An hour and 10 minute service, including high-sound Christmas music and a high-speed 40 minute sermon, left me a bit overwhelmed when I emerged from early worship at First Baptist Church, Denton this past Sunday morning.
I had been greeted at the door by the friend of a friend, who happily welcomed and escorted me into the large sanctuary. The green carpet, green pew cushions, brick walls and the simple buff colored pillars set off the Christmas decorations. The stage, lined with poinsettias, fronted the choir loft with the baptismal font covered by a sheet of burlap. On either side of the stage sat the musicians, orchestra left, percussion right.
At 9:28, the 50 person choir entered. Dimming theater lights lowered slightly the level of animated conversation filling the sanctuary and drew attention to the two side screens. A video of a young woman offered announcements, and then eyes moved to stage center. A man invited everyone into the morning fun and to fill out the prayer/registration cards.
We stood to greet one another. A couple previously introduced to me shook my hand, and I turned to the person in the pew behind and initiated a handshake.
A children’s choir began to sing and sign, “It’s Christmas.” The children’s voices, supported by choir and voice track, received robust applause by the audience/congregation.
After congregational singing of “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” I thought about the words, “Yea, Lord, we greet thee, born this happy morning,” knowing that we are still several weeks from that happy morning actually showing up. Nonetheless the celebration very much present.
A full performance of “Birthday of a King,” followed by more applause and the congregation singing various Christmas Carols led to the first prayer of the morning. A male worship leader asked God’s blessing on the offering and on the performances to take place at the church the next couple of evenings. As the well-dressed male usher team passed the plates, four men sang “Mary Did You Know?”
Loud applause thanked the quartet and greeted the Rev. Dr. Jeff Williams. This energetic preacher rarely stood behind the lucite lectern as he offered the message, “All I want for Christmas is . . . Patience.”
Starting with a projected photo of a young boy missing his two front teeth, Williams, a trim man in a dark suit and green tie, reminded us of that well-known song “All I want for Christmas is My Two Front Teeth,” then raced into the current Christmas theme of “what do I want, what am I buying, what am I getting?” After reading a parody of the poem “The Night Before Christmas,” Williams said it is time to “put Christ back in Christmas.”
At that point he told everyone to take their Bibles and turn to Luke, Chapter One. No pew Bibles here–people bring their own.
Williams skillfully sketched the 400 years of prophetic silence that had faced the Israelites before the priest named Zechariah entered the temple one fateful day. During his once-in-a-lifetime service, Zechariah encountered an angel and heard a prophecy that left him without voice for the next nine months. During those months, Elizabeth, his aged wife – Williams noted as an aside that he did not wish to comment on the sex habits of elderly people! – gestated their one and only child, known later as John the Baptist. Zipping through this story, Williams offered to the congregation lesson after lesson, claiming that even the most godly go through difficult times and that while God will punish our unbelief, He will still use us.
About 25 minutes into the sermon, Pastor Williams segued into his main point, the issue of “patience.” He asked the congregation to score their “patience reaction” to such things as irritations, interruptions, and inconveniences, warning us that one moment of impatience can ruin our lives.
Near the end of the message, and mentioning the name of Jesus for the first time, Williams exhorted us with the admonition that God is patient with us even if we have not yet responded to the gospel. He suggested we ask, “Why have I not yet died?” Perhaps it is because God is still being patient, hoping for response before we face eternity and learn it is too late.
At 10:36, we were led in the second prayer of the day, with the entreaty that those who have not done so to receive the gift of Jesus and then speak with the care team after the service. The prayer over, Pastor Williams looked at the congregation, said simply, “Have a great day” and walked off.
A split second later, apparently on cue, everyone stood and headed out, emptying the full sanctuary within minutes. I stood alone, wondering if anyone would introduce themselves and welcome a guest. Once I realized that wasn’t going to happen, I made my way to the rapidly emptying and refilling parking lot, trying not to get hit by impatient drivers.
[Note: This column is slated to run in the December 12, 2014 edition of the Denton Record-Chronicle]
I admit that at this point in my life as a “mystery worshiper,” that, were my faith not solidly built on years of practicing the spiritual disciplines and careful self-reflection, I would have lost it by now. Successful “worship” is now all about fun, performance and celebrity. The idea of liturgy, the work of the people, is slowing falling by the wayside.
Without a coercive theology or a state sanctioned religion that guilts or forces people into churches, what’s the motivation to go? To follow Jesus? Really? Do you know where Jesus ended up? Who wants to go there?
But if the motivation is to get rich, be entertained, see your friends, to create your own enclosed “Christian” world which will safely keep children and youth busy with choirs and action-oriented youth groups, with the occasional vacationary* trip thrown in to make people think they are holy and service oriented, then church attendance might grow.
Will such places actually help shape mature Christians, form the kind of disciples that will turn the world upside down with grace and acts of charity, portray forgiveness and goodness so profound that the kingdom of heaven becomes visible all around us?
I don’t think so.
Now, I do know that many of the performance churches I have visited do offer clothing and food assistance to the indigent. They make sure that some children get Christmas gifts that might not see them otherwise. I’m aware that the Texas Baptist Men’s association has a superb track record of sacrificial service, and I don’t want to ignore that or denigrate what they have done.
But . . . worship is the one thing that the church, and the church alone, can do. While we are about the work of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, welcoming the stranger, visiting the imprisoned, we must not lose our core. We, and we alone, can set aside time to focus on God in some sort of disciplined, coherent way that briefly takes us from our self-focused, survival-oriented lives.
Most people are hurting in some major way, and need to know that there is indeed something beyond themselves, something transcendent, something so full of love and grace that hope can rekindle, something that says, “I will not leave you, even as you walk through the valley of the shadow of death.”
That is what we lose with the performance church. It encourages passivity in our faith lives. Passivity will always fail us when the inevitable trials of life land on our doorsteps or when the opportunities arise for radical movement in the footsteps of Jesus.
*vacationary: a term coined to denote those who do short term missions, but it is primarily tourism and often does much damage to the local economies. Read Robert Lupton’s seminal work, “Toxic Charity” for his take on the hard truth about such activities.