The Lookout | 6.14.09
By Alan Dowd
“God shops at Sam’s Club,” declared my almost-three-year-old nephew one Sunday afternoon. “It’s where He gets all the stuff for us,” he explained.
I’m almost 100-percent certain that the creator of the universe doesn’t belong to a wholesale club, but my nephew’s explanation about God’s bounty had an elegant and simple logic to it: After all, everybody shops. Why wouldn’t God?
As they often do, my nephew’s words got me thinking. We seem to shop around for just about everything—food and friends, houses and spouses, TVs and CDs, DVDs and SUVs.
We are consummate consumers. And we want—even expect—things tailored to our tastes, built to suit our wants, customized for our three favorite people: Me, Myself and I.
It’s no surprise that many of us expect the same from our churches and try to Tivo our worship experience to suit us—and only us.
So we choose the church or the service with upbeat “praise music,” as if hymns weren’t praise songs.
We choose the positive, practical pastor, the one that keeps the tithing talk to a minimum—all the cheap grace we can get in 45 minutes and none of that messy introspection that comes with repentance.
We expect relevant, socially conscious messages but nothing that makes us uncomfortable, nothing judgmental, as if Jesus never made people feel uncomfortable.
And we want a church that welcomes casual dress and has the laidback feel of a Starbucks.
With all those boxes checked, we are ready to worship on our terms, to encounter God somewhere between the coffee kiosk and the last stanza of “Shout to the Lord”.
If you think the problems with this ala carte Christianity only come as a byproduct of contemporary worship styles, think again.
Be honest: Some of you reading this truly believe that wearing anything less than a suit and tie on Sunday is just short of sinful, as if Jesus ever cared about what’s on the outside.
Likewise, some of us think the grand old hymns of the Church are the only “appropriate” form of worship, forgetting that every hymn was once a new song. In fact, the Psalms call on us to “Sing to Him a new song.”[i]
Some of us believe that our pastor has to have a PhD and a collar for his sermon to count, forgetting that Jesus’ words were so simple that children and uneducated fishermen understood Him, yet so profound that they still confound us.
Some of us demand solemn sermons full of fire and brimstone, as if Jesus never made anyone laugh—or ever scared someone into following Him.
And with all those boxes checked, we are ready to worship on our terms, to encounter God somewhere between the prelude and the doxology.
Whatever form it takes, ala carte Christianity is not healthy for the Church as a whole or me as an individual because it, in effect, makes me the focus of things—not my fellowman and certainly not Jesus. At its worst, it feeds an ugly side of our humanness, which Paul discussed in his letter to the Philippians.
Paul worried and warned about those who are focused on their own comfort. “Their god is their stomach,” he observed. “All they think of is their appetites.”[ii] This certainly applies to the gluttonous, carnal and sensual. But it also is a commentary on the self-absorbed, on those of us focused on the trappings of faith rather than “the author and perfecter of faith.”[iii]
So how do we turn away from this compartmentalized, consumer-driven Christianity?
When in doubt, take a page from the Book of Acts. For 2,000 years, it has been a guidebook for Christian community—and an antidote to ala carte Christianity.
One of the most common themes of Acts is togetherness, reminding us that we are the Body of Christ—not me. In my Bible, the word “together” is sprinkled throughout the Book of Acts, appearing at least 25 times. There’s a message in that for us: We are designed not to be the creators and consumers of our own tailor-made versions of Christianity, but to be connected to each other and to Christ.
That means we should worship together. Look at the differences that could have divided the early Church: There were Jewish fishermen and Roman soldiers, scholarly priests and illiterate shepherds, men and women, Greeks and Mesopotamians, Egyptians and Libyans, Arabs and Ethiopians. I imagine they brought very different tastes and preferences to worship, yet they set aside those differences and came together.
Acts 2 tells us that the Holy Spirit came upon the believers when “they were all together in one place.” Obviously, the Holy Spirit shows up whenever and wherever He chooses. As Jesus explained to Nicodemus, “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”[iv]
In other words, the Spirit is not beholden to us. But it’s significant that He came upon them that first Pentecost not in their narrow little worlds, but at a moment of togetherness. And their togetherness was more than simply being in the same room. They were on the same page.
They “ate together,” “continued to meet together” and “were together and had everything in common.” Their focus was on Jesus and others—not themselves.
In Acts 3, we learn that together they healed the sick and shared the Good News with the lost.
Acts 4 tells how together they found courage to stand up and speak out, were of one heart and one mind, and reached out to high authorities.
In Acts 5, they withstood testing and persecution. And one reason they were able to do so was the bond they had developed. It was during these hard times that they learned what Solomon meant when he wrote, “Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.”[v]
In Acts 8 and 10, they broke down barriers and divisions of religion, culture and race. Philip preached the Word to an Ethiopian government official. Peter was in fellowship “with the saints of Lydda” and healed a crippled man, raised a woman from the dead and lived with a tanner—a not-so-subtle reminder that this observant Jew, who would not have gone near someone so unclean before Christ, had been transformed by Christ.
Acts 10 deepens the theme of togetherness and unity by telling how Peter the Jewish fisherman and Cornelius the Roman military officer became brothers in Christ through the intervention of the Holy Spirit.
By Acts 15, these followers of Christ had blossomed into leaders for Christ. They reasoned together, came to consensus and offered advice that still guides the Church. As Peter concluded, “God made no distinction between us and them”—between Jew and Gentile, the root and the grafted branch, the old and the new, the hymnals and high-def screens, the neckties and blue jeans.
In short, the men and women of the early Church weren’t shopping around for what met their narrow needs. They didn’t see themselves as individual consumers or customers waiting to be served. Rather, they were part of a community and eager to serve.
We should learn from them.
Back to the Banquet
So how do we turn away from ala carte Christianity and turn back to the Lord’s great banquet table?
You and I could start by sharing worship time, once and a while, with a friend who attends a different church—one that agrees on the essentials, of course, but approaches Christ in a different way.
If you worship at a liturgical church, step out of your comfort zone and praise our savior in a more free-form setting. Leave your watch at home and let the Holy Spirit take the reins of your Sabbath. Feel the energy and emotion of a praise band that loses itself in the Lord, or a Gospel choir lifting hands and voices.
If you worship in a non-liturgical setting, participate in a liturgy and be reminded that Jesus worshipped the Father in a tradition-rich environment. Remember, He was and is our High Priest. Liturgy is not about stale order. At its best, it’s about reverencing a holy, perfect God. It’s about being quiet enough to hear that still small voice, sensitive enough to be overwhelmed by the energy and emotion of “Holy, Holy, Holy” powered by a pipe organ, humble enough to glimpse the chasm that separates man and God—and to be awestruck by what He did to bridge the distance.
Worshipping in a different setting not only reminds us that the Body of Christ extends beyond ourselves and beyond our sanctuary’s walls; it also presents opportunities to reach across those divisions and distinctions that Peter declared dead and gone—the ones you and I create by fashioning our own little versions of Christianity.
[i]See Psalm 33, 96 and 98.
[ii]See Philippians 3:17-21, NIV and The Message.
[iii] Hebrews 12:2.