Many church councils have had long discussions about how to make worship times more convenient and forms of worship more acceptable. It is as if it is the council’s job to help people fit worship into their busy schedule and specific preferences, if that is even possible. Many congregations offer options, such as a traditional early worship service and then a contemporary late service in an attempt to keep everyone happy so all will keep coming. There is certainly nothing wrong with that, but what about those folks who like a traditional service and want to sleep late, or, those who want a contemporary service, but want to get in and out of church early and get to the lake? If you have 7,000 members, six pastors, and a support staff of twenty, you might be able to offer something for everybody at any time. But how do you manage that in a four-point parish in rural Montana, or most other places?
Most congregations cannot hope to cater to everyone’s needs and preferences. Even in congregations where many options can be offered, the greater the attempt to make worship convenient and pleasing, the more it will become a matter of only convenience and pleasure. In fact, the more a church has to talk in terms of convenience and something for everyone and keeping everybody happy, the worse it will get.
When ease and convenience become the measure of a church, then we are in big trouble. Worse yet is when congregations have to start advertising themselves in those terms to gain the competitive edge, which is what we are seeing more and more. This is all too much like an insecure young woman, hungry for love, whose behavior gets her a reputation for being easy. Then she gets used by many men, but she is loved and respected by none of them. This is happening in the church. Many now just use the church when it is convenient or useful, but they have no love or respect for the church or its Lord. The Bible itself uses this illustration, sometimes calling the people of God the ‘bride of Christ’ and sometimes calling them (calling us) a prostitute. At least in hard times of persecution the church is not used by people who do not love it. In those times the church is avoided by all except those who truly love it and are committed to its Lord.
Sergei Kurdokov was a Russian soldier in the early 1970’s who had a special assignment. His job was to break up meetings of Christian believers who were in unregistered churches. These believers met secretly in homes to worship as they desired, without the stifling regulations that came with being a registered church. In the Soviet Union at that time this was illegal. Sergei and his men were to stop these meetings and to discourage the believers from ever meeting again. They were to discourage them by beating them severely and doing extensive damage to the house in which they were found meeting. Sometimes believers even died in these raids. Being a believer was not easy. It was a rough road to travel. But Sergei Kurdokov was surprised to find time and again that they could not discourage these believers from gathering. They kept finding the same people on these raids, bandaged and broken and in a different home, but still packed wall to wall, singing and praising God, even after several raids. He began to see that these Christians had something in their lives that he did not have, and he wanted to find out what that was.
On their raids, Sergei and his men would always confiscate any Bibles or hymnals they would find and burn them. But one night, Sergei hastily tore out a few pages from one of the Bibles, and when no one was looking, he stuffed them into his pocket. The next night, alone in his room, he read those pages which were from the Gospel of Luke. He read about Jesus and from just those few pages, he decided he had to do all he could to find out more about Jesus and about how he could become one of these Christians. To make a long story short, Sergei did eventually turn his back on a privileged career in the military to become a Christian. It wasn’t easy, and he had to give up a great deal of worldly power and wealth. But Sergei grew to love the Lord Jesus and his church.
The church in Eastern Europe was persecuted for two generations after World War II, but what was left of it grew strong. In the late 1980’s they began experiencing some freedom and there was great rejoicing and relief. There were many new opportunities opening up for them and this was very good. But there was also some concern and worry among them. They had seen what happens when faith becomes too easy. They had seen Western Europe and the United States. They wondered if they would be able to remain strong when the road became easier, or, would the good times ruin them? And indeed, the new freedom and opportunities did bring new challenges. There is an old German proverb that says, “It takes strong shoulders to bear good times.” Church historians put the same truth in these words, “Nothing fails in the church like success.”
In the book of Deuteronomy Moses speaks to the people one last time after being their leader for forty years. These people had been tested by, and endured, forty years of hardship and adversity in the wilderness. Now, they were to enter the promised land. There, they would be tested by prosperity and abundance. In Deuteronomy 8, Moses described for them the many ways they would be blessed by God in this new land. They would be blessed with new houses, good land, large flocks, and much silver and gold. But then Moses added a warning. He said do not become so proud of your success that you come to believe that you are self-sufficient for then you will forget God. Deuteronomy 8 is essential reading for anyone who has been richly blessed by God.
Deuteronomy 8:10-11a — When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the Lord your God for the good land he has given you. Be careful that you do not forget the Lord your God…
Deuteronomy 8:17-18a — You may say to yourself, “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.” But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth…
Psalm 103:2 — Praise the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits.
Lord, we pray not for tranquility, nor that our tribulations may cease; we pray for your spirit and your love, that you grant us strength and grace to overcome adversity; through Jesus Christ. Amen.
–Giralmo Savonarola, 15th century Dominican preacher