Confessions of a Young Church Planter
I remember the moment when I wanted to erase one of my church’s practices.
I lead a church plant with a membership mostly made up of Christians who didn’t grow up with our church’s practices. One of these practices is confessional liturgy on Sunday mornings when, between worship songs, a liturgist walks to the front of the congregation and leads us in a confession of faith or a responsive reading. This particular morning, the reading of the liturgist was followed by this response from our church: “Help us rejoice in you!”
We are an energetic young church with a passion for the gospel that I can’t speak of highly enough, but on that morning, words fail to describe the internal confusion of hearing “help us rejoice in you” spoken with a monotone, flat, lifeless congregational voice. The words were joyful but the tone was nothing but drone. I confess that, at the moment, I wanted to throw away all the hard work of integrating confessional liturgy into our young church.
Reader, I’m betting there’s some practice in your church’s Sunday gatherings that feels antithetical to joy. Maybe it’s communion every week or maybe it’s the announcements, but with a small level of guarantee I bet some nut or bolt on Sundays at your church seems at odds with satisfying your soul with God.
What do you do if your church practices something that bores you?
Your JPS Is Broken
Begin by confessing that your JPS (Joy Positioning System) is broken.
In the hit television show The Office, there’s a scene I haven’t been able to get out of my head. Michael Scott, the incompetent office manager, is in the driver’s seat while the GPS tells him to make a right turn. His second-in-command sitting in the passenger’s seat, Dwight Schrute, tries to convince Michael that the GPS is making a mistake. Michael refuses to listen to Dwight and instead blindly follows the lead of the global positioning system’s robotic voice, driving the car straight into a lake.
It turns out that the GPS was wrong.
One of the effects of sin on the human condition is the miswiring of our JPS, or our intuition. The Bible tells us often the exact positioning of joy: “For you make him most blessed forever; you make him glad with the joy of your presence.” (Ps. 21:6) When the destination is joy, the blue dot on the map is always Jesus. But sin has so permeated our nature that if we blindly follow the robotic voice of our intuition, our JPS will lead us not into the joy of God’s presence and pleasures forevermore, but into a lake.
Almost 100% of the time, our broken JPS points us towards instant gratification. If our product would arrive on our doorstep a little quicker, if the computer screen would load a little faster, then we would be happy. Good things like Netflix, Amazon Prime Two-Day Shipping, and high-speed Internet are habituating us into believing that instant gratification, or any of its disciples, is the source of joy.
A broken JPS almost always leads us to what is faster, quicker, or newer. It’s an idolatry of novelty. A noveldolatry.
Maybe the Practice Is Right and You’re Wrong
Here’s the problem with our obsession with faster, quicker, and newer: when noveldolatry sneakily seeps into our walk with Jesus, we find ourselves saying things like: “God, if you were real, being like Christ wouldn’t be so hard and take so much time,” or “God, if you were real, I would be more Christlike by now!” But the return of Christ isn’t coming with free two-day shipping and sanctification doesn’t have fiber optics.
This is where church practices, by the work of the Spirit, rewire our JPS: they direct us to find joy in the slow-blossoming life of the believer and to be skeptical of get-holy-fast schemes. Most 21st century Christians have those two values reversed: we’re gullible for anything new and fast but we’re skeptical towards anything old and slow. If that’s you, I want to offer a few suggestions from a young man who started a new church plant with some slow practices:
Joy in (Seemingly) Ungratifying Church Practices
First, begin with humility by acknowledging that you speak about God with broken English. To the believer on this side of heaven, joy is a foreign language that we are slowly learning to acquire. We don’t know how to talk about Jesus and we don’t know how to talk to Jesus. Practices like responsive readings, though sometimes clouded by an appearance of staleness, can become powerful in your life: they literally put words into your mouth. For instance, weekly corporate confessions of sin help give us a vocabulary for repentance, so that it doesn’t have to feel so foreign when God calls us to repent at home.
Second, ask God to help you embrace the counter-culture nature of church practices. Throughout most of our lives, we’ve unconsciously practiced habits that deform the image of God in us, like palm-gazing at cell phones for hours and shopping online slothfully. Little habits like these are not inherently evil, but if we aren’t thoughtful, we can wrongly confuse the experience of joy with the dopamine rush of a mouse click.
Most of Christianity, like sanctification, discipleship, and love, happens in our lives more like a slow-loading computer screen from the 1990s: pixel-by-pixel, inch-by-inch. Big, loud, artificially created moments seem dishonest about Christian growth. They suggest that we become transformed primarily by man-made mountain top events, rather than God ordained processes. Church practices like weekly communion are subversive to these get-holy-fast schemes; instead, they match the painfully slow pace of sanctification. They physically call us back week after week to the truths of the gospel even (or especially) when it doesn’t offer anything “fresh” to us. They offer to us a joy that can’t possibly be misplaced in novelty but only deeply rooted in Christ.
Fighting for Satisfaction in the Midst of Dissatisfaction
As this article fizzles to a close, it’s worth noting that I wrote this while holding affectionately in mind people who are skeptical towards church practices and tradition. It embarrasses me a bit to admit this, but a good chunk of the church plant I pastor isn’t crazy about confessional liturgy. They have asked me genuinely and tenderly why we do it, they have wrestled with whether it means they are called to another church, and most of them have ended up planting deep roots with us.
And every once in a while, during Sunday worship, I catch a glimpse of one of these church members worshipping Christ out of the corner of my eye, sometimes even during a responsive reading. They have told me they don’t like this church practice, and still, there they are. Sometimes their hands are in their pockets with minds deep in meditation. Other times, they are professing glorious truths about Christ with the rest of us in-sync.
Maybe this is you on Sundays at your local church.
When I see this happening, I am moved to worship, because I know them and I know they are fighting for joy in Christ even when they would rather do it in a different way. I am moved, because God looks glorious when my church members love him so dearly that even painfully slow church practices give them instant gratification in the Lord.