Wednesday, April 23, 2008

"Who is Preaching Today?"

One of the dumbest questions I have been asked is the one above. I remember my years as a Sunday School teacher, trying to get materials ready in the Church office an hour before the class. Often, the Church telephone will ring on those early Sunday mornings with only me in the office. After a few rings, the call will usually be transferred to an automated voice system, as Sundays are not considered working days for the Church administration. Sometimes, I will pick up the phone just in case someone needed to contact the pastor urgently. Instead, most of the time, the question will be either: "Who is the speaker today?" or "Who is Preaching today?"

I get irritated at such questions. Out of courtesy, I will simply read out the morning's church bulletin for them. Inside me, I was thinking: "What if I had said, Jesus will be personally speaking to everyone in the Church today, or the Holy Spirit will be present today, or God the Father is giving some commandments today. Please come." "You mean to say that the name of who is preaching today is the main determining factor for coming to Church?"

People have become so sucked into a consumerist mentality that if Monday-Fridays are for them to fill their financial tanks, Saturdays to fill their social tanks, Sundays have become a time for them to fill their spiritual tanks that are running empty. More accurately, they are looking to meet their own needs according to their own sense of tastes. Going to church becomes like picking an ice-cream in front of 31 Baskin Robbins ice-cream flavour. Is this what 'openness to God' looks like? When will we ever get Church members who are mature enough to be open to God, regardless of who preaches that day? Perhaps, this is another reason for people to register their commitment by becoming Church members. Otherwise, non committed people are like nomads that wander from Church to Church, looking for a place that they know not, for food that don't satisfy, for a 'perfect' church will meet their needs. Membership on the other hand, will sway one's restlessness toward becoming a part of that community, to sink-and-swim, to rejoice-and-celebrate together. Come each Sunday, the member will not even think about which church to go to. He will know where, and the attention can be focused on getting the heart ready and right before God. Knowing where to go in advance also helps planning the time and journey properly, though I am aware of many who, despite the preparations are still perennial delinquents in punctuality.

Asking the question "Who is preaching today?" may be an occasional legitimate one, if one feels that he/she cannot worship God properly due to some previous grudge or hurt. There could be a valid reason to avoid church that day. Didn't Jesus say to be reconciled with that brother first before offering one's sacrifice in worship? For example, if a person had been previously hurt by the preacher in some ways due to some insensitive remarks, going to church may affect that person's worship experience or ability to give God the required honour. Another reason could be due to one's consideration of inviting non-Christian friends. Some preachers can speak in too abstract terms that non-Christians can get put off. Other legitimate reasons can be found too, but I think more often than not, people ask the question in a manner so 'matter-of-fact' that they miss out on the true meaning of Church and worship on Sundays. This is a very contagious behaviour that needs to be addressed. It has implications for community and one's sense of spiritual journeying.

They miss out on community, that Church is essentially the coming together of believers in Christ in the local context to worship God TOGETHER. Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes in Life together:
"It is the fellowship of the Cross to experience the burden of the other. If one does not experience it, the fellowship he belongs to is not Christian. If any member refuses to bear that burden, he denies the law of Christ. "
Indeed, it is important to remember that no man is an island. The author of Ecclesiastes wisely writes:"
Two are better than one because they have a good return for their labor.
For if either of them falls, the one will lift up his companion. But woe to the one who falls when there is not another to lift him up. Furthermore, if two lie down together they keep warm, but how can one be warm alone? And if one can overpower him who is alone, two can resist him. A cord of three strands is not quickly torn apart. " (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12)
Coming to Church is coming together as a community again after six days of isolation and immersion in the world. The word 'church' in Greek is ekklesia which means a 'called-out people.' It is a community of believers aptly described by Eugene Peterson's "A long obedience in the same direction." It is not a place to be served, but a place to serve. It is not a place to feed first, but waiting for one another to be fed, even feeding one another.

Unfortunately, it will seem that churches still adopt a more 'performance-driven,' or a utilitarian form of 'purpose-driven' Sunday services paradigm, instead of a 'formation-led' mindset. 'Performance' and to some extent 'purpose-driven' tends to be more information gathering. The latter (formation-mindset), on the other hand adopts a posture of openness, in order to be 'formed' or be used as part of the community being formed together as one body that seeks to honour God together. We must be renewed and transformed in our hearts and minds to see church in terms of 'spiritual formation' rather than a weekly withdrawal of spiritual information from the Bank of Jesus Christ. Instead of a financial-spiritual-material bank, how about opening oneself to walk along the spiritual river 'banks' delineated by the Holy Spirit? There is a sense of direction as the water flows along the banks, with the banks hemming in one's tendency to stray away. Like Jesus who carried his cross along the road to crucifixion, we too have to carry our own crosses together, to crucify our sinful selves, nailing our sins at the cross and see a new us in Christ. If we see fellow brothers and sisters falling, should we not venture forth to support them, like what Simon did when Jesus fell under the heavy cross?

Not only will consumerist-style Christians miss out on community life, they will continue their sense of restlessness and aimlessness on Sunday mornings. Those in the middle to upper echelons of society express their nomadicity in the form of like 'spiritual tourists.' They check out each church congregation on the basis of external appearances and a feel-good criteria. If Church B gives me a better 'feel-good' factor, or if Speaker C inspires me more, then I will make my choices accordingly. I argue against such haphazard choices because it puts the self at the throne instead of God. It makes one the almighty teddy-bear always needing to be hugged by polished speakers and pampered by great ambience. Didn't they know that the early church worship in a climate of fear and capture? Didn't the persecuted church celebrate communion in the dark and uncomfortable catacombs? Diana Butler Bass of Virginia Theological Seminary, who is a director of the Project on Congregations of Intentional Practice, to help Christians embark meaningfully on their spiritual journey writes:
"Becoming a pilgrim means becoming a local who adopts a new place and new identity by learning a new language and new rhythms and practices. Unlike the tourist, a pilgrim's goal is not to escape life, but to embrace it more deeply, to be transformed wholly as a person, with new ways of being in community and new hopes for the world. Being a tourist means experiencing something new; being a pilgrim means becoming someone new. Pilgrimages go somewhere - a transformed life.(Diana Butler Bass & Joseph Stewart-Sicking From Nomads to Pilgrims, Virginia:Alban Institute, 2006, xii)"
One way of living intentionally is to join a community of believers with a spiritual growth plan. It could be a program to move one from doubt to faith; from baby-faith to adult-faith; from seed to plant to tree; from spiritual tourists into spiritual travelers; from nomads to pilgrims. When a person has such a plan, he will not be easily tempted to browse external appearances of one church to another. He will resist making decisions to go to church on the basis of the quality of man. He will be saved from having to make a decision whether to go to church or not. The question will then not be "Which church to go to?" or "Which service to attend?" Instead, he will be free to give due attention to the attitude of the heart. His mind will be rested from the mental assessment of different church statistics in order to arrive at a decision whether or not to attend a church service. Having a commitment to a community and an intentionality toward journeying meaningfully, he will be able to conserve energy resources to worship God more fully.

So who is preaching today? We shouldn't be too bothered about this as long as we are intent to recognize that all of us, speaker included are members of a fallen human community that needs grace and forgiveness from God and one another. We shouldn't worry so much about our spiritual needs not met, because each time we attend church, we are exercising our learning and affirming one another of our unique church identity of which we are a part of. In John 15, Jesus said to his disciples: "I am the vine, you are the branches... (John 15:5a)" Note that the branches is plural, telling us that Jesus is speaking to the disciples as a community. Perhaps, all of us need to remind one another constantly that we are all branches. All of us need to journey toward the Vine who is the Author and Finisher of our faith. We need to progress toward God, who is the Sustainer and in Christ, holds all things together. We need to cling to the cross of Christ, so that our relationship to God remains reconciled and fully restored. With Christ in our minds and hearts, it does not matter where we are, what kind of ambience we are in, as long as Christ is preached, as long as the Holy Spirit is present and as long as God the Father is glorified in the community in love. Who the worship leader is that day does not matter, because God is in their midst. Who the preacher is, who leads the singing or who make the announcements does not matter, as it is all about God, not us. It is all about the Vinedresser, the Vine, the Master of the Universe. It is about God. May we always remember that.



justanotherchristianblog said...

I often go to 2 churches cause the church I work at only has 1 service a week. People have gotten very picky I greately suspect though - they have a slew of options for church these days, most of those churches they can choose from are large churches that they can slip in and out of no problem. I prefer the smaller churches myself went to a small foursquare church for 2 1/2 years, then they bought a large church and their congregation grew and the intimacy that was there before went away ----- it was sad! People have a hard time I think commiting to the big churches....I know I do!

YAPdates said...

To justanotherchristianblog,

May the Lord bless your heart as you seek for deeper ways to connect to God. Attending and staying committed to any church is in some ways a calling in itself. Some people find that despite missing out their desired worship experiences, they can still feel called to remain at a specific church during a specific phase of their lives. The way to discover such calling is best done within the context of a community, rather than doing it alone.

With care and peace as you serve the Lord wherever you go.


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