In that column, I criticized a highly secularized 2012 Christmas Eve service at the Woodlands Church, led by Pastor Kerri Shook and his wife, Chris. The event was more than just highly secularized. It was downright disrespectful. Jesus wasn't the focus of the service. Production was the focus. There was a moon walking Michael Jackson look-alike during the opening. Later, a film clip was shown during which the Lord's name was taken in vain numerous times. Then, there was the very bad co-preaching of the pastor's wife. The entire service was a disaster. And so I wrote about it.
Last year's column "Fellowship in the Woodlands" may have been harsh but it was also constructive. No one reading the column could have missed at least three implicit suggestions for improvement. I wrote the column sincerely hoping the Woodlands Church would consider doing the following:
1. Shift the emphasis of the Christmas Eve service from production to the birth of Jesus.
2. Replace taking the Lord's name in vain with some degree of reverence.
3. Nix the co-pastoring and let the head pastor actually preach the Gospel.
You can hardly imagine my surprise when I went back to the Woodlands Church over the 2013 holiday and witnessed one of the best Christmas Eve services I have ever seen. The service was excellent for three reasons:
1. There were no hi-tech distractions. The opening featured a reminder to parent/attendees that they should use the nursery so their children would not take the focus of the service off the celebration of the birth of Jesus. The song that followed (and a video clip that followed the song) was focused on the importance of the birth of Jesus. The service was off to a good start.
2. There were no props cluttering the stage. A train engine (there to remind people not to "miss the train" by not accepting Jesus) that cluttered the stage the year before was replaced by a simple podium.
3. The senior pastor delivered the message himself. There was no distraction caused by a theologically untrained co-pastor. It was a simple presentation of the Gospel. The message focused on humility. It was the antithesis of last year's pretentious high-dollar, high-tech event.
Kerri Shook did what more pastors need to do on Christmas Eve, which is one of only two times many folks attend church per year. In simple terms, Shook explained that there were two ways to get to heaven. We could either be perfect or we could admit the impossibility of perfection and accept the sacrifice of Jesus. In other words, he explained that there is really only one path to heaven. (I hope Joel Osteen was listening to the podcast!).
But accepting our imperfection requires humility. Pastor Shook talked about the importance of humility by showing it himself. He admitted his own imperfections and the imperfections of his church as he urged people to do more than just attend two services a year. He urged them to seek a church home and warned them to stop using the imperfections of the church as an excuse for not joining one. "If you ever find the perfect church, don't join because as soon as you join it won't be perfect anymore."
The message may have been pithy. But it was timely and accurate.
Cultural commentators really enjoy opportunities like this. We spend a lot of our time writing about the pitiful condition of the culture. We hope people will read what we have to say and act upon it. If they don't respond to us when we write to them directly, we hope our readers will help us get their attention. In this case, writing about the Woodlands Church's past excesses seems to have had the desired result. My previous column was retweeted and Facebook-posted by hundreds of folks in the Woodlands alone. It clearly generated a much needed discussion.
The larger point of all this is that our Christian heritage is in jeopardy because the church has forgotten that it is supposed to shape the culture rather than responding to it. Pastors need to put pressure on the culture to change rather than trying to accommodate it. When pastors fail to do so, the Christian community needs to put pressure on them.
This episode also reminds me of something George Eldon Ladd wrote in Gospel of the Kingdom: Scriptural Studies in the Kingdom of God over a half a century ago. In that classic book, Ladd addressed a number of issues. Among them was the question of when Jesus would return. Ladd emphasized the fact that scripture doesn't say exactly when that will take place. But he reminded us that one thing is clear about the timing of Jesus' return: it won't happen until the Gospel is spread to all four corners of the earth.
In 2014, the church needs to get rid of the gimmicks and get back to basics. I take my hat off to Kerri Shook for setting a fine example on Christmas Eve in the Woodlands, Texas. I'm already looking forward to another return visit.