Thursday, October 31, 2013

Why I Hate Mega-Churches

       "I encounter God out on the trail. Nature feels more worshipful than church to me."

This is a sentiment frequently expressed to clergy, especially in conversations discussing worship attendance (or lack thereof). I resonate with the sentiment, because I too have frequently had an experience of the holy (and have more frequently had an experience of what I considered to be the holy, the numinous) in places outside Christian worship more frequently than in Christian worship.

Examples include listening to This American Life on NPR, rocking to a Wilco concert at Red Rocks, and attending the birth of our children.

It does beg the question, Who is God, and what kind of God is where? Is God primarily a God who gives us chills, a sense of the mysterium fascinans (the mystery that attracts)? Does God not also work through the mysterium tremendum (the mystery that repels)? A hike on the trail is beautiful and holy until that moment you encounter a disordered bear who eats you.

But what if the debate about whether we can experience God more in nature or in church is misguided? What if there is a third way, another direction, we are to consider as the true place God resides and the space in which we can most likely experience the true God?

What if God is most likely to hang out where we least anticipate God? In the poor, hungry, thirsty, naked, imprisoned, sick & suffering. What if God is inviting us to worship there?

In other words, although you expect a pastor to argue that even though nature is really nice and mountains are awesome, Christian worship is still an important place to experience God--here I'd like to argue that Christian worship is only a place to experience God if we first remember that God is God primarily in and through the poor, the hungry, the thirsty, the sick, the homeless, the stranger, the vulnerable, and the needy.

Any Christian worship that fails at this test may be misrepresenting God. Which means almost all of Christian worship, even the worship over which I preside on a weekly basis, likely fails.

Nothings proves this more than the fact that I talk to people weekly who say, I'm embarrassed to come to church because I feel like I need to have it all together before I come, and I don't feel like I have it all together.

Liturgy of the neighbor verifies liturgy of the church

What is necessary is a complete turn-around. Worship is not "the work of the people." That's an etymologically false claim, misunderstanding leitourgia as the ergon (work) of the laos (people) rather than leitourgia as the ergon (work) of the leitos (public). Leitourgia is a "secular Greek term for a public work done not by but on behalf of the people by another person or group appointed to that task" (Maxwell E. Johnson, Praying and Believing in Early Christianity). Leitourgia is something beautiful that God does for us.
Liturgy is God's work for us, not our work for God. Only God can show us how to worship God--fittingly, beautifully. Liturgy is not something beautiful we do for God, but something beautiful God does for us and among us. Public worship is neither our work nor our possession; as the Rule of St. Benedict reminds us, it is opus Dei, God's work. Our work is to feed the hungry, to refresh the thirsty, to clothe the naked, to care for the sick, to shelter the homeless; to visit the imprisoned; to welcome the stranger; to open our hands and hearts to the vulnerable and needy. If we are doing these things well, liturgy and the [Christian] identity it rehearses will very likely take care of themselves. (Nathan Mitchell)
Most weeks, I know the public liturgy churches host (including ours) do some of these things. People are fed through the gifts given at the offering, worship at least in part is designed to welcome the stranger, the Eucharist travels from the table to the sick, etc. However, quite a lot of liturgy is designed not towards these ends, but rather to meet the felt needs of the assembly, especially the felt need to sing songs we like, or get comfortable with an order of service that is familiar and homey.

Considerably more money is spent (honestly, vast resources are expended) building 'sanctuaries' in which to host corporate worship than is spent moving liturgy out the margins to ensure it can take place among the very people and contexts God promises to dwell.

If we believe liturgy is what God does for us, then right liturgy would re-order our lives to encounter God where God actually shows up. "Liturgy of the neighbor verifies liturgy of the church... in spite of the tension between them, doxology and doctrine remain a cozy pair, each partner defining itself in terms of the other. But the deeper question is not whether faith controls worship, or vice versa, but whether either of them can be verified in the absence of a lex agenda (a rule of action or behavior), an ethical imperative that flows from the Christian's encounter with a God who is radically 'un-God-like,' a God who, in the cross of Jesus and in the bodies of the 'poor, the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the imprisoned,' has become everything we believe a God is not." (Meeting Mystery, 223-25).

Why I Hate Mega-Churches

The title of this blog post was a patent bait & switch. It got you to read the blog, didn't it? But there is truth in the title. What I dislike about the concept of mega-church is that it really does celebrate all that is flashy about worship that draws us to anticipate encountering God in the mysterium fascinans. Big all by itself can evoke this kind of feeling. Crowds in worship send chills up and down the spine, if the well-funded worship leaders know their stuff.

However, the thing is, a lot of mega-churches are the most likely churches to know that God really is among the poor, hungry, thirsty, imprisoned. Just look at what some of the best big churches do during the week, and you see what I mean.

In the meantime, many small churches, though not able to pull off the radical energy naturally evoked in large assembles, nevertheless still operate with a mega mentality in corporate worship, inasmuch as they think worship is about feeding the fascinans rather than feeding the poor.

I don't actually hate mega-churches. I quite like them. What I hate is how we have all, almost to a one, been co-opted by a mega mentality. We are all mega-churches. The church is one big mega-church, and it is exceedingly rare to encounter a worshipping congregation that really believes God is with the imprisoned. Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

Because if a community believes God is with the imprisoned, it would probably actually plan its primary worship experience in a prison. If a community believe God is primarily among the hungry, it would probably find a way to hold its primary worship experience among and feeding those who hunger. If a community believed God is primarily among the vulnerable and marginalized, it would likely host worship that was itself vulnerable, at the border.

The fact that most of our worship assemblies do nothing of the sort illustrates how we are all mega-church now. Worship is not about what we like. It is about the neighbor in need, and the work of God that draws us back again to encounter God precisely in our needy neighbor.


  1. this is soooooooooo good. Reformation-esque. Nail THIS to a church door

  2. I'm with you on your understanding of liturgy as God's work on our behalf. Certainly that is the Lutheran take on what is the essence of the church. But I question the use of Matthew 25 that lies behind your central question here, and seems to have become widely accepted among many Christians - that we ENCOUNTER God in the poor, hungry, etc. What's particularly interesting about both the "sheep" and the "goats" in Mt. 25 is that neither group knew that they were ministering (or failing to minister) to Jesus when they ministered (or didn't) to the poor, hungry, etc. They didn't SEE Jesus there. And their failure to see Jesus there was not at issue. God is not revealed to us there. Ministering to the PHTNISS (how's that for an acronym?) is, however, our proper response to what God does for us in God's liturgy "go in peace, serve the Lord, remember the poor" - i.e. now YOUR service starts), but it is not the same thing as the liturgy.

  3. When corporate worship, Sunday morning or whenever, is seen as the "sent out" community gathering back together to celebrate what God is doing through his people connecting with Jesus who is already ahead of them in the world, then you see a rhythm taking place. It's a Revelation 12 "blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony" thing.

  4. Chris, I see where you are going with that. I guess in addition to matthew 25, what drives the insight is the fact that Christ who we worship was himself PHTNISS.

  5. Well written. This sounds exactly what I heard about worship being an ethic experience in Craig Nessan's Christian Ethics class at Wartburg Seminary literally this morning. Worship is God working on us, training us, readying us for discipleship out in the world, in service to neighbor. Worship is God training Christians to be the saints in the world whom we've been freed to be.

  6. hmmmm. though I like the general gist of the article, I am not sure that all big churches are about feeding the poor (though some are) and that most small churches are NOT about feeding the poor. Though I know some small-er churches with the mind-set you describe, I also know some funky little churches that are all about justice, and service, and being where the lost and the least are.

  7. "If a community believed God is primarily among the vulnerable and marginaliized, it would likely host worship that was itself vulnerable, at the border."
    • Shades of 11.IX.33, Der Pfarrernotbund!
    • You sound ever more like Bonhoeffer, Clint!