Las Vegas is iconic Americana. Like it or not, it reflects something of the soul of the USA. It also reflects, I suggest, something of the soul of American Christianity. Americans built the neon city up out of the harsh climate of the Mojave desert. It’s glitzy, glamorous, and beautiful. It’s young and exciting. It’s large, unmistakable, and an epicenter of entertainment. Entertainment is part of its DNA.
What does Las Vegas have to do with the ordinary church? Nothing. It represents the opposite of the ordinary church. But it also reflects so much of what we seem to want in a church. We like our churches recognizable. So much better if the pastor is a celebrity. We like them glitzy too, apparently. The rock concert is the model for today’s worship.
Well, someone says, we’re reaching the lost with our rock star worship! Maybe. But it doesn’t actually look that way. Gene Veith a 2009 study of the people who attend megachurches. Barely 2% said they were not a committed follower of Jesus Christ prior to joining the church. Only 6% said they had never attended church before coming to their current megachurch. The large, the glitzy, and the household name churches seem to attract Christians more than non-Christians.
Whatever you think of them, it remains that most of our churches aren’t megachurches. According to this 2011 post at the Get Religion blog, the median church in the U.S. has 75 regular participants in worship on Sunday mornings. A congregation that size does not have the means to put on the rock concert worship service, even if they want to.
Ordinary Church, Ordinary Means
My real concern when it comes to the ordinary church, though, requires drilling a little deeper. What does a believer need in his or her church to grow? What does a church need to reach the lost? Should we expect large numbers, a smorgasbord of programs, or a worship service with relevant music to yield real growth?
Despite plenty of lip service to the contrary, I fear those are exactly the things we expect to produce real growth. Paradoxically, it may well be that at a deep level we know better. That would explain why so many Christians, at least in my experience, seek out parachurch Bible studies. They know they need more solid food.
Westminster Shorter Catechism 88 identifies the ordinary means through which the Lord brings growth (see e.g. Matthew 7:24-27; 28:18-20; John 15:1-17; Acts 20:32; 1 Corinthians 10:16-17; Colossians 2:6-7; Hebrews 4:12; 2 Peter 1:3-11). Every Christian must make use of these means. That a church offers them doesn’t guarantee growth. Nevertheless, at least the Bible says that we have a right to expect God to use them to work salvation in us. Rock concert worship itself holds no promise for growth. It raises the issue of where we’re placing our trust.
The problem is that these ordinary means of grace are just that: they’re ordinary. Words on a page, preaching (see Westminster Shorter Catechism question and answer 89), bread, wine and water? Really? These aren’t glitzy things! They aren’t obviously relevant. Further, God normally works through them slowly over a long time. They aren’t flashy. Progress can be painfully slow. You will probably face difficult circumstances and hurtful people in the process. But over the course of years growth will become increasingly clear to others, if not always to you.
Ordinary Church for Ordinary People
Let’s face it: most of us are ordinary. We have broken dreams, mortgages, mundane jobs, and skeletons in the closet. As parents we’re trying to raise kids without committing violent crimes in the process. We’re glad cameras aren’t rolling on our daily lives because our children aren’t as perfect as they sometimes seem. Ordinary people ought to appreciate an ordinary church. Not many of us are extraordinary. If everyone were extraordinary no one would be extraordinary. Embrace the ordinary!
Most of our churches have ordinary pastors. They aren’t, and they never will be, celebrities. Our churches are teeming with ordinary members, who will never garner the world’s attention. They will never grace the pages of People Magazine. They will never walk the red carpet. Does that make them useless in God’s purposes? If your answer is “no,” then resist the temptation to dismiss the ordinary church. Why travel from that ordinary church in your community to the glitzy church a half hour or forty-five minutes away? Maybe you have good reasons. Or maybe you’ve put your faith in things that hold no promise in God’s redemptive purposes.