Tuesday, September 22 2015
A few months ago I had the opportunity to attend worship at a second tier mega-church. (I’m not sure if that’s the right term, but think somewhere in the neighborhood of 5,000 people reached through multiple Sunday morning worship services.) My thoughts have been a bit distracted and I even exchanged some emails with the lead pastor of the congregation regarding my misgivings. I must say I was impressed at both the promptness and attentiveness to my concerns, but the exchange in the end, was unsatisfying. I felt we were having two different conversations about the same worship experience.
After much consideration of his words and mine, I think our difference was not theological, but ecclesiological – that is we differ not in what we say about God but over what we say is the church.
A little background: the Sunday I attended the congregation was celebrating the conclusion of a massive mission fundraising event for a hospital/mission in West Africa. The numbers were astounding as they successfully raised over 1/3 of a million dollars. I am sometimes taken aback by the economy of scale; that amount of money would run the full operating budget for both of my congregations for 2 years – but I digress into a breach of the 10th commandment. On the other hand, breaking the 10th commandment isn’t a digression, it was the ultimate conclusion of the worship event.
The faithful of the congregation were challenged to do even more for missions because it would enhance their eternal blessing. Financial generosity was sold as an investment in the quality of eternal life, in effect cosmic long-term care insurance. Thus transforming self-less giving in this life, into the accomplishment of the most selfish after life. This is, of course, difficult to empirically disprove; but I found it to be a creative twist on prosperity-gospel preaching.
What distracted me in the “worship experience” (an odd term because if worship is God focused why the self-referential focus on “experience”?) was the collective celebration of individual generosity which would bring private benefit. Little was said about the actual need(s) being met for the West African recipients, they were, I guess, collaterally blessed. Most of the energy was on the “blessing” promised to the givers, not the hope proclaimed to the downtrodden. The core purpose of generosity wasn’t “Good News to the poor” but great anticipation for the generous rich. In the end, pep-rally marketing (the whole event felt like a segment of the Price is Right, including big turning placards to reveal the final number) drove me to feel a certain covetousness towards those who were going to out-class me in heaven. Fortunately there’s time, I can still make a bunch of money so I won’t have to live on the shabby side of glory.
Again, I have to check the “sour grapes” in my own heart – am I upset because they’re wrong, or because they’re successful?
In the end I have to confess my preference for understanding how I see mission, and how I see my own congregations. We are modest in size and would certainly not reject the opportunity for numeric growth, but our care for one another and for our community isn’t motivated by OUR hope for blessing, but by other’s need to be blessed. As I understand Matthew 6:1-2 generosity that is performed to benefit the donor is, in the end, selfishness. The generous who perceive not only the need but also the dignity, character, and giftedness of others, has no time or interest in being celebrated.
Sitting in the mega-church worship-experience, I couldn’t help but wonder about the member who is upside-down in her mortgage and working as a temp for near minimum wage and her husband’s company just closed. Or the father of a special needs daughter whose prosthetics are so expensive they’ve had to borrow money from the in-laws who will now postpone retirement to assist with the surgical co-pays. Or the guy who just recently started attending AA meetings because he lost his job for intoxication. Given the sermon I was hearing, I couldn’t help feeling bad for them because they were told their eternity was going to be a cardboard box under a heavenly overpass. On the other hand, I’ll bet they’ll have a great time with the West Africans who will be there with them.