God is messing me up. He has sent a fiery, sword-wielding angel to me. Her name is Jen Hatmaker and the sword she wields is her book 7: an experimental mutiny against excess. It is brilliant and convicting and challenging. Oh, and hilarious. People, if you like my sense of humour at all, you will love Jen Hatmaker. You will want to kidnap her and give her a throne in your living room. Just promise you’ll let me visit her – I mean, you – every single day.
I have been feeling a growing tension. I’ve fought it and ignored it and argued with it, but it’s breathing down the back of my neck and I can’t make it stop. It’s a holy tension, which means it’s not going to go away. And even if I muster up the audacity to stifle it, the repercussions would be disastrous.
I’ve spent my life in a church culture that is all about excellence. Whatever programs we provide, whatever shows we put on, whatever components we incorporate into our Sunday morning service, it all must be done with excellence. Excellence brings more glory to God, you know.
Now I’m not against doing things well. I know the Bible says to work at everything we do with all our hearts. And when I’m on stage, I desperately hope that I don’t screw up so badly that everyone in the audience is completely distracted and turned off by my bumbling. But I’ve been growing more and more concerned with the amount of time, energy and money that is being poured into attractional ministry (programs that are designed to attract people to the church building) to the neglect of incarnational ministry (becoming the hands and feet of Christ by serving people outside the church).
When we look at the number of times Jesus exhorts us to serve the poor, rescue orphans, defend widows, feed the hungry, visit prisoners etc., versus how often he tells us to provide excellent programs for people who are already saved, and then we compare that to today’s church structure – our schedules and our budgets – it just doesn’t match.
I love my church. I love that it’s full of warm, friendly people. I love the worship and the preaching. And I have both consumed and helped to provide a lot of the excellent programs over the years. But I am desperately afraid that we’re missing the whole point of church.
Enter Jen Hatmaker. (And her husband, Brandon Hatmaker. I’m still in the middle of his book, Barefoot Church, and it, too, is confirming the shake-up that God is doing in my heart.) But for right now, I want to quote from 7 (sorry, this particular section isn’t side-splittingly funny):
What would the early church think if they walked into some of our buildings today, looked through our church websites, talked to an average attender? Would they be so confused? Would they wonder why we all had empty bedrooms and uneaten food in our trash cans? Would they regard our hoarded wealth with shock? Would they observe orphan statistics with disbelief since Christians outnumber orphans 7 to 1? Would they be stunned most of us don’t feed the hungry, visit the prisoner, care for the sick, or protect the widow? Would they see the spending on church buildings and ourselves as extravagantly wasteful while twenty-five thousand people die every day from starvation?
I think they’d barely recognize us as brothers and sisters. If we told them church is on Sundays and we have an awesome band, this would be perplexing. I believe we’d receive dumbfounded stares if we discussed “church shopping” because enough people don’t say hello when we walk in the lobby one hour a week. If they found out one-sixth of the earth’s population claimed to be Christians, I’m not sure they could reconcile the suffering happening on our watch while we’re living in excess. They’d wonder if we had read the Bible or worry it had been tampered with since their time.
But listen Early Church, we have a monthly event called Mocha Chicks. We have choir practice every Wednesday. We organize retreats with door prizes. We’re raising three million dollars for an outdoor amphitheater. We have catchy T-shirts. We don’t smoke or say the F word. We go to Bible study every semester. (“And then what, American Church?”) Well, we go to another one. We’re learning so much.
I think the early church would cover their heads with ashes and grieve over the dilution of Jesus’ beautiful church vision. We’ve taken His Plan A for mercy to an injured lost planet and neutered it to clever sermon series and Stitch-and-Chat in the Fellowship Hall, serving the saved. If the modern church held to its biblical definition, we would become the answer to all that ails society. We wouldn’t have to baby-talk and cajole and coax people into our sanctuaries through witty mailers and strategic ads; they’d be running to us. The local church would be the heartbeat of the city, undeniable by our staunchest critics.
A couple of weeks ago we had communion together and I was to pray for the bread before we partook. I’m not really one to rehearse prayers, so I didn’t mentally make this connection until it was tumbling out of my mouth in front of the congregation (which is why it may not have sounded very coherent at the time, but it was incredibly moving for me). I prayed over the bread, which is a symbol of Christ’s body broken for us. And then all of a sudden I was praying for us – the church, the body of Christ – asking that we would be broken for Him. How can we truly remember the sacrifice that He made in offering up His body in exchange for our very lives, while trying to contain today’s body of Christ all neat and pristine inside the sanctuary walls? We need to be broken, too.
We can’t be the body of Christ without tangibly ministering to the hurting people around us. And we can’t minister to the hurting people around us if our time and money are consumed by putting on excellent programs.
What does this mean for me and my family? I’m not completely sure yet. But I hope it means that the church plant we’re helping to launch gets launched in this direction. I hope this holy tension continues to build so we won’t fall into the trap of complacency. I hope we can get out there and try different things and get messy and make mistakes – at the risk of marring our ‘excellence’. I hope we can be real and flawed and inadequate and still be Jesus and salt and a light on a hill. I hope that we can be Christ’s body, broken for Him.