Letters to the Editor (Worship Services, The Shack, Suburban Sprawl)

I get letters! I lieu of providing a commenting system, I invite readers to send me letters to the editor. Here are some of the most interesting ones to come my way this week.

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Letters on Hack Your Worship Servic

Planning a worship service is good. Yet I see little in the New Testament that sounds like worship times were carefully planned. The Lord can use careful planning. He can also use spontaneity. You’re motivating me to do better planning. I just want to also stay open to times when his plan totally up-ends mine.
—Jim S, Spring, TX

Tim: 1 Corinthians 14:40: “But all things should be done decently and in order.” That seems to give us at least some mandate to plan and control our services. But I agree that we can also over-plan them so they are too rigid. I suspect the right balance will vary a lot from culture to culture and church to church.

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As an architect I appreciate when non-designers express an interest in design. Usually people only noticed design when it goes wrong. When it goes wrong, architects get blamed even if the owner or the contractor actually caused the problem. Architecture should bring delight. When design goes right most people don’t know how it was achieved. They just know that the space works and they generally don’t credit the architect.

I have experienced the same response as the sound guy in church. Sound guys get blamed when anything goes wrong even if it is caused by antiquated equipment, spontaneous changes by the worship team or lack of communication from the worship leader. Sound guys rarely get complimented if the sound is clear and the balance is right. Usually it’s the singers who get told how well they sang.

The truth is that from initial design through to completion it is a team effort. There are many more ways for something to go wrong than there are for everything to come together. If you are involved to get your ego stroked, you’re in it for the wrong reason. Particularly in church, the goal should be to shift everyone’s focus onto Jesus. To the extent that the team fades into the background, the team has done its job well.

A good design, well executed doesn’t draw attention to itself, rather it removes irritations and distractions to allow the focus to be on what the client intended. Sometimes the design is the intended focus, but that is a different story.
—Allen H, Pickering, ON

Letters on What Does The Shack Really Teach? “Lies We Believe About God” Tells Us

Thank you for a well-crafted essay on the dangers of this theology and the enormous popularity it receives. We have been warned in God’s Word that people will go to what feels good in the last days, and we surely see it in the cultish adherence to similar universalist, mindfulness, contemplative thinking of today. God becomes who makes you feel good about yourself. Come quickly, Lord Jesus!
—Trisha F, Angels Camp, CA

Letters on Suburban Sprawl and the Dying Dream of Community Churches

Your insights into the ‘community church’ come at a timely moment, as I too have been grappling with this change in culture—it seems rural Australia and Toronto may have more in common than I initially thought! Please continue to explore the thoughts you alluded to at the close of your article, I’m interested in hearing more on this topic. I’m wondering also, how this principle of ‘commute church’ works out in smaller communities in more rural contexts.
—Chris T, Raymond Terrace, AU

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When you asked in your post, “How many suburbanites do you know who go to church within walking distance of their home? How many do you know who attend the closest church?” it brought back the memory of what the great preacher Dwight Moody said about sabbath keeping a century and a half ago. “Take, for instance, the question of sabbath traveling. I believe we are breaking God’s laws by using the cars on Sunday and depriving conductors and others of their sabbath. Remember the fourth commandment expressly refers to ‘the stranger that is within thy gates.’ Doesn’t that touch sabbath travel?

“But you ask, ‘What are we to do? How are we to get to church?’

“I reply, on foot. It will be better for you.”

That’s from Weighed and Wanting: Addresses on the Ten Commandments, and I know when he speaks of cars he means the public transit of streetcars and cabs. But I suspect Moody would be equally disapproving of private individuals working by driving their cars. How times change…
—PD J, Markham, ON

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We visited several churches in our community, some with which we knew we disagreed doctrinally. We went to meet neighbors, but found they were all commuters! In the three churches we visited, all within one mile of us, we met no one who lived closer than ten miles away. It was an eye-opening disappointment! I am happy to agree that this is okay. We now attend a church five miles away, and we can ride with others who drive past our house to go to church!
—Cathie, Timberville, VA

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Living in a semi-rural area (no such thing as suburbs) traveling anywhere takes time, unless living near our small city or one of the villages. For years we traveled about 25 miles to church in a college town, and recently changed to one a little closer. However, I have had a hunger to know those in my immediate community and have become active in one of the nearby churches whose members live in the area. One of my reasons is it is important to me to have relationships with area churches is for the help they are when emergencies happen. Reaching out to our nearby churches and they reaching out to us is easier than being involved in a church so many miles away that draws from a wide area.
—Susan W, Upstate New York, NY

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While I agree with you that we ought to be aware of the fact that many people drive out of their way to go to a church they prefer over one they are close to and we should tailor our ministry focus to that modern reality, I’ve noticed a slightly different cultural bent in the city in which I live (Phoenix) which is nothing but urban and suburban sprawl.

My family attends a church that is about a five minute drive from us. We didn’t necessarily seek out a nearby church when we moved here 3 and a half years ago, it just worked out that way. However, our pastor has often urged people to live near their church of choice, because it makes being part of the body easier. In Phoenix, there is a little bit of reluctance to drive for a long time (over 20 minutes) to get anywhere. It was something that struck me as odd when we first moved here, but after encountering some of our traffic I can see some of the reasons (and sitting in a car in rush hour traffic for an hour is a lot more of a hassle in our extreme desert heat!). Anyway, I wonder if that mentality differs from city to city, and as church members and leaders, we should be aware of our own particular city’s attitude towards driving distances.
—Katie L, Phoenix, AZ

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I am an elder of a small church in Cambridge in the UK, and this is an issue we are struggling with, albeit in a different scale and context. Our church was planted around 20 years ago, but Cambridge is now very expensive so many of us ‘drive in.’ We are seeking to figure out what our mission field is, and how our church is relevant to that, if we are 20 minutes away.

At the end of the article you mention what you’d like to write more about – I’m particularly interested in maintaining the mission of that particular congregation in that particular location? What is it that you are trying to achieve? And what is it about your church above others which makes it worth the drive?

For us, we are starting to understand that we can’t really hold central events often, that it is in the villages and suburbs that evangelism in particular should happen; but also struggling to see how people then plug in to central church several miles away. Interesting and relevant topic which I think would benefit from more discussion
—Jonathan R, Cambridge, UK