I have a few very simple requests of church, which I think are a lot easier, and a lot harder I suppose, to meet than all the things churches seem to bend over backwards to achieve. Church, if anything, is meant to be the one place where you are accepted solely on Christ’s account – not for your lifestyle, subculture, career progress, or anything else. I just realized that that is why I have been dissapointed most of the time in churches. I tell myself that I would like to be around a certain kind of people, that the demographic at a given church is too old, too young, too yuppie, too stuffy, or, more often, too hyper. But really, what I long for more deeply out of a church (and without which no demographic will fit the bill) is to feel belonging and acceptance in a church on the basis of something beyond our personal achievements (our “works”); I seek in church the one refuge from being judged by my “success”; I just want to be able to go somewhere where I am reminded that I am accepted on the basis of Christ’s work alone. I go to find this refuge in the one place it is meant to be found, and yet I am chiefly greeted by the inevitable “so, what do you do?” question.
Secondly (or firstly, but they’re really the same thing), the whole service should remind us of what I’m going to call The Gospel. By that I don’t mean a weekly altar call (anything but that!) or that the sermon needs to always be on the subject matter of the first half of Romans. But whatever the subject matter, it should exist simply for the reason of communicating “the teaching of the apostles” (the Gospel) with the aim of helping the listener be “rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught [the Gospel], abounding in thanksgiving.” That root, that faith, is none other than the truth of our forgiveness and acceptance on the basis of Christ’s work alone. We can get complex, we should build out what that means specifically and allow it to touch every aspect of life and reality, but the “alone” is the organizing principle.
That is the essence. I also personally like to see that Gospel embodied in the service by weekly communion – our prayer of dependance and gratitude on Christ’s gift – and not tacked on to the end, but as the climax by which the whole service’s version of the story of our guilt and God’s grace are gratefully embraced.
On this foundation it is also reasonable to hope for no cheese or corn with that please. I can’t seem to define cheesiness or corniness or to put a solid finger on them when I see them, but I think it is close to the mark to say that it is related to hyperbole and sentimentality. A basic definition for sentimentality (in the arts, but a church service is like an art) is the pushing of emotions which are not earned. That is hyperbolic because the surface goes beyond the substance. It is hollow. True emotions flow out of content. If there were a half-minute film comprised of two people running to eachother and embracing, let’s say with no music, would it move us? Add in heart-rending music, maybe. But we have been cheated still. There has to be a reason why this meeting is emotional, it has to be meaningful. To be meaningful is to mean something, something beyond what it just is. Or in other words, for something to be significant it must be a sign, which by definition signifies something not itself (though William Carlos Williams might argue me there). That something else, the signified, in this case must be a resolution within a greater story. The greater the story (great in both quantity and quality), the greater the meaning, the greater (or deeper perhaps) the emotion created by the scene. Cheesiness, I think, is basically just trying too hard; it is not allowing the content to carry the emotion, but trying to force it by lazily turning up the volume. It is exhausting because it is like working hard on an empty stomach. So… lack of cheesiness/hyperbole/sentimentality is a natural building upon the foundation of “Gospel” because the gospel by definition does not require us to perform, but to receive. With the Gospel, we don’t need to abandon authenticity, honesty, simplicity, and put on a face to try to manipulate a response, because by definition the Gospel does not ask us to manufacture results but to receive with empty hands the results of Christ’s work. So, is it really being so very judgmental and particular of me when I criticize churches for their cheesiness? Of course I in turn must forgive the lack of “works” success in their lack of empty hands receiving the Gospel, but on the other hand all I am demanding when I criticize cheesiness is that they stop, stop trying so hard. You don’t have to be great, or cool, or smart, just stop trying to sound like you are, because your and my acceptance doesn’t rest on that.
Aesthetics are a point on which I can easily feel I am being too picky and too superficial. And again, I must be forgiving of poor aesthetics in church. However, aesthetics is not merely superficial. To say it is superficial is to say, “why smile if you’re happy?” Church aesthetics is an incarnation of its theology and philosophy. A theology of grace, of Gospel, in short, should not lead to hyperbolic music and banners, self-consciousness in the form of overtly casual clothing or overtly fancy clothing, or in the form of flashy overheads. The Gospel, by definition, undermines the need for self-consciousness. Self-consciousness is consciousness of what we think others may think of us, whereas the Gospel means that we do not need to guess what the ultimate thinker-of-us (it would would be cheesy for me to insert who that is here) thinks of us.
So, when I overlook the church’s stupidity, I am overlooking not its inability to, in theological terms, do law, but its inability to abandon law for grace, even if they’re (sweetly) screaming grace at you. I can’t handle the irony of church signs that say things like “God loves you” and “come as you are,” because by advertising to you to come to their church (and therefore not to another) they are not coming as they are to God, but are trying to win approval by the numerical and emotional success generated by the “work” of that sign.
What do you think?