The Problem with That Big Sunday Morning Show

I was at a Christmas Eve service–just a few weeks ago–when I finally figured it out.

We were out of town for the holiday, and this was just another megachurch in another American metropolis, looking and feeling and sounding exactly like most of the other big evangelical churches we’ve seen in recent years, singing the same songs, reflecting a familiar suburban culture. There is much to enjoy about a service like this one, and much to appreciate about the feeling of familiarity, even while I am longing for a less generic feel, something that feels unscripted, a sense that this is a body of people who worship and reflect Christ in a unique way rather than a local franchise of Church, Incorporated. But what really bothered me most was something I have felt many times in recent years–a type of cognitive dissonance that has become familiar, yet time and again I have had trouble figuring out exactly what it was about. So I sat there, watching the pre-service announcements cycle in a well-timed presentation of slick graphics, tried to figure out what was bothering me, and simultaneously tried to ignore it and focus on the celebration at hand.

Then they started a video presentation with what has become a familiar theme: there is no perfect Christmas. Life and people are messy and the first Christmas was messy too. Jesus came to save messy people, and there’s no need to hide our mess from him or each other. A singer, wearing a sweater commercially and intentionally produced for ugly sweater contests, plus an earnest seasonal scarf, sang about the little ways we get on each other’s nerves. The attractive people around him smiled knowingly and nodded along, as if reassuring the rest of us that even they sometimes feel a little bummed out.

When the video was over, the lights came up and the band started playing and that’s when it hit me.

I looked around me at the lovely, polished surroundings and at the people on stage with their self-consciously casual appearance, and I recognized a serious incongruity between the message about mess and the elegant approach to church in this place (and many places like it). As the old saying goes, actions speak louder than words. And no matter how much we say we welcome people who stumble in, covered in the grit of real life, our actions suggest we don’t mean what we say. That was why I was so uncomfortable. Despite the welcoming words, everything about this service and my surroundings told me the people here wanted nothing to do with honest-to-goodness mess.

In some of our churches, many of which are ironically very focused on reaching out, we present a serious discrepancy between our talk about mess and authenticity, and our highly produced, highly polished services. Until the last 10 years, I’ve never heard so much talk in churches about being broken and authentic and bringing our true selves to God and to each other. And I’ve never seen so much emphasis on the decorations, design, production values, and all-around packaged quality of our buildings and services. I’ve never seen so much copycatting and suppression of both spontaneity and homegrown ministry.

We ought to be telling people they’re welcome to come as they are–assuming we mean it. At the same time, we ought to consider what kind of welcome we communicate when they get there. When we tell people there’s a place for them in our services, we contradict that message when we produce a high-tech, high-emotion service full of pageantry, which no true amateur could possibly pull off–and in which very few people actively participate. We tell people they matter to us, and we turn up the music so that every single voice in the congregation is drowned as if no one is even there. We carefully dress down to make ourselves approachable, then we hire layers and layers of staff to make sure few people actually get access. We talk about welcoming mess and imperfection, then we confess to only our own “charming messes”: sometimes we’re grumpy or the family argues on the way to church or sometimes the laundry piles up.

No wonder people so frequently tell me they feel they can’t talk to anyone at their church about what they’re really going through. They may be wrong–in many cases, they probably go to church with multiple people who can relate to their stories and would be honored to listen and to help as they can. But they have received the subtle message of our services: we put on a show around here. And they figure no one truly wants them to be real.

If we want people to believe us when we tell them it’s OK to be messy and real, we need to do more than say it. Our gatherings need to show it. That is, unless we don’t really mean it.

  1. John says:

    Wow! Amy, you have such an eye for spotting and describe something many of us have felt, but couldn’t quite articulate. (you could have also added “pitching songs in keys too high for regular folks to join in the singing with any energy.”)

    It’s the job of the worship team to 1. connect with the folks and 2. help connect the folks with Christ so that in that short period of time the Lord is praised and worshiped. The “tyranny of the clock” helps lead to the experience you had.

    It’s no excuse, however, but it might be the reason. Couple with this self-absorbed actions of those involved, and you wind up with “the least of these” ignored.

    Lord, forgive us as we repent of our callousness.

    • Amy says:

      Good points, John. And you’re right, I could have also added frustration with the pitch of songs. Whether intended or not, it seems most worship songs these days are sung in a key designed simply to make the worship leader sound good.

  2. chris says:

    Amy, love this. You are correct. It begs the question, then, how do we have a gathering where we can be messy? or is it even possible? My guess is that whatever it might look like, it won’t have a mainstream consumer appeal which conflicts with bottom line requirements of attendance and cash flow. There are institutional forces involved pushing the non-messy gatherings.

    One idea: what if we just shut up for a few moments in the gathering? Let’s stop trying to create an experience and just let the power of silence make people deal with their mess. I’m not stimulated. I’m not distracted. I’m awkwardly stuck with me in all of my mess. Perhaps, in such moments, we allow enough messy reality to sink in that the gathering feels a little more like actual human life rather than a scripted programmed event.

    • Amy says:

      I like your idea, Chris. And you make a great point–the issue is rooted in a conflict between the stated values and the actual values of the organization. Yes, it is possible. I’ve seen it many times in small churches, rural and urban, that are not concerned with things like cash flow and consumer appeal. And they lack the resources to hire multiple layers of staff or be highly selective about who participates in visible ministries. This is one thing large churches could choose to do as well: develop their ministries around the gifts and passions of people in the congregation rather than create strategic plans and develop creative visions, then ask people to fill in the gaps. But that would require a shift in values.

  3. An unfollower says:

    As I understand what you’ve written, you’ve gone into a church you normally don’t attend and you have been given the gift of discernment for every person’s motives, people whom you don’t know, whom you don’t speak to, and have not fellowshipped with before. Astonishing how the work of the Holy Spirit in your life has made you so gifted in knowledge that you now can discern the thoughts and intents of the heart and instruct the called leadership on what they’re doing wrong without offering a single suggestion as to how you “do church right” in your neck of the perfect woods. Sounds more like Simon Cowell than Jesus.

  4. Phil says:

    Two days ago, as is my custom on Sundays, I went to church. There, I ended up sitting next to another man, about retirement age, who smelled bad. My first thought was to move to another seat. My second thought was to endure it, and by so doing I could feel good about myself, arrogantly thinking I could prove how humble I was. Now, I have been worshipping with this particular congregation for only a few months, so I don’t know a lot of people yet, and he was one. In my condescension, I thought I would make small talk with him. I asked how long he had been coming to this church. “About a year,” he replied. Then, after a brief pause, he continued to tell me his story. At about this time last year, his wife was dying from cancer. It was her dying wish that he would start attending church. He kept his promise to her that he would. He worked in an auto salvage yard, and on Friday his truck was broken into and damaged. But he had friends at the salvage yard, who were repairing the truck over the weekend, and then he added that he was “so blessed”. But he had to take the bus to church, and ended up having to walk some distance, but… he had promised his wife. By the time the organ started playing the prelude, I was in a better frame of mind to worship.

    • Amy says:

      Phil, one of the most powerful ways we can change our perspective is by listening to someone else’s story. What a blessing to have the opportunity to hear from him.

  5. Joyce Rempel says:

    Amy, I grew up in a small Missouri church and have chosen to grow with a mid-size church that became a mega-church in the large Canadian city where I’ve lived for 20+ years. I’ve been a musician and on the platform in music ministry since I was a child. I’ve watched the transition between musical styles, I’ve witnessed a church split as a teenager, I’ve sung everything from Handel’s Messiah to secular rock’n’roll on those same church platforms, as befitted the theme of what was being communicated any given Sunday. Our church has one vision: to build lives that honour God.

    Your post could have been about my church.

    But I know the hearts and lives of those who minister. I know the many meetings and discussions and hours of prayer that are spent in planning those services, especially Christmas eve, because we are keenly aware of many once-a-year attenders being there that one night. I witness as they strive for excellence – to give God their very best, to set the standard for musical excellence in a way that brings transcendent artistic experience. But I also see the humility, sacrifice, sincerity and service as a lifestyle in the most stellar musicians and the most accomplished apastors who lead us into God’s presence each weekend.

    There are weekends when I am not on platform that I struggle with what I’m seeing. I even confused a friend’s photos of a Vegas show, thinking it was our platform. So some days I struggle. I feel isolated. Unseen. Jarred. Some days I judge what the singers are wearing (dear Lord, please make leggings go away) or the reality that our best musicians have voices in a high range. But those are the weekends when I am learning to discipline myself to see God. To ask God for a special sense of his presence aside from what else is happening.

    I think you know as well as I, it is not the worship team’s responsibility to engage you, or to give you a particular sensation or emotion. They aren’t accountable for your attitude or even for your connection with God. They are called to be obedient to where God leads them. Sure, some musical artists let ego get in the way. Welcome to humanity. But how is that my problem? In our church, every attempt is made to choose thematic, applicable songs of all types to communicate truth and beauty so that space is created for you to encounter God.

    With 2,500 people in the room, every single one of them cannot have their sensory and aesthetic needs met by what is happening on the platform. And so I pray, asking God to please help me see him, hear from him, to forgive my judgmental attitude, confess my covetous desire to be the one on mic or in the spotlight, to release the demand that my preferences in worship styles be honoured. When I don’t like what’s happening but I pray to focus my thoughts on the Lord, it is often that very day, not only to I hear a word just for me, I also hear from a starry eyed person afterward who gushes about how incredible the service was and “Couldn’t you just sense God’s presence?” And I can only say, “I’m so glad you met Jesus today.”

    We are judged as we judge others. The same measure. Does my life stand up to the kind of scrutiny I level at others? I’m fully aware that “to whom much is given, much shall be required.” The only person God will hold to account for my attitude and worship when I stand before him will be me. What did I do to build up my brother/sister and to build lives that honour God?

    Thanks for listening.

    • Amy says:

      Thanks for sharing about your experience, Joyce. You and I have a lot in common, and I also belong to a large church and regularly bring my own attitude before God when the Holy Spirit brings a judgmental attitude to my attention. I do believe it’s worth pointing out that when we say we want people to feel they can be authentic (and I do hear this from church leaders in many different places on frequent occasions), we should consider what our own programming standards are actually communicating about what we’re willing to welcome.

    • chris says:

      Joyce, I appreciate your caution on judgmental attitudes; I too am easy to fall in this area. I might point out that I did not hear Amy judge any person, per se. I heard her pointing out a contradiction that she (and others) experience in the message relayed to worshipers, which they may not be able to articulate, but sense sort of under the surface of their worship experiences. This does not wholly dismiss the worship service as there are so many incredible components and other messages going on. It is simply to say we may have something to work on as churches when we gather: making our message match our experience. Am I really able to bring my mess to a church worship service? I think when we explore this question, we do find where the answer is “no” because of various factors.

      • Joyce Rempel says:

        Perhaps the answer is no because we’re humans. There is a time and place for everything. If you have 1,500+ people, do we stop everything for one person to talk about their brokenness? It’s not group therapy. That’s where our small groups provoke life change. We do include stories of all kind in our corporate worship setting. Even mine, when I was widowed after 31 years by my husband’s suicide. Talk about messy brokenness. I hated going to church alone, but I also had my greatest support there.

        My further question for Amy is this: did you give your feedback to anyone at the church in question? If so, how was it received? If not, will you?

        An excellent presentation in a corporate gathering doesn’t negate personal

  6. David Rupert says:

    Amy, you could have been at my church in Denver! Sounds just like it. I agree. We preach brokenness but then we seem so slick and packaged.

    Give me a guy who sings out of tune and a preacher who shuffles his notes and that’s authentic church (along with authentic people too)

  7. David says:

    Thanks for this reminder Amy. I’m not part of a large church but as we’ve grown a little and hit that size that you feel you need to do things better (web, promo, environments, location), it’s easy to fall into the trap of trying to hard or strategically pleasing the crowd you hope will come or come back.
    This CHECK is helpful to keep in mind as hope to reach more people and yet remain authentic – the right church God has dreamed us to be.

    • Amy says:

      This makes sense, David. And I know church leaders are constantly balancing priorities and preferences to serve their congregations. I have a feeling that as you’re mindful of this, that will make a big difference in itself.

  8. Christy McKelvey says:

    Hey Amy! Just saw this article in your most recent email. Thank you again for pointing out that we are so closed off from the world….only a few of us really care to dig in with people and meet them on a real face to face level. Especially if they look like they might have a mental illness or addiction….as if they should just stick to NAMI or AA….

    • Amy says:

      I’m glad this connected with you, Christy. It’s funny, we’re all people with problems. Yet we try so hard to hide them, and the people who don’t have the luxury of being able to hide them really stand out. It would do all of us good to be more honest with ourselves and each other.

© 2017 Amy Simpson.