In the gospels we encounter stories that depict some churches all the time, and all churches some of the time. Consider Luke 10:38-42 – the story of Mary and Martha. Martha rightly seeks to be hospitable to Jesus, running around on the brink of insanity while Mary sits and listens to Jesus.
With a little imagination you can see Martha’s anger growing as she glances at Mary while juggling pots, pans and plates. Overwhelmed with frustration, Martha tells Jesus to make Mary help. Jesus’ response is striking given the importance of hospitality: “You’re fussing far too much and getting yourself worked up over nothing. Only one thing is essential, and Mary has chosen it” (The Message).
This familiar story causes me to wonder whether we’ve taken a wrong turn somewhere in the journey, progressively resembling Martha more than Mary. We’ve been very busy engaging in a flurry of activities, but we’ve neglected what is best. We’ve focused on church busyness rather than Kingdom business. Put another way, we’ve come to resemble a religious country club more than the beloved community of which Martin Luther King Jr. spoke and which Jesus envisioned.
I know I’m painting broadly, but the idea of church as a country club is rather prominent—certainly not in our expressed ecclesiology, but in our behavior and approach. A country club exists to provide social and recreational activity and entertainment for its members. Members pay dues at a set interval throughout the year, and this gives them the right to socialize at activities, use facilities and offer suggestions (more aptly called demands).
Other than the fees associated with membership, requirements are rather minimal and certainly no one would ask a member to consider making sacrifices for the good of the whole. After all, the club exists to serve the members, not the other way around. In sum, the ultimate goals for the country club are to retain members, recruit new members and keep things just the way the members want—basically to keep everyone as happy, satisfied and comfortable as possible.
So this description raises two questions. Do the gatherings of Christ-followers across our country resemble religious country clubs more than beloved communities? And have our communities of faith become purveyors of religious goods and services that seek to compete with the other religious clubs (churches) by offering more and better activities that will draw them to our club over another club?
Put it this way: If your church were gone tomorrow, who outside of the members would be affected? How many people would be impacted if you were gone?
If a country club were to disappear, only its members would care. The whole point is to please those who pay their dues; it affects the community and world very little when a country club opens or closes its doors. A gathering of Christ-followers (functioning as a beloved community), however, would be a huge loss to the community because it translates the Kingdom manner of life from talking and singing and praying and teaching and preaching to doing and serving and loving and caring and embracing. Though it may be hard to hear, when our churches become religious country clubs—purveyors of religious goods and services that exist to please, entertain and serve those who pay their dues (tithes)—they become communities of narcissistic individuals.
You know the story of Narcissus, right? He is so proud of his beauty that he is punished by falling in love with his own reflection. Unable to divert his gaze, he dies staring at himself in a pool of water. We must reject the country-club idea of church:
- where it’s all about us.
- where we argue over song and instrument preferences.
- where we have sacred furniture and fixtures that no one dare touch.
- where we complain when anything isn’t just how we want it.
- where divisive bickering is more prevalent than loving service.
- where activities have no larger purpose than to entertain and please members.
- where fear of upsetting too many leads to myriad sacred cows and elephants in the room.
If we don’t, we will end up like Narcissus, dying while we stare at our reflection because we think ourselves so beautiful, wonderful and perfect.
It is my prayer that we can have eyes to see where we have adopted the country-club mentality, so that we may embrace the beauty of the beloved community—a gathering of Christ-followers that exists for the sake of the world and seeks to manifest the redemptive way of Jesus.
Zach Dawes is a Cooperative Baptist Fellowship ministerial resident at Trinity Baptist Church in Moultrie, Ga.