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03 July 2009

The Assembly of the Saints? (Part 1)

Although large majorities of the public claim to be "deeply spiritual" and say that their religious faith is "very important" in their life, only 15% of those who regularly attend a Christian church ranked their relationship with God as the top priority in their life. As alarming as that finding was, its significance was magnified by research showing that on average pastors believe that 70% of the adults in their congregation consider their relationship with God to be their highest priority in life.
- From "Barna Lists the 12 Most Significant Religious Findings," December 20, 2006 (emphasis mine)

"As iron sharpens iron, so a friend sharpens a friend." (Proverbs 27:17, NLT) I really want to get input from you on where I'm going with this. I've used way too many words in this post, and I still think that I'm not communicating my point well. Your grace is appreciated, along with the understanding that I'll certainly have to clarify some things.

In the field behind our house are cows, visually reminding me that it's odd that a creature which attracts so many flies and has generally disgusting behaviors is not only edible, but delicious. If I had the responsibility of feeding these animals and they'd eaten all the grass, I'd probably give them hay, store-bought feed, or something similar. Now, imagine a totally unlikely scenario: that monkeys also lived in the pasture with the cows, and the electric fence (however improbable) kept them there. I could give this weird mix of animals all the hay I could buy, but monkeys, while they eat a variety of things -- fruit, flowers, insects, etc. -- would likely not eat the hay or cattle feed. They're different creatures with different habits, habitats, and dietary needs.

Over the past few months I've been studying the Word, looking at the modern Church, and how the two compare, and I've been seeing this sort of dichotomy. A chunk of my responsibility is focused on our weekend gatherings -- the Bible describes these as meetings of the saints/believers -- and within that responsibility is to shepherd, teach, and lead these people in "worship." The most obvious means of doing that as it relates to my task is through music.

There is little doubt that a song can be used by God to pierce the heart of non-believer, and Scripture supports the idea that a non-believer can be in the assembly of the saints and be impacted and changed by the Holy Spirit through what happens there.

However, one of my struggles comes when I realize that, like the improbable scenario with cows and monkeys, on Sundays the church in general sees a large group of people, probably half of whom don't revere God and don't know Christ personally*, who meet together in one room, and we "feed" them all the same stuff. I'm not talking about the preaching of the Word in this case. For now I'm just talking about the songs we sing.

While some non-believers could give thanks to God as they've seen Him work, and believe He exists but don't have a relationship with Him, someone who doesn't know or love God can't "worship" Him. That's a non sequitur. Songs that believers could sing with a heart of thanks to God are songs that are often irrelevant to a non-believer, or might even focus the non-believer on something other than God.

For instance, if I knew without any doubt that I were meeting for worship with 100 completely sold-out followers of Christ -- not "perfect" people, but ones who are desperate to know Him more deeply every moment -- I would have little problem singing "My Country, 'Tis of Thee" as a song of thanks to God. But what about singing that same song in a "worship service" crowded with people who don't know Christ? It directly communicates that our country is great, end of story. Non-believers can immediately identify with that, but they can't identify with the concept that God is to be intimately and corporately praised and adored, and that is the stated purpose of our worship meetings.

To be sure, of all places to live on the earth, Americans are blessed and privileged beyond measure. Let there be no doubt that I am grateful to the core for those who have fought and died for us, and those who continue to do so. We live in the best country in the world, without a doubt.

This all makes these weekends (like July 4) tough for me. Our purpose in meeting with the believers is to worship our Creator; the Giver of all good things. That will naturally be the focus of someone who loves Christ, but that simply cannot be the focus of someone who cares nothing about Him. (I believe a counter-argument would be that everyone already knows we're there to worship God; it's a church service, for Pete's sake! But have you ever thought about what we communicate to those with no concept of what it means to worship God or to sacrifice our desires and possessions for His sake?)

Yes, absolutely -- let's get together as Americans to sing these kinds songs and remind one another of the heroes who have selflessly sacrificed, and to show our national pride. Let's blow a little bit of our money on fireworks (while observing safety precautions) and wear red, white, and blue. But when we're together for worship of the one true God, we need to keep in mind that we've set up our whole system of worship meetings to include people -- maybe even a majority of them -- who don't love God (and that doesn't just include "seeker-sensitive" fellowships). I'm not being condescending or graceless; I'm stating what is apparently fact. If we've set our own table, shouldn't we be serving the correct food?

I use the above examples of patriotic music only because they bring the issue into the most stark focus for me. I wonder if anyone else sees the same problems I see.

  1. Do you believe I'm being completely AR? (that link goes to a definition...)
  2. Do you agree with the premise that a whopping number of non-believers meets with the Church?
  3. Is it a good thing for believers and non-believers to get together and find common ground in a worship service apart from worshipping God?
  4. If so, do we see applicable Biblical examples?
*"Half" seems to be a conservative estimate sometimes attributed to Billy Graham. Here is a good article by the Barna group on the subject, and here is a startling one.


Travis said...

Short answers for now. No, I don't think you are being AR.

Yes, I agree there are a whopping # of non-believers in church.

Yes, I think that is biblical and expected for them to get together. Unless you take "Christ follower" to be VERY literal in the scriptures, EVERY TIME he preached to more than say, the 12, he was ministering to a group of very wide spiritual locations and def. not all Christians.

I think that the avg. church service needs to be planned with that dynamic in mind and there should be more venues available for deeper study, targeted at the "true believers" or whatever we call them.

As a service planner, I don't always like the results of that thought, but oh well. I wish we could "go for it" every week with music especially, but that just isn't what is always best.

Dean Lusk said...

Thanks, Travis. That was a fast reply!

"EVERY TIME [Jesus] preached to more than say, the 12, he was ministering to a group of very wide spiritual locations and def. not all Christians."

Definitely. But He was out and about; doing things and going places that most church-goers won't. That being said, what you wrote next is excellent...

"...there should be more venues available for deeper study, targeted at the 'true believers' or whatever we call them."

And thanks for the opinion that I'm not AR. :-)

Beth said...

Just a few immediate thoughts:

No, you're not being anal. It matters.

Yes, there's a mixture of folks in the room in 'worship'.

Yes, that's a good thing.

Yes, for our particular venue.

I'll give a short comment and hopefully have time for more later, if I don't explain myself well.

At our church, we have chosen to lean hard into the weekend experience as our primary outreach opportunity. Those of us who believe are there to WORSHIP, in spirit and in truth. We demonstrate with our words, actions and deeds what we know to be true about God and His son. The Word is preached unashamedly about how the love and presence of Jesus matters in human lives.

But everything we do is planned with a focus on those who are far from God. We are unabashedly evangelical and this is where we place most of our energy. We know that people will, because of cultural norms and tradition, come to 'church' to check out the institution, the people, and God. So we focus on them, and them alone. There is tension there, but I truly believe that our authentic worship honors God and helps draw others towards His kingdom.

'Worship' is a lifestyle. It is not a Sunday event. I think that we do disservice to believers when we spoon-feed them an experience, planned and generated by us, so that they'll have a worship experience. I try to remind and encourage people to look for those moments daily - in fellowship at small group, with other believers, in the woods, in the car, at home with a cd. EVERYWHERE.

That's where we are right now. But there is a tension, and we're always checking ourselves Biblically and in terms of the mission God has given...

Preston N said...

Dean - I also agree with Travis that your not being AR - just sensitive to the Holy Spirit. However, I do agree with your comments that the example of Christ and the apostles "open-air preaching" is not to be considered a church service, but evangelism outreach.

Again, what we are dealing with here is not how the church was ever supposed to function. What we have today is nothing more than a hybrid church. A church that over the centuries has morphed into a mixture of believers mixed with non-believers, sheep mixed with goats. Pastors over the years have realized this and rather than changing the system altogether - try desperately to appease both sides. Personally speaking the only way to resolve the "hybrid" problem is just what George Barna and Frank Viola have come to the point out (and support) and that is to do a "do over". This is why I fully support the home church movement. In this model there is little room for "goats" who try to disguise themselves as "Sheep" (thought I would stick with your animal analogy here). No place for the goats to take up residence, visit yes!, but no long term grazing! No room to hide on within vast number of pews or the masses. No need for music that plays both sides of the spiritual fence.

I realize this may sound extreme and radical. But unless the current system changes how it conducts itself, we will continue to move in the same direction. For me it is like the laws of Physics at work. An object in motion (ie current modern day church) tends to stay in motion - unless a greater force can oppose it - for me that force is something that requires a drastic and dramatic action.

As a leader within the Hybrid Dean I guess I would ask you this. What happens when you stop appealling to the "goats" (or monkeys) and you focus in on the sheep. Is your management team and staff willing to loose the goats (this includes their money and support) in order to strengthen the sheep?? Again, what we need to remember here is sheep birth sheep, not goats.

For me, I see no other solution to this problem - but that's just me.

Dean Lusk said...

"Is your management team and staff willing to loose the goats (this includes their money and support) in order to strengthen the sheep??"

If a follower of Christ -- any follower of Christ -- is unwilling to adjust/give up anything or everything about himself in order to be in line with what God requires, he is not worthy of following Christ. That may sound closed-minded and "judgmental" to some, I suppose, but it's not a personal opinion. Jesus said it.

So to directly and personally answer your question, yes, our staff is willing to make adjustments that might result in the loss of people (and their giving, personal support, volunteerism) for the greater benefit and spiritual growth of the Kingdom of God.

However, what we'll find (and you know this to be true from experience) is that all leaders don't necessarily come to the propositions you've presented as a Scripturally-mandated ultimatum.

You state your case well and you've hit on some stingingly valid points... "No place for the goats to take up residence, visit yes!, but no long term grazing!"

That's the point where I think the modern church most often hits compromise. And when it hits, it hits big.

Beth hit a nail on the head, too: "we do disservice to believers when we spoon-feed them an experience, planned and generated by us, so that they'll have a worship experience", although I believe that "disservice" may be a vastly underpowered word for this statement.

Leroy said...

Wow. One of the best posts ever. I don't say that to feed your ego Dean (not that you have one :), but it really is. And the reader comments add more to it. Really good. Preston, you can sometimes be hard to read and follow along with (at least for me anyway), but very well put. Same for Travis and Beth.

And Dean, in general, *YES* you are AR! But, I related quite well to three or four of the six AR 'definitions' myself.

Dean Lusk said...

@Leroy, that's cool, 'cuz I thought this was one of the most rambling posts I'd ever made.

Part 2, when it comes, may not see such common ground in the comments. Still praying about that post, because I don't want to post anything just for the sake of controversy.

sarah chia said...

interesting... Billy and I have had similar discussions. I think it's relevant to point out that Barna has been known for skewing stats. There was a great article about this in one of Billy youth leader magazines how Barna used different definitions for the word "Evangelical Christian" to show that only 4% of youth stayed in the faith after leaving a youth group.

Turned out that the high school kids were asked if they attended youth group and believed in God (or some similarly broad definition), and then post-college grads were asked if they were baptized Christians who read the Bible daily, prayed, tithed, fasted, volunteered, you name it.... very narrow definition. And then magically 96% of Christian youth turn from their faith.

I'd be interested to know exactly how questions were worded in these studies.

But aside from that, I tend to think the worship service should be aimed at believers and churches should be intentional about being available to talk with non-Christians about questions or confusion.

I tend to think that if a non-Christian is in a church where he/she's hearing truth week after week, then small confusions about a song like My Country 'Tis of Thee don't last too long.

Not necessarily sure how that goes with music except to be picky about doctrine that comes across in songs. I know Hillsong's cool and stuff, but they have some real lame doctrinal hints coming across as far as I'm concerned. I can't think of a single one that I think is solid through and through.

David said...

Dean, great post and yes you are AR :-) I find myself asking often why we do as we do in churchworld. There are traditions we have that we NEED desperately to examine, not because they are wrong but because they distract from our purpose. I personally know a young lady who has never accepted Christ and was never asked by the Body she attended because she spent her time babysitting for the adults. I asked her about her faith and she told me she is lost and saw no reason to change that because she was doing a good work. I know another gentleman who played the organ at a church who was never asked about his faith because all assumed or just didn't care. How many things do we willingly supply to non-beleivers that allow them to avoid, to serve, to assist, to teach? Honestly, being AR myself I look at The Church and worry we allow the lost and dying to smile and "goody" themselves right past us. Hopefully, this doesn't seem to morose but after speaking to many who are lost and serving in churches I can't help but be concerned. Patriotic music may be just one more layer to a larger issue. Then again, I may just be too AR for my own good :-)

Dean Lusk said...

@Sarah, you have some great points about a patriotic song not giving a lasting wrong impression. I also know what you mean about some Hillsong songs, though, and they're not the only culprit. I'm pretty selective about what we'll sing.

I've personally seen that when the Barna Group presents its research, it's pretty thorough in clarifying what they mean by each term (matter of fact, it's so exhaustive that you get tired of reading the background before the poll results sometimes). "Evangelical" may be broad in the mind of the reader, but when it's used in a poll they tend to clarify up front that it's a narrow group for the sake of specificity.

I agree that it makes imminent sense to check into the polling method any organization uses. I haven't seen skewed or misleading ones from Barna, but I'd like to know if there's evidence otherwise. I'll have to look into what you've said.

@David, I'm of the opinon that the specific issue I raised in the post about patriotic music isn't the problem, but like you said, a symptom of a larger issue.

Funny... in spite of the fact that there have been a number of opinions, we all seem to have a common thread of agreement.

Jan said...

I would advise one thing in discussion of this topic - don't lump people into groups. I don't think all believers fit neatly into a group, nor do I think all "attenders" do, and I certainly don't think all pastors or churches do. This can get us in trouble - the idea that all of any one group is the same through and through.

The work of God is bigger than that and we as individuals have different pasts and different intentions and are at different places with the Lord.

This might alleviate misunderstandings as the discussion goes on.

Preston N said...

Jan - not sure if I am following you here? I think the Lord Jesus was pretty clear about segregating folks into two distinct groups - "believers" and "Non-beleivers". The bible has plenty of examples to show that you are either one or the other, as there is no "third" group. Jesus speaks of the "wheat" and "tares" or those "in the vine" and those who are not. Jesus speaks of those who hear his voice and those who do not.

I am missing your point here? Yes, we are all at different places in our walk, but regardless you are either one of the two groups.

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