by Mike Bishop and T Freeman
Recently I (Mike) heard Todd Hunter reference a statistic that 80% of the time, energy, and money spent by many churches goes towards making weekend services happen. Now I’m an industrial engineer by training and the idea of spending 80% of my resources on one thing offends my cost-conscious sensibilities. This focused expenditure has had many consequences. In my experience “Sunday-Centric” churches are always fighting to keep up with the Joneses. In the name of relevancy, enormous sums of money are spent aimed at keeping the attention of a congregation immersed in a market-driven world. Americans (Christians included) are, what Gordon Cosby suggests, “Addicted to culture.” It is naïve to suppose that presenting the Gospel, the way of Jesus, in a mass-marketing style will do anything else than feed into consumer tendencies. In this article, T and I want to suggest a polemic for combating a consumer-driven orientation and hopefully become the kind of communities who consistently demonstrate the reality of the kingdom to a desperate culture.
Last Sunday, our faith community in West Palm Beach worshipped God together. The similarities between what we did and what most every other church in our area did ended there. To me, worship is the identifying mark of the people of God. Not the Bible, not preaching, teaching, or anything else you do in a building on Sunday mornings. “You are what you worship” or so the saying goes. You cannot be a kingdom community without some expression of worship for the King.
But what is worship? After wrestling (with no lack of conflict) with this question for a few months, we decided to perform a few experiments in collaborative worship. On a Sunday morning in early February, we converged on a small three-bedroom house in an old Lake Worth neighborhood. Lori, a single woman in our community, had just recently moved in with two other roommates. The house was probably built in the 50’s or 60’s and had a backyard to match. It was overgrown with weeds, vines from the neighbor’s yards, and had old lawn equipment and cinder blocks strewn everywhere. So we arrived, Amber and I with our 18-month-old son Jackson, carrying our weapons of warfare: shovels and rakes, weed-wackers and hedge-clippers, gloves and garden hoes. Lori and her mom had a pot of coffee brewing and Kim had her delicious coffee cake laid out on the back porch. Mark, who spends his weekend nights parking cars at a Palm Beach hotel to help support his family, showed up bleak-eyed with his wife Suzanna, two sons Caleb and Silas, and sister-in-law Hope. Ines, her mother Amanda, and brother Manny, all from the Dominican, arrived just in time to enjoy a simple breakfast on the porch. This was not a scheduled ‘service’, but just a group of friends gathering informally for worship.
To help set the context, after breakfast I read the introduction to Genesis in Peterson’s “The Message.” Then I passed the book around the porch and we read the first chapter. Everyone, even Caleb with his 7-year-old reading skills shining for all to see (and they were quite excellent), read a small part of the Story. As we began swapping ideas for the yard, it was undeniable what we were there to do – worship the Creator with shovels, rakes, and clippers.
Later that afternoon I had a few images stuck in my mind: Caleb eating oranges on top of Lori’s shed with sunlight streaming through the leaves. Jackson scooping dirt out of an old flowerbed and dumping it all over his shirt. Mark and T destroying a rogue vine. Relaxing on the back porch after an impromptu Dominican-style lunch prepared by Ines and Amanda. Lori’s mom telling stories, enjoying the beauty of the day. And of course, Lori’s new back yard.
N.T. Wright mentions in his book “The Challenge of Jesus” that people will put up with all kinds of theological weirdness but watch out if you ever mess with their symbols. The Jewish people in first century Palestine defined themselves by Torah, Temple, Sabbath, Land, and Family. Wright argues that Jesus’ words and actions usurped these major Jewish symbols and offered a Kingdom alternative centered on himself, which of course led to his death on the cross. I want to argue that in many cases, Christians have defined themselves by the symbol of the corporate church gathering – “I go to such-and-such church on Sunday…I’m a member at First Church of My-town…Yeah, I’m a Christian, I went to my Bible study just last night.” This symbol has become just as strong in the minds of many Christians as going to the temple was to a Jew. However, going to a meeting where Christians are present no more makes you a Christian than going to the temple made you Jewish. Although this may seem obvious to most (especially pastors, who seem to have a very difficult time seeing things from their congregation’s perspective,) it is nonetheless a major stumbling block. Our response should not simply be more teaching. The symbol of “Sunday-go-to-meeting” Christianity will not die easily. Action is required, symbolic action.
I think there is a huge misunderstanding occurring between those who are still heavily invested in a meeting-centric way of being church and those of us experimenting with new ways. We are not simply asking that preaching be more narrative-oriented or churches be more aware of the increasingly foreign emerging culture in which they are trying to evangelize. We are not suggesting a new ‘model’ for church to be reproduced indiscriminately. And we are certainly not saying that corporate church gatherings are wrong and should be abandoned. We are attempting, by word and deed, to break once and for all the separation between sacred and secular, between faith and life.
As I (T) began reflecting on our yard work-worship time together, I was surprised to see that a particular belief in me (that I’ve struggled hard to hang on to at times) had been strengthened—the conviction that my whole life is an offering to God; that there is no sacred/secular divide. I couldn’t help but think as I looked back, “If yanking weeds and pulling fruit really was worship—and it was—then my whole life really can be worship.”
Interestingly, I didn’t go out in the yard that day in order to strengthen my belief that there is no secular/sacred division. I thought I already knew and believed that. Nevertheless, by my participation in actions that crossed sacred/secular lines, a lie that had hindered my life, that had deeper roots than I realized, had been dug-up and thrown away. The Sunday morning worship service, which is the most sacred of times to American Evangelicals (and sometimes the time most detached from daily life), got very ordinary and involved and . . . secular. By worshipping God, even on Sunday morning, with every-day-life kind of work, we, as a church, lived out a rarely lived truth and thereby quietly helped to destroy one of the biggest lies that Satan has used to dominate our lives and the lives of many others, namely the secular/sacred division.
The thought that I would like all Christians to consider, particularly those who lead others, is that acting out a truth in a daily life setting is a darn good way to make that truth seem workable or applicable to daily life—for participants and observers alike. Are we, as the American Church, inadvertently subverting or strengthening the sacred/secular divide by our own practices and lives? Acting out a truth, not merely hearing it, is what subverts the kingdom of darkness within us and those around us and allows us to enter the kingdom of God. Are our practices/services more focused on announcing truth in a so-called sacred space, or doing truth in a so-called secular one? In our attempts to avoid being marginalized, are we staying in (and fleeing to) the margins the world has crafted for us?
The secular/sacred divide is (only) one particularly widespread lie within ourselves and American Christians as a whole. As a result of this lie, we routinely adopt a “secular” identity 6 ½ days of the week or more, or we struggle not to, unless, of course, we’re in “full-time ministry.” But how can we attack this and other lies that people are basing their lives on? Should we have an accepted “sacred” man teach against it within a “sacred” place at a “sacred” time? Or should we cross a line and then defend it with the teaching? Jesus acted in a way that challenged false ideas, and then he gave his teachings in that context. His listeners had to deal with them both linked together. We, too, need to link some teaching with practice, some sacred and secular, some deeds with words. We need to incarnate the truth we proclaim. We must act in a way that confronts the lies we’re swimming in. One thing Dallas Willard is fond of saying (I think it bothers him deeply) is that “our systems are perfectly designed to get the results we are now getting.” No one apparently disputes that the lives of people within American churches are strikingly similar to the lives of Americans outside of church communities except for their Sunday and possible Wednesday calendar. Is this so? (I’m really asking—I don’t know.) To whatever extent it is, we as Christians in this culture have to consider whether we should restructure our practices, our services, our worship, our lives, our systems, our actions to confront the specific lies that are dominating us and our neighbors. Otherwise, according to the book of James, we’re only fooling ourselves.
Mike Bishop and T Freeman live in West Palm Beach, Florida. They worship, share stories, and try to live out the Gospel with a group of friends who call themselves The Vineyard. You can read about their journey atwww.whatischurch.com/weblog.