Yes, but we must fill
our pews not with
consumers but with
disciples of Christ
LIVE in an age of no-frills airlines, no-frills hotels,
and the like. Will we also see the emergence of no-frills churches?
That would indeed be a good thing. It would greatly improve the spiritual health and maturity of the church. The church would rise to a level of stewardship that would demonstrate powerfully the message it is trying to preach.
But what do we mean by "no-frills church"? I looked for "no-frills churches" on the Internet and found some. They do not really explain what they mean by "no-frills". After looking at a few websites, I realised that when these few churches describe themselves as no-frills, the frills have to do with liturgy, with the elaborate rituals, priesthood, paraments, and so on that one would associate with certain old and established churches.
In one sense, it is true that the Protestants did away with the "frills" of the medieval church. They simplified the sanctuary, ministry, and the worship service, and cut away what they considered to be unnecessary excess. In fact the excess was seen as a distortion of the Gospel and what the church ought to be.
One needs to remember the logic of doing away with such frills, lest it becomes a fashionable thing to do, a sort of anti-liturgical minimalism that is guilty of being simplistic. A church can do away with what it thinks are liturgical frills and yet end up with excesses in material trappings and a plethora of meaningless and self-indulgent activities. It is these kinds of frills that I am concerned about in this article.
The logic of no-frills airlines is to cut cost, to keep the focus on the core business, which is to bring passengers from one point to another. Everything else, such as entertainment and other trappings, is considered a frill. Some passengers, though not all, prefer it this way. Hence the apparent success of a growing number of no-frills airlines.
I wonder if a similar strategy would work for the church. I am not sure. Modern Christianity has increasingly produced consumer Christians. Christians do shop for churches looking for various things. Eugene Petersen has rightly pointed out that pastors (and churches) have become more and more like shopkeepers. Their primary concerns are now about how to package their "products", how to keep their "customers", and how to deal with the competition.
Churches therefore end up spending lots of resources on themselves, on facility-rich buildings, on filling the sanctuary with expensive technology so that the worshippers' experience would be filled with maximum comfort and satisfaction. They can also provide a whole array of activities that have very little to do with the core business of the church.
WHAT if churches try to be like the no-frills airlines? Will it work? I have my doubts on two counts. First of all, will consumer Christians buy this? A no-frills church may have little attraction for them. But the logic of the no-frills airlines is that they are cheaper. They charge less. Here is where we have a problem. When we think of cutting the frills, we do it not to maximise the profits we can keep, but to maximise what we can give away to the needy. We are not talking about Christians decreasing their giving to the Lord, but about how we spend the money collected in church. It would be like asking regular airlines passengers to fly no-frills airlines but at unreduced prices. It would not make sense to consumers.
But we must fill our pews not with consumers but with disciples of Christ. A no-frills church would make great sense to Christ's disciples. After all, God often appears in Scripture as a no-frills God. The first Christmas, unlike our contemporary celebrations, was a no-frills one. The birth of Christ took place in a stable at an inn, not a five-star luxury hotel or palace. The visitors that night were poor shepherds, not exactly the who's who of that ancient world. There were no expensive fireworks, only one simple star in the heavens to guide the wise men. It was truly a no-frills birth of the living God.
When the Israelites wondered in the desert, their daily menu provided by God was simple. It was really a no-frills diet of manna, enough for each day (Ex. 16). Indeed, the journey that God invites us to embark on is a no-frills journey.
When Jesus met the rich young ruler, He saw a man who was sinking spiritually under the weight of heavy frills (Mt. 19:16-30). Pitying the man, Jesus told him to sell all his possessions, give to the poor, and then come follow Him. The man could not part with the frills and remained lost. Jesus reminded people who desired to follow Him that as the Son of Man, He had no place to even lay His head (Mt 8:20). His was truly a no-frills ministry.
Those who were His authentic disciples learned this lesson quickly. The apostles left their possessions to follow Christ (Mt. 19:27). Later Peter declared to a crippled beggar, "Silver and gold I do not have, but what I have I give you." (Acts 3:6). The early Christians shared what they had so that there was no needy person among them (Acts 4:34). They collected money for the poor and cared for the unfortunate in their society (Acts 9:36; Rom. 15:16). They turned the world upside down. Theirs was a no-frills church.
Today the church spends far too much on her own comfort and cosmetics. For many outside, she looks like a rich lady who frequently pampers herself. She does give some money for charity but it is often seen as tokenism. The day she dresses in simple clothes and spends her resources on helping the poor would be the day she would be believed.
There is something beautiful and powerful about barefoot saints, and saints who go about simply, spending almost all their resources on others, especially the poor and unfortunate. That same beauty and power can be seen in a no-frills church that resembles her God who, keeping nothing for Himself, spent all He had on the cross to redeem a broken world.
'Churches end up spending lots of resources on themselves, on facility-rich buildings, on filling the sanctuary with expensive technology so that the worshippers' experience would be filled with maximum comfort and satisfaction. They can also provide a whole array of activities that have very little to do with the core business of the church.'