‘Church isn’t boring!’
I saw a podcast with that title in the last few days. And I have heard the sentiment parroted out lots of times. The only problem is that it often just isn’t true. It’s like when your mum tries the old, ‘tidying your room can be fun!’ line. The statement feels more like something we tell ourselves as some sort of coping mechanism. When the kids say it out loud, they’re only voicing what we know in our heart of hearts to be true. We insist that church isn’t boring because, naturally, we don’t want our kids to hate church. But, let’s be honest, more often than not when they say it, and we insist it isn’t, we know the kids aren’t wrong. Certainly not all the time.
What is perhaps even worse when we take the line that church isn’t boring – when we all know that it was – we give off several unhelpful messages. First, we don’t fool anybody. They know, and we know, and they know that we know, it was boring. All we really do when we insist church isn’t boring when it was (and often is) is that we don’t tell the truth. We are either so undiscerning as to render our opinion valueless or we are liars who can’t be trusted.
Second, we can often end up giving off the impression that being bored is somehow unspiritual. The service might have been dull as ditch water, the sermon about as interesting as watching paint dry – and we all know it because we were all there – but the “spiritual” thing to do is insist it was very interesting. The implication is that if you were bored you have been particularly unspiritual. That line of reasoning leaves us with a lot of people, in a lot of churches, who are incredibly unspiritual or in which spirituality is measured by how frequently you happen to say church was interesting irrespective of whether it was anything of the sort.
Third, we convey to other people that the boring way we do things is actually what good preaching and services ought to look like. When others are being trained up, they emulate what they are told represents a good example. So, they copy our boring services and our boring preaching and we tell them it is good because we have been conditioned to say it is so. And, given it is unspiritual to say it was boring, everyone says it wasn’t (when it was). The cycle continues ad infinitum.
Fourth, and this is probably the worst, we give off the impression that the Lord and his Word are fundamentally boring. Because church was boring, and we are being told it is actually interesting when it obviously wasn’t, we send the implicit message that the Lord himself is boring. We misrepresent the Lord, in effect, by suggesting what he expects of his people is boring when, in fact, it wasn’t his fault that we did what he asked in such a boring way!
I remember being at one conference which happened to be pretty dull. Various people asked me whether I was enjoying it or not. They seemed surprised when I said ‘no’. Apparently that was the wrong answer. It didn’t matter that the content was boring, that I couldn’t bring most the people from my church because it wasn’t pitched at anywhere near the level they would engage with it, that there was zero application in anything that was said. Most the content wasn’t even drawn from the Bible but centred on the work of a particular theologian. There was nothing wrong with it per se, it just wasn’t anything the overwhelming majority of my church could get behind and despite our being told that it had fantastic practical application, we were never told what it was. But it was ‘unspiritual’ or blunt or rude to answer honestly a question I hadn’t posed or wanted to be asked. Apparently lying about the enjoyability or helpfulness of something is more important than being honest. But then, if we are never allowed to say it, we can’t be that surprised when we persist in being boring.
The same issue exists in our churches. If we aren’t allowed to say that things were boring, when they obviously were, how are they ever going to become interesting? If we would rather encourage our people to lie than to (potentially) hurt somebody’s feelings by suggesting they weren’t so great, we are implicitly deciding that the growth of our people doesn’t really matter. Because we are scared of awkward conversations we encourage people to pretend what is obviously boring is really pretty great.
One of the theological tricks that gets pulled on this front is to insist that the purpose of life is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. But what it means to glorify God and enjoy him gets reduced down to sitting in church under ‘reverent’ (for which read, boring) worship. And if we are going to glorify God and enjoy him forever, that starts to sound remarkably like going to Heaven for a never-ending, quite boring church service. Cue adding in a few proof-texts with an overly literalistic reading of people singing around the throne from Revelation to underline the point. Those who question the joy of such a setup are deemed unspiritual for not loving the things of God and for apparently rejecting the purpose for which they were made. I know of many people brought up with such a view who said it took years for them to become Christians because what was on offer sounded so deeply unappealing.
My plea here is for a bit of honesty. If something is boring, allow the kids to say so. Even agree with them if it’s true. There is no value in pretending otherwise. Whilst we should want to be interested in the things of God if we’re believers, it bears saying it’s not always our fault if we’re not. We can be helped or hindered by the way they’re presented.
But perhaps one way to help us all is to be more interested in what is going on in church is to connect what we’re doing in ways that are relevant to the people there. In our sermons, that means pointedly applying what we are saying, including the kids if they are there listening. In our prayers, it means praying about things that are relevant to the church and the people who make it up. It means praying in ways that are real and meaningful, not trite and formalised. It means singing songs that connect with what has been preached and maybe even explicitly pointing out which lines are particularly relevant to what we have been hearing. We need to make sure everything we do – particularly, but not exclusively, the preaching – is clearly and directly made relevant to the people in front of us.
But even before all of that, people are inclined to be more charitable when they know that we love them. When we take an interest in them. When we actively serve them and they can see us serving them. Stuart Olyott used to say you can say pretty much anything to people if they know that you love them. The Bible itself says that love covers a multitude of sins. And, in our churches, love also covers a multitude of boring sermons. If people know and see that we love them and want to serve them outside of the pulpit, you may be surprised to see just how much more interesting they tend to find our sermons. As someone once put it, in a large church people often let you pastor them because of your preaching, in a small church people tend to let you preach because of how you pastor them. Even if you do tend the boring side, love covers a multitude of tedious sermons.