I sometimes get accused of being negative. Okay, fine, this post is definitely negative. However, it is not a blaming or accusing post. It is merely describing something bizarre and ugly — patchwork bodies of Christ, slapping together bits and pieces (s0me dead) to create a well-intentioned mockery of life. Harsh? You bet. But the Frankenstein monster — as well intentioned as he might have been — was a monster nonetheless. Many of our patchwork churches — no less well-intentioned — produce some pretty monstrous results as well.
When I travelled as a consultant for congregational revitalization, the number one question I asked was, “Why?” Why do you offer worship? Why do you preach a sermon? Why do you have a Sunday school? Why do you have a worship committee (when the pastor/music director makes all the decisions?) Why do you only have one service? Why do you have more than one service? Why? Why? Why? I always pushed to have people explain the rationale and justification of everything they were doing as a church. Want to know something troubling, though? Most church leaders struggled to answer the “why” question?
We offer worship because we’re a church and that’s what churches do.
We have Sunday school because the parents expect it.
We have one service because everyone needs to be together.
We have two services so we can reach more people.
We have a worship committee so that someone will change the paraments.
Lots of answers, but no real explanations. Without clarity about “why” we do something, what we do doesn’t much matter. And what we don’t do doesn’t much matter, either. Holy Communion services that discard confession, pardon, invitation and the Great Thanksgiving; baptismal services that allow no congregational response or affirmation; worship services lacking an offering or invitation to discipleship, sanctuaries without crosses, Bibles, and candles; worship services with no scriptures read, no prayers prayed. Instead, there is a hodge-podge of often unrelated songs, skits, movie/TV clips, or “exercises to open our Spirit wells.” Crooked projection screens, tangles of wires, drum kits, music stands, and laptop computers compete for space at the chancel, and huge soundboards, projectors, speakers, and lights crowd the sanctuary. Am I against technology and progress? By no means. It’s just that over the crackle and buzz in many sanctuaries I can distinctly hear Colin Clive shriek, “IT’s ALIVE!”
Many of our older facilities resist being upgraded. It is sad to enter many churches designed for an earlier time modified to handle coffee shops, book stores, video arcades, welcome centers, DVD kiosks, etc. They end up looking like crazed evangelical Robo-Cops, metal and plastic protruding from old, worn, polished wood. The intention is to make our outdated facilities more appealing to a modern (post-modern?) crowd, but is that what happens?
In many different surveys with the young, the younger, the spiritual seeker, and those unaffiliated with the church, the overall impact of our best efforts is not impressive. The following comments represent different responses at different times over a fifteen year period. They all refer to churches attempts to be modern, appealing, contemporary, or cool:
It’s like when my mom wears my clothes? I can never wear them again because I can’t get the picture of how gnarly she looks in them out of my head? This church is like that. It’s really embarrassing.
My uncle never throws anything away, so his house always looks like a rummage sale about to happen. Cramming all the instruments in that sanctuary makes me think of my uncle’s house.
The cafe next to the church library and the information desk by the nursery? It kind of looks like a mall, but not a good mall. It looks like one of those sad malls.
That little dinky crooked screen and the little projector? That was just weird. If you’re going to do it that badly, don’t do it at all.
It didn’t feel like church and it didn’t feel like NOT church. A guy in our neighborhood bought this really beautiful old house, the he painted it purple and put all this modern sculpture around it. Everybody that drives by goes, “what the hell?” All the modern stuff in the old sanctuary reminds me of that guy’s house.
Man, I would love to have those speakers and the big screens, but that was painful. The acoustics in that room sucked. That is like the wrong room for that kind of power.
They have all this incredible equipment, but they don’t know how to use it. They have that awesome projection system and they show these boring slides. The timing and transitions were way off on the music and it looked like they were just learning how to use it. It was very distracting.
This is like a place that doesn’t know what it wants to be.
I feel like this church is embarrassed to be a church and it really wants to be liked, so it does cool stuff to make people forget it’s a church and like it better. If it doesn’t want to be a church, it should just be something else, because this is lame.
The poor use of equipment, technology, space, music, media, people, food, and other resources is worse than not using them at all. In the same way the Frankenstein monster is a mockery of life, Frankenchurch monstrosities are a mockery of spiritual community. It isn’t that we shouldn’t do these things. It isn’t that we don’t need both space and grace to learn how to do them. The point I am making is that too often we simply slap together what everyone else is doing without fully integrating WHY we want to do something with trying to do it. Almost universally, research shows that a poor use of technology is more off-putting than the non-use of technology. Some interesting research into technology use in churches shows that most churches overbuy technology — purchasing technology that they don’t need and never use. For example, I went into a church recently that had a professional soundboard, but they had taped down 80% of the switches and knobs because they didn’t use or need them. In another church I found “stadium” projectors that actually raised the room temperature because they were so strong. Having too much or too good or too powerful is no better than having inadequate.
Slapdash, patchwork imitations of well-designed, well-executed, integrated change look bad and do more damage than good. The desire to have what others have and do what others do is seductive, but unless we can do it well, we probably shouldn’t do it at all. With many young moderns we are losing all credibility. They look at cheap imitation and poor attempts to mimic quality and they dismiss the church as a sham. People don’t need any more excuses to think we don’t know what we’re doing.
Why do we do the kind of worship we do? How well do we do it? Why do we offer educational and formational experiences in our churches? What is required to do them well? Why do we want to use technology? How does it enhance (or detract) from what we are trying to convey? It isn’t that we shouldn’t add new techniques, technologies, and tricks into our worship and learning life, but we should always attempt to do so as seamlessly and with as much integrity as possible. Otherwise, the monster we create may break from our control and do a lot more damage than we bargain for.