Thursday, January 12, 2012

We Won't See You, You'll See Us

Recently, I saw a video advertising upcoming revival services that will soon be held at a large church. I'm not going to post the video here, because inevitably that will only lead people who support that church to think that I am speaking out specifically against that church, which obscures my actual intent. It was a brief video that showed the pastoral staff discussing their plans and why you should join them at the revival services. Apart from my scepticism towards the idea of being able to plan a revival, there was a statement that caught my attention. While concluding his statements, the head pastor said "We'll see you at [the revival]...well, we won't see you, you'll see us."

That statement was like a bolt of  lightning suddenly illuminating my thoughts. The second I heard it, I realized that he just summed up my greatest problem and sorrow with the practice of many American Evangelical churches today. "We won't see you, you'll see us." The words fell heavy on my heart. Not because I disagree with that pastor, but because those sentiments seem to be at odds with the essence of the person of Jesus as described in the gospels. Of course, Jesus did preach to crowds, but throughout the gospels, we see him stopping to provide individual attention to many that were largely ignored by both society at large and the religious leaders of the day. The core command to love others as God loves us seemed to lie not in merely preaching to them about the gospel, but in making personal connections with them, listening to them, and doing what you can to help them. As I read the gospels, I see a Jesus that seemed to relish in those moments where he could reveal the love of God to individuals in clear contrast to the religious legalism of the day.

The teachings of the Bible seem to reinforce that point. You look at the references to caring for the poor, the widowed, the orphans. In Matthew we are told to "make disciples." Jesus didn't simply tell his 12 disciples to make a decision to follow him and walk away once they did. He spent time with them and invested in their lives. It wasn't just about them seeing him, it was about him seeing them. The New Testament enshrines the idea of servant leadership, that whoever wants to be the greatest should make himself the least. It tells us that the greatest love is that which lays down its life for others.

Now I understand what this pastor meant...that the services will be so large that he will not see people individually, although they will see him. I know he wasn't trying to dismiss people through such a statement. But he did. Unfortunately, the trend is that many choose their churches based on who they see, not who sees them. Head pastors are put up on a pedestal. In my own community there is an extremely large church who proposed breaking apart to plant a new church due to their size, so they could maintain smaller more intimate settings. The congregation refused, largely because should they break into two churches the majority wanted to stay with the current pastor and wouldn't agree to leave. Because of that, they spent their money to rebuild a massive church, one able to seat the entire population of my hometown (around 5,000) in a single service. Instances such as this make me wonder if congregations have bought into the false idea that they are there to see the church/pastors. But the beauty of the gospel is that Jesus loved and met people individually. It was in those intimate moments that he revealed his true nature, and what would come next. Some of the most profound parts of the gospel were never shouted from the rooftops, but taught among small groups of devotees.

"We won't see you, you'll see us" enshrines this concept of church as entertainment or self-help seminar. It is that ideology that launches mission trips filled with dramas and VBS programming, but does little to care for the needs of the communities to which they travel. It is that ideology that causes churches to seek to quantify their work and speak of success primarily in terms of numbers. When it is their job to see you, you have placed the burden on others to seek out the church and discover if they can find the help or fulfillment they are looking for there. You have redefined the role of church as a marketing firm rather than a service industry. I just don't see that taught as our ideal anywhere within the gospels. Jesus didn't preach to the masses and say "Find a religious institution. Enjoy their amazingly relevant preaching and cutting edge worship to feed your soul. Be sure to join a small group in order to make sure that you have a more intimate community."  Jesus didn't preach to us to find intimate community once we were involved with a group of other believers because the natural result of a gathering of followers of Christ should be building a more intimate community. Contrary to popular belief, community is best established not through shared viewpoints, but is the natural result of valuing people over programs or doctrine. No amount of programming or brand marketing will be an adequate substitute for that. It is an ideal that is simply not found within "We won't see you, you'll see us."

Hearing that pastor express such a sentiment, suddenly clarified my discontent with American Evangelical Culture. I don't believe in a gospel that is there to be seen. I believe in a gospel that sees and loves others. I don't want a church that exists in the midst of massive marketing campaigns trying to bring everyone to itself. I want a church that meets people, not to grow its own numbers, but to serve them in the example of Jesus Christ, because they believe that is the core purpose of church - putting others' needs ahead of your own. In a world where people are increasingly simply labeled as part of a certain group or statistic, isn't about time that we started seeing them as valued individuals rather than insisting that they see us?

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