Monday, August 20, 2007

Cheesy Church

When I was eighteen I had a friend whose father was just starting his own church. I remember the tiny metal warehouse he rented in which to hold services. I attended one of the very first meetings and wondered where those humble and small beginnings might lead him. When I visited my hometown last summer (eighteen years later) I had a chance to find out.

Imagine my astonishment when a parking attendant led me in front of a multi-million dollar, several thousand member, state-of-the-art facility complete with a cafe, giant TV monitors and a Nickelodeon-like children's program.

As the service progressed and I took in the wonder of it all, I asked myself, What were the keys to success here? What is the difference between this and what I see so much of elsewhere--"cheesy church?"

Of course there are entire books devoted to the subject of how to grow a church, but if I might offer my puny opinion, here's what I came up with:

1. Progressive worship: If you sing modern worship choruses, keep them relatively current. For years I've seen churches take good songs and sing the life right out of them (I've gotten all I'm going to get out of "Come, Now is the Time to Worship"). And for the love of all that's holy, please don't ditch the hymns.

2. Relevant preaching: People that attend church on Sunday mornings have real life issues. If the message doesn't hit home, home is where they'll stay next time.

3. Excellence: It's a shame that secular entertainers outdo the church in this area. It seems that you have to look to the world for things like: a professional sound, an attractive website, and everything else on down to clean restrooms and floors. If we don't excel in these simple areas, why should people expect us to excel in the more important ones?

4. Authenticity: I've come to realize that authentic Christianity--not "Churchianity"--is what people, especially the younger generation, are craving. We need to ditch the fluff and stick with real stuff. Bake sales, attendance books, members-only mail boxes, floral arrangements, panty hose, offering plate pitches, and long announcements were nice back in the day. But there is a body emerging within the Body that is increasingly being turned off by such plethora. They're tired of Cheesy Church. (The pastor of one church I visited actually wore a suit that was yellow with three-inch wide brown stripes. No kidding.)

Speaking of authentic Church, I recently visited a church that I believe just may be in the beginning stages of what I described earlier. I hope they're looking for a bigger building....

Here's what I experienced at the Vineyard Church of Ithaca ( I walked into a gym bustling with a very diverse crowd of mostly college age kids. The service began with a half hour of coffee, donuts and mingling (they had me right there). The lead pastor then promptly began his teaching. I was expecting some kind of pre-show, so I had to scramble to get out my notebook and scarf down my french cruller. The message was relevant and applicable. I took notes for the first time in years. And then we worshipped for a while. The band was simple, but they sounded good. The songs were fresh.

We visitors were smiled at, greeted warmly and given a gift bag (picked up at a table) containing a professional music cd and the book The Case for Faith (perfect for college town intellects). We weren't forced to stand and tell our life story. We were allowed to simply enjoy. And enjoy it I did.

And the best part? Visitors were encouraged (in the bulletin) to fill out the church's on-line visitor survey. Wow! I've always felt every church should have a suggestion box.

One final and very important note: Don't assume I'm equating "success" with large numbers, talent or high tech equipment. There are plenty of churches that have all these and more, and yet are failing miserably in weightier matters such as preaching the truth and sincerely caring for the flock. By the same token, there are those small, humble gatherings that offer what I consider the finest in authentic Christianity. I belong to one such group--about eight of us who meet regularly to pray with and edify each other. We've become a family that bears each other's burdens. A replica of the early Church. Success!