Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Facts and Experience

Arthur Ferguson's Land of Lincoln presented another metaphor for the contemporary church's condition. He told about convincing his family to take the "Lincoln Heritage Tour" through Illinois, Indiana, and Kentucky. His parents took him on such a trip in the 1960s and it made an indelible impression on his mind about the Great Emancipator. He wanted his children to have the same experience. Of course, he had to do a lot of bargaining with them to accomplish his goal.

When Ferguson's family toured the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum (ALPLM) in Springfield, he noted the kids had a great time. They participated in most of the interactive activities and came away judging the whole thing a fun experience. Back in the car, Ferguson's wife remarked something like this, "Do you realize there was not one fact presented in the whole museum?" There was a room dedicated to Lincoln's marriage, the war years, an interactive exhibit on Lincoln's law practice and more. It was fun! But there was no timeline, no dates, no information about the Civil War, or particular information about the individuals portrayed. No real facts. The ALPLM's designers worked to create "an experience" but did little to tell the visitor about Lincoln. Visitor's walked away feeling good because of an enjoyable experience but they really didn't know any more about the man than they did before.

I fear the same thing happens in many churches today. So much stress is placed on creating an atmosphere where one can "experience God" that there is little effort to create an atmosphere where you can get to "know God." To really know someone, you not only have to experience their presence, you have to spend time with them, learn about them, and find out what makes them tick. That's not to say there aren't Bible lessons (sermons, topical studies, and so on). Most of these are designed to help nice people learn how to be nice. In Children's and Youth Service, all in facilities designed to be Disneyesque, we teach them to obey parents (that's good), to serve others (that's good), but we don't really teach them much about Jesus (that would be even better). In worship services, adults hear messages on how to live a victorious life (that's good), become successful parents or business leaders (that's good), become good stewards (that's good especially if you have debt service on a multimillion dollar plant), but you don't hear much about who Jesus is and what he has really done for us. We don't hear about his substitutionary death, his resurrection (except on Easter -- maybe), and we certainly don't hear about Jesus' role in dealing with sin and salvation. In some churches you might hear a lot about the Second Coming (that's good) but that's really not Gospel. The Gospel is the good news that you don't have to earn your salvation because Jesus took your punishment for you.

The problem is you can attend a worship service designed to give you an experiencd with God and you can walk away never knowing how to become a Christian. You can go home having enjoyed the music, the sermon or the lessons, but never have heard any substantial truth about Jesus.