I stole an expensive breakfast two weeks ago while on vacation.
I’ve become pretty accustomed to finding my opportunities to worship in unusual times & venues. It’s extremely rare in ministry that I find myself in an attitude of real worship within the confines of a sanctuary, so I’ve learned to seek communion with God through conversation with others and in quiet time alone. Usually those happen without notice so I’ve learned to remain alert and listening. Every now and then an opportunity comes along where I anticipate an opportunity for worship. Most often this involves attending a church I’ve adopted in Chattanooga on Sunday nights that we don’t have youth programming. But while my wife and I were on vacation a couple of weeks ago I thought I saw such an opportunity. A music venue near where we were staying offered a breakfast buffet. On Sundays, the price triples for “Gospel Brunch,” featuring live gospel music. The venue is well-known and brings in medium-to-large national acts; this sounded pretty legit so we went to check it out.
We’d eaten their buffet before and knew that the food would be good. The last time we’d been the place had been nearly empty, peaceful, and private feeling. I was excited to return to that atmosphere, enjoy a breakfast with my wife, and soak in some gospel singing. Probably even encounter God. But as we were lead to our table, I knew it wasn’t going to work out like that. The place was packed, which was fine, but everyone was clapping. And if they didn’t clap, they were reminded to clap by the man with the microphone (followed by a man with a TV camera) who was singing an apparently 20-minute rendition of “This Little Light Of Mine.” He was also joking with everyone and stopping at nearly every table to make someone sing the refrain. Ugh. Forced participation. At breakfast.
We sat down and waited for our server, who never came. Eventually the man with the microphone and the man with the camera approached our table. I made eye contact and shook him off, trying to offer the possibility of walking past. He took it as a challenge. Leaning in over our table, he explained how we’d broken the rules (about clapping), which meant that someone had to sing. He stuck a microphone in my face. Again I looked him right in the eyes and simply said, “No.” He seemed to finally get it, but instead of leaving us he turned his attention to my wife, who eventually conceded and sang to make him go away.
Eventually breakfast entered the picture; we talked another server into bringing us drinks. At the buffet they took my order for an omelet, apparently for posterity. It never came. It took a very literal 10 minutes to get a second glass of orange juice. And to top it all off, the gospel singers took a half hour break while we ate. Adding it all up, we were paying $40 for poorly executed customer service coupled with a gospel presentation that was dictated on their terms, leaving no room for me to interact on my own.
Driving away, I realized that’s probably what church feels like when people come to it in need. You come through the door needing something you can’t quite define and are squeezed through definition boxes of predefined engagement. Small groups by age or marital status. Worship by what kind of music you can stand your Jesus filtered through. When we get you in a room, you will stand and sit as dictated and people will notice if you’re not singing along. The words are on the screen; what do you mean you’re unfamiliar with this song? It’s so popular right now! So good to see you today. Hug three people before you go!
I’d skip out on that check, too. I get that lots of people like church that way; companies don’t build an industry around things that they can’t sell to a lot of people. But somewhere in the middle of all of that I think we can lose the simple idea that we’re serving people and that those people have individual needs. That they might need to avoid eye contact for a few weeks. That it’s OK to not clap or sing or be forced to greet people for a season. People come to God all kinds of ways.
I’ve been wrestling for a while with whether or not our youth ministry is invitational, for many of these same reasons. How difficult is it for a new person to walk into your youth room? Are they greeted aggressively or do you let them simmer a while first? There are pros and cons to both. Is there a way to do both? Is your content deep enough for your regulars but palatable to a newcomer as well? Is that possible?
In case you’re deeply troubled by my ditching on a check, I didn’t know I was doing it. I thought my wife had paid when we came in. She knew, but presumed that when I said, “Are you ready?” I was acknowledging the misery we were both experiencing and indicating a honk-n-holler would be a more appropriate exit than paying. She was all in. After a few miles of silence down the road we started to debrief our experience (you should never have to debrief breakfast on vacation) and the truth came out.
I immediately felt better about the whole thing. It had totally been worth nothing. Does our worship inspire commitment or do people drive away relieved that at least it was free?