Doubt Month: Carrying the Water

January 18, 2010

To kick off our final week of Doubt Month, I want to ask you a question.  Has church ever insulted your intelligence?

When I was a teenager, my friends and I used to rent really bad movies, just to laugh at them.  It was impossible to “suspend our disbelief” and buy in to the movie.  The terrible writing, acting, and special effects made them worth nothing more than fodder for being shamed by teenage boys.  Even our very small teenage intelligence was insulted by these movies, and we responded by mocking the hard work of the filmmakers.  If you’d like to try this, AMC is running a Tommy Lee Jones marathon with “Volcano” in the mix.  It’s terrible.

That’s the problem with church.  You’re supposed to believe it.  You’re supposed to buy into it.  Sometimes, it’s difficult to believe what’s happening at church.

I’ve visited a lot of churches.  A lot of those churches and pastors seemed to spend a lot of time trying to convince me that they are awesome.  One pastor went on a long bragging tirade about all the ways they are the best church in town.  Another praise team performed a prayer in song that told Jesus that he wanted to bless their ministry, repeatedly.  Before this, I had never heard of praying to God by telling him what he thinks. 

Now, my church does some stuff that’s good, and I make announcements about it.  And I’d like to think that Jesus wants to bless our ministry.  But I’m not one to need to remind everyone each Sunday about how awesome we are.  We just are awesome, and everyone sort of picks up on it.  I’m also not one to tell Jesus what he wants to do.  I think he knows what he wants to do without me telling him.  But maybe I can try some reverse psychology.  “Jesus, you don’t want to help us build a new multi-million dollar building.”

I know why pastors do this. 

They’re trying to pump up the crowd.  They’re trying to convince visitors that they are the most dynamic, spiritual, above all exciting place to be.  They’re trying to remind the burned out or doubtful members that the church might not be perfect, but they certainly won’t do any better with the Methodists, so don’t bother going church shopping. 

The pastors are trying to convince people that their church is worth giving money to, and they are worth their paycheck. 

It’s important that the people buy in to the church, believe in it.  It’s important for a lot of churches to spend a lot of time creating hype over every little thing they do.  It’s also important for the people who may think the pastor is full of baloney to carry the water and not make the church look bad.

One of the biggest cogs in the hype machine of many churches is still the altar call.  That’s when the pastor tells everyone to close their eyes, so Jesus can finally do his thing and save some sinners.  Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.

The pastor will call for people to raise their hands who want to get saved.  Then he’ll acknowledge this hand, that hand, thank you.  And all the while, some sinner will be watching the whole time, and see no hands being raised.  It’s almost a cliche.

Other churches allow the members to look, because there are always people going down to the altar.  It looks really impressive.  What the average member may know is that most of those people are members who are designated to go down, to encourage the wayward sinner to quit being a wimp and go down there to face Jesus.

Whether churches do the altar call or not, they judge themselves every week on whether or not they were “successful.”  Churches like to feel “successful.”  They like big numbers in the attendance and the budget and the baptisms.  It validates them.  It makes the pastor feel he’s worth something.  But what if the numbers aren’t there?  What if everyone in church is already saved?

Fake it.

In a culture where failure is worse than death, the church leaders put on a performance, and the audience is wowed.  Everything is okay.  People still buy into it.  They still put money into the offering, even if the whole production sort of insults their intelligence a little, like a stupid movie they paid $8.00 to see.

Everyone still leaves feeling good.  Well…almost everyone.  The pastor goes home Sunday afternoon, knowing that the hype was hot air.  The altar call was a lie.  His personal accomplishments, his church’s influence are not what he would like.  And so, of all the people who carry a little water for the sake of creating an image, he carries the most.

It must be exhausting.  It must make being a pastor the toughest job on earth.  I cannot imagine the emotional drain it must put on the man who absorbs that week after week for the sake of making everyone else feel good.  I wonder if he ever asks Jesus why he won’t send anyone to the altar.  I wonder what he thinks of his worth as a pastor or a person.

And guess what?  Even if the numbers in attendance doubled, even if a hundred people were saved every Sunday at the altar call, even if Jesus himself appeared at church, we’d still want more.  We’re not addicted to Jesus.  We’re addicted to hype and success, and we’re usually willing to suspend our disbelief for a pastor who will deliver the hype.

Is your church big on hyping itself?  Does your church do the altar calls? Are they legit, or all hype?  How have you carried the water at your church?  Has your pastor ever done something that made you say, “Yeah, right.”?  Is your church happy with what it is, or does everyone sort of wish it was something else?