While greeting people at church following a recent Sunday service, I noticed a congregant standing just off to the side of the middle aisle. He was staring at me quite intently, and the look on his face was not pleasant. When I waved a greeting to him, he motioned for me to join him. I finished greeting the people in line then moved to join him.
During my five second journey I was doing what many pastors probably do in these situations—I was rewinding through the service and reflection as fast as I could. The music seemed fine. I preached on Mark 1:12-13, which is Mark’s version of Jesus’ wilderness experience. I interpreted the beasts, angels and even Satan metaphorically, encouraging people to consider Jesus’ experience as our own–dealing with our own beasts and accusers (“The Accuser” is one meaning for “Satan”)–as well as being willing to accept love and care from the angels in our lives. So, nothing too outrageous.
He asked me to walk with him to the front of the sanctuary, where he pointed to the three candles on our communion table. For a little background information, we don’t burn scented candles at our church. We melt them down a bit then place unscented tea lights inside. As it turns out, I learned from our congregant that it was possible for people to see one of the tea lights, and to him that visual was just “cheap and tacky.” He then went on to say when he invited a close friend to attend service with him, the friend replied, “I’m not going to go sit and stare at that tea light!”
I knew the friend he mentioned; so I wondered to myself where that comment came from, especially since this person had not been to church for a few months. Both men have attended our church for years long before I arrived; and both men have come and gone throughout those years. Still, I just found it amazing that a person would stop coming to church because they could see a tea light sitting in a candle. Over the years I’ve heard many reasons why people stopped attending church; tea light visuals, however, was a new one.
I thanked our congregant for his input, and then watched as he turned and walked away without saying “Goodbye.” I was sincere in my appreciation, too. He made a good point about the tea light being visually distracting from the other two candles, and it is an easy fix; in fact, it’s already done–although I doubt anyone will notice. And yes, I know the deeper issue isn’t really about the tea light at all, but most likely it is about something else going on in these congregants’ lives. For example, these guys enjoy very traditional worship; and we haven’t had very traditional worship service formats for almost three years now. So perhaps the tea light episode is their way of saying they don’t like the changes. And yes, I’ve offered to listen to and speak with both men in the past years. So far, nothing. And that’s OK, too. Forced conversation usually isn’t all that helpful, anyway.
What does bother me about this episode, however, is it represents for me so much of what is troubling about churches today. In his book, The Underground Church: Reclaiming the Subversive Way of Jesus, pastor and author Robin Meyers makes this statement: “Here’s the problem: most of what people argue about in the church doesn’t matter.”
Don’t get me wrong; I think its important to closely consider and plan things like music, lighting (tea or otherwise), sermon presentation, order of services, etc. For me, at least part of the reason we attend church is to learn more about how to live, love and be–both as individuals and as a community. We come together to learn more about how to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with the God of our understanding. We come together to learn more about how to love the God of our understanding, our neighbors and ourselves. These are important reasons to gather; and too many distractions and too much fragmentation during our times together doesn’t help anyone do anything–but complain, that is. At the same time, when we get too hung up on the aesthetics of church–on “tea light theology,” if you will–we are introducing just as much fragmentation and distraction into our communities of faith as when we totally ignore these things.
Who knows? Maybe we practice tea light theology because its easier to do than actually going out and following the teachings of Jesus.
To be honest, I don’t think God really cares how we sing or recite the Lord’s Prayer, or even if we sing or recite it at all. I don’t think God cares if we use candles, tea lights, disco balls or no light at all. I don’t think God cares how many times a year we observe communion, or even if we observe it at all. I don’t think God cares what color our sanctuaries are, or if we even have buildings. I don’t think it matters at all to God whether I wear robes, clerical collars or a t-shirt. Feel free to add as many items to this list as you want, too. These are the concerns of tea light theology–and they are threatening to drain the church of any legitimate voice we have left in this world.
Remember, justice, mercy and love are at the center of most of the world’s religions–not colors, music, lighting and fabrics. It also doesn’t matter if we’re Christian, Unitarian Universalist, Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, Humanist, a combination of these traditions and more–whatever. I agree with Robin Meyers when he says, “It’s time to start auditing one another’s classes.” Denomination/Assocication/Religious identity and unity are great–just not at the cost of working together to practice justice, mercy and love.
And what if we can learn to practice justice, mercy and love, and still have great music, lighting, color and fabric choices? Sure! Why not?
Let’s just try to keep our priorities in order, OK?
Blessings on your journeys!