Why the Church is like the DMV

Do you enjoy visiting the Department of Motor Vehicles? It doesn’t matter. No one expects you to enjoy it. But you will show up if you want to drive a car or get a photo ID. The service may be lousy and the staff surly, but there’s really no alternative. You’ll take a number, stand in line, do the eye exam, and pay your fees.

Once upon a time, the church was just like the DMV. Church was a utility, an indispensable requirement for citizenship in western civilization. It wasn’t the most exciting thing in the world, but it didn’t have to be. You were required by both law and custom to show up and pay your dues, so you did. You listened to the priest, stood in line, took your wafer, and paid your tithes.

Church doesn’t work like that anymore. (Thank God!) These days, churches are luxury items – like a trip to Starbucks – rather than a necessity – like a visit to the DMV. If you enjoy the church community, the rituals, and the doctrine being taught by the leaders, you might come back next week. If not, there are plenty of other options out there – including a nice stroll with your dog on a Sunday morning.

In today’s church world, it’s a buyer’s market. There’s no shortage of congregations in your town that are doing everything in their power to make your visit an inviting, welcoming, and fun experience. A lot of thought is put into greeters, child care, music, and sermons. The coffee is often good.

Some churches are still acting as if they were the DMV, though. Churches that stick to the old ways of doing things, who don’t give much thought to welcoming visitors and speaking to their spiritual condition. Most of these groups are dying out. They’ve got nothing going for them but inertia.

Are these really the only two options, though? Starbucks or the DMV? For over a thousand years, the church was basically an appendage of civil government. I definitely don’t want to go back to that reality. But neither am I thrilled with the current trend towards consumer Christianity. What’s the point of being part of a church that only exists to sing praise songs, drink good coffee, and promote a Christian lifestyle that looks a whole lot like middle class individualism?

I want to be part of a church that is simultaneous voluntary and demanding. I want a fellowship that challenges my individualism, but also overthrows conformity to the status quo. I want to be part of a movement that asks everything from me, that doesn’t let me off easy – but also one that leads by example and never forces me to go farther than I am ready for. Does this church exist?

I have caught glimpses of it at various points in my journey. I read about it in the New Testament. It’s the radical fellowship that deeply challenges the ways of the world, yet never assumes the right to force a conversion. It’s a community that loves everyone with incredible passion, but stubbornly refuses to pander in exchange for acceptance.

Have you experienced this kind of community? What is holding you back from living more fully in it? How can we become the free-spirited church that embodies the way of Jesus?

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