The Christmas Eve Service --
My wife had to work on Christmas Eve, so I went looking for a Christmas Eve service on my own. There's a large Baptist church in a neighboring town that I've been to before. I know a few people there from a Bible Study Fellowship class I was involved in for about three years.
The first time I went to this church's Christmas Eve service it was a real eye-opener. As a Latter-day Saint we are familiar with being instructed, guilted, and exhorted to do more. The idea that Christ has done great things for us is largely presented as evidence that much is expected in return. Very few LDS meetings end without the feeling that you're just not doing as much as you could be doing. They really don't want to encourage a comfort zone, because people need to be busy doing the Lord's work.
The service I went to three years ago was different. Rather than motivating people out of guilt, obedience, or threats, they simply worshiped. The pastor read passages from the Bible and interspersed with that were several devotional musical numbers, a combination of hymns and contemporary worship music. As this church is mixed generational, there was a little something for everyone. It did a really great job of communicating the feelings of hope inherent in the Christmas season, culminating in a candlelight exercise.
They turned out all the lights, leaving one large candle up near the pulpit. It represented the light of Christ. The pastor lit a single candle from the larger one and used this to light candles for a small number of ushers. The ushers went down the aisle and simply lit the candles of the people on the row ends, who lit the candle of the person next to them.
All in all no one did a great work. Each helped maybe six other people light candles, but this produced a wave of light in a room of several hundred people that worked its way back. Before, the room was in darkness. Soon, it was bathed in light, and for the most part all we had to do to achieve that was to share the light with one other person.
Hopefully the message in all this is clear. Generally if we can just share the light of Christ with the people around us, soon our entire surroundings will be bathed in the warm glow of Christian light.
Three years ago it was a beautiful service.
I went the following year, and it was likewise beautiful.
This time was different. Not so much because the service had changed at all, but because I had. As much as I love this church and what they do, I realized that half the musical numbers were the same ones from the previous services. I also noticed that most people didn't really respond much to the performances. Although we sang the hymns together, there was a sense of passion missing.
Probably the thing that hit me the hardest was how comfortable the service was for the people there. Most of the people there (now in a new building seating 600 - 700 people) seemed to know each other. Families sat together. As a stranger sitting by myself I had a boundary of three seats on either side of me until the room just began to fill in completely. The fact that this service was being enjoyed by groups of people, of friends, of families, was not lost on me. The one person who spoke to me was there with her husband and was likewise not a member of this church.
The scriptures were familiar, the songs were familiar, and being part of a family-oriented church was familiar. Although I was a stranger there, were I to join I would know exactly how to play the game, to laugh and make friends and pleasant conversation. There were lots of people my own age, my own race, and my own class. This room was full of people just like me. All I needed to do was to roll the audio tape and put on the mask and I would fit right in. This was a church I could settle right into, know people, come twice a week, get involved in the social groups and Sunday School classes, and would have no need to venture outside for anything.
The one fly in the ointment here is that the gospel was never intended to be comfortable for us. I think we can point to the examples of Jesus and the apostles as confirmation. The apostles were instructed, they were equipped for ministry, and they were sent out. They were never granted a comfort zone, other than the ultimate promise of salvation and the Second Coming. Nor should we expect anything different.
In many ways I think a church should be like a bicycle seat. It should provide a place to sit, yet not be so comfortable that you want to remain there for any length of time. A church is a place of worship and rest from the cares of the world, but it's not a destination. It's a beginning.
The worst thing a church can do is to present an attractive compelling sub-culture that causes you to be a faker to fit into. God made us as individuals, and I think churches should serve to rub off the rough edges that interfere with our ability to be relational with others, yet not interfere with those differences that make us who we are as people.
So, as much as I enjoy the church I attended on Christmas Eve, it was readily apparent that it was not the place for me.