What should the church look like these days? How can the church thrive in this day and age? More and more people are talking about those issues, in churches and online.
Theologian Diana Butler Bass recently posted a video with some of her thoughts. It included an interesting story about a priest who went out onto a busy street corner on Ash Wednesday in full vestments to offer ashes and a quick prayer to passersby.
Several people stopped with surprise, having forgotten that it was Ash Wednesday. They were grateful for the "interrupt" the priest provided by appearing out of his normal context in worship. Had he not done so, they might have gone through the entire day never realizing it was a holy day on the Christian calendar.
A large part of the ongoing discussion is to find ways in which the church can get out of the four walls of the building and meet people in different, typically "secular" contexts.
It's happening in other ways and contexts as well. You used to have to go to an office to work; now you can often work from home. You used to be tied to an outlet in the wall to talk on the phone; now you can call from almost anywhere. Things are changing and boundaries are being blurred.
People are thinking about worship and faith in different ways than sitting in a sanctuary on Sunday mornings. There are entire ministries that do all of their work online, broadcasting services, or recording them for people to view on demand. There are blogs whose authors consider what they do to be a ministry, though not in the typical sense of the word.
Then I read an article online about churches offering drive-thru prayer services. You pull up, they pray for or with you about whatever you request, and you're back on your way. Kinda like Burger King, but in this case you get to have religion your way instead of a Whopper.
The article caused me to wonder. Are we helping or hurting by doing things differently? Are we providing a necessary "interrupt" to remind folks to keep worship and connection with God as part of daily life? Or are we pandering to the cultural norm that tells us that it's all about you? Are we giving in to people's desires to have everything their way? How far is far enough?
My basic sense is that nothing done in the spirit of service to one another and in an effort to truly connect with people, and to help them connect with God, is inherently bad. It may make some folks uncomfortable and it may seem gimmicky to others. But nowhere in the Bible does it say "thou shalt worship only on Sundays in a dusty old cathedral." That notion of propriety is a human construct - a cultural tradition that has, in many ways, become the very thing we worship rather than God.
That being said, I see a risk in some of these things that we might be feeding an already epidemic sense of narcissism and instant gratification in our society which is counter to Jesus' gospel message. Jesus calls us to get over ourselves, to place God and others first. But how can we do that if we're simply fitting faith in between a stop for a vanilla latte and the next tank of gas? There's something to be said for intentionally setting time and space aside for silence, reflection, study and renewal. Though a worship service in my car at a drive-in theatre or a quick prayer through the driver-side window may offer a nice little bump, it's a poor substitute for the discipline of worship.
I know, discipline is a four-letter word these days. We want everything quickly and easily. Washboard abs in seven minutes. Losing weight without a diet, or a diet based on the idea of eating chocolate. Instant credit. We want the results without the discipline.
But can we do that spiritually? Spiritual depth needs spiritual discipline. We can't provide a connection to God by peddling the next quick-fix product in an effort to try and stay relevant.
Aside from that, spiritual depth also needs community. Some spiritual practices are best done alone. Even Jesus retreated into solitude at times to pray and refocus himself and his ministry. But ultimately, the Christian faith emphasizes putting "we" ahead of "I," and it helps us learn how to share one another's lives in a way that eases the hardship while multiplying the joys.
These are important questions. I don't have the answers, but I'm grateful for being able to think through this stuff.