Do Weird Stuff
Before I graduated college, I’d witnessed the following things in church:
- It was my childhood pastor’s 40th anniversary. To celebrate, they bought him a gift: a brand-new, white-as-a-pearl Toyota Avalon. Though they couldn’t find a way to get the car on stage, they did find a way to show a live feed of it pulling up to the church, much to our pastor’s surprise. It felt like a Showcase Showdown sans Bob Barker.
- It was Super Bowl Sunday, 2008. The pastors of my church in college dressed up as the two opposing quarterbacks—Eli Manning and Tom Brady—and honestly, I don’t remember much after that. But football featured prominently.
- It was a summer Lord’s Day in Brooklyn, probably 2009 or 2010. Between the songs and the sermon, a church member, in order to exercise his “gift,” delivered a comedy set. I remember laughing more than once.
- It was Father’s Day. A gifted singer who sounded like George Strait sang a solo about fatherhood. It was Mother’s Day. A gifted singer who sounded like Kelly Clarkson sang a solo about motherhood. The moms in attendance all received roses. It was Memorial Day. A gifted choir who sounded like a gifted choir sang about valor and sacrifice.
I could keep going. I could talk about the awkward skits or the time a camel walked down the aisle or the sermon series on movies or singing the national anthem or the white-gloved handbell choir or the performative dances—twirlers and all.
I’d witnessed all these things in church. And you know what? Precisely none of them were weird to me. It was all as normal as the sunrise, as ordinary as a butter knife.
Until it wasn’t.
“IS THIS PLACE CRAZY?”
It was January 2013. Through God’s strange and hilarious providence I’d ended up literally in Mark Dever’s backyard. In other words, I’d started an internship at Capitol Hill Baptist Church having never before attended Capitol Hill Baptist Church or a church even kind of like Capitol Hill Baptist Church. I’d become Reformed or Calvinist or whatever through the preaching I heard in college, but I basically had no idea what a church was.
Nonetheless, I shuffled into the PAC-MAN–shaped auditorium and sat next to my wife. We were 23 years old and recently married.
Here’s the rundown of that morning’s service. Try to read it out-loud without taking a breath:
- Three “prep songs” while people found their seats
- Welcome and announcements
- A call to worship
- Three more hymns
- A prayer of praise (around 5 minutes)
- A Scripture reading from the Old Testament
- Another hymn
- A Scripture reading from the New Testament
- A pastoral prayer of petition (around 10 minutes)
- Another hymn
- A prayer of thanks (around 1 minute)
- The offering
- The sermon (around 55 minutes)
- A hymn
- A celebration of the Lord’s Supper (around 15 minutes)
- Two more hymns
- A benediction
- A brief time of reflections and preparation
No, no. Don’t skip that list. Seriously, read through that list. It’s like The Cheesecake Factory’s menu. It has everything but baptism.
By the end of this gathering—which lasted a cruel-and-unusual two and a half hours—I felt exhausted, emaciated, and a little bit enraptured. I was also antsy about my fantasy football team. Somehow, the 1PM NFL games were about to start!
Interns had a job after church: to stand by the exits as people left. I stood there, wide-eyed and bushy-tailed. I shook hand after hand and returned smile after smile. “Thank you for coming,” I said. But I wanted to say something else: “Is this place crazy? Are you crazy? Am I crazy?”
For 23 years, I’d gone to church every Sunday of my life. But I’d never seen anything like that first Lord’s Day in 2013. It was weird.
Until it wasn’t.
The next five months were a whirlwind. At first, the experience measured out as equal parts curious, confounding, and captivating. But over time, as I sat through service planning meetings and heard the rationale behind every—yes, every—decision, I began to understand some things. Many curiosities remained—what’s a “potentate”? do we really need that many separate prayers? does Mark really need to preach that long? But by the end of my time on the Hill, what had confounded me largely faded away and the whole thing began to click.
DO WEIRD STUFF
My friend Sam Emadi wrote a piece in this Journal called “Don’t Do Weird Stuff.” It’s good. You should read it. He talks about funny things like baptizing people in beer. The goal of this piece is to make the same point from the opposite perspective. I want to encourage you to do weird stuff. Stuff that won’t make much sense to the majority of rank-and-file churchgoers, stuff that won’t make immediate sense to people who don’t know Jesus and never think about God, stuff that seekers won’t be sensitive toward.
I’m not encouraging weirdness for weirdness’ sake. I’m not celebrating churches that are arcane, inscrutable, and, to borrow a word from Andy Dufresne, “obtuse.” I’m simply encouraging you to make sure the bullseye of every gathering is orderly edification and intelligible instruction that leads saints to worship the God they adore. That’s Paul’s bullseye in 1 Corinthians 14.
Some might say this emphasis erodes evangelism. Quite the opposite actually. A Christian gathering shouldn’t leave the unbeliever primarily saying to themselves, “Wow, I’m really welcome here among you,” but rather, “Wow, God really is among you” (1 Cor. 14:20).
And for that to happen, I’m convinced we’ll have to do some weird stuff. We’ll have to talk about God a lot. We’ll have to talk to God a lot. We’ll have to place his Word on a pedestal, not the periphery. We’ll have to accentuate the stark differences between Christianity and everything else even as we acknowledge the essential similarities between Christians and everyone else made.
Must it look like Capitol Hill Baptist Church? Of course not. Must it take two-and-a-half hours? No way. Must it sing about “potentates” and “rolling spheres” and being “ineffably sublime”? Absolutely. (I’m just kidding.)
I’ve heard Mark say something before like, “Pray so much in your gatherings that the people who only pretend to love Jesus will get bored.” He’s on to something. But there’s more to say. Because while some will be bored to death, others will get their first whiff of true life (2 Cor. 2:16).