What is it about a particular church that makes it seem legitimate, cool, relevant, happening–a true church of Jesus Christ?
Myth #1: Numbers
Many of us Americans assume that if a church is attracting a big crowd, then they must be doing something right. It’s the same reason why people flock to a new restaurant, even when they can’t get a table, or the same reason why people crowd into a new big-box superstore: not necessarily because of quality or getting a good deal, but simply because it’s the popular thing to do.
Likewise, people flock to churches who seem to have numerical momentum. But are numbers a fair representation of legitimacy? You remember what your mom said about popularity, right? Just because it’s popular doesn’t make it right, and just because it’s right doesn’t make it popular.
- Does the fact that there are more than a billion Roman Catholics on the planet mean that it is the one, true (legitimate) church?
- Does the fact that tens of thousands of people worship at Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church each week make it a true representation of what Jesus had in mind for his church?
- Jim Jones was able to lure more than 900 people to the jungles of Guyana and subsequently commit mass suicide. Does that mean that the Peoples Temple and Jonestown were legitimate spiritual movements, simply because of their respectable numbers?
The fact is that objectively measuring the success/legitimacy of a spiritual organization is extremely difficult. How do you put a measure on how good a church is? Unfortunately, our default answer is numbers, which usually only measures popularity.
Myth #2: Worship Quality
A subsequent, related myth is that if a church presents a heck of a worship service, then it must be closer to God than a church with a more humble presentation. Whether it’s a grand cathedral with stirring organ music and gilded pomp, or a stadium church with a professional band and a polished preacher in an expensive suit, we assume that these people must be getting it right…you know, because of the aesthetics and the quality and such.
Now, don’t get me wrong: it is important for church leaders to put their hearts into their craft, creating meaningful worship services that will enable worshipers to draw near to God. Musicians should put forth their best effort, preachers should make the most of their gifts to present God’s message, ushers should put their best feet forward for God’s glory, and readers should read God’s Word with reverence, clarity, and poise.
But consider this:
- Is a PowerPoint projection system a mark of a true church?
- Is it necessary to have a band playing the latest contemporary Christian hits in order for a church to be considered relevant?
- Is it necessary for a church to have an organ and a professional-sounding choir for it to be real?
Actually, our contemporary fixation with the professionalism of the worship service has backed us into an old familiar corner that plagued the Medieval church: clericalism. Hiring professionals for everything and insisting on quality above all else has bifurcated God’s people into the “performers” and the “recipients,” obscuring the priesthood of all believers and erasing the Trinitarian essence of worship (communing with the Father, by the Son, in the Holy Spirit).
Sometimes, having a slick, well-choreographed worship service can glorify God and lift his people in worship. But sometimes a slick, well-choreographed worship service just puts the spotlight on the “performers” and takes it away from God.
Tune in next time for more myths of legitimacy.
In the mean time, what say you? What makes a church legitimate? What are some false measurements of a true church? I welcome your comments!