What your congregation celebrates corporately is just as important as what your church affirms doctrinally. Celebrate the gospel, and cross-cultural ministry will bubble up in surprising ways. Celebrate your church’s preferential distinctions, and your congregation will become an insular group of like-minded individuals.
Celebrating something other than the gospel can happen in different kinds of churches. Here are two fictitious examples:
Rob grew up in a Southern Baptist church in the Deep South. His church believed the gospel and demonstrated genuine affection for the lost.
Even though the gospel was preached in Rob’s church, the deacons seemed to save their heartiest “Amens” for whenever the preacher went off script and started reminding them of all that set their church apart from the others in town. The preacher and congregation took pride in the fact that their church was traditional:
- Just gimme that “old-time religion” please!
- No need to project Bible verses up on some newfangled screen. (We actually expect people to bring their Bibles to church!)
- We like organs and hymns, and we refuse to dumb down our music for the 7/11 ditties you can hear on the radio 24/7.
- We dress up around here because we’re meeting King Jesus (and shouldn’t you wear your finest clothes for royalty?).
- Name the program you need and we’ve got it covered.
- From birth to heaven, our church offers an “old-fashioned” church experience in Southern Baptist style.
Rob went off to college in a big city and started looking for a church. He knew the gospel. He wanted to walk with the Lord. But in his new city, he had trouble finding a Southern Baptist church that felt like home. One week, he tried a church that turned out to be much too casual for his liking (they had a coffee bar!). Another church didn’t have enough programs to suit his taste. He found a church where he clicked with people and liked the preacher, but they had a screen, a drum set, and a singer with suspiciously shaggy hair.
Several months have gone by, and now, Rob is adrift. He feels disoriented. He sits down one evening and writes out a list of all the things important to his church experience. By the time he puts the pen down, he is frustrated that he can’t find “the right church.”
Kelli grew up in an urban context. When she was in college, she was invited by a neighbor to church. Everything she expected church to be was turned upside-down upon her first visit. The architecture and atmosphere was edgy and cool. The music was contemporary. Most importantly, the gospel was preached, and Kelli trusted Christ.
Over time, Kelli assimilated into this congregation. Though this church looked very different from the church Rob grew up in, it had one thing in common. This congregation was also enamored with its uniqueness:
- This isn’t your father’s church. We’re hip and artsy here.
- We’re not like the traditional, stuffy churches where people put on masks by dressing up. We accept you the way you are.
- No hymnals or Sunday School. All that has gone the way of the dinosaur.
- Don’t expect to hear the cheesy, commercialized pop worship on Christian radio. We write everything ourselves, thank you very much.
- And just so you know, don’t expect us to load you down with programs; just make sure you’re here for the weekly experience.
Kelli married a Christian guy she met on a mission trip. He took a job in a rural town in Texas. Shortly after their move, they began looking for churches and – lo and behold – they couldn’t find a church that felt like the one they came from. Kelli discovered that all the churches were more traditional. They liked one church, but soon discovered it had children’s programs that her old church used to snicker at. Another church had friendly people but – alas! – the soloist used canned music. No live band during worship? They didn’t even bother.
A few months have gone by and Kelli and her husband are still searching. Kelli has grown disillusioned with church and wonders if she’ll ever feel at home again. So she makes a list: “The Church I Want”. When she finishes, she buries her head in her hands and thinks, Maybe it’s just better to download podcasts from back home.
Rob’s church and Kelli’s church look very different, and yet they are very much the same. Both churches proclaim the gospel, but both center their identity in aesthetic tastes and styles. The gospel is preached, but the style is what’s celebrated.
Week after week, the churches emphasize and celebrate what makes them different from other churches. They celebrate their uniqueness – not the gospel uniqueness that shines light in a dark world, but a worldly uniqueness that would have us base our identity in stylistic distinctions between brothers and sisters.
Whenever we are formed within a context that celebrates certain cultural expressions over against other expressions, we begin to expect the wrong things from a church. So when the day comes for us to unite with a different congregation, our list of expectations is devoid of the gospel. The saddest result of Kelli and Rob’s church search is that neither of them were looking primarily for a church that preached and celebrated the gospel. They were lost in a sea of peripheral issues because that is what their churches had celebrated.
Pastors and church leaders, it’s important that we believe the gospel; it’s also important that we celebrate this gospel in a way that makes clear it is “of first importance”.
What do we celebrate as a church?
Do we ever lift up our church’s expression as “what church should be” in a way that unites our congregation around a style rather than the gospel?
Do our discipleship efforts lead to missional living or look-alike converts who will have a difficult time serving in another context in the future?
I pray that we celebrate the gospel in a way that leads our church members to easily cross cultural divides because of the centrality of the cross. What we celebrate is just as important as what we believe.
“I have been teaching more decades now that I can count and if I have learned anything from all of this teaching, its this: my students…learn what I’m excited about. So within the church of the living God, we must become excited about the gospel. That’s how we pass on our heritage. If, instead, the gospel increasingly becomes for us that which we assume, then we will, of course, assent to the correct creedal statement. But, at this point, the gospel is not what really captures us. Rather, is a particular form of worship or a particular style of counseling, or a particular view on culture, or a particular technique in preaching, or – fill in the blank. Then, ultimately, our students make that their center and the generation after us loses the gospel. As soon as you get to the place where the gospel is that which is nearly assumed, you are only a generation and a half from death”.