Speaker | Entrepreneur | Author

Sam Davidson's blog

Every Tuesday, I write.

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The Church Looks like Wal-Mart

On Sundays, when I write, I do so at length on some topic of religion, Christianity, Jesus stuff, or faith. Beware. While picking up a late lunch for the family last Sunday, I bumped into some old friends. Their daughters are now in middle school and we all made small talk for 10 minutes. It was refreshing to see them after what had been a few years.

As we talked, I noticed the husband and wife were wearing matching T-shirts with their church logo on them. I playfully asked if this was their new church uniform. They laughed and said that earlier that day they had been greeters at their church, welcoming people as they entered the building. I surmised, then, that acting on behalf of the church like that meant you needed to wear the proper insignia. Otherwise, newcomers might think you're nuts if you just start shaking hands and telling people where stuff is.

The same thing happens at Wal-Mart. Although I hate going to Wal-Mart, I do know that when you enter, a nice (old) person in a blue vest smiles, hands you a shopping cart, and wishes you well. I'm not sure which came first: the Wal-Mart greeter or the church greeter. But I do know that the more the church tries to look like Wal-Mart, the less likely I'll be to show up there.

This goes beyond having greeters. There is nothing wrong with happily welcoming a first-timer in your midst. I like it when people smile at me and shake my hand; I wish this happened everywhere. But, more and more, the church is looking like Corporate America. Here's proof:

  • Look at any church bulletin or newsletter and you'll quickly find mention of the budget or the need for offerings, much like businesses report earnings and profit.
  • Church buildings are getting larger to expand their services (product offerings), taking up more land with bricks, mortar, and parking lots.
  • The church "industry" is alive and well, selling books, kits, resources, robes, and videos to clergy and Christians.
  • Once they reach a certain size, corporations and churches morph their mission into that which protects their own interest of survival.

I have nothing against Corporate America. Much like Middle America, Real America, and My America, it's largely a mythical place that is described differently by everyone who talks about it. But, when I can't tell my church from my big box retailer, something's gone awry.

And this is the largest fulcrum I use to leverage my position when I happily state that I don't attend church anywhere. While critics tell me I'm in danger of Hell's fires, they loft Bible verses my way to tell me why I need to get my butt back in a pew lest I be condemned forevermore. I read their references, but I can never escape the sinking feeling that the authors of the verses in question wrote about a very different type of church. The church that Paul, Luke, or John described had no greeters, budgets, or property rights. Small groups met in clandestine locations under threat of persecution or death. They tried hard to cobble together what Jesus said just decades earlier and use it to shape the way they lived. They had no Purpose-Driven anything. They wanted their newly formed faith to survive, but there was very little to protect.

Nowadays, when Christianity is the norm, the way of the church must be preserved, no matter what Scripture says. If we stop paying clergy, buying property, and cranking out devotional books, then the whole system crumbles. If people stop going to church, then they're going to start demanding some top-notch Sunday morning TV programming, so Meet the Press will need to step up its game. At the very least, more people would like to see Sunday Morning run an hour longer (more vignettes on the West Virginia State Fair!).

Megachurch Jesus Statue

I think that our modern day church has replaced its founding dogma of helping people to live like Jesus with the idea that in order to live like Jesus, you need to show up there and pay your dues (with a check, preferably). If the church truly existed to fulfill the Great Commission or to feed or clothe people, it would realize that gathering together at 10 AM on Sundays to sing and listen isn't getting the job done. In fact, churches with walls accomplish very little.

Walls keep something in or something out. At the very least, they separate. The early church communities had no walls. There was no signage. One could argue that then, due to the danger they faced by being in the political and religious minority, the notion of church had to be fluid, unofficial, and agile. Anything else would not have allowed the message to spread like it did. The central question of the early church wasn't "How can we make our church bigger?" but rather "How can we help people understand better what Jesus talked about?"

Perhaps that's why church attendance is down and baptism numbers are shrinking. The church isn't fluid enough. Its behemoth structure and rules make it like Wal-Mart. People may gawk at its shiny new facade and lots of people may go in and out of its doors weekly. But in terms of making a real impact, well, that conversation is gone.

But if you want to talk about something bigger than church, like what it means to follow or trust a God who is bigger than our fallible understanding of church, then I'm all ears, especially because that's something most churches would never want to discuss, for fear of reasoning themselves out of existence.

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