In recent months, two lads from an unchurched family have been coming to church. One is eleven, the other eight. It started through our weekly craft club and occasional Messy Church events.
We haven’t seen the older brother for some weeks. Yesterday, the eight-year-old told us that big brother wouldn’t be coming to church any more, or to holiday club this week, because he thought church was boring.
He wouldn’t be the first child to think so. Did we fail him when he said he wanted a job doing something at the church on his first Sunday and we said he needed to come for a while before that? I doubt it. Even if we had given him a responsibility, I still think he would have found it all rather boring.
I did at eleven years old, too. I quit Sunday School, because I found it patronising. Mum and Dad let me go over the park and watch Sunday football games, but insisted I came to the evening service – during which time I used to scribble and doodle when it came to the sermon.
I had a worse problem than this in my first appointment. It involved highly unsuitable children’s workers. One problem among many was the way they kept children in Sunday School rather than going in with the adults for the first part of worship, or for all-age services. ‘Don’t go into church,’ the leader told the kids, ‘It’s boring.’ Not the best advert for your church.
However – without justifying any of the actions that leader and two others engaged in – I have to say that I told that story to a fellow minister who for a short while was my confidante. When I told him the ‘Don’t go into church, it’s boring’ line, his reaction was, ‘Well – is it?’ And it probably was.
So what do we do about boring church? Do we look for all sorts of gimmicks in order to make it exciting? Experienced Christians know it isn’t as simple as that. You can’t have excitement every week. You end up with consumer church, where people are attracted or kept by yet more spectacular thrills, as some critics of North American megachurches have pointed out. Doing so makes worship not God-centred but human-centred.
If the Church is the Bride of Christ, then an analogy from marriage may help here. Whatever the joys in the early weeks and months of romance, those feelings come and go, and they cannot be the barometer of a good marriage. (That may be part of what is wrong with what many commentators have called the ‘Jesus is my boyfriend’ approach to worship songs.) A permanent high is unsustainable. Life has to be lived, in all its mess. Sometimes, as I recently heard Adrian Plass put it, life is a choice between what you don’t want to do and what you really don’t want to do. That doesn’t make for a thrill-a-minute lifestyle.
So should I look at more creative and stimulating approaches to worship? I’m sure that would be good, but I don’t find that easy. I happen to believe I’m a preacher who gets stuck also with leading worship. Worship leading isn’t really my gift. In any case, good creative worship requires a team of people with different gifts, and it wouldn’t be possible to do that every week. Even if we had the personnel in order to depend on such an approach, it would leave us dependent upon human skills rather than an encounter with the living God.
Am I trying to find some spiritual justification for boredom in church? No. More often than I care to admit, I’m bored myself – not least when I’m conducting the worship! It feels like a problem, because it is a problem.
And the reason I think it’s a problem is this. I just have to read the four Gospels to know the issue. There was something compelling about Jesus when he walked the earth. Either people came to him like filings to a magnet, or they were repulsed by what he said and did. You couldn’t be bored with Jesus two thousand years ago, and if we claim that worship and discipleship constitute an engagement with him today, then church should not equal boredom.
Surely it is a group of people passionately engaged with Jesus Christ whose worship will repudiate boredom without falling into the dangers of sensationalist tricks. Something about that relationship has to be nurtured in our midst.
Three years ago, Christianity Today carried a powerful interview with Eugene Peterson. It was entitled, ‘Spirituality For All The Wrong Reasons‘. Like an eminent consultant surgeon, Peterson showed in the conversation where many others had gone wrong and where instead one should cut for a successful operation. Spirituality isn’t about emotional intimacy with Jesus, but the ordinary stuff of following him. The Gospel shouldn’t primarily be conceived in terms of the benefits we receive, he says: that’s consumerism. Moreover, he says, don’t idealise the church. All our great goals are laudable, but they are slow work. Our impatience leads to manipulating or bullying people, even in the cause of something good.
Towards the end of the interview, he says this:
I think relevance is a crock. I don’t think people care
a whole lot about what kind of music you have or how you shape the
service. They want a place where God is taken seriously, where they’re
taken seriously, where there is no manipulation of their emotions or
their consumer needs.
Why did we get captured by this advertising, publicity mindset? I think it’s destroying our church.
He substitutes reverence for relevance. Is this an excuse for more misery? I heard the call for reverence when I was a young Christian from older Christians whod didn’t like the frivolity, as they saw it, of our lives. True reverence is surely about awe, rather than putting distance and barriers between ourselves and God.
And if we are about engaging with the real Jesus, then reverence of the ‘awe’ kind will be part of the mix. People were awed by what he said and did. So should we be, though truly our familiarity has bred contempt.
But it will also include joy. In yesterday’s sermon I quoted a description of Jesus as a ‘party animal’. Jesus gives us reason for celebration, every bit as much as for reverence.
Maybe both frothy churches and boring churches haven’t engaged that much with the Gospels and their depiction of Jesus. I’m making as much a point as I can of preaching each week from the Lectionary Gospel reading, so that our vision of Jesus can determine everything. (Not that I don’t believe all the Scriptures point to Christ, but perhaps it’s fair to say that the Gospels give us the clearest portrait.) I wonder whether our responsibility is to do all we can to focus on Jesus. That involves our preaching, prayer, Bible study, personal devotions and the spiritual disciplines generally. And when I say the spiritual disciplines, I don’t merely mean a list of devotional habits. They have to translate into the actions of practical piety, or they are worse than useless.
Not that I wish to suggest it’s all down to us. Ultimately, a real encounter with the living God is not about all the good works we do – I’m simply advocating those things that I believe best tune us into him, when done in co-operation with the Holy Spirit. The God of love will in his grace and mercy make himself known on his own terms. But we can stand ready to encounter him.