We all hate traffic tickets. One of the worst parts of getting pulled over isn’t just the hefty fine. It’s the way in which this can affect long-term costs like insurance or employment for driving careers. Fortunately, some states like California have comedy traffic schools that work to mitigate or erase the original ticket from one’s record. I mention this because I was recently reminded of a conversation I had with a megachurch pastor almost a decade ago. During that conversation, the concept of traffic school came up in connection with the contemporary church.
He had lost his position after preaching too much grace to his congregation. At least that is one way to put it. Essentially, the upshot of his message was that the members of the congregation didn’t have to attend church to earn heaven or escape hell. And whether or not what he preached was aberrant or heretical, I’m interested in the practical effects. Attendance dwindled. Whether or not his elders thought what he preached was aberrant or heretical, that was unacceptable. It hurt the bottom line.
Feeling compassion for this recently-out-of-work fellow, I took him out to dinner in order to discuss his writing project, and learn about his next career steps. The conversation soon became casual and friendly enough that I wagered it was acceptable to make a little joke about the matter.
“You should’ve seen it coming,” I said with a smile. “Your church was sort of like Comedy Traffic School.” I mistakenly assumed he’d understand instantly what I meant. Unfortunately, he did not. “What do you mean?” he asked. “Well, you were at a church with comfortable seating, a latte bar with beverages folks could take into the sanctuary, high quality music, and excellent child care. The problem is, the only reason they were there was they thought they had to be there, either due to fear of punishment or hope of reward. You took that away, and they realized that while you had a decent set up, the folks who left had recliners that were more comfortable than your sanctuary seating, or their local coffee shop brewed a superior latte than your well-meaning youth group kids can, or they preferred alternative country to your praise band’s soft rock.”
I had to admit that it sounded like the childcare on Sunday mornings was pretty nifty, though. He wasn’t amused. Fortunately, the meal came out soon after and we ended on pleasant terms.
Now, I wasn’t trying to put his old operation down. I was speculating about the phenomenon we had recently observed. My point was that, unbeknownst to him, his congregation was treating church like comedy traffic school. It was a great option if one were forced to attend traffic school for financial or legal reasons. But I know of no one who goes to comedy traffic school for the comedy.
Sure, they seem to have some fun clips to play from Eric Estrada (Ponch, from the old TV show CHIPS) and David Spade. But surely that’s not motivation enough to get me into one of those soul-crushing classes.
The point is, comfortable enoughisn’t enough. It seems that we too often try to fix our dwindling numbers by changing up the scenery. Make no mistake: churches do well to fulfill their callings with excellence and quality. But that can never make up for a message that fails to deliver the goods.
My wife, Stacie, once pointed out to me that there are typically two ways pastors talk about why people need to go to church. On the one hand, there are those who say that the congregation needs the church and the pastor. On the other hand, there are those about whom the congregation frequently remarks we need this church and pastor. The former drone on about why they are indispensable. The latter case reflects a pastor and church that are effective at creating a gracious place for the pastor to apply the law with all its brutal but healing surgery and the gospel with all its comfort and sustenance.
The takeaway is that our churches must remain focused on the deep kick, the real deal, the thing itself. I’m not the first on this site to remind us that this is Christ himself. But it isn’t as simple as memorizing the formula. We have to own it, be it, and exude it.
John the Evangelist writes: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35) In a world of pain and regret, a place of love and healing is something that, sooner or later, we realize we all need. We need it not to score a few more merit points before we meet St. Peter at the Pearly Gates, we need it now like we need oxygen and water.
Thus, if you are a pastor or lay leader at your church, don’t forget to taste and see that the Lord is Good (Psalm 34:8). The Gospel is yours, too. Believe it. Pass it on to all you encounter. Stick to it. Do it like you mean it. Mean it when you do it. Deliver grace graciously. Then, even if it turns out you fail to keep your attendance numbers up, you will not—at least—have been unfaithful. Moreover, you will have had the joy of loving those who need love on this pilgrimage of life.