Being Church in a Self-Service World

The article is now more than five years old, but I remember it well. Time magazine’s March 24, 2008, cover article, “10 Ideas That Are Changing the World,” showed that we live in a world where self-service technology trumps the need for customer service.

The article first caught my attention because I was writing about how much had changed in my lifetime. I remember not that long ago when self-service gas stations didn’t exist. We never dreamed we would scan our own grocery items (that is, at least not before the Antichrist would enforce the mark of the Beast!). Few people thought we would deposit and withdraw money from the bank without entering the building and dealing with a teller. Who knew we would communicate with people around the world without going through a mailman or a telephone operator?

Listen to these words from the 2008 article, even more true today than then:

Consider the last time you rang up your own purchase at Wal-Mart, checked into a hotel at a kiosk or bought a ticket from a machine in the lobby of a movie theater. Companies love self-service for the money it saves, and with consumers finally playing along, the need to interact with human beings is quickly disappearing.[1]

It is that last phrase that most alarms me: “the need to interact with human beings is quickly disappearing.” Think about it again—we really can carry out our business at the store, the ATM, the gas station, the movie theater, the hotel, and the airport without direct contact with another human being. The Internet also makes it possible to shop for Christmas, take a class, sell a car, and visit a library—again, without interaction with other people.

Now, I fear this trend is influencing the church.

I tread somewhat softly here because I am not one who is generally opposed to innovation in the church. I think screens and videos and PowerPoint presentations can be utilized well in the service of the church. I am comfortable with using instruments other than a piano and organ in a worship service, and I enjoy praise choruses. I strongly affirm Sunday school, but I also see the value of off-campus small groups. I am not opposed to most multi-site approaches, and I do not believe that increased size is automatically a hindrance to being a New Testament church.

What I fear, though, is that we have forgotten the importance of each other in the process of fighting for relevance in a changing world. We promote anonymity so that guests are not intimidated (and I do not disagree entirely with this thinking), but we too often allow anonymity to continue into church membership. What usually begins with a public commitment to a local congregation is seldom united with intentional discipleship and deliberate relationship building. Small groups are available, but attendance is optional.   Many prayer concerns are more an unrecognized name on a prayer list than the name of a Christian brother or sister for whom we care. Accountability among the body of Christ is assumed to be judging at best, and invasive at worst. Fellowship is reduced to a perfunctory “Hi!” when the pastor encourages greetings during a set time in the worship service. The result may still be a gathering of people – but it is a gathering I can join without really interacting with other human beings.

Maybe this trend alarms me because I recognize my own tendency to be a loner. I am, in the words of my favorite country music star Reba McEntire (who is, by the way, the most talented country singer out there), “a survivor.” I learned early how to take care of myself, and it is easy for me to rely on my training and abilities to reach my goals. “I can do this on my own” and “I don’t need anybody else” are common mottos for those of us who rely too heavily on self. Interaction with other people only slows the process, consumes our energy, and risks vulnerability.

How grateful I am that God continues to show me differently! I did not realize it then, but I needed that uneducated deacon in my first church to show me how to really love God. The Sunday school director who gave me a love for teaching God’s Word changed my life. The young preacher who saw me as his pastoral role model challenged me to walk holy in all areas of my life. Accountability partners have pushed me in my spiritual disciplines. Even the angry church member who not so gently (in fact, not so “Christianly”) confronted me over a disagreement taught me something about communicating better.

Today, pastors challenge me with the Word, my students stretch me with their willingness to follow God anywhere, and missionaries confront my ease with their radical obedience. I learn every day that God graciously intersects my life with people whose influence I need—believers who love me enough to correct me, check my arrogance, teach me, and push me to join them in the work of the Great Commission.

Simply stated, participation in a church cannot be optional. It is in the local church—regardless of the size of the congregation or the number of the gathering locations—that we build relationships, apply the Word, share concerns, and develop accountability. Through healthy evangelistic churches, we learn to see non-believers as sheep without a shepherd (Matt. 9:36) and thus invite them into a relationship with Jesus. That relationship is not only with the incarnate Head of the church, however; it is also with his people who make up his Body. Take away this interaction with other human beings, and the local church is somehow no longer the church.

Indeed, a “self-service” church is a contradiction in terms.




[1]“10 Ideas That Are Changing the World,” Time, March 24, 2008, 42.

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  1 Comment

  1. Gregg Swaim   •  

    I appreciate your post and relate to many of the observations though somewhat negatively (my fault, not yours) as I realize many of my own shortcomings.
    Not until I come to the paragraph beginning “How grateful I am that God continues to show me differently!” that I realize how many positive influences I have enjoyed and should imitate when interacting with all others.
    Thanks for the uplifting post.

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