In Defense of the Boring Church: Sitting Still for the Spirit

A few Monday mornings ago worn out after a full Sunday of worship services, I made the mistake of rolling over in bed, picking up my cell phone, and opening my mobile Facebook page. Staring at me from my “news feed” was a picture of inflatable Bible figures in what looked like a red-walled dance club posted by a member of my congregation. I knew immediately that this scene wasn’t from mychurch, and the accompanying comment confirmed my suspicion.

This young family was leaving my church for brighter, flashier, and more exciting ecclesial pastures. They had finally found a church their son could be happy in (and so they were happy, too). He had even received an ice cream sandwich after the Bible story time. Who can blame the parents’ reasoning?

As their now-former pastor I was discouraged. This incident added to my nagging anxieties, doubts, and fears about the future: Had I made a mistake dedicating my life to a mainline (read: unexciting) church? It did not take much to imagine a line of similar families heading for the exits. I couldn’t help but wonder: was the future of the church resting on the provision of ice cream sandwiches?

As most readers know, the future of churches in the West does not look bright. Rather than yawning through worship services on Sundays, many people are choosing to just stay in bed. No matter how hard we pastors try to relate to people’s lives by quoting Bono, using the latest Batman movie in a sermon, or turning up the volume of the praise band, the exodus continues. It’s as if we have been shouting “pay attention” so hard that we are starting to lose our voice. No one can hear us, and no one cares. And why should they?

Over the past few decades, North American churches have unintentionally raised a generation of young people believing in a completely new religion: Moral Therapeutic Deism (“MTD”). Drawing on the findings of the National Study of Youth and Religion, Princeton professor Dr. Kenda Dean summarizes MTD in her book, Almost Christian, as, “a tacit religious outlook that is quite distinct from Christianity, Judaism, Islam, or any of the world’s major religions, (that) helps people be nice, feel good, and leaves God in the background.” If we’ve raised a generation of young people on the idea that God belongs in the background, why are we surprised when they no longer have any interest searching for God in church?

The glitz and glamour of many churches succeeds at keeping people entertained, feeling good, and being nice. Who needs to say much about God to a generation raised on the refrain of Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit, “Here we are now, entertain us”? However, we would do well to remember what happened to Kurt Cobain when the music stopped.

Entertainment pursued as an end in itself often ends badly. If this were not the case we would all live in Disneyland and eat ice cream sandwiches three meals a day. Living in endless entertainment is no way to be human. Religion rooted in entertainment may sprout quickly, but will either quickly wither away or be choked out by other amusements – the weeds of a culture that spends billions of dollars entertaining its citizens. How can the still small voice of God compete with the cult of personality showing on the big screen? How can the light of Christ compete with the smoke and lights used to fill up an arena? How can the Holy Spirit speak through a medium that overwhelms the message?

In one of the memorable sections of his memoir, “The Pastor,” Eugene Peterson recounts the story of warning a fellow pastor from his pastors’ group about leaving his small, community church to go to a bigger church with more people and more money. Peterson cautions the pastor about the temptation and ecstasy of the crowds. He says, Christians are quick to warn people of the perils of the ecstasy of drugs, alcohol, and sex, but slow, if not completely silent, about the dangers of the crowds. The desire to attract, entertain, and sustain a church for mass appeal can slowly drain it of its soul. The church becomes more of a strip mall than sanctuary.

As Peterson writes, the crowd “takes us out of ourselves, but not to God, only away from him.”

In American Christianity we often unthinkingly celebrate bigger, brighter, and bolder as necessarily better. Historically viewed, however, this seems more American than Christian. In the famous Grand Inquisitor section The Brothers Karamazov, the inquisitor, a 90-year-old religious authority, tells a disguised and imprisoned Jesus that he made a mistake in the desert by resisting the three temptations. When tempted, Jesus refused the power to win human beings over by providing bread, dazzling them with miracles, or coercing them by earthly power.

The inquisitor says Jesus made himself too easy to reject by refusing to use these powers. In fact, the inquisitor pronounces, “if there has ever been on earth a real stupendous miracle, it took place on that day, on the day of the three temptations.” By resisting those temptations, Jesus declined the use of coercive and manipulative tactics and provided the opportunity for a human decision made in freedom.

The desire to entertain and coerce – whether in the mega church, the multi-site campus, or the prayer meeting – nullifies the very freedom Christ came to establish. In his rejection of coercion, Jesus created the basis for human freedom. The boring church puts this freedom in the front and center of its worship. It chooses to risk boredom rather than the false fruits of a spirituality created through entertainment. The blaring music, the hot-throated preaching, and hubbub of church activity can all-too easily crowd out the still small voice.

Coercive entertainment in church is a serious threat to the spiritual life for the reason that a person doesn’t experience entertainment as coercion. The very point of entertainment, marketing, and advertising is to sell you something without you understanding it as a sales-pitch. Therefore what we often experience in church as a free encounter with God is only a highly researched and controlled religious sale’s campaign. Am I worshiping God or the worship leader’s voice? Was that God warming my heart or the preacher’s market-researched anecdote? Are mykids learning about God or just how to appreciate dessert in church? In many churches, people are being entertained so much that God has faded far into the background.

I am not suggesting that people shouldn’t enjoy church or that they shouldn’t smile, laugh, or dance. They should. I’m questioning the way that many churches design their worship service in the same way they would direct a movie or produce a concert. The 17th century philosopher and scientist Blaise Pascal calls much of this kind of effort, distraction. In fact, he famously blamed all of humanity’s problems on the inability for people to stay quietly in their own rooms. If Pascal is onto something, then surely many of our churches are only acerbating humanity’s problems. Our efforts add up to one big distraction from what, or rather whom, we should be focused on. By designing and participating in these distractions, we rob our people of the opportunity to experience authentic—not entertainment-induced— moments of the Spirit.

Settling our souls down enough to be present to ourselves and to God takes self-discipline and focus. We must shutout distraction and open ourselves up to God’s movement to meet us. This means creating free, non-coercive spaces of silence and contemplation. It is in these moments of contemplation, of quiet silence, that God meets us in a pure act of grace. In other words, in contemplation we silence our words and thoughts and submit all emotion and desire to the one who stands as the source of everything that exists. In these moments, no one moves, thinks, or speaks except God. I guess if God doesn’t show up, then it could end up being, well, boring. This is risky religion.

To sit alone with one’s self can be scary. William Butler Yeats declared, “It takes more courage to examine the dark corners of your own soul than it does for a soldier to fight on a battlefield.” It will take much courage to avoid the seductive pitfalls of entertainment and risk the experience of boredom in the church. Boring church doesn’t sell well to the masses and doesn’t attract a crowd. For these reasons, it strikes fear into the hearts of pastors, church administrators, and an industry founded on the purchasing power of Christian consumers. Though the boring church, like a well-aged wine, a slow-cooked BBQ, or a long distance runner, may not start out looking like much, it is a long-term bet. The fires of boredom will burn off the extraneous religious distraction and focus people on the true object of worship and devotion.

In his first novel, Invisible Monsters, Chuck Palahniuk (also author of Fight Club) gave words to the feelings of many Sunday churchgoers when he warned, “All God does is watch us and kill us when we get boring. We must never, ever be boring.” We would do well to consider whether this is an accurate description of our relationship with God. For it seems that many people have assumed it to be true, and by their constant activity have made it appear so. Now is the time to stop and consider the long-term effects of a church culture that aspires to solely entertain its members. If people come to church seeking entertainment, while they may be satisfied for a time, they will soon head out in search of more entertaining options. And in our culture, it will not be difficult to meet this desire. In the entertainment game, the church is fighting a losing battle.

Another path for the church might be to invite people to commit to community, to endure silence, to pray without ceasing, to hold one eye open through the sermon, and to risk boredom in church. Just like Jesus in the desert with the three temptations, this might be the surprising place where we experience the stupendous miracle of grace. These uncoerced, completely free, and God-initiated moments of grace are worth more than an arena full of ice cream sandwiches.

But to sit still and risk boredom isn’t easy, for in our entertainment culture, the seemingly easiest thing can often be the hardest thing to do.

— [Image by SPDuchamp, CC via Flickr]

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