I’ve enjoyed tracking the discussion the last couple days on Adam Mclane’s blog post contrasting Iraq’s Christians risking their lives to still gather for church during the Christmas season while some American churches cancelled services on Sunday to take a break after a week of Christmas services, cantatas, etc. You can read his post here. If I’m summarizing correctly, he’s completely unimpressed with American Christians wanting a break from church because they had some extra services while Christians in Iraq literally risk their lives to gather.
Len Evans, another great youth ministry friend, wrote a rebuttal on his blog defending the right of churches to cancel services that you can read here. He wrote a great defense on taking a break, avoiding legalism, and criticized the tendency to take shots at mega-churches.
I think they’re both right. I find myself thinking about the whole debate throughout the last couple days off and on. For years I’ve been uncomfortable with the state of Christianity in America. I’ve spent almost five years of my life living in several countries (Bolivia, Paraguay, England) and traveling in dozens of others. The contrast between the church in America and just about every third world country I have ever been to is startling. For many Americans, church is a one hour a week obligation – as a pastor, I’ve heard the complaints many, many times if the pastor goes over by just five minutes. People are happy and even grateful if the service ends early, but frustrated if it goes over. On top of that, a trend that we’re noticing more and more in our church here in Wilmington is that for many church goers, the pattern seems to be to average about two Sundays a month in church (yes, we do have a solid core of people there every week for more than one hour). The end result being a large percentage of our church averaging about 26-30 hours a year at church.
It other countries, it’s not unusual for church to go several hours. I’ve been in many services where the worship went for an hour or more, followed by multiple sermons – each running longer than sermons we’re used to over here. On top of that are midweek gatherings, special services, celebrations and more. And no one complaining about the length of any of it! Whenever I hear complaints of how someone is unable to worship because some noise is bleeding through the doors into the sanctuary, I think back to the open air churches I went to in Bolivia. No walls, a straw roof, uncomfortable wooden benches for those lucky enough to get a seat, crying babies, and wandering chickens – but none of it distracted from giving love to God.
I guess what troubles me, and what lies at the root of Adam’s frustration (if I’m reading it right), is the sense that for many in America following Christ is an obligation and a chore. We need bigger and bigger spectacles to keep people showing up, which are exhausting and labor intensive – hence the relief at cancelling services. Where is the joy and excitement at gathering together to worship our Creator? Len is right that there isn’t something inherently wrong with churches canceling services. I don’t have a problem with churches rearranging or even canceling parts of their schedule to pursue balance, but maybe we are wearing ourselves out on the wrong tasks.
Children ultimately emulate the faith of their parents. As a youth pastor, it’s always tragic to me when a parent voices the frustration that their child, now in college, doesn’t seem interested in church. I have to bite my tongue because often times I want to ask how they can be surprised. For eighteen years they taught them that church is at the bottom of the priority list; skipping for vacation, bad weather, good weather, sports, concerts, work … everything comes ahead of it. When a teen is allowed to miss church for a job that is for spending money … they’ve learned that the pursuit of possessions, entertainment, social activities – all of those are more important than church.
The issue is far deeper than canceling services for a rest. It’s a cultural shift away from God that is alarming. If our schedules get too full, God is what is expendable. If our week is overwhelming, what is the most likely thing to get cut? Sports? Entertainment? Social activities? Work? Do we really need so much stuff? Do our kids and families really need so many commitments? Churches cancel services because nothing else is expendable in their congregations’ lives, and that’s where the problem is.