“To an unknown God.”
Translated another way into modern vernacular: “Just in case we missed somebody…we wouldn’t want to offend!”
Most of the people who have been involved in church in one way or another are familiar with the story of when Paul goes to Athens to preach on Mars Hill. A Google search of Mars Hill would bring up something relating to either Mark Driscoll or Rob Bell, but the truth is that on the “greatest sermons ever” depth chart, this is probably second behind the Sermon on the Mount. Of course Jesus delivered that particular gem…a bit of a tough act to follow for Paul.
One of the things that I love about this story is the fact that the Athenians built shrines and followed all sorts of other gods. They were so concerned that the gods would not only take offense, but also retaliate against them that they built a shrine for the “blame my head for forgetting about you, not my heart” god. Paul goes to Mars Hill, and names the “unknown god”. He says that it is the God of Jacob, who sent his Son to save humanity…to save the day.
Even though Paul named the unknown God on Mars Hill, I have a sneaking suspicion that the Athenians didn’t rush to take down the altar to the unknown god. My guess is that they continued to hedge their bets, and the altar to the unknown God remained.
Here is the problem: although the altar to the unknown god may have crumbled and been whisked away by the wind, the concept of throwing our support into something we know little to nothing about continues today. The altar to the unknown god reveals a very real condition that each and every one of us has. That condition is the need to worship. And do we ever worship.
I live in Oklahoma City, OK. Saying that this area is the buckle of the Bible belt is an understatement. You can’t swing a dead cat and not hit 3 different churches. I go to a church called Journey Fellowship Church (try to embed link). To get there, I once counted that I pass 6 different churches, and I really didn’t look that hard. I would guess that there are more than a twenty churches very near my 10+ mile route from the house to the church. And that is the part of the problem. For people in the Bible belt, the unknown God is simply choice.
Take into account that there is a plethora of choice when it comes to your worshipping pleasure. This creates a generation of nomads who are more concerned about “what’s in it for me” rather than a generation of “what can I do to invest.” How many people leave a church because they get mad, they don’t like the music, the carpet color, what the preacher just said, they made so and so a deacon, or because they perceive a better deal down the road. We like the fact that the church has pews, has a Starbucks, uses hymnals, has a laser light show, hasn’t changed in 42 years, or has a celebrity pastor. Because of this, church becomes another commodity or service to be consumed, and thus guided by force of the invisible hand of the market. The question of “what’s in it for me” is either on the lips (or the very least the subconscious) of everyone warming a pew or chair. Which begs the question: How often did the early church sit down with Peter and said “What’s in it for me?”
Don’t get me wrong; there are plenty of gripes about the church that we can talk about. Believe me, I can sit down and lay out a laundry list on some of the problems of the church. And if you are looking for some gripes, check out the laundry list of blogs that devote their time in making fun of some of the church’s absurdities. If you want, I can direct you to some of my favorite blogs, but I digress.
Despite some of the short falls, inequities, absurdities, and even blatant disregard for some of the needs of the community in order to make sure the institution of the church remains, Christ loves the church. He picked the church to deliver his message of grace and mercy, not because of the fact that they would do a great job and show perfect mercy, but despite the fact that the church sometimes really sucks at showing extending unending grace or demonstrating perfect mercy. Christ loves the church, warts and all.
The unknown god that we have built a shrine is something that we are all guilty of in “free market” Christianity. We build a shrine to the way things were, and long for their return. What I mean about this is that we have organized church in terms of design, style, worship, and organization that our allegiance is to the tradition. Don’t believe me? Try to introduce a guitar at a church worship service where they are accustomed to worshipping out of a hymnal. I actually went out to Indianapolis to do just that when I was young. It was about as fun as a root canal.
Modern churches aren’t immune though. They are just a susceptible to building a shrine to staying on the cutting edge as well. How many times have I heard people say that they are completely averse to certain gatherings because of the fact that it is closer to a U2 show than it is a worship service? I wonder what reaction we would get if we asked to remove the barista’s from the lobby or tone down the rock show?
“Free market” Christianity has given rise to people looking for their faith like they are looking for a used car. This kind of consumption mentality requires no sacrifice on the part of the individual…why would it? As soon as the current model of church has run its course, then it’s time to trade up to the newer model. We move on down the road all looking for the next big thing to satisfy our needs. We think to ourselves “I hear that this one has iPad’s for their bulletin, hymnal, and study guide note” or “This church has that good ole’ country southern gospel music and preaching…complete with pews and the red carpet…just like I remember.”
What the church needs are individuals who are ready to invest in the church. To put their resources in a place that is advancing the kingdom, a place that they can be fed, a place to invest in and to help others grow as well. Investment puts our dog in the fight. Investment gets us off the sidelines and into the game.
I don’t know where you go to church, and I really don’t care. The important thing is that you invest in a place where you can advance the kingdom, where you can grow, and help others grow. Whether that’s LifeChurch and their never ending supply of Affliction t-shirts, an old time southern Baptist church who still employ the use of pews, hymnals, and an organ, or somewhere in between, investment is the what the Church needs now more than anything.
If you are reading this (and thank you if you are), and you’re walk is stale, or you are “in the market” for a new church, let me challenge you for a minute. Look at your own life, and your own investment level. If you are looking for a new church because of some sort of personal preference of either preaching or worship style, how long will it be until you grow complacent in a new setting? The concept of reaping what you sow extends to church life too…you will reap a return on what you invest. Its time to walk past the unknown god of personal preference, complacency, and the “free market”, and walk towards Christ, toward a life of fulfillment and investment and not consumption.