This column is both a valentine to all the churches with simple, heart-felt worship that are scattered through America, and a reminder of the opportunity God offers Christians to give mercy our rapt attention.
How often does God have to rap us over the head before we get it? How often do the Old Testament prophets, in various reiterations, offer the same message: God desires mercy and not burnt offerings? The gospel of Matthew reports Christ saying that not once but twice: "I desire mercy and not sacrifice." Mercy is even more important than the Sabbath, Jesus said: He promptly walked the talk by healing a man on the day of rest.
Today, how do our churches spend most of the money they receive in tithes and offerings? Some invest in ornate, cathedral-like buildings, sometimes reasoning that if people are awed by our architecture they will respect Christ more. Some try to build choirs not just to support congregational singing but to put on showtime performances that turn worshippers into audiences. How many churches invest even half of their budgets in mercy and missions? Even one-third?
As least God's people in the days before A.D. 70 had the ideal reason for spending on the glorious building that was the Temple in Jerusalem and the Levitical choirs that covered up the death cries of oxen and cattle: God has said to do so. The sacrificial system taught unforgettably how atonement for sins required the shedding of blood. Jesus, anticipating the efficacious shedding of his own blood, prophesied to aghast disciples the end of the Temple and its worship system. No longer necessary, the gorgeous structure fell utterly in A.D. 70.
Jesus and the apostles showed no appreciation for Temple architecture or Temple worship forms: They emphasized how each individual believer was the temple of the Holy Spirit. The Temple choirs of Paul's time probably sang as magnificently as the Mormon Tabernacle Choir does now, but Paul recommended that services be simple combinations of teaching and congregational singing. He taught in whatever building was available, including prisons.
The early church was known for its mercy: Luke wrote in Acts about Christians pooling resources not to hire musicians but to share what they had with the poor. Some Romans were mesmerized by the sight of brave Christians thrown to the lions, but it seems that more were influenced by Christians who cared for the sick and for babies left to die.
Ever since ancient days, some Christians driven by ego or error have tried to build Temple epigones. I've seen the Vatican and many of the great cathedrals of Europe, but have been far more impressed by the people of a very poor, dilapidated church in inner city Philadelphia who used what little money they had to create a youth center in one abandoned crack house and a weightlifting room for ex-drug addicts in another.
Similarly, I've heard great organs and choirs with great lungs, but been more impressed with a Hispanic church in Southern California that relied on guitars, bongos and the sound of tissues emerging from pockets to dry tears. Last winter on a frigid day in Indiana, I spoke at a Covenanter youth conference and heard a cappella singing that warmed not only my heart but my toes.
Think of the Christian schools in our cities that are barely scraping by, or going under -- and think of how much money is spent so that affluent congregations will have a rich "worship experience" in cathedral buildings with lavish organs. Think of what's needed in our cities so that more non-Christians will see churches as blessings for entire communities.
Temple worship in Paul's time included gongs, cymbal, and choirs that sounded angelic, so maybe that's why he began perhaps his most famous chapter with these words: "If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal."
How do we love our neighbors? We're not responsible for the poor schools and anti-Christian teaching that dominates our educational system, but if we sit by more concerned about our own worship comfort than these little ones being left to sin, do we have a great millstone around our necks, and are we ready to fall into the sea?
So here's a valentine for every church that meets in a plain building, contentedly sings hymns and spiritual songs, and invests in mercy and Christian education rather than burnt offerings that God no longer wishes to smell.