Sunday, October 19, 2008

Users.

Something is happening. One of the great churches in North America did an in-depth survey of its many members a few years ago and found many of them are "stuck" spiritually.

Thousands of people each weekend attend seeker-sensitive worship services at this extraordinary place. People who have thought of the Christian church as nothing but lifeless hypocrites coming together for limp ritual have been surprised to find real life dramas, relevant messages, and top-notch music. The "seeker sensitive" worship has done a great job of drawing "unchurched" people into a large Christian community, but the survey has revealed many of these people are spiritually stuck. (A similar survey, which our congregation will take sometime this winter, could reveal the same thing about many "mainline" churches.)

John Ortberg, a Christian writer and pastor from the West Coast, recently spoke at a conference in the Midwest. Ortberg said that usually Christians can be divided into "admirers" (they admire Jesus but don't let his teachings and life change them in real ways) and "followers." John said in the last decade or so we have added a new category: "users."

These are people who view God in a utilitarian way: God has meaning and is worthy of worship because God can deliver what I want. So people talk about how God gives them a sense of peace, healed their marriage, smoothed out the kinks in their company's business plan, solved their fertility problems, etc.

People also take a utilitarian view of the church: our connection with a church is dependent on its ability to meet my needs and the needs of my friends...my family. Loyalty to a group of people...a place...a history...is limited. If the next place down the road has a zippy new youth program, or a fantastic coffee cafe, or a teacher whose sermons are spell-bounding and full of great jokes, then we're gone. Everything, eventually, is all about "What have you done for me, lately?"

The veteran pastor from the West Coast, who served at Willow Creek Community for years, said we have created a group of people who are "users." Even in their relationship with God. And the people they have called friends in the church. They're here today...and gone tomorrow if they think they can get a better deal done the road.

I think Ortberg is wrong. This isn't some new phenomenon. There have always been "users."

Look at the 6th chapter of the Gospel of John. Jesus has fed a crowd of thousands with five barley loaves and two fish. (A young boy had been carrying them around...and offered them up when he saw the need.) It is an amazing miracle. A cool God thing! Told several times in the New Testament gospels.

John 6:15 tells us the crowd wanted to force Jesus to be their earthly king. They wanted to march him to some Judean palace and install him as their prince!

The gospels are full of stories about how,when Jesus healed the sick bodies and broken hearts of the people, they crowded around him. Acted like he was the best thing since sliced bread. Appeared to be friends forever.

But when the Temple guards marched Jesus out of the Garden of Gethsemane, when the Romans had beaten him and were leading him out to the cross, the crowds were gone. I suppose they were out looking for another, better deal. Who wants to get mixed up with some Carpenter whose hands are tied tight by the Romans, and who can't give you the bread and fish you want?

What's the opposite of a "user?" Maybe "giver." Maybe "faithful." Or maybe there isn't a name for it. Maybe it is just a phrase: "I am here no matter what, and my loyalty to you...and to the village of the faithful that is this church...is not for sale. Not up for grabs to the highest bidder."

A new category: "user."

Christ calls us to something better...something deeper. May God grant you a loyal and devoted heart to those who love you and know you.

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