That Sinking Feeling by John Mazarella

When I was about 4, I used to get pretty excited about the amusement park boat ride. Maybe you rode it too – the little boat in 1 foot of water on a track that glides along but there’s never any risk since it’s tethered to a pole and anchored by a chain.  I must have had a vivid imagination because I was sure I could feel the spray of the waves in my face and the thrill of the chase as I pretended to be Blackbeard the pirate on the hunt for treasure!  Years later I realized it was simply a kid’s ride and not an adventure at all.

When I was fourteen a relative took me out in a boat around 18 feet long into the Pacific off San Diego. It was a bone jarring ride as it was a windy day and the waves were high and the small craft leapt from each wave and then crashed into the next one. I thought I would die! I survived but I realized there’s a big difference between the safety of a controlled environment like a park ride and a real ocean journey. I prefer safety. I am “risk averse.” You won’t find me jumping out of airplanes or bungee jumping for the adrenaline rush. No terror & no brush with death. I prefer calm, steady, and my blood pressure low, thank you very much. The problem is that life is not that way and I’ve learned God isn’t either. I mean that a God who expects his people & representatives to walk through a parted sea, have a parade around an enemy city or spend the night with hungry lions isn’t exactly a deity who is playing it safe. Yet, in many ways the human tendency is to make God, the gospel, the kingdom and his church as safe, predictable & thrilling as an amusement park boat ride.

Recently, I met with some pastors and leaders from different congregations. In discussions I realized most had traditional music, role expectations & board structures that have been around for 60 years. None of them had a sense of needing or desiring change. They seem content with what they are doing even though many are shrinking in numbers and face financial challenges. They seem stuck in the past and out of touch, desiring “growth” & younger families but unaware or unwilling to adapt to today’s needs & realities. They seem to expect visitors to come to them and adapt to them as well as the pastors they want to employ. While sincere & devoted, they seem to have little grasp of the gospel, the historical faith or what God is doing in the world beyond the current definition of success which is usually “growth” but is limited to the tallies of attendance and budgets. Neil Colecalls this the idolatry of S.A.F.E. which stands for:

Self-preservation = our mission

Avoidance of the world and risk = wisdom

Financial security = responsible faith

Education = maturity

Most small traditional congregations pride themselves for playing it safe but in reality they are at terrible risk. They actually remind me of an anchorless ship with a broken rudder and no sail:

-drifting without direction, broken or no compass, lost or indecipherable map, no hand on the wheel or if there is one it’s whoever is the most dominating, loudest, or pays the bills.

-taking on water, rotting, needing repair

-those who can swim abandon ship

-mutinous towards true leadership

-battling over the arrangement of the deck chairs while the ship slides closer to the water line.

What is safe about that?

After my conversations, on the long drive home, my family & I stopped overnight and the next morning visited a “mega church” for Sunday worship. It is part of a 100-year-old denomination but does not advertise that fact. It was a huge building complex and difficult and disorienting to navigate inside. We arrived 15 minutes late but the singing had already stopped and it was announcement time. We finally found someone to direct us to seats. It was state of the art video and lighting facility. We listened to some video announcements, were told to tithe to support the ministry and after the appeal for money and offering, a special dance and song number were performed. It was “Missions Month” and the amount of money given for missions was proudly proclaimed.  The visiting preacher was a missionary, told great stories, stroked the pastor’s ego with praise but never bothered with the Bible text he read. An altar call was issued and some responded. They were led through the ritual “sinner’s prayer,” given a Bible and told “this was their moment” but then reminded that the next service was starting so they had to wrap things up. If the Holy Spirit wanted to work that day he had to keep on their schedule. The service ended and the crowd ran to the parking lot. I reflected as to what was expected of worshippers that day and concluded absolutely nothing. We watched a show – it was well-done for the most part and required nothing of me except to watch, pay and leave.  I cannot imagine what a production like that costs or how much it takes to keep it up and running.

Most large, “mega” congregations remind me of a cruise ship:

-Consumer driven, enjoyment of passengers & profit of owners is paramount

- Passengers are tourists – out for sight-seeing, no investment in local people, develop superior attitude to locals & crew

- Requires huge investment of capital to build, run, maintain, upgrade

- Requires lots of manpower & crew to serve customers, usually made up of exploitable labor

- Hard to maneuver, change course quickly

- Serves no humanitarian purpose beyond self-absorbed pleasure for those who can afford it.

I encountered 2 examples in one weekend of how the American church plays it safe – the old & dying for change and the newer and flashy. However, I believe both are floundering and failing. They are both part of the failure of the church to be what God intended it to be – if God’s purpose for his people is still to make disciples. Both have a focus on self-perpetuation, building maintenance but see little gospel transformation of lives. The making of a genuine disciple would be an exception not the norm. It is not that the churches mentioned are insincere or even beyond reform or hope – they will continue to do what they do and draw people with varying amounts of success as long as they can afford it.  However, the demise of the mega-par excellence “Crystal Cathedral” is only one example that no one is so BIG that when hard times come and the money dries up because consumers guard their wallets they too won’t go under.  The mega size was popular and part of the pathology of the easy money, high debt bubble that crashed in 2008, yet few that championed the mega model have owned up to  the spiritual bankruptcy that was part of the Cathedral’s financial bankruptcy.

Maybe you get the picture – church in and of itself has run aground. Without a purpose beyond itself it becomes a self-absorbed closed system that consumes resources and eventually exhausts itself. There’s more to God’s ecclesia than people showing up in large or small traditional buildings for 50 minutes a week. The grand design of God’s plan before the creation of the universe, the incarnation and suffering of the Son of God on the cross and the violent wind of Pentecost were not intended so we could have committee meetings, stare at a big screen watching a big name with big hair or reduce the glorious good news to bullet points or bumper sticker slogans. Yet, that’s what’s happened. That’s what we’ve settled for – or at least many of us.  God’s great adventure has been turned into an amusement park ride that pretends to be a journey but you never get anywhere because there’s never any risk since it’s tethered to a pole and anchored by a chain. And we have invented adult versions. A few years ago, some friends and I were able to afford a deal to go on a cruise on a New England “tall ship.” We motored out from the dock in Boston harbor and I waited in vain for the tall masts to unfurl their sails. There were none. We motored around the harbor. Though I could see the Atlantic far in the distance beyond the channel we didn’t go near it. We eventually turned around and puttered back to the dock. I found myself asking “is that all?” What we experienced that day was the adult version of the kid’s amusement ride, on a bigger scale but just as safe & predictable. I find myself asking the same question when it comes to church – is this all? Is this all we can expect from church? Is this what God intended?

No – I don’t believe it is. But we will have to move beyond picturing church as an amusement park ride for kids or a harbor tour or luxury cruise for adults. So if you’re interested please stay tuned…there’s more to come.

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