Thursday, January 17, 2008

Playing God

"People don't come to church for preachments, of course, but to daydream about God." - Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

A few years ago, Burt made a comment in a service that has stuck with me. "What would you do if you won the lottery?", he asked. "I would be able to give a lot of money to the church, and to various ministries, and Christian causes. How great that would be for the cause of Christ! And I would get to play God, deciding what God wants supported, and what he doesn't."

Burt's point was a good one. We should not play God. But as illustrated recently to me, there are many ways we try to "play God", and they always end tragically.

The church began, I am sure, with the best of motives. It set out its goal "to evangelize the lost, and reach the multitudes, in response to the command of God in the Great Commission." Who can argue with that?

But God's blessing, this church thought and taught, was seen in growth, and to grow, you have to give the "lost world" what it wants - programs that meet their perceived needs. And that is what they set out to do - children's choirs complete with hot dog suppers, youth programs and trips, men's clubs and women's clubs, fifth Sunday singin's, that Old Time Religion preachin', a bus ministry (for the poor, of course) and a smug sense of "this is what it means to do church, to reach people, to really minister." They counted the nickels and the noses, and measured their success by these really important things. It was evident to all that God was blessing them. Their programs were really active, and the juggernaut they created could now build upon itself.

Though not the "top tier" church, younger pastors would still drool over the opportunity to lead such a "vibrant congregation" to show their talents in growing it larger, and better, and put on display their skill at church growth, and allow them to step to the next level in their careers. However, the pastor was treated like a coach at the University of Alabama: when a pastor didn't deliver enough nickels and noses, the "parking lot committee" was quick to vote him out and look for someone who could. (You know the parking lot committee: that is the committee that meets each Sunday in the parking lot to have the pastor for lunch.) If God wasn't blessing enough, it was surely the pastor's fault, because he promised he could deliver.

And the people expected a show. Each Sunday, as the people came in, they were treated to their show du jour. Like an episode of Dr. Phil, the people were called to daydream over their relationship with God, feel guilty, sometimes even for sin, and invited to make it all right with God by walking the aisle and giving tearful confessions. The services were intentionally designed to play to the emotions. By the end of the show, everyone was made to feel better about themselves (or worse, depending on how you analyze it), complete with new resolutions to do better until next Sunday, when they would start it all over again. The cycle was seemingly endless.

But scandal hit in the early 90's, and the bubble of godliness was busted, because, as everyone knows, among God's people, there can be no "real" sin. That would be hypocrisy, and when hypocrisy is exposed it is truly the unforgivable sin. Disillusioned, members left in droves to other churches where the programs were better, and the music was better, and the preacher was better, and their children were cared for better, and their parents could play in junk bands, and where the illusion of godliness was once again paramount to the reality of sin.

All that was left was the shell. The building, a parking lot, and a sign where cute and witty quips would be replaced every four or five months with other cute and witty clips, except twice a year it carried the words "Revival - Everyone Welcome." The remaining members took the pastors they could get, as opposed to the pastors they wanted. Theology and soundness were no longer important, they needed someone in their pulpit if they were to have any hope. So they kept attempting the illusion, but no one was willing to daydream with them any longer.

In 2007, they finally threw in the towel, and sold their property. The building sold for quite a bit of money and they needed to distribute those proceeds appropriately and fairly. A few wanted it paid to the remaining members for being faithful through these years, taking their "portion" guised as "benevolent" fund distributions. But most knew their obligation to give it away and this was their final chance to "play god". After much contention, they chose to divide it among numerous programs of other churches and several nonprofit charities and TV preachers. They had fun fighting for and picking out their favorite things to do with "God's money", all the while lamenting the death of their church. But in talking to those remaining members, the real question is whether it was ever alive.

You say, 'I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.' But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see. (Rev. 3:17-18).

If Christ's words to the churches in Revelation mean anything, it is this: Christ is the center of the church, and the reason for its being, the focus of its worship, and the One who draws his people to it. Charles Spurgeon, a Baptist preacher, summed it up. "Jesus said, 'Preach the gospel to every creature.' But men are getting tired of the divine plan; they are going to be saved by a priest, going to be saved by the music, going to be saved by theatricals, and nobody knows what! Well, they may try these things as long as ever they like; but nothing can ever come of the whole thing but utter disappointment and confusion, God dishonoured, the gospel travestied, hypocrites manufactured by the thousands, and the church dragged down to the level of the world."

Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life. Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen.
(1 Tim. 1:15-17).

I am not trying to be judgmental of the methods and tactics of others to "reach the lost." But the cautionary tale of this church is one I have seen many times over. The Gospel is not methods and tactics. The Church is not programs for our kids and seniors, or productions each Sunday, and "revivals twice a year". It is not nickels, or noses. It is not preachers. And we are not called to paint for this world the illusion of God in our midst to be attractive and active for them. That is playing God. Rather, the church is the fellowship of believers, acknowledging the saving work of Christ in their lives together, and proclaiming it to the world through those very same lives. It is the work of the Holy Spirit. It is the irresistible Grace of God which calls us to fellowship, and not our programs and personalities. To make it the latter is to "play god".

I, for one, am glad that our church does not rely on gimmicks, programs or theatricals to proclaim the Gospel of Christ, nor is it centered around charismatic individuals and personalities. That is a big and real temptation we have fought off.

Thank you, Lord, for our church. Help us to be your light and salt to those whom you are continually calling. Keep us from our own illusions of You that usurp Your authority, and help us not to eye with envy the illusions of others.


1 comment:

Burt said...

i can't remember things i said in a sermon the next day ... much less a couple of years!