If you haven't seen the recent mocking of contemporary megachurch services, self-deprecatingly created by a contemporary megachurch with services similar to the parody itself (North Point Community Church in Alpharetta, Georgia), check it out here:
If you are at all familiar with this kind of church - meaning the mainstream American contemporary megachurch - it is brilliant satire. Which makes it uncomfortable. It will be very easy for many such churches, and the ones aspiring to join their club, to see themselves in it.
It prompted me to reflect on three temptations that are present for all such churches in our day:
First, the temptation to make being "hip" the driving force of the church's intent.
As the video suggests, we're wanting the world to marvel at our hip glasses, hip graphic tee's, hip tattoos, hip sound and lights, hip vocabulary, hip message titles, hip musical covers and styles, and hip videos. It's as if we are trying to out-green Al Gore, out-Africa Bono, and out-edge Apple - or at least to be seen as part of the party.
During the eighties and nineties, the emphasis of many contemporary churches was to be seeker-targeted, which translated into doing everything you could to create an experience that an unchurched person could engage. This has been replaced with doing everything you can to create an experience that a hip person could engage.
So now, it's not anonymity, low participation, removing crosses from the architecture, or embracing the use of drama; it's using a Mac, substituting a table for a podium, crafting our worship like a U2 concert, and quoting Bono more than Bonhoeffer.
Second, there is the temptation to be formulaic.
The service in contemporary churches really does tend to follow the lines of the video: opening cultural song, hip-person welcome, familiar song, original song, offering, lead-in set-up "question" video, personal-connecting-coaching talk, and then the wrap-up closing song. Travel where you will, from Dallas to Denver, San Antonio to San Francisco, and the formula seems as firmly in place as a fast-food chain.
It's as if we find a winning formula, or a church that we admire, and we follow suit. Which reveals how easy it is to do ministry out of mimicry, rather than imagination.
Third, there is the temptation to be disingenuous.
In other words, to do things not because they are heartfelt, or an authentic reflection of who you are, but because they are a means to an end. Going back to the satire of the video, much of what such churches intentionally do is very important to be intentional about, but also easy to become plastic about. By plastic, I mean having a motivation that is more about establishing a posture than about manifesting a heartfelt desire to authentically present Christ in the most winsome and compelling manner possible to our culture.
This last temptation is the darkest of all, and can seep into the rest of the temptations, for example, being hip: you wear glasses, or dye your hair, or grow a soul patch because it is hip. This is particularly obvious when the person in question is, um, a bit on the older side of things. Or you go green - not because you really care about the environment, but because you know it's a cultural selling point. Or you support AIDS orphans in Africa, not because you really care about the pandemic, but because you know it makes you look good in the eyes of others as an institution.
I know of a church that planned a city-wide "serve" day where they dispersed scores of volunteer teams to do random acts of service. All well and good, except for their motivation: another church had done something similar, and received positive media attention. As one of the leaders made clear to one of our staff, they were simply hoping for more of the same. It wasn't service; it was a marketing strategy.
It all serves as a reminder to continually strive to have three dynamics in place to fight the three temptations:
…a heart that is authentically captured by a concern for the least and the lost - not for its curb appeal, but because it is broken for them;
…a method that is driven by mission and vision, and thus constantly being evaluated and tested, redrawn and revised;
…a message that is marked by faithfulness and orthodoxy.
So while the satire is a good gut-check for many of us, and anyone can get sucked into the vortex of attempting to be "contemporvant," the target on the wall remains clear:
The video produced by the North Point media team is found at http://vimeo.com/11501569 and is officially titled "Sunday's Coming."
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About Dr. James Emery White
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina; President of Serious Times, a ministry which explores the intersection of faith and culture (www.serioustimes.org); and ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture on the Charlotte campus of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Dr. White holds the B.S., M.Div. and Ph.D. degrees, along with additional work at Vanderbilt University and Oxford University. He is the author of over a dozen books.
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