Musings on the Differences of Today’s Church and Jesus’ Birth

Why lies He in such a mean estate, where ox and ass are feeding?


NOTE: We will publish only Monday and Tuesday this week. Merry Christmas to all.

When I first became a Christian, I went to a rather small church. It was in the Boston area and evangelical Christians were in rather short supply. There was Gordon College and Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary but they were tucked away in a small suburb and were easily overlooked in the hubbub of this strong hold of liberal thinking.

The pastor of this small church, Howard Keeley, was a kind man with deep thoughts. He often had a couple of students from the seminary come to learn  “how to be a pastor” from him. Howard always had time for this questioning teenager. In fact, he made it seem as if I were the most important person in the church. Later, I would come to realize that he made everyone feel that way.

It was a small church building, rather utilitarian yet it also seemed like God Himself dwelled in this simple structure. There were the requisite Bean Suppers (after all this was Boston), small Bible studies, and simple services with music accompanied by a lone guitar. He talked of Bonhoeffer, Lewis and Chesterton, which were new names for this new Christian. So, I would read the books from which he quoted. The Cost of Discipleship, Mere Christianity, and The Everlasting Man were some of my earliest reads. And I grew in this simple church. Although I would go on to Boston and become part of the singles fellowship at the venerable Part Street Church, I would return to Howard’s church to marry. Somehow, he seemed more like areal pastor.

God has given me many wonderful and unique church experiences all over America.  I remember a small Christian Reformed Church on the Navajo Indian Reservation that combined the culture of the Navajos with uncompromising Scripture. We always sang one hymn in Navajo and I still remember enjoying those hymns the best. In some small way, standing to sing in that little church along with my Navajo brothers and sisters, I could almost begin to what heaven might be like. Another pastor from a Missouri Synod Lutheran Church that I attended in college used to have a saying that I would see lived out in my life’s experiences. In referring to other churches, he would say, “It’s the same batter; different shaped cake pans.”

Yet, in the last couple of decades, the advent of huge churches has disquieted me. Their larger than life pastors with their larger than expected paychecks seem strangely out of place in this strange, humble faith that got its start, not in some fancy “successful” megachurch church but in a cave in the Middle East. Once, a family member who does not subscribe to orthodox Christianity said, rather condescendingly, “How can you expect people around the world to accept a white man’s religion?” I said, “ Funny, I always thought Christianity was a Middle Eastern faith.” Dead silence was her response. How often do all of us forget this fact?

Sometimes, I feel like Alice in Wonderland. I have fallen down a hole and woken up in a world that is confusing. I see egotistical pastors who are above questioning. Others who elevate minor issues to major status and add to what it means to be a Christian. I see a man calling himself “The Head Apostle” and others actually believing such nonsense.

I have seen far too many children thrown overboard in order to protect pastors from admitting moral failure. There are pastors who posture as if they really are kingly rulers who direct the servants in some strange game of “who’s in charge”. And there are pastors who go on television with self-assured egotism judging the world and others instead of looking at their self-absorption and mean spirited condescension. And it brings me back to the days of the birth of our Savior.

 Herod lived in a castle and he had political power. He had the fancy building, the fancy salary, and the dutiful servants. Today, there is First Baptist in downtown Dallas that is building a $200 million “addition.” Yet Jesus, who could have been born in luxury, chose to be born in a cave with a teenage girl as his mother and a laborer as his “stepdad.” Can you imagine how smelly and dirty it was in that stable? There was no running water or clean bedding. Can you imagine poor Mary after the labor? She was probably dirty, weak, exhausted and confused. Why would the immortal Creator of the universe choose this setting? Why didn’t He even arrange to get a room at the Bethlehem Motel 6? Surely, he could have given Himself some small measure of comfort? Couldn’t He?

Herod had his servants to do his bidding. Today we have churches with 30,000 members (if the numbers can be believed because lying to further the kingdom is not a sin) and fancy sound systems, professional singers and million dollar Christmas pageants. Yet, the only pageant Jesus witnessed upon his arrival was a few confused animals in a manger and some shepherds from the wrong side of the tracks who didn’t have a “penny” to give this newborn King.

Why in the world did the angels tell just some down and out shepherds? Why should those uninfluential dregs of society have heard the heavenly hosts singing praise to their God? Shouldn’t they have done it like First Baptist Jacksonville and rented out the local coliseum and serve burgers to welcome their king (whoops pastor)? In fact, if only the Almighty had waited until the advent (hmm) of television, we could have had a special, led off by Joel Osteen, America’s Pastor (God save us from ourselves!) who could introduce the President, etc, get everyone who’s anyone seated in the plush sanctuary, have a cute children’s chorus and a “famous” and leading up to the “heavenly host” part of the show. Then, all the “right” people could have heard the angels and gotten some buses and jets together to “make the visit” to the King.

Yep, we’ve cleaned it all up. Our fancy churches smell festive and we sit around in our fancy Christmas sweaters smiling at well fed little kids wearing bathrobes pretending they are the shepherds. You can be sure those parents wouldn’t want their kids to really be the shepherds. They have more important things to be. The richer churches bring in the “real” animals but you can be sure that they are bathed and smelling nice and any “accident” is quickly cleaned up. We certainly wouldn’t want the local churchgoing “judge” to have his fancy shoes step in some camel dung now, would we?

Maybe that’s why I miss my first church. It was real, unpretentious and treated even a teenage girl like she was important. Hmmm, God chose a teenage girl to bear the “Son.” ”He had His angels sing, not for the Pharisees and kings but for some shepherds who didn’t have a day of music appreciation class in their lives. Can you imagine what that must have sounded like?! Yet, we don’t have a description of it from the shepherds except that it made them hightail at fast as they could to an out of the way cave in Bethlehem. Why would God “waste” such a symphony on them?

Recently, a friend told me that a certain megachurch was really doing things right. I asked why? This man’s answer startled me. “Look at all the young people coming. They have over 5,000 members and are building a really great new building. The music is great.” We Christians have lost the simplicity of the faith which was demonstrated by the events surrounding the birth of our Lord. He could have had everything and, instead, chose to be born in a cave, surrounded by the weak and inconsequential. Yet these forgotten ones were the ones God chose to be witnesses to the second greatest miracle ever seen in this world.

We are missing something in many churches today. Perhaps we have lost some of the essentials, which can only be captured in the way that God chose to reveal Himself to the world: poor and humble with friends in low places. Yet He was the Creator and Owner of it all. May we all be wiling to follow Jesus as He is and not the Jesus as we want.

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