Milner: “Ask not what your church can do for you.”

“Church Shopping.”

Most of us are familiar with the term and the negative connotation associated with it. A recent two-part series of viral videos even poked fun at the concept with a satire called “Church Hunters.” Inspired by the HGTV series House Hunters, a smiling young couple is depicted, eager to search for the church home of their dreams. They have a list of desires for their ideal church and with each place of worship they visit, dissect everything from the pastor’s personal fashion to architecture of lobbies and number of TV screens. The videos make us laugh while pointing out a serious problem in modern American Christianity. While there’s nothing wrong with putting time and thought into finding a place of worship, the general sentiment of the “Church Shopping” culture is one which feels very self centered and individualistic. Being part of a church becomes all about me and my preferences. What will make me comfortable, entertain me, and mold itself to my personal schedule and priorities?

While many churches have fallen prey to the urge to satisfy the modern church hunter with a policy of “the customer is always right,” there are still many pastors, church workers, and laypeople trying to combat the shallow focus of “dream church wish-lists.”

When the problem seems to be self-centerdness, it’s understandable to make a policy of selflessness your weapon. Church structures, sermons, mission statements, and entire cultures have been built around a type of  “Ask not what your church can do for you, but what you can do for your church” mindset. Well-intentioned, this focus at first appears ideal. Pastors urge us to glorify God by finding ways to serve. Entire committees help us identify our spiritual gifts and where we can put them to use. Expectations of serving in some capacity become an integral part of “belonging” to a certain congregation. The philosophy moves beyond the individual and into the purpose of the church as a whole.

If everyone is always asking “what can I do for the church?” it stands to reason that a flourishing church looks active and vibrant. The calendar will always be filled with events and programs overflowing with volunteers eager to lead and help. Boards, committees, and teams under every possible subheading will sprout up to meet every possible need. And just like that we’ve created our own “dream church.”

This is easy to fall into and often starts with desperation in the face of the never-satisfied culture around us. And it always starts out with such enthusiasm. “Here’s what I can do for the church!” we cry, skipping into our volunteer roles with glee. We sketch and plan and dream up the perfect event, group, or ministry.

Yet, often as quickly as the flame to serve was lit, it begins to fade. We hit road bumps on the way to what we envisioned. People are uncooperative. The funds aren’t there. Our schedules become overloaded. The many unforeseen events of life pull us in a million directions. We have to postpone meetings, then cancel them altogether. Someone isn’t happy with our version of service. Our plan turns out to be a flop and we lack the heart to try again.

The sad truth about us humans is that we’re inconsistent, easily distracted, and ever-exhausted. We mean well but even our best intentions can’t keep us going long. And that’s the problem. A mindset of “Ask not what your church can do for you, but what you can do for your church,” though great sounding, relies on our intentions and personal motivation. This runs directly counter to a foundational piece of Christian, especially Lutheran, Doctrine. Humans are sinful and flawed, and if one looks inside us for the means to keep a church (or anything else for that matter) going, your gauge will always be stuck on E.

It helps to identify exactly what we mean by “Church” and it’s purpose. The children’s rhyme “Here is the church, here is the steeple, open the doors and see all the people” comes to mind. Yet it would seem we say “here is the church” at the wrong time. Christ’s Church isn’t merely a building, organization, or institution. It is the people, the wiggling little fingers inside the doors. It is the body of believers both here visibly and in eternity.

The marks of the church which identify us are the Means of Grace, the Word and Sacrament. We aren’t just people with shared ideas who try to use our gifts to help each other. We are the children of God, adopted and redeemed in Baptism, forgiven and strengthened in the Lord’s Supper, and fed and nourished by God’s Word. This is why it is dangerous to build a congregation on the foundation of  “Ask not what your church can do for you, but what you can do for your church.” Because it becomes rather  “Ask not what your God can do for you, but what you can do for your God” a statement which makes us Sola Gratia (Grace alone) Lutherans cringe. In order to even be the church, we rely on God’s grace emptying us completely of our sinful selves, killing the old Adam every day and raising us anew and alive in the Holy Spirit.

It feels wrong to say, but in a sense, we should be asking what the church can do for us. Not focusing on our shallow checklists of convenient worship times and what kind of jeans the pastor is wearing, but on whether this place is marked by Word and Sacrament. If it is, we will get exactly what we need because God promises us that we will. And that’s the starting point. We must get what God gives before we can do anything for anyone.

Before our baptisms, we were dead in our trespasses. DEAD. Stand in front of a casket and ask a dead body to teach Sunday School, play organ, or organize a food drive. It’s not going to work out well. Our corpses are reanimated by the power of the Word, and we are kept going by partaking in Christ’s Body and Blood and by feeding on the preaching of the Word. Sermons that only admonish us to do good and to serve our neighbor are missing THE crucial component. Christ. Give us Christ first and foremost. Remind us why we need Him, what we are without Him, and what He did for us. What He continues to do for us every day. Because once our focus is on Christ and what He gives in the Means of Grace, then we are made to serve. Not to serve God, because He doesn’t need or require our good works, but to serve our neighbors.

It would seem that a better motto would be “Ask what God has done for you, then ask what you can do for your neighbor.” Although, in all honesty, if we’re really focusing on and dwelling in that first part, the second will hardly need to be said. Living in the knowledge of Christ’s redemptive work on the cross and of our new identity in Him will produce Good Works. They will flow from us as naturally as a healthy tree bears good fruit. As Martin Luther put it:

“This Grace of God is a very great, strong, mighty, and active thing. It does not lie asleep in the soul. Grace hears, leads, drives, draws, changes, works all in a man, and let’s itself be distinctly felt and experienced. It is hidden, but its works are evident.”

This is great news! Grace is so wonderfully and inexplicably freeing! We don’t have to beat ourselves into submission to serve, to measure ourselves against an ideal of accomplishment or to chastise ourselves when our service is less than perfect. Being grounded in the Grace of Word and Sacrament provides an unshakable confidence that we are forgiven and redeemed first and foremost, and because of that, the Holy Spirit will compel us to serve joyfully and continue combating our flesh when it works against it.

Even as believers, we seems to run back and forth on a seesaw of the self. We try to combat one form of self-interest only to end up weighed down by the demands of a kind of works righteousness. The only cure for a self-seeking heart is to seek Christ where He says He is found. Not in our own gifts or offerings but in the simple and miraculous Means of Grace offered every week in faithful congregations around the world.

As we “Church Shop” for ourselves and our families, let’s sit in the pew and see if the service asks what we can do for the church/God or if it answers the question of “What has God done/and continues to do for us in Christ?” Does everything point to that answer? Is the Word and Sacrament central? Is Christ crucified proclaimed instead of a motivational pep talk? If so, the hunting is probably done. Relax. Eat, drink, and listen as God gives abundantly more than any checklist could contain.

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