In my half-century of life, a lot has changed (and is constantly changing) in our world. That’s, of course, a ridiculous understatement. The world is changing more rapidly and more radically with every passing day.
Though many of those changes involve science and technology, let’s consider something a bit more basic – a birthday cake.
A century ago, or more, if you wanted a birthday cake, you ground the grain you grew and harvested, collected eggs from your own hen-house, milked the cow, and hoped you still had the ingredients you couldn’t produce, purchased on your last trip to the general store. After mixing the ingredients, yourself, you might have needed to chop some wood to heat the stove to bake the cake.
A half-century ago, to celebrate a birthday, you went to the neighborhood grocer to buy the ingredients you needed – flour, sugar, eggs, milk, baking powder, etc. You took those ingredients home, mixed the batter with an electric mixer, and baked a cake in your electric or gas oven. I can still remember a particularly delicious chocolate cake my mom made, with thick, rich frosting. It wasn’t pretty, but it was sooooooooo good!
Then came a simpler way. Rather than buying individual ingredients, cake mixes and canned frosting could be purchased. You still baked the cake yourself, but the process was so much simpler, less time-consuming, and required less knowledge or skill – just dump the mix in a bowl and follow the directions on the package.
Then came the grocery store bakery. There have always been bakeries, of course. But, grocery store bakeries were cheaper and move convenient. Now, instead of baking, you could buy a ready-made, beautifully decorated cake, in the color and flavor of your choice, and even have a custom birthday greeting added for no additional charge. No time, effort, or skill required.
But, the problem is, everyone doesn’t like the same flavor of cake. Some people are on diets. Some are vegan. Some are lactose intolerant. Some are avoiding gluten. Some have food allergies. Some prefer more basic flavors, while others desire something more exotic. And, aesthetics matter. We don’t want to eat something that looks mass-produced. We want a nice presentation. So, we order designer cupcakes, on-line, catering to multiple wants and needs, packaged in special boxes, and have them delivered to our office or home.
We’ve shifted from creators, contributors and cultivators, to consumers (and, sometimes, critics and complainers).
This scenario is replayed over, and over, and over. We used to make coffee, at home, in a percolator. Now, we order ahead for a grande soy latte with whipped cream and an extra shot of espresso, hot and ready for pick-up in minutes. We used to wait in line at movie theaters, hoping tickets were available when you got to the window, knowing you might not get great seats. Now we order our movie tickets ahead, selecting from a variety of viewing and listening options, choosing our specific reclining, leather seats, with no waiting at the theater door, and with plenty of time to purchase a much wider variety of beverages and snacks than just basic popcorn and soda.
The list could go on and on and on.
Notice how we’ve moved from basic commodities – cake ingredients, coffee beans, general seating – to being served by others, with little-to-no personal effort, and much higher levels of expectation for personalization, specialization and convenience.
I suspect, when we made our own cakes and coffee, we accepted certain imperfections. I remember sitting on the front rows of movie theaters, just glad to have a ticket, or settling for a different movie because the show I wanted was sold out. I think, we used to be generally more accepting, and assumed the burden was on us to make things better if we weren’t satisfied.
If the cake didn’t turn out right, bake another one. If you don’t know how to decorate a cake, ask your neighbor for help. If you don’t like chocolate cake, hopefully you’ll get vanilla next year. If you made the coffee too strong, add some milk. If you want to get a ticket to the show, get in line earlier next time.
We don’t think that way any more. We want it customized. We want it perfect. We want it pretty. We want it easy. We want it special. We want it NOW!
We’ve become spoiled, critical, demanding, and impatient.
We’ve become consumers.
As a pastor, I see numerous ways this shift has negatively impacted the Church.
If you follow the same general timeline I shared about birthday cakes, there was once a time church consisted of the many and varied contributions of the members. Repairs to the facilities were performed by member craftsmen. Sanctuaries were cleaned and decorated with home-grown flowers collected and arranged, paraments sewn and embroidered, washed and starched, pews polished, holiday decorations made and displayed, all by the members. The music was generally the best efforts of the church’s best musicians. Some member typed the bulletin on a typewriter, usually including a few typos. Somebody arrived early to turn on the furnace or open the windows. An usher swept the front steps. Somebody baked the communion bread. Parents and grandparents took turns teaching Sunday School, leading and planning Vacation Bible School, and working in the nursery. Members taught Sunday School classes, and took food to the sick and homebound. Members gathered regularly for home-cooked, church-wide dinners. “Elder” members made the decisions, prayed, and dreamed of starting new ministries and building new buildings.
EVERYONE gave what they could, as the Lord provided. EVERYONE took turns, doing what needed to be done. EVERYONE did their part. And, when it was necessary, if a need or problem or deficiency became obvious, someone stepped up to do it.
Church was the gathered service, gifted-ness, creativity, and contributions of the members; sometimes as good as the delicious home-baked bread served at communion, and sometimes as terrible as grandma’s arthritic attempt to play the piano. Every gift was given and appreciated with love, for what it was – an offering of service to the Lord.
Now, church has become a place to be served. Though we still depend on volunteers, the message from many is, “Don’t ask or expect to much.” The even-greater message is, “I come to church to be served.” I want to sit where I want to sit. I want to sing songs I know and like. I want the volume set according to my tastes. I want to hear messages relevant to my life, that fit neatly into what I already believe. I want to attend when it’s convenient. I want the temperature adjusted to my comfort. I want to drop my children off at the nursery, or Sunday School, or VBS, or the youth group, and have others entertain them. I want someone to make sure I am safe. I want lots of programs offered for me and my family, so that I can pick and chose what fits into my schedule. I want a good parking space.
Even serving often seems self-serving.
Rather than expecting church to be the place to serve and contribute, many expect church to serve them and contribute to their own needs, wants and desires. If I don’t like something, I’ll complain, or at least grumble. If I don’t like the current sermon series, I’ll just stay home. If I don’t like the music, I’ll come late. If I don’t want to give or volunteer, I’ll let others take up the slack for me. If I’m not interested, I won’t show up. If I hear another church has more to offer my family, without asking so much, I’ll just go there instead.
Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy cupcakes and lattes. I appreciate convenience. I like to be served. I, too, have high standards and expectations. Even as the pastor, I want things at church to be done well.
I’m not questioning our appetite for excellence. I’m challenging our consumeristic expectations and demands. If you want something to be excellent, then YOU make it excellent. And, just because the world is willing to cater to your demands for convenience and customization, don’t bring that expectation to church.
Church is a place to serve, not to be served.
Church is like a birthday cake, baked from scratch, from pure, fresh ingredients. We are the ingredients – the flour, the sugar, the milk, the eggs – lovingly mixed together and baked by our heavenly maker. The final product might not be everyone’s favorite flavor. It might be a little lopsided. The icing might be a little un-even. “Hapy Birtday” written in frosting, might not be spelled exactly right. But all in all, the ingredients can potentially combine to create a delicious offering for the world. An offering for the world – not us!
Church is a place to serve, not to be served.
Maybe we need to learn how to bake cakes, from scratch, again.