In this ongoing series, I've pinpointed religion and promoculture as things I hope to avoid as I look for a church. Not that I really expect to find a church that's completely free of these things (we're only human, after all), only that I will look out for these things, and be wary.
In future posts I hope to move on to some of the more positive things I'll be looking and listening for, but let's just add for now--on the negative side of the ledger--pastor-centered. I'd sure like to avoid that if I can. You know, this is where it is believed that God speaks to the congregation primarily through the pastor's sermon. This leads to all sorts of odd behavior.
In the worst cases, people even adopt the pastor's preferences, liking what the pastor likes, reading what the pastor reads. I mean, really, I've seen ridiculous examples of this. I've seen people adopt the preacher's political views. I've seen them switch their coffee preferences to match those of the leadership. I've seen people take up cigar-smoking because the pastor smoked cigars (seriously). I've even seen people for whom The Shack is too cerebral go out and buy whatever book the pastor recommends (but no other . . . only the pastor's choice is "Spirit" led).
In truth I've known only one pastor who actively encouraged that sort of thing, while the rest have harbored, I suspect, a somewhat bemused attitude about it all. Still, most have held a high view (shall we say) of the importance of their weekly sermon.
Here's the thing: I don't think that God's preferred way of reaching us is primarily through our pastor's sermons. God's strategy for getting through to us ordinary pew-folk is not, OK, I'll send the Holy Spirit to the pastor's study, inspiring him about what to preach next Sunday, and it will be just what all three-hundred people in the church really need to hear this week.
No, I really don't think it works that way. Nor do I think that, when the pastor is a great orator and can stir the passions of the congregation with his preaching, that's definitely the Spirit's doing. The history of oratory is checkered at best.
Instead, give me conversation between friends, perhaps over a meal (before, during, after). I'm really not looking for a 50-minute "lesson" from my pastor/teacher/guru/spirit guide.
What's the alternative? The more I think of about it, the more I realize that worship, prayer, the reading of the Word, the sharing of needs and blessings, and a meal, would be just fine. Is preaching really supposed to be the be-all and end-all of church practice? Who decided that? And how has that practice worked out so far, generally speaking? Hasn't it engendered a largely passive follow-the-leader mentality? One man talking, several hundred listening, then filing out to the parking lot wondering, what did he say? Oh yeah, I remember, sin is bad.
Anyway, here's a truly radical suggestion. One way of doing things that might guard against the pastor-centered tradition is to practice the liturgy, which centralizes Scripture and the Lord's supper, not preaching. In fact, you can do away with preaching altogether and still have a profoundly meaningful worship experience. But in the typical evangelical church of my experience, if you did away with the preaching, you would simply have a big gap in the service with people milling about and wondering what to do with themselves.
Hey, that's not a bad start.