Faithfully Thinking: Which is more real, new or old time religion?

Church isn’t what it used to be and that can be both a good and a bad thing.

Yes, it’s good that the pastor’s who screamed hell and damnation at every service is fading out of the mainstream, but I’m not sure that it’s a great thing the pendulum has swung entirely the other direction and now we have pastors telling people to do whatever makes them feel good because God loves them anyway. God does love them no matter what, but I don’t know telling people to do whatever they want is the message God wants them to be pushing.

Today church is like going to a full-fledged concert, complete with fancy lights and singers and dancers and sound systems and a complete stage show leading up to the headliner – which is of course the pastor presenting the sermon.

Up until this past Sunday I thought these halftime-show type of churches was only something found in bigger cities, but while looking up an old college friend online I learned there is a copy cat style church near us, complete with fancy backdrop and professional sound system.

I watch a church service based out of Charlotte, N.C. every Sunday and it’s one of those churches that holds a 30-minute worship concert before the pastor, dressed in ripped jeans and a trendy shirt, comes out to preach. I actually love the pastor at the church and feel the worship is heartfelt and truly “worshipful” and not simply entertainment. To me the pastor is very honest about his doubts as a Christian and his awareness that many Christians don’t always feel good enough but pretend they’re fine. In my opinion, he is not at all the caricature his detractors paint him out to be. I’m impressed that he never ends a service without an altar call and always asks for everyone to stand until the Word of God has been read.

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Still, I sometimes feel uneasy with the slightly staged feeling of the service overall – the way you know when the sermon is going to end because the keyboard and base players appear in the background to begin playing the pastor’s “background music” to accentuate the emotional, serious final sermon point; how they break away during the music so they can show someone being “spontaneously” baptized in a big tub/pool in the lobby; and how you can see customers at the the merchandise store behind the commentators who talk about the sermon on the Youtube channel after it’s over, making sure they commemorate their visit to the church that now has their own touring worship band.

Though there are parts of the service that make me uncomfortable, I feel the pastor and others associated with the church are sincere and believe what they preach. There are times the Holy Spirit does seem to be leading the service such as when the main pastor swerves off script and prays or preaches a little longer than he should (he has to be careful because he preaches and they broadcast two morning services so he doesn’t let the Spirit get too out of control).

But then there are the churches trying to copy the church I watch or similar churches. The local church that I watched a little of this weekend featured frightened-looking women with large, fake smiles plastered on their faces saying things like “Tell Jesus you love him this morning. Okay? That’s right. We love Jesus.” without even blinking. Creeeepy.

The churches that have worship concerts to kick off services are mainly aimed at the younger crowd, who apparently need constant entertainment to feel like life is real. Maybe I’m an old fart at the ripe age of 42, but sometimes the inability to present the gospel without a light show is disconcerting to me.  I love worship bands and worship singers possessing long hair, tats up and down their arms, and recording contracts, don’t get me wrong. I believe many of these worship leaders are anointed and aren’t after the fame. There are others, though, who are just the opposite. As Christians we have to be careful and weed out which is which; not always an easy task.

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I miss when we went to church and there was a little lady up front playing piano and the congregation joined their voices together and could be heard, instead of being drowned out by the pounding drums and the singer showing off his or her vocal acrobatics. I miss the pastor simply preaching to preach, not to make sure he produced a Twitter-worthy quote or an Instagram-story worthy clip. I miss people trying to save souls instead of reputations. I miss when a relationship with God was personal and not an effort to seem popular.

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Can there still be the personal outreach and the intimate connection with God in a church that uses a light show and a sound system to dazzle our eyes and tickle our senses? Of course there can be and, of course, I still feel God is moving in a church that sometimes seems preoccupied with appearance. Even with the show, with the light, with the perfect color-coordinated advertising campaigns, there is definitely some real preaching going on in some (the keyword being some) of these types of churches.

But we can definitely get lost in all the perfectly crafted moments and lose sight of the simple, uncomplicated, God we are here on Earth to worship and fellowship with. God doesn’t need our light shows or YouTube Channels. He doesn’t need our new clothing lines with the names of our churches emblazoned on T-shirts and beanie hats. He doesn’t need big buildings or big screens and he doesn’t care about subscribers or followers.

All he wants is to have a relationship with us and we need to be careful that the pounding drums and the raging guitar and the pastor’s catchphrase don’t drown out his voice.

 

Faithfully Thinking: More thoughts on the doubts even Christians have

Last week I wrote about feeling fake as a Christian when I find myself doubting my faith because of the suffering some people face.

I never know if anyone will read my posts when I write them but I write anyhow, I guess as a form of catharsis for myself and also in case someone else feels they are alone in the same thoughts.

I don’t often receive a response to my more melancholy posts, which is okay because I assume my friends are simply praying for me and aren’t sure how to respond. When a friend or reader does respond it is usually to thank me because they have felt the same way but never knew how to say it or even if they should.  

The private message I received from a friend in response to that post was heartfelt, deep and thought provoking.

With his permission I am sharing part of that response here today. 

“I read your blog post about sometimes we are fake. I wanted to share some thoughts on it and thank you for authenticity.

Suffering and struggle and doubt do not make us less Christian. St. Thomas doubted the ultimate hope until he was knuckle deep in the wounds of Christ. The Apostles huddled in doubt and fear and would not believe the first message of the Resurrection. Face to face with Christ in life and in glorified resurrection….they denied and doubted.

We are weak. That is not an indictment of humanity, but one of the gifts. If we were not weak, we would not need each other. We would not know we need Christ. In Scripture and the history of Saints many of those who are loved and called by Him scream at Him in rage, doubt…run….weep.

When I was ten my mother was dying. No one would say it out loud. But there I was, a little kid good at theology, pious  to a fault. Everyone said I would be a priest. I thought I would. But I asked Mom, because I could not understand…”Why are you going to die? Why are you sick?”

And she said that when God forms us it is art and sometimes it is like a painting…painless. Sometimes it is like pottery. Sometimes there is fire and there is pain. But the potter alone knows the form of the clay and what will make it the best it can be. And pottery, even with the suffering because of the suffering, is stronger than a painting.

She said if someone else had her cancer maybe they would lose faith in Him. And if that was so, she was glad to have it.

Glad to have it.

I remember even then thinking, ‘I will never be her. I will never be that much of a Christian.’

I did not understand it all.

And I asked her why God would fire her like pottery into death. And she said, “Love, my life was a painting. I’m not the one He’s forming right now.”

Through the pains and poverty of my life, that continue in many ways, I have held on to the fact that the most Christian woman I knew faced slow painful death, fading from her children, without blinking, without hate or accusations at God. And she held herself weaker than others. She, to herself, was a painting. Wonderfully made and beautiful but less hard, tested and worked than pottery. She was telling me, it will be ok to doubt, grieve, scream at the heavens. It will not make you less a Christian. It will make you a stronger member of His army.

When my brother died at age 35, his two daughters were just younger than my sister and I were when Mom died. My sister had been so angry at God for years after mom died. So angry before dealing with it all. And our youngest niece (not knowing how her aunt had been) asked if it was ok to be mad at God. And my sister knelt to get eye to eye with her and said, “God’s big enough to handle it. He wants you to give it to Him. And if you do that by being angry with Him, doubting Him…it’s ok. He loves you.”

As Christians we walk a balance between the weakness of our humanity and the strength of being made in the Image of God.

Tolkien puts it best in this work “Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth” in the history of Middle Earth books.

It is a debate between the human wise woman Andreth and the Elven lord Finrod on the nature of things.

Andreth: They say that the One will himself enter into Arda, and heal Men and all the Marring from the beginning to the end. This they say also, or they feign, is a rumour that has come down through years uncounted, even from the days of our undoing.

And earlier Finrod gives a perfect description of Christian Hope:

‘Have ye then no hope?’ said Finrod.

‘What is hope?’ she said. ‘An expectation of good, which though uncertain has some foundation in what is known? Then we have none.’

‘That is one thing that Men call “hope”,’ said Finrod. ’Amdir we call it, “looking up”. But there is another which is founded deeper. Estel we call it, that is “trust”. It is not defeated by the ways of the world, for it does not come from experience, but from our nature and first being. If we are indeed the Eruhin, the Children of the One, then He will not suffer Himself to be deprived of His own, not by any Enemy, not even by ourselves. This is the last foundation of Estel, which we keep even when we contemplate the End: of all His designs the issue must be for His Children’s joy. Amdir you have not, you say. Does no Estel at all abide?’

-J.R.R. Tolkien, The History of Middle-earth X: Morgoth’s Ring, “Athrabeth Finrod Ah Andreth”

So our hope..is in the Resurrection we have Estel. But it is not less Christian to have failings in Amdir.

We all doubt. We all wonder why at times. We all scream it inside at time until our heart breaks. Thank you for mentioning it out loud because I do believe God wants us to – because that shows us we are not alone, we need each other in this world.

He could take all suffering in this world away. He could make reward and prosperity and joy here a point by point reward for goodness. He does not. There are many reasons Theology lists for why that is. But those reasons are flat and tasteless to a suffering heart. And that suffering heart is united to the Cross. So that alone means it can never make us less Christian. Even though we often worry about that.”