Not too long ago, Andy Stanley stirred up quite a controversy when he made a bold statement during a sermon, telling parents who go to small churches, essentially, that they’re failing to do what’s best for their children. If they were genuinely doing what was “best” for their children, he advocated, they’d get themselves and their offspring to a big church, where there were lots of programs and people and “stuff” to entice them to church life (and hinting, none-too-subtly, that this church life would somehow keep them on the “right path” spiritually). His statements went viral and incited frustration from many in smaller churches, who have experienced either the blessing of small fellowship or the potential frustration of larger groups. I don’t disagree with them, although I realize we all, myself included, have a tendency to generalize based on our personal experience. My frustration with his comments, though, ran deeper, to a basic assumption he seems to make about programming in general. I haven’t seen anyone address it, but it’s been simmering, so I want to share some thoughts. Andy makes an assumption that there is somehow heart-capturing “magic” in large, entertaining church programs.
We have an interesting situation in America at present when it comes to church. Like our clothing, our food, our homes and our entertainment, we have countless options when it comes to finding a church “home.” Even in the smallest mountain-towns, we can drive the winding roads and see multiple churches, some even of the same denomination, within a few miles of each other. Like vacation Bible school and church picnics? We’ve got that! Sweet little ladies’ luncheons? We do those. Oh, you prefer loud music with a driving beat? Smoke-and-lights and a state-of-the-art theatre-like setting? You can find it. A preacher who’s bold and loud and entertaining? No problem! Prefer a more somber, traditional setting with hymns and a written agenda for each service? You can find that, too. It’s like a buffet, and our options are endless to stuff ourselves with “church-ness.” Instead of having our eyes on the complexity of God and the simplicity of the gospel, we so easily find ourselves looking at the people, the programs, and the potential to make ourselves comfortable on a human level, instead of looking to learn deeply and love even more so, in a setting that fosters a God-centered earthly example of who He is and how He works.
Generation Grace discusses this issue when he calls this method of choosing a church a “uniquely American” problem. He also addresses an inherent belief that “programs make people love the local church.” In speaking with others, I often hear them describe their church by the pastor’s personality, the music, the myriad options for social activities, and the decor, as we’ve served on staff at churches and as we’ve searched for a home church as lay attenders/future members.
Recently we were looking for a home church in a relatively new area to us. We made a commitment as a family to visit several churches, researching them online first, and then attending together purposefully, sharing our thoughts prayerfully together as we looked for a new “home” church. Each week when we drove away from a service we had visited, we’d discuss with our children our take-aways from the morning. How was the sermon? Did it focus on truth with the Bible as its central authority, or was it more the pastor’s thoughts, supported by a few verses? Was the teaching un-apologetically focused on Jesus and the sacrifice made to save us from ourselves and draw us into relationship with Him, so we could walk alongside others the same way? Were the listeners engaged? Did the music have accurate theology woven in? And how was the music? Was it well done, creative, upbeat? Were the musicians prepared and skilled in their craft? Was the atmosphere aesthetically pleasing? Were the people friendly and comfortable to be around? Were the bathrooms clean? And most of all, were there lots of programs with pretty posters advertising all the myriad options for entertaining, exciting opportunities for every age group, social status, hobby, life season, personality type and favorite food? Uhhhhh… wait… somewhere this assessment took a subtle-not-so-subtle turn into stuff that doesn’t matter at all, eternally speaking.
In truth, our family wasn’t looking to be entertained by every imaginable program. But that’s because we’d been there, done that, and realized it doesn’t always translate to an atmosphere that fosters true growth. (And to be completely transparent, it was and still is very easy for us to slip into wanting other stuff that’s comfortable to us on the surface, like right away meeting people who look, talk, and act like us. We’re growing.) We’ve learned along the way, though, that sometimes having too much “good stuff” actually distracts from what is most meaningful. Just like having a welcoming home can turn too quickly into feeling a need to live in our own version of Chip and Joanna’s latest trendy and gorgeous redesign (oh, no coveting here, haha!), we can so easily put our eyes – and our expectations – on entertainment within the church. And this becomes dangerous when that entertainment overshadows the One who wants and deserves all our focus. It becomes more dangerous when, as kids used to fluffy songs and dance parties, we falter if we’re set in an atmosphere that lacks the entertainment. When our faith is based on what’s fun and comfortable, it tends to falter when “fun” and “comfortable” are in short supply.
This heart-felt response from Kimberly Cummings rang true with my own experience at large churches. This doesn’t mean that all big churches are bad, just as all small churches aren’t. God can work in any setting, as long as we are driven first and foremost for His glory and the love (His love) of others… love expressed in helping them “grow up” by growing deep in understanding who He is, through the teaching of His word.
I have spoken at mom’s groups on panels to discuss types of education, and among mamas who home-educated, mamas who sent their kids to public or private schools, I have said the same thing I encourage you to think about now. Don’t parent your kids by default. Don’t put them in the school up the road, or the youth group at your local church, because it’s what everyone is doing. Do it if, and only, if it’s what you’ve researched, and prayed about, and fought for, because you know in your gut after a whole lotta prayer that it is what God’s calling you to. Will you make mistakes? Yep. Ugh, I hate looking at the ones we’ve made. It’s my prayer that my children will learn as much from my admission of my failures, from my asking God to help me learn and grow and start anew when I see where I’ve failed, as they would’ve had I been perfect. Because ultimately, my children don’t need to learn from some entertaining Sunday school or preschool teacher, or some big summer outreach program, or even a super-awesome-band with light show and sound system singing praises. Those can all be tools, but none of them is necessary. We as parents and as leaders of youth don’t need to create some sort of “relevant” magical formula to win the hearts of kids. That’s God’s job, and He’s been doing it completely and efficiently for countless generations. Along the way, he used both talented and not-so-talented people to come alongside Him. But to be clear, He didn’t need them or their talents. He gave them a privilege to share those talents, back with the One who gave them.
Recently, a pastor’s wife told me about her morning with a room full of wild-and-wonderful little boys. It was a dreary day and they were rowdy. I happen to know this is a joy-filled and lighthearted woman. But she told me there came a moment when she said to the kiddos she taught, “Ok, guys. Now I need to teach the Word. When I share God’s word, there isn’t any more fooling around. It deserves honor, and we will give it.” (My adaptation of her quote.) How happy is my heart to know that a woman of influence in my son’s life cares more about the honor of the one true source of Truth, than about momentary favor with her young students. Will they love her for being fun, and for laughing with them? Of course. But forever-speaking, as God calls to their hearts, they will love her for being a faithful giver of His word. That’s the only thing that has the hope to transform them completely and forever.