When Christians gather, they spend the bulk of their time watching stage presentations. Worship services. Seminars. Classes. Conferences. Workshops. All the while, they interact with someone standing in front of them – either speaking or leading them in song.
The early Christians did meet to hear sermons and teaching. But their focus seemed to be outside the walls of the church — serving God adventurously, working in small teams. I can’t imagine they spent more than 80% of their time listening to people sing, teach and preach – as we do today.
Why is the modern Christian life so stage-driven? Because it keeps things tidy. We like tidy churches. And we punish pastors when things get untidy.
Ministry is messy. It’s a lot easier and safer to create stage presentations for Christians to consume than it is to send them out to work together.
Proverbs 14:4 says,
“Without oxen a stable stays clean, but you need a strong ox for a large harvest.”
In other words, if you want a fruitful ministry, you’re going to create some mess.
Pastors live in this tension. Most clergy really do want their members building relationships with one another and ministering in the community. But the more God’s people get together and serve outside the church, the more opportunities arise for conflict, misunderstanding, and even immorality.
The muck often lands in the pastor’s lap. In heavily conflicted churches, clergymen may spend 10 hours a week or more keeping the sheep from attacking one another – or from leaving the flock in anger.
Doing the work of Jesus has always strained relationships. Read the epistles. The Apostle Paul mentions several fallings-out with his associates. So sharp were these disputes that even a mighty disciple like Paul saw no other option but to part company. Whenever two or three are gathered, conflict arises.
You can trace this thorn all the way back to the Garden of Eden. Adam had a perfect existence, but he was lonely. So God sent a second person. In short order, all hell broke loose.
Of course, laypeople can make messes without even leaving the church building. How about that Sunday school teacher who quoted Oprah to her class? Or the men’s ministry leader who played a movie clip that contained the f-word? Or the two boys in youth group who got into a fistfight? Within minutes the pastor has a Category 5 hurricane to deal with.
After a few years in the ministry pastors begin to wise up. It’s much safer to keep their parishioners at the church, sitting in rows, tightly controlling what they do and hear.
This is why most churches program a series of low-risk, stage-driven activities such as worship services, classes and seminars. These allow people to learn about their faith without actually practicing it. And the one-way lecture format lets the pastor control the message and minimize the possibility of misunderstanding. Believers rarely if ever exercise their faith outside the church, virtually eliminating the possibility of a mishap.
This also may explain why clergymen are reluctant to share the podium and pulpit. Pastors hate to clean up someone else’s mess. And have you noticed how your pastor glazes over when you suggest a new program or ministry? He’s not hearing you – he’s quickly calculating how ugly things could get if the program goes sideways.
Stage-driven Christianity produces happy pastors and docile congregations. If Christians are focused on a stage, then they are not focused on one another. The less God’s people interact, the less likely they are to kill each other.
To clarify: I’m not saying that stage-driven Christianity is a bad thing. I love great sermons, challenging teaching and a well-crafted worship service. Heck, I’m a professional speaker. I just spent the last two weeks standing on stage, leading men’s rallies and conference events.
Jesus was often quite theatrical in his presentations. He preached on a mountain and from a boat. He had a flair for the dramatic.
The answer is not to eliminate stage-driven Christianity, but to complement it with more action. Men change when they actually practice their faith. Away from the church. In league with other men.
Modern seekers are not necessarily looking for a stage presentation with a clever sermon and a hot praise band. Thom and Joani Schultz believe that people today are seeking four acts of love: radical hospitality, fearless conversation, genuine humility, and divine anticipation. These are hard to deliver in a forum where every chair is pointed at a stage.
So, what is needed?
- First, we laypeople need to stop dumping on our pastors. We must learn to deal with conflict in a loving, Biblical fashion. Jesus tells us in Matthew 18 to reconcile with our brother before taking matters to the church. Don’t run screaming to the pastor every time you disagree with a fellow believer.
- Laypeople must give their leaders permission to fail. Your pastor will not take risks if you punish him when things don’t work out as planned.
- Church planters need to boldly re-imagine what their weekly gatherings look like. Is God pleased when we spend 80% of our time together focused on a stage? Is this really what people want? Does this produce spiritual maturity?
- Pastors have to realize that a clean stable is not the goal. You want your people in small groups, ministering in the community, even though these things are the source of much conflict. Cleaning up messes is just part of the job.
- Finally – and this is the big one – everyone must realize that conflict and betrayal are normal in the Christian life. Every major Bible character was betrayed at some point. Conflict and betrayal are an indicator that you are doing something right.
Christ’s life was full of conflict and messes. As his disciples, how can we expect anything different?