“Why isn’t this church like that conference?”
A friend recently reported that her teen daughter asked her this question after attending a teaching and worship event that drew thousands of people from across the U.S. The young woman had experienced the sweet intensity that occurs when a large group of people is gathered for a single, focused purpose. She came home ready to change the world, and sat through a typical church service or two before she realized that though the conference speakers and her pastors were both using the same words for realities like discipleship, calling and mission, they ended up carrying completely different meanings. The conference was a call to a deeper and more courageous Christian life, complete with stirring testimonies from people who were living that life. Church services were…well, 4 songs, a collection, some announcements (“Ladies Bible study Thursday morning, Youth Group trip to Six Flags next month”), a sermon, communion. Same thing every week with the same people who were mostly content to leave the boat unrocked.
When I was on staff at a church, we spent time in our staff meetings discussing that very question. Some were very offended when members of the congregation returned from various conferences and asked the question as they were coming down (hard) from their mountaintop experience. These staffers almost always heard the question as an accusation. Because at least in some cases, it was. Some on the church staff worried about alienating those who were new to our faith community, or who didn’t have the capacity to swim in the “deep end of the pool”. Others took umbrage at a perceived challenge to their leadership decisions.
Silencing the question-askers by branding them as malcontents missed the importance of the question. Why, indeed, isn’t the church stretching its members’ faith and motivating them toward holy action? No one on staff was willing to reflect on this question (which came to us repeatedly, from a variety of different people), or to view it as an expression of divine discontent with the status quo.
We sure do love our status quo. It’s relatively easy to program and staff. And you don’t really need trained lifeguards if you keep everyone wearing floaties and splashing in the wading pool.
Conferences (which are also programmed, and feature various Varsity Teams of musicians and speakers) aren’t meant to replace the sacramental context of life together of a local church, of babies being born, people getting sick, or married, or dying. Of being born again, then learning how to follow Jesus in their job at Jiffy Lube.
But they do call people to the deep end of the pool, and offer a look at what life together could be like if we had the chutzpah to hear the hunger for maturity embedded in that question.
What has your experience been in your church if you’ve been to a conference or two, and returned home asking that question? Did you have a difficult time integrating the “mountaintop” of your experience into the status quo of your home congregation?