Wednesday, July 16, 2014

How My Robotic Vacuum Reminds Me of Church

Yes, you read that title correctly.

My wedding present to Carrie (following in the time honored tradition of my own parents, who buy each other things the other person really wants) was a Neato Signature robotic vacuum whom we promptly named Sven (that's him, over there, the vacuum that looks, as one of my friends pointed out on Facebook, a little like Darth Vader).

The impetus for getting Sven was pretty obvious: neither of us relishes vacuuming, and after watching a couple of video reviews of the Neato line in particular, I thought it would do a much more thorough job than at least I would (Neato vacuums use laser technology to map out the dimensions of a room and then vacuum row by row rather than moving around all over the place like Roombas).

And, as I posted on Facebook, so far, Carrie and I like Sven very much.  Indeed, Carrie thinks I am treating Sven too much like a pet...a "very industrious hamster" in her words.  Mea culpa.

But like I said, we got Sven because we wanted him to do something for us: namely, clean the floors.  And he does that very well.  But he also requires a certain amount of babysitting to avoid getting stuck on cords or getting his brushes caught up in debris.  He does what he is supposed to do extremely well, but we cannot just push a button and let him go on autopilot.

Sound a little like your church to you?

I thought it might.

Each of us who joins a church community does so, I think (whether knowingly or not), with a set of implicit expectations for that church community: to teach them about God as revealed through Jesus, to educate them on Scripture, to be there in times of illness and trouble, to offer fellowship and mission, and so on.

Now, sometimes those expectations are more explicit and cannot be met: one time, I had a husband and wife worshiping with us for the first time with their newborn, and they wanted me to baptize their infant.  After gently explaining that the doctrine of my denomination does not endorse infant baptism (except in emergencies) and that we prefer to have a 'dedication' ceremony (which I offered to do instead) for babies and allow them to make the decision about baptism for themselves when they are older, the couple promptly turned on their heels and left without a word.  I never saw either of them again.

I felt bad that their need wasn't one that I in good conscience could meet, but it was an instructive example for me for how sometimes church is viewed by folks: a place to receive sacraments, yes, but a place to receive them on demand: the idea that you could just press a button and order up a baptism, like pressing a button to start a floor cleaning.

And honestly, that isn't what I think church should be about.  Yes, we are here to offer the sacraments, but I adamantly believe we are here to offer them to individuals, not faceless, generic, persons.  The couple I mention here came to us simply because we were a church: to them, any church would do.

But church isn't like that.  Each parish has its own unique context and characteristics, and one of the things that I absolutely LOVE about the people streaming in as new members has been their thoughtfulness in concluding that this is the church for them.  They let themselves be led by God instead of going on autopilot.

And that's instructive for those of us who have spent our entire lives in church.  It is altogether too easy for us to push a button on Sunday mornings, whirr the church to life, have it do its thing, and then shut it down again for another six days.  Then, after many weeks, months, or years of doing this, we look around and wonder why there is no longer much life to speak of in our churches.'s because going on autopilot, by definition, takes away the variables and twists and turns.  It goes for the straight line, row by row approach of Sven.  And that isn't necessarily a bad thing at all in short bursts.

But as a long term behavior for churches, it is lethal.

Being led by God and by His spirit ought to be a suitable antidote for the autopilot tendency of churches: after all, an autopilot is something that is inwardly generated (albeit perhaps externally programmed into something).  Being led by God is, by definition, being led by something far beyond yourself.

Which ultimately begs the question: how can your church, or mine for that matter, always ensure it is being led by God and not heading for robot vacuum mode?

I can't tell you the complete answer to that question simply because I don't know it.  But I have come to know parts of the answer.  Prayer is perhaps the biggest, but so too is the ability to, well, shut up and listen.  Just like the roar of a vacuum cleaner drowns out so much other noise, so too do I think we are great in the church at hearing ourselves talk rather than hearing the noise that other people are making.

Or the noise that God is making, for that matter.

There are other parts of that answer, too, but those might be the two parts that I am most sure of by now.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I think Sven just got himself caught behind my recliner...

Yours in Christ,

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