Francis Chan delivered a gentle rebuke to the Pastors’ Conference of the Southern Baptist Convention on Monday night. The theme of the meeting was “Show Us Your Glory.” Chan urged his listeners to realize that saints can do more than simply read about the glory of God from the words of Moses: we can ascend the mountain and meet with God for ourselves. Then he became very tentative, almost distracted, and reluctantly advised the assembled pastors and leaders that something was wrong. The environment felt flat rather than fervent; as though the audience members were going through the motions, following some kind of established ritual.
Chan apologized for seeming to be negative, but the tone of the evening wasn’t right. Then he added, “And the last time I felt this way was the last time I preached at the Southern Baptist Convention.”
This kind of honest observation was a long time coming. For three decades or more, the SBC Pastors’ Conference has been mostly about preaching for entertainment. Each year, pastors and leaders assemble two days before the actual convention starts in order to hear some of the brightest stars of Baptist churches plus a few famous guests from the outside. Program themes often reflect a desire to reach the world or to see fire fall from heaven, but the meetings are more commonly about reconnecting with old friends, swapping church horror stories, planning where to eat next, and catching up on controversies. In contrast to other preaching venues where the atmosphere can be eager, expectant or even passionate for worship, the SBC Pastor’s Conference mostly affords a chill setting where you can enjoy some celebrity sermons between meals, and maybe return home with a snappy outline or a funny joke. We are there for theater, not to encounter the holy God. This is not really worship: I am out of town!
I mention this only because the same thing can happen in local churches. It’s very easy for followers of Christ to become so comfortable in our religious routines, that we begin to see ourselves as “spiritual insiders” rather than forgiven sinners who need the presence of God every day. Gradually but surely, we lose sight of worship as an opportunity to encounter the Most High God. The singing morphs into a spiritual pep rally, a reliable form of mood enhancement for the week. And the sermon seems more and more like theater; a performance that may amuse us or inspire us. Either way, a good critic needs to remain objective.
There is a profound difference between a church that meets in a theater, and a sermon that is reduced to theatrics. As people who require and desire regular transfusions of God’s wisdom and power into our fragile lives, we should approach every worship opportunity as a chance to return to Mount Sinai. If our pastor has been prayerful and devoted to the Word, his message can offer us a ladder. If I am willing to open myself up to the risks of encountering the holy God, that experience can change my trajectory and transport me into the heavenlies. Worship can indeed be exceedingly dramatic, but the pulpit should never be confused with a stage, even when you’re away on vacation.
Lift up the Cross!