In Matthew’s Gospel, the evangelist proclaims that “…on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it” (16:18). As the church of Jesus Christ and specifically as United Methodists, are we overcoming, or are we being overcome? I have to ask myself that question as I read about the events going on in our world today and the struggles our denomination is facing. Hemorrhaging and weak, we hardly seem like the prevailing church that started in the Upper Room and spread throughout an entire continent within a year and a half.
I believe that one of the reasons for our dysfunction is that we have become a church sold out to people. We have bought into consumerism and all the tenets thereof. The consumer-driven marketplace feeds on such factors as ingenuity, entertainment location, and image. The mottos are, “Make the customer happy…very happy. Give them what they want and they will come back for more. Make a profit at all cost.” Fickle, demanding, and highly sought after, the individual consumer is the prize.
Consumerism is important to the economic balance because it plays a significant role in the supply and demand equation that keeps the availability and the price of goods and services in healthy proportion. However, it also creates an environment in which only the strongest “suppliers” survive. Every CEO knows, get a little behind the times, and you are history. Just ask KMart and Montgomery Ward. Consumerism leaves in its wake those who can not give us more for less, faster, and with a smile.
While consumerism has its place in the marketplace, it is not hard to see why it becomes a toxic virus when it is allowed to bleed over into the church world. When, as a church, we buy into the consumerism model, we begin to forfeit our birthrights as part of Jesus’ earthly bride. Driven by marketing, image control, and entertainment value, we allow ourselves to be shaped by the needs and desires of the church shopping masses. The whole thing becomes a people to people affair based on research and statistics. We do religious things based on careful assessment of human behavior in the “church industry.” Like Martha in the kitchen, we get so busy serving people that we neglect Jesus in the living room.
Being “culturally relevant” is fine—please hear me—but the church exists for God’s pleasure, not the pleasure of humankind. We are his bride, his love, created to represent him and worship him to his glory and honor. We are not to be a consumer-based church, but a Presence-based church, sold out to inviting and welcoming the Presence of God.
What is a Presence-based church? The Presence-based church is not defined by procedures or specific worship styles. A Presence-based church does not surface by following a prescribed formula—singing certain songs or ministering to people in a certain way. Most importantly, a church is not Presence-based because of what it does or does not do on Sunday morning. A church service is just the proverbial tip of the iceberg. It is simply a weekly expression of all that is going on under the surface.
Any church can become more Presence-based than it currently is. Any congregation, regardless of size or affiliation, can desire more of God and hunger for his manifest Presence. The issue is not so much about how we worship, but why we worship, and the heart attitude that we embody.
The Presence-based church is not interested in the question, Are we attracting people? but rather, Are we attracting the Presence of God, and is he welcome and honored above all else? To be Presence-based, we must, like the Israelites in the desert, put the new Ark which is Jesus in the very center of our camp and be led, governed, taught, and sustained by him alone. He is to be our identity.
The Mary Heart
Though there are several characteristics of a Presence-based church, the most distinguishing mark is a passion and hunger to know God as expressed through worship and prayer. Presence-based churches have the heart of Mary, who loved nothing more than sitting at the feet of Jesus.
The worship life of the Mary-based church is driven by an underlying hunger for God’s Presence. Like the Levites who waited in the temple, lured by an intense fascination with the Ark of the Covenant, the people of the Presence-based church have tasted the incomparable sweetness of God’s nearness and bear his divine imprint. They worship because they are drawn to the Presence of God, and because being created by God for that purpose, they feel more alive and fulfilled during worship than at any other time. It is their passion and purpose.
People talk about worship in the consumer-based church: Which worship service do you go to? Present your tithe as an act of worship. What style of worship do you prefer? We are so glad you came to worship the Lord with us today. But in the Presence-based church, worship means something more. It is not just worship, but worship. It is not confined to a one hour service on Sunday morning, it is an ongoing dance that engages all that we are in loving all that he is.
True worship is the force that brought Mary to the feet of Jesus, and the Levites to their knees before the Ark. Presence-based worship is a response to a God who is so terrifyingly magnificent, yet so intimately known that praise and adoration burst forth naturally and without effort. It cannot be contained. Board meetings engage the business of the church at the feet of Jesus. Small groups worship at the feet of Jesus. The worship leaders usher the congregation to the feet of Jesus Sunday after Sunday after Sunday because there is no other place like it.
The Presence-based church lives on the cutting edge of worship because they are constantly looking for ways to press past any barriers that would hinder their expression of love and adoration. It is creative. As a result, worship leaders in Presence-based churches may ask that bulletins not be handed out until the end of the service so people are not tempted to read during the worship time. They may ask the people to bow or kneel or worship in a prolonged period of silence and listening. They may call for worship vigils or times of extended worship as a church body, and they may introduce his people to worship music from different cultures. Occasionally, they may even dismiss the visitors at the end of the service and invite the regular members to stay and continue worshiping past noon.
Genuine worship is not achieved through better technology or state-of-the-art systems. There are consumer-based churches in every city that have all the latest and most exciting technological capabilities and yet still experience powerless, Presence-starved worship because they do not understand the heart of Mary. George Barna asserts that some of today’s most “effective” churches are learning this lesson: “Simplicity in worship is more valuable than having a slick, over-produced event. Thus, at the very time when churches across the land are striving to achieve greater production values—full orchestras or bands, theatrical presentations, video projection systems, professional sound and lighting—the highly effective churches stand out for the ability to implement such elements, but their determination is to forego many of the bells and whistles and instead go simple. Why? ‘This is worship. The more complex or riveting we make the process, the less people focus on God,’ was the simple explanation of one leader/pastor” (The Habits of Highly Effective Churches: Being Strategic in Your God Given Ministry [Regal, 2001] 109).
True worship is not defined by the vehicle, nor is it confined by style, knowledge, ability, or history. Being a heart issue, true worship can happen at any time in any place. No single type of church has a corner on the worship market, and we must take care not to get sucked into this kind of stereotyping. Remember that the original Levites worshiped in a variety of ways and positions. Sometimes they were quiet, other times they were quite exuberant. At times they bowed or lay prostrate before the Lord, while at other times they danced.
The Mary church enjoys the sweet presence of God, and their joy spontaneously erupts into praise and worship, which in turn maintains an atmosphere that welcomes the presence to inhabit. This mutual adoration of the people for God and God for his people makes the Mary church feel distinctively different and magnetic. People are drawn to it.
Outside the Camp
The prayer life of the Presence-based church follows a similar pattern. Hungry to know God’s ways, his glory, his heart, his voice, his rest and his thoughts, the people push past prayer that meets human agendas to seek God just for himself. They pray to see his face, not just move his hand. This is a realm of prayer that few ever experience. It is the purist form of prayer that teeters close to the edge of worship—that of praying to know God for no other reason except that he is worthy to be known. It is the prayer of healthy desperation, a yearning prayer without crisis. It longs to press against the veil of the spiritual realm with such humility and endurance that the breath of God can be felt.
The Presence-based church goes beyond the familiar to seek God. Just as Moses went “outside the camp” to be with God in the Tent of Meeting (Exod 33:7), the Presence-based church is always pushing past the successes of yesterday and going beyond the normal routine of church life to pray and experience God in new ways.
It is important to go outside the camp at times, because the lull of life’s rhythm can numb us to the grandeur of God. The “camp” is what we are used to. It is the motion of church life—go to Sunday School, get coffee and a donut, visit in the foyer, go to church, sing songs, listen to the sermon, give an offering, shake the pastor’s hand, take the kids home, put the Bible on the shelf until next Sunday, when we do it all again. We find a sort of comfort in the ritual. It is disconcerting when the pastor is gone and someone else is in the pulpit, or when the order of worship is different. Yet it is at the point that we deviate from the norm, even in the smallest way, that we often discover something that stirs us in a new and fresh way. God can reveal to us a new truth or a different aspect of his character that we have never seen before.
Jesus practiced the principle of going outside the camp in Luke 4. He withdrew to the wilderness in preparation for his public ministry. He broke away from the ordinary to spend 40 days with the Father. He also went outside on numerous other occasions as in Mark 1:35-37; Luke 5:16; 6:12. In fact, Gethsemane was a type of tent of meeting for him. Paul also went outside the camp. After his conversion, he went in to the Arabian Desert for three years to consult with God. John, when placed on the isle of Patmos, used the time to seek God, and recorded his encounters in the book of Revelation.
Seeking God, romancing with him, deepens our spiritual understanding and faith. It greatly enhances God’s ability to transform lives and impact communities through us. That is why we need to go outside the camp to seek God for all that he is. Vast knowledge and profound experience awaits the body of believers who can shake free from the familiar long enough to gaze at the heavens and listen for the heartbeat of God.
Many of our churches today are experiencing Presence starvation, and the deficiency is crippling. They have fasted the Presence for so long that they have forgotten what it is like to feast. But Jesus is in the living room, beckoning anyone who will to come and sit at his feet. Those who do will have “chosen what is better, and it will not be taken from [them]” (Luke 10:42).