their Sunday morning surroundings. The language we use should be intelligible English. Our building shouldn’t be dingy or bizarre or difficult to find. Our welcome should be warm. Their children should be safe. And so on. Church shouldn’t be a forbidding, or unwelcoming, or completely unintelligible place for the first time guest. And I hope our churches are not any of those things. Let’s continually work to ensure that they aren’t … but are, rather, just the opposite!
And yet, some reading I’ve been doing* has me more and more convinced that, while a church’s culture should not at all be inhospitable, yet it should also be quite challenging, in many ways, to the man who comes in off the street (or out of a less biblically thoughtful church culture).
Walking into a truly biblical (not perfect, but biblical) church should be something like walking into a whole different culture; a whole new world, really – one that (intentionally) does not put the newcomer to Christianity immediately at ease in every way.
Now, many a church leader will be uncomfortable with a sentence like that. Because many a modern church leader has gone out of his (or her) way to create a Sunday morning ethos that looks and sounds very much like what the man on the street experiences at the theatre, the ballgame, the concert, the restaurant, and so on. Often out of good motives, churches attempt to create a Sunday morning aesthetic that feels as familiar and palatable as possible to the outsider. Sometimes churches have even styled themselves as ‘a church for people who don’t like church.’ To put it plainly, churches are bending over backwards to create a Sunday morning experience that doesn’t feel all that other-worldly and strange and different from everyday life.
But here is the problem. God is other-worldly. He is holy, holy, holy! And, thus, to the sinner, He is strange, too! And so are His ways and (purportedly) His people. “Our citizenship is in heaven.” And therefore God calls us to a whole different set of values than what we find promoted in our news media, TV commercials, movie theatres, public schools, literature, and so on. He calls us to stand out as lights “in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation.” And so you would think that, when people like that gather to worship a God like that …you would imagine (wouldn’t you?) that their meetings would look and sound and operate on a plane that would make them, while not unwelcoming to the newcomer, immensely different, and challenging, and other-worldly!
The Sunday morning worship gathering should be – both for the newcomer, and for the long-time Christian who finds Sunday meeting an oasis from the hubbub and glitz and temptation of the other six days – like stepping through one of C.S. Lewis’s portals and into an entirely different world … with different values, and different assumptions, and different anthems, and different customs, and an altogether different sort of inhabitants. We ought to be, in some ways, as strange to a newcomer as a snowy wood inhabited by talking animals. Lucy understood the trees, and the snow, and even the English language of Mr. Tumnus. But there was no doubting that she was no longer in England! And such should be the experience of the man on the street when he steps into the new world that is the gathered church of Jesus Christ. There will, of necessity, be much with which he is familiar. But the differences ought to be profoundly obvious and challenging and (we hope) intriguing to him!
And yet the difference is not to be the trading of one earthly culture for another. This is not a plea, in other words, for the church to go back in time – singing, dressing, and speaking as though we were from a different era. That is mere traditionalism – the attempt to replace modern American culture with the culture, for instance, of the 1950’s. That sort of strangeness is of no avail! No! The man or woman who walks into our services ought to feel, not like he’s entered a different era, but a whole new world! And in any number of ways …
For instance, the modesty of people’s dress should be an immediate sign that one has entered a new realm. Note that I didn’t not say ‘the formality’ of the dress (for God cares little for that). But in a world where people show way too much, the church should look altogether different on a Sunday morning. And when it does, the guest is immediately struck with the realization that she is on more holy ground than she usually dares tread.
And the praise, too, should be a great challenge to the outsider’s worldview. Here are a bunch of people voluntarily singing aloud together … and without the necessity of a great band, a humming beat, or any alcoholic lubrication? Where else on earth can you find a scene like that? And there seems to be a reverence about their singing … and an intenseness about the words more so than the pulse of the tune. And the words themselves are not about everyday themes; not so much about horizontal loves (like the standard fare on the radio); not much about the singers at all, in fact. The lyrics can only be described as vertical, self-effacing, other-worldly!
And observe how parents and children sit together, and how the children are learning to actually sit still for over an hour, and how the teenagers don’t seem to be embarrassed by their parents, and how the men are actually present with their families on a Sunday morning (and singing, too!).
And then there is the preaching. Can people really sit, in 2015, for 45 minutes … listening intently to someone explaining the Bible? With no moving pictures? And no theatrics? All the more interesting because the message seems to be, not about a cause of some sort, but about a Person. Indeed, they talk so much and so well of this Jesus that it’s beginning to seem like they actually do mean it when they speak of Him being alive, and their only hope.
And are they really listening to this man telling them, week by week, that they aren’t actually good people; that they are sinners; that they are hopeless without God’s miraculous and merciful intervention in their lives? What on earth would coax people to put up with such? Or is it that they are in tune with something (or Someone) that is not actually on earth?
And the prayer meeting! Even many church-goers will find this a whole new experience! People actually circling together and sending all these pleading words heavenward … and truly believing that there is someone out there who is listening? Seeing a group of Christians earnestly praying together is perhaps the most other-worldly sight that a modern American will ever see!
But, you see … the man on the street will never see these things; he will never be challenged to enter, himself, into a different world and take up a new citizenship if the church continues to trip over itself trying to look more and more like the culture with which such a man is already familiar. We think we are doing people a good turn, by dressing the Sunday meeting in more culturally ‘relevant’ garb. But we’re actually shooting ourselves in the foot – we who are called to woo people out of their allegiance to this kingdom, and into citizenship in an entirely different realm … “the kingdom of [God’s] beloved Son.”
Truly, one of the best things we can do for our neighbors is to strive to create a church culture that is not immediately recognizable and comfortable to them … but attractively other-worldly; appealingly (and biblically) strange; intriguingly unlike anything they have ever encountered before. Like they have, in walking into our gathering, crossed the border into an entirely different and better kingdom.
*Specifically, Rosaria Butterfield’s The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert and Terry Johnson’s chapter “Restoring Psalm Singing to our Worship” (in Give Praise to God; Philip Ryken, Derek Thomas, and Ligon Duncan, eds.).