Sunday, 5 June 2016

A church-less cell?

Last Friday, I returned to my disbanded cell group. We gathered to talk about starting it up again – reviving the good old times. There were a handful of us with our spouses and kids. Here's a little background. I started the cell group in 2000. We disbanded in 2010. With that departure, all of us left our common church and went to different churches.

Some of us went to a charismatic megachurch. Some went to smaller independent churches. Others like me joined the Methodist church.

Before that, I had been in a mega-church for 25 years. Like all humble beginnings of megachurches, my church started with no more than 500 people in the early eighties. But it grew. The membership multiplied. And like horse and carriage, with numbers come funds. My church soon became a soul nurturing center as well as an administrative juggernaut as it exceeded expectation in growth and collection.

Up to a point, when my church hits the thousands, it became more organized, more professional, and more efficient. Ruth Bell Graham once said that "the church is scarred by wars, buffeted by storms and eroded by pollution, and God is at work restoring His own - repairing, cleaning, purifying." For my church, and the other megachurches locally, we were simply prospering.

I was a church pianist for all that time and I saw the transformation with mixed results. Initially, I struggled with the band – just trying to keep up. We were playing with irregular tempo, missed keys and false starts. But we were happy. We gave our all. We were worshipping from the heart. I was young at that time. 

Then, I tried to keep up with the band as my church grew in name, fame and financial gain. In 1990s, we bought a land and built a church on it. In the early 2000s, we built another. With a roof over our heads, my church started the formalization of worship where stage presentation became one of the priorities. 

Good intention aside, it was the start of the professionalization of worship for us. In other words, my church became kpi professionals and every Sunday service transformed itself from the unplug session of a sing-along to the immersive performance of methodical reverence  - that is, from intuited adoration to organized expression.  

You can say that it was the zeitgeist of the times for churches pushing the envelope of unprecedented growth. Of course, with greater growth comes greater responsibility, and it is the responsibility part that many megachurches seem to struggle with - that is, a responsibility torn between keeping the numbers in the healthy zone with even more contrivances in theology and worship presentation and controlling the numbers in the pursuit of genuine growth, resilient discipleship and enduring relationship with God. 

For me, at ground level, the music scores were written to exacting standards. The choir were impeccably groomed together with the synchronized dancers, the dazzling big screens (replacing the ancient OHP), and the avant garde worship leaders firing up the congregation like a lead singer would excite his fans. Overtime, spiritual discipline were mixed with organizational know-hows, evangelism mixed with competitive growth targets, and church leadership mixed with hierarchical accountability, management by objectives, and legalistic issues of succession.

If a metaphor helps, the church I used to go to every Sunday for home-cooked spiritual meals had somehow morphed into a classy restaurant with elegant services, well garnished dishes in small tantalizing quantities, and an awe-consuming ambience that aims to impress and attract, and she has been triumphant in doing all that through the years. Kudos to her for accomplishing just that.

If you look around you, that is, the megachurches in all, the trend is unmistakable. The new order of organized religion is undeniably about size, professionalism and a soft spiritualized touch of self-therapeutic finessing. It appears that some elements of consumerism have made inroads into the weekly practice of the evangelical faith.

I have been to City Harvest Church and the experience is largely similar. I supposed NCC is the same, that is, metaphorically speaking, it provides refined restaurant-like services with an immersive environment and a larger-than-life preacher offering a buffet spread of spiritual food high in fiber grace and low in cholesterol law.

This reminds me of the insight by David Wells: "The truth is that without a biblical understanding of why God instituted it, the church easily becomes a liability in a market where it competes only with the greatest of difficulty against religious fare available in the convenience of one's living room and in a culture bent on distraction and entertainment...The evangelical church, or at least a good slice of it, is nervous, twitchy, and touchy about consumer desire, ready to change in a nanosecond at the slightest hint that tastes and interests have changed. Why? Because consumer appetite reigns."

So, this leads me to why I left my megachurch four years ago for a more unassuming Methodist setup. But before that, let me be clear here. I left not because I can't find God in my former church. My faith was cared for, nurtured and developed in that church. It will therefore always hold a special place in my heart. However, I left because I can't find my bearings in the church. Somehow I felt lost in the frenzy of growth. It was both a blessing as well as a bewilderment for me. It is thus for a personal reason that I left.

As I had said earlier, the concept of the body of Christ seems to have undergone a modernistic overhaul over the years. And it is a progression that I unfortunately could not keep up. The size, the professionalism, and the hierarchical business-like leadership all culminated to give the body of Christ an executive business lounge feel rather than a cozy and homely setting.

I guess something just had to give with the relentless pursuit of growth. Paradoxically, a church can be both a victim as well as victor when it comes to runaway growth. Size comes with a price tag. And the way I see it, it is an unavoidable tradeoff for size or "mega-ness" at the expense of turning the running of the business of a church into the running of the church as a business.

Now, let's be clear that this is not so much the deliberate design of the pastoral leadership as it is the inevitable snowball of various factors involving managing growth numbers that goes beyond the pastor's calling, amassing millions in regular collection without sustained purpose of its use in mind, struggling with diverse congregants' needs by dispensing touch-and-go scriptural answers, and unwittingly putting the expression of worship before internalizing the object of our adoration.

I think the words of a missionary Jared Herd puts it best: "While our culture is filled with spirituality, it isn't filled with spiritual coherence. We are called on to give, to be moral, to be happy, all the while being transcendental, but for what purpose? Is it so we feel good? What is the end goal? Usually there isn't one. At the same time, we are really encouraged to be consumers, to do what we want, when we want; life filled without even a hint of spirituality. Our culture is calling us to ride two horses that are going different directions, with catastrophic result of fragmentation."

At this moment, I can't help but feel that the teachings of Jesus at the Sermon on the Mount - where we are called to effect a counterculture - are as urgent and relevant then as it is now.

So, going back to last Friday's cell group, I told my members that if we'd to start off the cell group again, it would be an unofficial one (so to speak) since it will not come under the auspices of one common church where we all once came from.

My exact words to them were this: "It would be a church-less cell, but not a Christ-less one." I noted some nodding to that slip-of-the-tongue moniker - "church-less cell". And with that, we left for home to reflect about the road ahead.

My consolation that night was that while we may now be from different churches converging together to meet once a month, I can proudly say that our desire to edify and encourage one another remains undiminished, undimmed. I guess that will always be the end goal we are striving towards and the true purpose of what the body of Christ means to us. Cheerz.

1 comment:

  1. wish you all the best in your church less cell. We've been doing it for 10 years now, meeting and worshipping like the new covenant believers did - in the comfort of their homes .