I think it must have been maybe the summer of 1975, take or add a year. My buddy Bill and I drove up from San Clemente to the University of Santa Barbara to attend a Fleetwood Mac concert. I was a huge fan back then and I still am! One of my best friend’s cousin, Bob Welch, was a lead singer early on for Fleetwood Mac and sang one of my all-time favorite songs, Sentimental Lady? Anyone remember that song?
It was a hot summer day and we got there early enough to make our way to the front where a stack of huge speakers towered into the sky. As the concert started, I was taken back by the deep reverberating pounding of the bass coming from the speakers. At first, I loved it. The music was great. It was loud. And the bass was literally vibrating through my whole body and it felt like it was even shaking my internal organs! I never felt anything like that before. But after a while, it seemed as though the intensity of the vibrations was messing with my heart rhythm. It didn’t take long for me to realize I needed to escape from being directly in front of those powerful speakers. Never mind what was likely happening to my hearing!
Years later, as a youth pastor, I found myself sitting in an auditorium at one of California’s premier youth camps in the Sierra mountains waiting for the first night’s evening program to begin as I was with fifty of my church’s youth along with perhaps a thousand other campers and leaders. Waiting for the program to start took me back to that Fleetwood Mac concert as a deep, pounding bass reverberating from huge speakers was moving through my chest as not so loud instrumental music was more like background for the bass. I liked it. I thought it was cool.
I have a confession to make. For many years as a youth/associate/lead pastor, I thought making church on Sunday “cool” would keep attendees excited and involved as well as attract many others who were looking for “cool.” I went to all the conferences, including several sponsored by the megachurch phenom Willow Creek and I was inspired to bring back home the latest and greatest programs to attract youth and adults to church. All for the sake of Jesus, of course. I somehow developed this strange mix of the love of Jesus with programming Jesus through creating a Sunday environment of enthusiasm through technology be it video, music, lighting as well as decoration, food offerings and friendly leaders. To top it off, I had to be cool. The worship leader had to be cool. The greeters had to be cool. It all had to be cool. Jesus is cool, right?
Having been out of the pastorate for ten years now and also having interacted with hundreds and hundreds of “used to go to church” people in this community of 170,000 it has been difficult to walk in to a church service which has everything planned out to the most minute degree. I’m talking about me and my experience here, not necessarily yours. Church on Sunday (we all should know that “church” is not Sunday, right?) feels like an offering to the attendees much like what it might feel like if I were to walk into a Jimmy Fallon show to be entertained with good music, humor, special performances, the testimonies of guests, maybe a serious thought or two and of course the star of the show, pastor Jimmy and his monologue. If it is done well the show goes on for years. If not, it fizzles over time.
It sounds like I am forsaking the gathering of the saints and perhaps I am to some degree if the gathering is a rehearsed, polished, performance which subordinates the potential supernatural work of the Spirit of God to a possible happenstance occurrence if it occurs at all in the hearts of attendees on any given Sunday. Maybe you attend one of those churches and it does lead you into the realm of mystery and interactions with the nuances of the Spirit. Who am I to say? I am not saying it is impossible to experience God through well done performance oriented services.
I guess what I am saying or revealing from my own heart is that now, I find it difficult to enter into a Sunday church experience without numerous distractions or elements of performance that make it difficult to experience God. More importantly, even though it is a gathering of the saints, it is hardly the deep fellowship of the saints for which we were all created to experience at the deepest level possible. That hardly happens on Sunday, even for the “in” crowd who has their need for connection (not deep fellowship) met by having small talk with their friends. I'm good at small talk by the way!
One revealing thing about “church” during COVID is that many churches simply worked really hard to produce a virtual online experience with all the same polished and rehearsed elements of Sunday mornings to be observed on a screen at home. Perhaps we learned in a profound way that the only thing that really makes church church is the fellowship of the saints living in community, breaking bread together, living together and being there for each other through everything that life throws at us.
Fleetwood Mac is still cool to me. The pounding bass, not so much. Church as an intricate, intimate bond of human souls sharing life together beyond Sunday is cool to me. Church as a performance on Sunday not so much, whether a church seats fifty souls in a school cafeteria or 3500 in a state-of-the-art worship center. Not so much either to the 150,000 people around me out of 170,000 who “used to go to church” and who likely never will walk into a service on Sunday. But they all can still be a part of the church if the church were to come to them. Jesus looked upon a crowd of thousands upon thousands and had compassion for them all. He fed them real food and simply made it clear that He was the bread of life. Take, eat. Go.