How We Talk When We Talk About God
As 20somethings, my wife and I were nomads. Every few years we would pack up our Volkswagen Beetle and strike out for new jobs or further education. The transience meant finding churches to attend in a variety of cities, including Portland, Los Angeles, Orlando, and Chicago.
Typically, we’d start with a megachurch. Even when you’re new to a city, they aren’t hard to find. We could slip into these behemoths late (no one seemed to mind) and settle into padded theater seats in the balcony. The messages were always excellent, if sometimes a little short on substance, and the music was professional-grade. But what we found most attractive about these churches, honestly, was the anonymity. Small churches are intensely interpersonal. You can’t attend a service at a small church (or skip one) without being noticed. The megachurch experience couldn’t be more different. You can come and go like a ghost. For two 20somethings who knew they weren’t going to be in town long, that was a draw.
The next type of church we tried was what I called the “warehouse church,” so named because they were held in settings designed to look like warehouses. Think Urban Outfitters—high ceilings, cement floors, exposed ductwork—but with stackable chairs and candles. These services were filled with other twentysomethings, and whoever organized them seemed to be reading from the same script. The rooms were dimly lit with large projection screens that stretched skyward over a small band of hip musicians. Couches would be arranged in circles near the back of the room to facilitate prayer and discussion. It felt like something between a church service and a coffee-shop poetry reading. After an extended time of singing, a stylish young guy would amble to the front of the room, sit on a stool, and talk earnestly about his spiritual experiences, glancing down occasionally at notes on a mobile device. These services were usually held in the basements of larger churches. I learned later that most were part of a broader strategy. The services were engineered as incubators for young people. When the attendees were old enough, it was assumed we’d join everyone else in “big church.”
We also tried a couple of mainline churches. Since my wife and I had both grown up in Low Church settings, we figured we could use a little tradition. But in these churches we found the theology wanting. I remember one sermon in particular. It had a certain lyrical elegance. The pastor spent 40 minutes effusing about love in abstract terms, yet there was scant engagement with Scripture. In fact. there was nothing distinctly Christian about the message. We might as well have been at a Kiwanis Club meeting or a charity pledge drive.
Finally, we settled in community churches, usually nondenominational. We liked the fact that they weren’t comprised solely of people our age. There were soccer moms and seniors, city dwellers and suburbanites, families and singles. And we liked that they took the Bible seriously, at least in theory. Still, the sermons were heavy on self-help and light on substance: “How to Have a Good Family,” “How to Overcome Anger,” “How to Build a Better Marriage,” and so on.
Not that my wife and I didn’t learn and grow participating in the life of these communities. We had rich times of fellowship. We worshipped and served and forged friendships. Just as we were getting involved it seemed it was time to load up the Beetle again and aim for a new point on the map. The transience, however, gave us a unique perspective. In the space of four years we lived in as many cities and attended even more churches, sampling the spectrum.
During that time I had a growing uneasiness, a spiritual dissatisfaction, a gnawing awareness that something wasn’t quite right. Perhaps I could have blamed the surrounding culture, the pernicious influence of “the world,” yet that wasn’t it. In fact, I sensed the problem most keenly in the last place you’d expect—in church. As I sat in most of these churches I felt that something was off, and it went beyond personal taste or youthful idealism.
It was my wife who finally put her finger on the problem. “There’s no sense of the sacred,” she said, “of God’s holiness.”
Since that time, I’ve seen little to assure me that we’ve recovered a sense of divine holiness. Just listen to our worship songs. Many are trite and shallow, with lyrics that could be sung to God or a girlfriend. We write ever-more effusive, saccharine lyrics about God’s affection. We assure ourselves that even if no one else were on earth, Jesus would have died “just for me,” a bizarre, unbiblical speculation. We write books about God’s “obsession with you.” Such language reveals an awful lot about how we think about God.
Pastor Lillian Daniel wrote a cutting parody exposing our casual view of Jesus. Here is a description of one Sunday featured in her “Church Calendar: New and Improved.”
Jesus, My Buddy! Sunday, November 20 (formerly Christ the King Sunday): Images will be chosen to emphasize the ordinariness of Jesus and to boost church members’ self-esteem. By way of pastoral care, members will be given the opportunity to come forward to share and to unpack their lingering feelings of inadequacy resulting from previous presentations of a transcendent ruler God. This service should offer the comforting message that God is really no better than we are.
Like I said, this is satire. Thankfully, as of yet there is no Jesus, My Buddy! Sunday. But the parody works precisely because it underscores a serious point—we tend to embrace the idea of a divine friend but become squeamish about the notion of a transcendent God.
The expressions cited above may not be wrong in and of themselves. But I find they are rarely balanced by a sense of reverence and awe. There’s nothing wrong with applying intimate language to our relationship with Jesus. The disciple John described himself “as the disciple whom Jesus loved” and is depicted as laying his head on Jesus’ chest (John 13:23). Yet when that same disciple beheld the resurrected Christ in a vision on the island of Patmos, he “fell at his feet as though dead” (Rev. 1:7). We need intimacy with Christ—and reverence for him. But I fear we’ve lost the second half of that equation.
In recent years we’ve seen some young people gravitating to historical traditions. I don’t think it’s just because they like “smells and bells.” I believe it’s because they find a sense of the sacred there that is missing from most of contemporary evangelicalism.
I’m not suggesting that rediscovering God’s holiness is sure to bring young people back to the church. But I think it would do wonders for restoring our awe of God. And that’s a pretty good start.
Continue reading more about restoring our awe of God in Drew Dyck’s new book, Yawning at Tigers.