Bored with Church

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Pastor Dan Miller's picture
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From the archives. Appeared at SI originally on July 27,’09. Reprinted with permission from Dan’s book Spiritual Reflections.

In the past two decades, a broad swath of Christendom has undergone a radical transformation in the way church services are conducted. Somewhere in the late 1970’s or early 1980’s, it would seem, word leaked out that a most sinister disease was eating away at the foundations of the church. Self-appointed ecclesiastical physicians arose to sound the warning sirens. With impassioned concern they assured us that nothing less than radical measures had to be taken immediately and that nothing less than the survival of the church was at stake.

The malignant scourge that threatened the church, we were told, was boredom. North Americans in particular were becoming scandalously bored with church, and any local assembly that ignored the warning signs of this advancing disease, or refused to resist it, was destined to wither and die.

So with straight faced earnestness the experts prescribed the healing balm. “Make church fun and relevant to all” was the new mantra. One expert counseled me in his book that my sermons should be limited to twenty minutes, peppered with warm, affirming stories and free of “heavy theology.” Church music needed to be “updated” so that it immediately appealed to the visitor and skits and movie clips, you must understand, would communicate truth much more effectively than preaching. (And be sure to go light on that “truth” bit!).

We live in an age of information in which the sound bite is the trade language. We live in an entertainment saturated world of which fun and recreation are the warp and woof. There was only one hope for the church’s survival, we must eliminate boredom at any cost. Like an immoral affair, the partnership between church and boredom simply had to end immediately.

This counsel from the “boredom-killers” had a thread of truth woven into it. Many churches can be justifiably criticized for rendering boredom an art form. Bereft of spiritual vitality, sedated by dead ritual, and shackled by meaningless traditions, many churches have proven utterly bankrupt of all interest to even the most forgiving visitor. In this sense the warning sirens should be heeded.

But pull that single thread from the message of the “boredom killers” and the fabric unravels. Their message is fatally flawed on numerous counts. To focus here on just one deficiency, it unconscionably drops the heavy load of responsibility for boredom at the feet of the local church while entirely ignoring the role of individuals in the equation. Churches are chided for their bad performance while individuals are viewed as little more than morally neutral responders to group stimuli.

The error in this approach is that a church attender’s relationship with God is viewed as inconsequential to the equation, while at the same time his or her opinion about what should happen in a church service is given near canonical authority.

Perhaps two vignettes may open a window to a more balanced approach. There was a brief period of time when children from the neighborhood used to wander into my church office to say hello. The only motivation I can divine for young children visiting a middle-aged man working at a desk in the middle of the afternoon is a profound case of boredom on their part. Busy about my work, I was not usually the greatest company, but now and then I would stop to chat.

On one such day, a young boy found me typing out the words to Charles Wesley’s great hymn, “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing.” My young visitor inquired as to my intentions. I explained the song would be sung in our church on Sunday morning.

I read the words to him: “O for a thousand tongues to sing my great Redeemer’s praise, the glories of my God and King, the triumphs of his grace.” I asked if he understood what I had read. He assured me he had no idea what those words meant or why anyone would find such an old hymn particularly interesting. He hated church and to suffer through such a song would, he explained, add new meaning to the word “boring.” That was a challenge I could not resist.

“What would happen,” I queried, “if you went to a Twins game—not just any Twins game but the seventh game of the World Series. The game is tied in the bottom of the ninth. With two outs, two strikes, and no one on base, your favorite player hits a towering home run and wins the series! Would you cheer? The roar of the crowd would be deafening, yet you would add your voice to the thousands of fans screaming at the top of their lungs. And tell me, when you got home that night, would you tell anyone about your experience? Of course you would. You couldn’t wait to tell your friends all about the game.”

I continued: “That’s kind of why I want to sing ‘O For a Thousand Tongues’ in church on Sunday. One day, Jesus washed my sins away and made me his child. He redeemed me, rescuing me from hell and giving me a home in heaven. And there are times I wish I had a thousand tongues to sing praises to such an awesome Savior! I don’t find this song boring because it helps me express my heart’s passion and love for God.”

My speech failed to persuade my young friend who looked at me as if I had been speaking Latin for the last few minutes. Come to think of it, perhaps his expression mirrored that of many church visitors during the singing of Wesley’s great hymn—a look of confusion that betrays an inability to “relate” to such an outdated mode of expression.

I care not to address the wisdom of retaining or discarding old hymns. My point is simply this: does not the responsibility for boredom with a church service rest, to a significant degree, on the shoulders of the worshiper? Should a hymn, which has endured the test of time, be stripped away from God’s people merely because it does not appeal to the ear of individuals who do not love God?

Sometime after the brief exchange mentioned above my young visitor dropped in again, this time with a friend. While pecking away at my keyboard I asked the friend if he ever thought of coming to church. Absolutely not, I was assured in no uncertain terms. Pressed to give a reason he dropped what he apparently fancied the logical equivalent of an atomic bomb on my solicitation. “Church is boring,” he announced with an air of finality, as if his charge trumped all argumentation.

Knowing a little of the boy’s circumstances, I asked if he thought visiting his mother was boring. Did it bore him to spend time with her? Did it bore him when she talked to him, made him a meal, or wrote him a letter? “No way,” he assured me. He loved spending time with his mom and was somewhat offended that I would suggest otherwise.

“Here, then, is your problem with church,” I said. “Why does relating to your mother not bore you? Because you know her and you love her and so you get excited about being with her. Do you know why you find church boring? Because you do not have a relationship with God. You do not love him and so you find talking about him and to him rather boring.” His flippant demeanor changed to one of contemplation and I assured him God was interested in changing his state of affairs.

It crossed my mind that I needed to pray for this boy’s salvation. It never crossed my mind that we should design our church services to his liking. What does someone who does not know God know about the corporate worship of God? What does someone who does not think God’s thoughts during the week know about what constitutes a good sermon on Sunday?

I realize some would argue that such thinking will never attract such children to our church. I am not sure I agree with that objection, but even still, I do not think people who are bored with God should be given unimpeachable authority to dictate to those who do love him just how they should worship on the Lord’s Day. Corporate worship is not entertainment. It is worship. And when we worship God in spirit and in truth (John 4:24), there will be some who do not understand. My mission is to help them understand so that they can join me in corporate worship with the kind of longing that wishes for a thousand tongues to sing.

I would even go so far as to suggest that church services are, generally speaking, less than ideal settings for unbelievers to seek God. Church services are a time when people who already have a relationship with God come to worship him in community and to deepen their walk with him. Might not such services be expected to “bore,” or at least scare off, people who do not enjoy a vibrant relationship with God (Acts 5:13-14)?

Rather than entertaining unbelievers in the church and nudging them ever so pleasantly to salvation, the church should be spiritually strengthened in its meetings to go out from the assembly and to reach people on their own turf (Acts 2:47; 5:28). Once redeemed by Christ, new believers are equipped to attend church with a newfound capacity to appreciate distinctively Christian worship.

If I wanted to personally meet one of the Minnesota Vikings, I would not go to a game where he is on display in front of thousands of fans. I might meet him there, but I’d have a much better chance of meeting him if I could find someone who already knew him and was willing to introduce me to him. And if I met him, and came to know him as a close friend, how much more interesting Vikings games would become for me, even those games that others found boring.

In like manner, those seeking God should seek out someone who knows him and ask for an introduction (1 Peter 3:15; John 4:1ff). Once people are introduced to the Savior and come to know him intimately, boring church services have a way of being transformed into exciting encounters with the living Lord of heaven and earth.

This is especially true when those services are designed by passionate believers for passionate believers. In my experience such worship services prove far more God exalting than those marketed by the spiritually alive for consumption by the spiritually dead.

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dmicah's picture
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Mon, 6/15/09
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I'll bite

Pastor Dan,
This article seems to strain at a real purpose through generalization that doesn't characterize anyone in particular and therefore its emphasis is of little effect. It also fails to address to the middle ground. What is your take of the many growing and fruitful churches who have implemented a balanced injection of modernity & relevance among ministries, style, and aesthetics without deemphasizing the power of preaching and the expectations of holiness and discipleship?

Susan R's picture
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Relating

Quote:
Do you know why you find church boring? Because you do not have a relationship with God. You do not love him and so you find talking about him and to him rather boring.”

That's the ticket.

Schools still expect students to explore and develop an understanding and appreciation of classic literature because, regardless of its age or form, it resonates across boundaries of modernity, and remains relevant. Even General Chang quotes Shakespeare! Why we don't expect an appreciation of the writings of the church fathers and the poetry and beauty of hymnody is beyond me.

[img=140x190 ]http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/c/c7/General_Chang.JPG[/img ]

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Purpose vs. Boredom

I've been bored with church, and I've been bored with God. Sometimes there is a difference. People are sometimes bored with church because the church is boring. People are never bored with God because God is boring.

I've been in boring churches, and I've been in engaging churches. There is a difference. All boring churches are boring for bad reasons. Not all engaging churches are engaging for good reasons.

What makes the difference between a boring church and a good, exciting church? I think to a large degree it has to do with vision, with the individual members feeling not only that the church contributes to their lives in some way, but even more that they contribute to the church or to the community through the church. Having a clear sense of purpose (mission?) and distilling it in such a way that anyone and everyone (even teens!) can participate allows the members to feel useful, valued, fulfilled. A sense of mission can cover a multitude of sins. I once attended a hyper-fundamentalist (I refuse to say A+) church that had all sorts of problems, yet they managed to keep afloat and grow because they had such a strong sense of mission and every-member participation. I've also been a part of a Reformed church that had a strong sense of mission, but without nearly as much baggage, and had a truly wonderful experience. The strategies differ tremendously between the two churches, but both are able to attract members because of their strong sense of identity and purpose.

Opposed to this purpose-driven (oh wait, I can't say that) or missional (even worse!) church, there are two other types. The first is the purpose-drained church. The leadership inspires the congregation to very little. For the most part, the church is merely a place where a worship service happens. The church is inward-focused, so that it becomes insular and loses its vision for the community. It becomes a place where like-minded people reinforce one another's choices to live counter to the prevailing culture in a specific way. These churches are sometimes accompanied by fine expository preaching and decent theology, but are unable to turn outward and engage members in ministry. I have found these churches plentiful both in fundamentalism and Reformed Christianity, so it isn't a problem in merely one twig of the tree of Christendom. The second opposition to this missional church is the entertainment church. This church does engage people, but in a way that is largely self-indulgent. Pastor Miller has already inveighed against such a church, so there's no need for me to elaborate.

I think what we might be tempted to label as "leadership" or "programming" questions have profound spiritual components. Doctrines such as the nature of the church and the priesthood of the believer receive embodiment through specific practices. Of course, all I've talked about is only one facet of what makes a church boring or engaging.

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Cor meum tibi offero Domine prompte et sincere. ~ John Calvin

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Leavening the lump

I appreciate your viewpoint, and I believe that boredom in churches can and does emanate both from the church leadership and from the hearts of those in the pews. In fact, it's hard for one not to affect the other.

However, in the end, I believe it is the responsibility of the pastor and church leadership to call out the members of the church to a high standard, to not tolerate consistent apathy, and probably almost universally, to purge the flock.

I completely agree with your point (which you seemed reluctant to fully embrace) that the church is no place for the unbeliever! It is astonishing to me that (at least in my church experience) we tolerate, nay welcome the presence of unbelievers into the church! We encourage members to invite unsaved friends, welcome the ministry opportunities of lost children into our programs, and believe that we are in so doing fulfilling the Great Commission. I see absolutely no Scriptural basis for this practice, in fact quite the opposite in both the Old and New Testaments.

We must return and remember that the church is the "body of Christ" (Rom 12:5, Eph. 4:12, I Cor. 12:27). By this very description, how could any unsaved be included? Or how can we expect the mixture of saved and unsaved to constitute something that functions together as a body, with a diversity of ministering gifts working as a whole?

The assembly is to be a holy convocation of sanctified souls, being progressively sanctified by the ministry of the Word and the edification of fellow saints. That is not to say that all persons must give a convincing personal testimony before walking into the church doors. But I believe that the assembly of the saints should be conducted in such a way that if an unregenerate soul is in the midst, that soul should feel thoroughly uncomfortable in the presence of a transformed body worshiping and seeking Christ. Such a one should, without a harsh word or a penetrating glance, be soon driven away from the assembly by the guilt of his sin, or be soon drawn to Christ by the witness of true worship. If neither is happening, it is probably due to the mediocrity of the body!

I think the ramifications of not only allowing, but inviting "leaven" into the "lump" if you will, are far reaching and dramatically affect the spirit of the assembled body. I John 1:5-7 is clear in the fact that our fellowship with one another is only as great as our conformity to Christ. Catering to the least (or any lower) common denominator is not an option! Our standard is Christ, and the pastor/leadership must be actively holding both himself and the rest of the body accountable to that standard. If that is happening (and I believe it will not and can not happen in most cases without a lot of purging), then I believe boredom will not be an issue!

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Tue, 7/21/09
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A plea for balance...

The people in the entire contemporary church movement have definitely made their point – and make no mistake about it, there were some valid points to be made on several fronts. We've all got the point that church can be unnecessarily boring, that religion can be vain, that some of our "traditional" forms were very man-centered after all and that some old hymns can be improved upon. We get it, OK?! We get it!!!!
But now this contemporary movement has gone incredibly far overboard, and is itself filled with extremes that the church will spend many years recovering from, should God grant us that opportunity in His mercy.
I will grant that some worship teams are a definite improvement over the old-fashioned song leader and some of the new hymns and choruses are wonderful.
However, I do not think that preaching in blue jeans and a T-shirt is an improvement over preaching in a suit, nor does it make the message more relevant. It just makes the preacher look like he does not know how to dress properly for the occasion.
Also, when the worship team is presented as basically giving a concert – you can sing along if you like, or not – and sings un-singable songs because they are popular on the radio, this is a betrayal of the congregational worship that the Reformers bled and died to give back to us. When they sing songs that convey no foggy understanding of doctrine to the people who are listening, this is a return to the religion of the Dark Ages. ("I don't know what they are singing about, but if they are singing it, it must be true.") Is this not the establishment of a type of priesthood, in defiance of the doctrine of the priesthood of the believer?
Some contemporary preaching also falls into this same category – especially when the preacher searches for humor or other facets of a text that simply do not exist, yet he finds them anyway. He makes himself – rather than God's Holy Word – the authority.
Personally, I don't want a boring church, or a relevant church, or a purpose-driven church, or a seeker-friendly church, or any other type of church built on human invention or flaw. I want a Biblical church – based in simple but excellent, God-centered worship and a relentless commitment to Biblical expository preaching.
May God especially bless all those pastors who are committed to providing such; they are relatively few in number and increasingly far in-between.

The views I express are purely my own. However, I am happy to promote the great ministries with which I work: I minister for www.SermonAudio.com/Whitcomb. I do freelance writing for www.RegularBaptistPress.org. I speak through www.IMISOS.org.

Alex Guggenheim's picture
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Tue, 6/2/09
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Let's hope God accomodates

Let's hope God accomodates this "cultural relevancy" in heaven's eternity to keep us from being bored with everything revolving around God.

Aaron Blumer's picture
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Mon, 6/1/09
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Affections

Boredom is a feature of the affections. You cannot be bored with what you find joy in. So boredom at church means what we find joy in is not happening.
That could be a good thing or a bad thing (for the church) depending how our affections measure up by a divine standard.

So it's good to be bored in some places. Bad to bored in others.

@dmicah... I don't think there really is a middle ground. Not really. Sure, other things being equal, a more "stirring" portion of a worship service is better than a less stirring one. But as far as the drive behind the selection process goes, it's either aimed at razzle dazzle or it's aimed at biblically seeking God.

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