Good things badly

I don’t usually write about personal pet peeves, but recently one of mine got triggered, and I’m inspired to write about it, so . . . there.

I’m from the neck of the ecclesiastical woods known as “conservative” and “Reformed.” We’re known for small churches that keep to the old paths. I love the old paths; I can’t say I’m crazy about the smallness – I certainly don’t regard it as a virtue – but it depends on why we’re small. Which brings me to my pet peeve.

I hear all the time from leaders of small churches that are struggling in various ways: “Well, we don’t need to concern ourselves with results or numbers; we just need to be faithful doing what God has told us to do, and leave the outcomes to Him.”

This sounds really good. It has a nice pure ring to it. Do your duty. Be faithful at it. Let God be God. I’m down with all of that.

But one thing I almost never hear in conjunction with this is the possibility – just the possibility, mind you – that we’re doing all the right stuff, but doing it really badly. We’re preaching the Word every Sunday. That’s a good thing, but what if our preaching is just plain boring? We’re maintaining tried-and-true traditions in worship, but what if our liturgy is desultory or plodding? What if the whole atmosphere of our worship is stale, yea, even funereal? We’re not out there “peddling” the gospel with gimmicks and glamor, but what if our outreach (and our inreach, for that matter) is dull, unimaginative, uninspired, and pretty darn pessimistic (not that we expect bad things to happen; we just don’t expect much of anything to happen)? We’re Christ-centered, but what if we talk about Christ in a way that leaves Him apparently disconnected not only from the everyday life of the guy who walks in off the street, but even from the lives of most of the people nodding (take it as you will) in the pew?

I’ve sat through “faithful” Reformed sermons that were simply horrible; you didn’t have to be a communications major to figure it out. I’ve listened to sermons full of true sayings about God and the gospel that were so badly constructed, so hard to follow, so freighted with in-house jargon, so gloomy, so emotionally manipulative, so interminable, and/ or so out of touch with the real world, that all I wanted was to go stretch my legs – and I’m a pastor, for crying out loud. I’m supposed to like sermons.

Don’t even get me started on the stuff that happens before and after the sermon. I’ve been trotted at breakneck pace through liturgies without a moment to get my emotional bearings. I’ve puzzled my way through liturgies without any discernible theme or logical order. I’ve sat through good liturgies led by people who, to all appearances, couldn’t wait for it to be over. I’ve heard prayers that droned on for twenty minutes, followed by sharp admonitions about failure to stay focused. I’ve been subjected to song selections and congregational singing that would soothe the dead. It’s all “faithful.” It’s all doing our duty. It’s all – in principle – good stuff. And I think we ought to be ashamed of ourselves.

Then there’s the whole outward face of the church. We small conservative Reformed folk aren’t known for caring about reaching the lost – if God wants them to come, they’ll come; and if He’s really working in their hearts, they’ll love bad sermons and boring worship as much as we do. (I exaggerate mildly for effect.) Amazingly, this is sometimes true. People do come to worship, and they do sometimes stay. I wonder, though: Why are we so bad at taking the gospel out to where everyday life happens? Why doesn’t our message seem to “connect” outside the walls of the church? Why don’t we work harder at meeting people where they actually live, talking about questions they’re actually asking, using media to which they can actually relate? Why do we think preaching the Word and administering the sacraments inside the four walls of the church is where all the action is, and fail to develop anything approximating excellence in taking the Word out into the world? What’s with all these drab, outdated websites (if we have them at all); church leaders who are social media illiterate; and “outreach” events that consist of handing out church postcards door to door? Are we trying to be ineffective? Worse, are we self-satisfied because, after all, we’re doing our duty behind closed doors every Sunday? Really?

There’s no excuse for doing good things badly. There’s no excuse for poor preaching, deadness in worship, or outreach literature that looks like it was printed twenty years ago. “At Iconium,” writes Luke, the apostles “spoke in such a way that a great number of both Jews and Greeks believed” (Acts 14:1). This isn’t a denial of God’s sovereignty; it’s a simple statement of human responsibility. Preach like Jesus really is the Logos and communication matters. Worship in a way that’s well thought-out, engaging, lively, and participatory. Act like you expect the gospel to do something, in worship and outside the walls of the church. Cultivate good ideas, stuff that will grab people’s attention. Tell great stories that lead naturally to the Great Story. Be creative: think about how to relate the gospel to the real lives of real people out in the real world who have never heard the term “effectual calling.” Speak in such a way, inside and outside the church, that people believe. Who knows? Maybe God will start to fill our small churches, and not only we but also thousands of others will have great cause to glorify His name.

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