Near the very beginning of this here blog, I wrote a couple of posts about The Chocolate Button. I related a story I read once in a newsletter about a man who asked for a chocolate shake in a fast food restaurant, and received a vanilla one. He returned to the counter, and the teenager helping him proceeded to pour him another shake from the machine–this time, also vanilla. When the man continued to come back two and three times complaining that his shake was not chocolate, all the teenager could say was, “But I pushed the chocolate button!” His logic could not move past basic procedures–he seemed unable to rationalize that something was wrong with the machine.
I used this story as an analogy for the institutional church system, and years later, it seems to me like it’s still appropriate. How many times, and in how many ways, do we Christians keep doing the same things over and over again in the name of Christ, church and evangelism, not realizing that we’re bearing little or no fruit from our efforts, and when someone asks why we’re doing it, we say, “Well, this is how we’ve always done it!” Frankly, it comes from the same kind of mindlessness as the teenager who kept pushing the chocolate button. At some point, someone needs to speak up and admit that the machine is broken–otherwise, we’ll spend from now till Jesus comes spewing out vanilla shakes and magically believing that they’re actually chocolate.
But that’s not the worst of it.
I worked in McDonald’s as a teenager (which is perhaps why the chocolate shake story is so funny to me), but I can tell you, when I go into a McDonald’s today, the whole thing is different. Yeah, it’s still a bit of an assembly line, but the way they prepare food, the procedures, even the machinery is vastly different from when I worked there five or twenty-six years ago. What I’m trying to say is–even McDonald’s keeps up with the times. They employ new technologies, they offer new products, they replace their old machines with new ones. Even if their teenage employees sometimes don’t use their brains, the higher-ups seem to know when it’s time to change.
But what about the church?
You know, I think there are a lot of people out there who are sincerely trying to renovate. You can spot them because they’re the ones who use catch words like “relevant” and “real” to express what they are doing in church. I’ve used those words quite often myself. But I still have to take issue with a lot of what we’re passing off as “relevant”, because in fact, it’s not very relevant at all. If you look at how we “do church”, at the heart we’re practicing the same methods we’ve practiced for centuries. I’m talking specifically about things that really have no backing in Scripture–they’re not necessarily BAD things, just things we do in a certain manner because we’ve ALWAYS done them that way.
The problem is, when those things stop bearing fruit, and we keep on doing them for the sake of our tradition, we lose sight of what we’re here for in the first place. We’re not here to perfect our practices–we’re here to partake in the mission of Christ. The mission of Christ is to help as many people as possible become partakers in the redemption Christ has offered us all, but what we’ve done is basically reduce that mission to trying to get people to come to our gig, hoping that in the process they will “get it.” To put it another way, instead of genuinely reaching out to people where they are at, we seem to spend most of our time simply gussying up our practices, hoping to make them attractive to people. We might try to use different words to make them sound more hip and “relevant”, but in the end we’re just splashing a fresh coat of paint on a broken machine.
Now, I realize I might make a lot of traditional folks angry with words like these; let me be clear–I’m not dissing the traditions of the church in and of themselves. Many of our ancient practices carry deep meaning–especially those deeply rooted in Scripture–and I respect them and draw from them like any believer should. What I’m saying is that preserving traditions and fulfilling the mission of Christ are not necessarily synonymous. When we are reaching out to a generation that has no grid for the value of our traditions, we have to learn to think like they think–not try to get them to think like we think. (Especially when the way we think has in so many ways become mindless–see analogy above.) We cannot hope to convince anyone of the value of an ancient tradition unless we can help that person make contact with Christ in the here and now–right where that person lives. Christ is not kept in the past. His mission continues in the present, and that’s where we must live, too.
The bottom line, imho, is that there are a lot of methods we still use–in how/when we meet, how we evangelize, and many other things–that if we would open our eyes, we’d see they just plain aren’t working anymore. I’ve spent a lot of time personally looking at some of these methods, and when I can’t even find a solid Scriptural basis for many of them, I have to ask why we’re still doing it that way when it’s obvious we’re not getting results. This driving question has informed my own journey for several years, and is continuing to inform my journey into mission today. And for anyone who truly wants to partake meaningfully in the mission of Christ–that is, they want to bear fruit, not just belong to something–I think these questions have to be asked.
It’s gone way beyond whether the chocolate button still works. It’s time for some new technology entirely.
I’m actually going somewhere specific with all this–this was just groundwork. 🙂 More in the next post.