Ask not what Marilyn Monroe can do for you. Wait, do ask that.

“Ask not what your church can do, but what you can do for your church” is what JFK might have said if he had been a General Authority.

Not attending church used to carry a very high penalty:  fines, ostracism, and even death.  In Shakespeare’s day, it was illegal not to attend church.  Nowadays, there really are no social penalties, to say nothing of financial penalties, for being irreligious other than disappointed friends or family members. [1]

Church as a Duty

Some believe that our participation at church should be a duty, what we owe to God, evidence of our humility and commitment.  People with this viewpoint often ask a lot from church-goers, sometimes to the point that their requests cause people to question whether church is for them or not.  While participation drives commitment, asking for more than a person is willing to invest results in attrition.

Doubtless, duty is an important part of church attendance.  But we also need to have some balance.  Along with what we give, we must also feel that we get something from our church participation as well:  support, growth, friendship and community, and maybe even some good-natured fun.  Like a marriage, we commit to it when everyone is happy and in love, but over time we encounter good days and bad, and without enough good days, why stay?  So there must still be something in it for us, particularly now when the price for exiting church is so low.

A Consumer Church

We need a guy selling hot dogs at church.

In recognition that church should give as well as take, Rick Warren created the Saddleback Church, an incredibly popular megachurch in California.  Worshipers can choose what kind of service they prefer:  casual or more formal, rock music or choral hymns, etc.  The sermons are piped in from a central location and shown on jumbotrons in the middle of each of the different types of service.  Some critics call this a “Consumer Church,” one that caters to the individual desires of its members too much.  What really makes the Saddleback Church successful, though, is that members are put together into smaller prayer groups in which they discuss their problems with others who are similar to them, and they pray for one another.  These smaller groups of congregants are what creates loyalty and community for those in the Saddleback Church.  This consumerist approach is hardly new, though.

Historically, Cathedrals in Europe were grand spectacles designed to draw in the impoverished and often illiterate masses.  The gold, the statuary, the ceremony, the music–these were all highly entertaining for the day.  Churches in medieval times would also enact morality plays and tableaux to demonstrate virtues and saintly behavior to promote the messages of the gospel and the church’s priorities in a way that was captivating to their audience.  Creating a spectacle at church drew an audience, and drawing an audience is part of doing the work of God by spreading the gospel.  They didn’t have to go this far as church attendance was mandatory, and yet they did.

Finding Balance

Fancy!

There are certainly some who think that fun distracts from teaching the gospel rather than making it possible by attracting people to hear the message.  We start sliding into this thinking when we become too focused on rules, requests, obligations, and the expectations of members and not enough on friendships and community-building that make it a joy to participate in church.

  • How well does your ward find this balance?
  • Do you find it a joy to attend church?
  • When does church start to feel more like a duty and less like a joy to you?
  • How do we make church attractive to converts?  To young people?  To singles?  To the rest of us?
  • What’s the role of leaders in making church appealing?

Discuss.

[1] which are clearly a deterrent for some.