The Mechanized Church
Start with the history of agriculture. If you didn’t grow it, catch it, or trade for it, then you didn’t eat it or wear it or use it. Pretty much that is the way of life until things started to change in the mid 1400’s. Steel became a reason for that change, and with it came a streamlining of the effects of that change. The economic terms deal with specialization and urbanization. The idea was that by becoming a tradesman I could trade my craftsmanship for your labor and then I could eat and you could get more productive. I could make a plow for you and you could grow more crops. I could make a set of gears for you and you could make a mill to grind those crops more efficiently. By putting these groups in proximity to each other the process of the miller, the machinist and the stores to sell the goods of commerce there was now a town to be developed.
There was a shift in this process when things became even more specialized and the industrial revolution was given steam power. Bigger, stronger, faster, repeated uniformity and volume driven prices. Now there is a new issue, a work week. Stability and security of the task and the company and the workers allowed for the introduction to the middle class that which only the elite once enjoyed, leisure time and the toys that went with it.
In our day, we have moved to the third division, that of service. What started as field work and fixing your own green beans, moved to going to the store and buying both canned green beans and fresh ones flown in from some tropical climate for your winter meals. Specialization had matured and developed. But now we want someone to cater to us. We don’t make the pizza at home any more we get it delivered. We don’t need to know how to make the graduation cakes, they come from a caterer or the store. We have our shirts pressed and delivered. It is about service that allows our free time to have such dominance in value. You can delegate those odious tasks like doggie-do removal or mowing your lawn so that you can enjoy your afternoon, or change the oil in your car in a jiffy by stopping by a convenient spot along the way. And so it goes. You can make a living filling any of these needs and people will gladly pay to have you do the dirty work they choose not to.
But where are we now? Not simply service, but entertainment. Now I need an “experience” to make this activity really complete. So there is surround sound. But then came the Projection screen for your TV and movies. Do you have the vibrating chairs for the “TV” room furniture or are you simply unaware that they exist and you are cheating your children of a complete childhood. Do you have the latest? Greatest? Best? There is no top to this list, of course. And the rate of growth is staggeringly increasing by the rate of its growth increasing…
What is that to do with the church and being “relevant” to this culture and how it is changing? Well, lets start with the “agrarian” model. The baseline verse is found in Judges, “and every man did as was in his heart”. Seems a likely place to begin since there was little teaching and much isolation. Move forward to urbanization and you find conformity and directed behaviors. The offerings were similar, though may be varied in style or promoted results. You could have lots of quiet, or lots of preaching, or lots of rules, or lots of freedom, but all centered around a place, a time and a set of guidelines. There were expected dress codes and behaviors for each of these groups. Most thought the remaining to be apostate, and felt good when that was reinforced from their leaders. The cooking cutter versions meant that there would be a similar version in any town that you went to, and you could participate like a replaced cog in a machine, for that is what it was. This was a great machine producing great products for a very long time. Some component changes and upgrades were used in all of the versions, and some were only added to some models. Everyone took on the pews, some the musical instruments and some the microphones and speakers. Some added a fellowship hall and some did not. Some were somber and some celebrated, but all were content in their cloister. Until there was growth of a different nature. Service demands from some meant that there would need to be a cushion in the pew, or an overhead projector so we can see. Those needing help with hearing aids and those wanting a second service to meet their needs came calling as well. Some of these were the direct need of a growing group or the demographics of that group, as the baby boomers age their demands changed. Sometimes it was a little less of the strident preaching and more of the “love story” of the gospel. And changes kept coming. Now there is coffee and lots of choice for creamers and perhaps a latte bar as well. Have your pews turned into “theater seating” with cup holders? They are out there in churches, even if your church doesn’t have them.
So, what next? Obviously, it is already here, if not in your church then in one of the ones in town. The “fresh experience” of church is the idea that the “worship event” on Saturday nite is going to replace the Gospel message on Sunday, because we need to go boating (insert your favorite experience) instead. It is found in the X-Box controller that has your kid’s attention that will need to be a part of the future church if they are to come. Already there is a pattern of preaching that allows and encourages the use of your cell phone to fact check the pastor mid sermon, on little biblical facts as well as anecdotal homilies told to amplify a point. We are “experiencing” church in a very different way than our parents in the “mechanized” version of church.
So, what then? Well, first understand that it is here. Slow to creep in, and seemingly intractable in its progress, it is here in pieces that seemed to make sense when we did them, but as a whole, seem to be an astounding departure for some of us. What next? Recognize that it is a “style” and not the character of the church. Unless you let it become so. It is simply the next phase in the constantly moving trajectory of the technology curve. Like electronic organs and air conditioning before them, theater seating and tele-church events are simply the next level of life. Pod casts, twitter feeds, live streaming, laser shows and communion on Sunday. It is not three hymns, two scriptures and a 20 minute sermon with a doxology any more.
What are we to do then? Get in front of it, embrace it or catch up to it, as your church demographics require. Keep the boundaries clear. It is an expression of the body and not the body of Christ. Gospel, Communion of the saints, Baptism may all be different for some of us, and even uncomfortable enough to retreat to a “safe group” of reluctant and recalcitrant worshipers listening to the Gaither band, while our parents listen to the Wesley Brothers hymn book… See it has happened before. But that is style, not substance. Preach the crucifixion, or you can’t have the redemption. Hold fast to the cross and the empty tomb, and do a latte with your Chrismas carols, but go to the nursing homes and the out cast and the shut-ins. Deal with the shallow attention span and the current fad, but also speak to the pattern of addiction and the power of the “next thing”. Speak to the safety of the church for the hurting and the need to have maturity for the ones that will grow to know their need. Give them a place at the table with you when the shallow and the empty calories crash and tell them again of the place to get some bread. But have some bread for them when they come. Don’t be “hip” for the sake of hip and then not have some meat for them when they are hungry, or it is you that will be cast aside and walked on. And rightly so…
So, in Judges (17:5) there was a notion that every man would do as he would see fit. That is Agrarianism. Then in the book of Acts (6:1-6) there was a division of labor as the disciples were doing the leading and the believers were doing the gathering and meeting the needs of the body. That is Mechanization. Later on, Paul (Colossians 2:1-23) was calling to the mature to be with the needy ones and eat meat if they ate meat and not if they didn’t. Serve and be as the towns folk that you came upon, by way of speaking to them in their own way of learning, but with the character of the Gospel. That is Service. And now, here we are again, at experience, and “every man did as was on his own eyes” is where we will be for a while to come. It has the look of a man making an idol out of silver and hiring a priest for him and his family. It looks like idolatry, for mostly it is. It feels hollow and shallow, and it is. It is empty and unsatisfying because it is about pleasure and not substance. It is the Siren’s call to please and placate this yearning, in the name of attendance and numbers. It should be the result of numbers not the call to attract them. It should be as a step to the Gospel, not the call of the addicted and those yearning for distraction and palliatives for the cry of their empty hearts. It is all the more then astounding when the true call to one’s heart string comes. It is that clear note that vibrates deep in our being, that then we know that the distractions and empty fluff is removed. But that is generally after much pain and stress.
The Mechanized church of our parents is all but gone. The Service church of our day is in its finishing phase, and it will take some time to complete. This “Experience” phase, (Judges 17:5 version) is here, and it may be only in small parts of your exposure to it, but not for your kids or your kid’s friends, who will be your “youth ministry” problem in the coming years. And what is it that you should do? Be ready. Be understanding. Be patient. It is the sign of the times that we are in. You can’t go back to Mechanization, that will drive them away. You can’t stay at Social Experience, that is so “yesterday” and “unfulfilling” … but you can tell them about the character and the heart of the Gospel, and the redemption, and the call to the individual to express and create out of that which is written in their heart. It is there and wants to come out. Embrace that reality in the cloak of the one that can meet it in the full. They know they are broken, for they were created with the “God shaped void” just as you. Tell these new beggars where you found bread. You will then rejoice with them that rejoice, and it will be well with your soul.
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