The problem with our weekly ‘do what you feel’ gathering

Years ago, The Simpsons skewered the whole concept of the ‘if it feels good, do it’ culture. In the process, they also showed the nonsense of the ‘don’t judge’ brigade. After all, we don’t want to ‘should’ people to death. You can see how that panned out below.

While Springfield instituted an annual ‘do what you feel’ festival, the church have gone one better and determined to have a weekly ‘do what you feel’ gathering.

I have lost count of the number of times I have heard people insist that God’s Word can be sidelined because something doesn’t feel right to them. Never mind that Jesus commands his followers to be baptised, they’ll do it only when it feels right. Forget that scripture clearly demands membership in a local body, I’m not joining unless I feel led to do so. It doesn’t matter what scripture says on a whole host of issues – whether how membership ought to work in the church, the parameters of what should be allowed within the church, or the way we conduct worship – feelings so often take precedence. Whether that is commitment to ‘the way we’ve always done it’, a guiding principle of pragmatism or a knee-jerk reaction when things are just not quite as we would have them. Feelings routinely trump scripture.

I remember one meeting in which I was trying to give the biblical basis behind our position on a particular issue. One member simply responded: ‘I don’t care what anyone says, this is the way I see it and you won’t change my mind’. Interestingly, ‘the way they saw it’ was accompanied by precisely zero reference to scripture. It was something they thought, or felt, with no biblical warrant whatsoever. Their argument was not an alternative scriptural case which led to different, yet biblically drawn, conclusions. It was just ‘I don’t care what anyone says’, seemingly including the Lord himself.

Brett McCracken sees the same issue prevalent in the consumerist ideology behind ‘church shopping’. He states:

By shifting the focus away from the fixed point of Jesus and to the fickle, frequently diverging “paths” of individual churchgoers, churches lose their bearings and become inherently unstable. When a church becomes less about the demands of Scripture on our lives and more about our demands on the church to fit our preferences (e.g. favoured music style, ideal sermon length, etc), it loses its power to transform us and subvert our idols. It merely becomes a commodity to be shopped for, consumed, and then abandoned when another shinier, trendier, more “relevant” church option presents itself.

McCracken concludes:

When churchgoing becomes mostly about finding the church that best supports my own subjective “spiritual path,” it will eventually become an impossible task, more frustrating and draining than it’s worth. Why? Because no church will ever be perfectly tailored to my preferences and the “subtler languages” that I find meaningful. There will always be something that makes me bristle, something that leaves me feeling unseen, unheard, uncomfortable. And so we keep shopping for that “perfect fit” church, or (more likely) we give up the futile search entirely.

Last Sunday, we had a visiting speaker who preached from John 15. I was particularly struck by his comments on God’s pruning of the branches. Who enjoys being prodded and cut by secateurs? This sort of thing is going to be uncomfortable, even painful, and is not going to feel all that great. Yet this is the mechanism by which Christ builds his church and grows his people. He does not promise to meet all our preferences and desires for how we feel things should be; he calls us to centre our lives on him despite knowing that submitting to him as Lord feels less than natural to rebellious sinners like us.

Christ builds his church by bringing us into fellowship with people who aren’t like us, whose preferences differ from ours and who view things in ways we don’t. If we all insist on things as we feel they ought to be, how do we hold together a church in which everybody feels differently? The answer cannot be to go by whatever feels right because between us we feel a range of mutually exclusive things. The answer is to orientate our feelings in line with what we know from scripture. We determine what we do by God’s Word, and God’s Word alone.

More to the point, where God’s Word commands or prohibits something, we oughtn’t to ignore it because it doesn’t feel right to us. When Jesus commands us to be baptised and join with his people in scripture, it is straight up blasphemy to claim the Holy Spirit caused us to feel we don’t need to do it. Why would the Holy Spirit cause us to feel something different to the commands he moved the biblical authors to write down? If God can’t contradict himself, why would he cause us to feel the opposite of what he tells us to do in his Word? Citing the Holy Spirit in a bid to avoid what he inspired in scripture is to lay our sinful desires at God’s door, which is the height of blasphemy. You don’t have to look far in scripture to find somebody doing that:

“Have you eaten of the tree of which I [God] commanded you not to eat?” The man [Adam] said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate.” (Genesis 3:11b-12, my emphasis)

Let us stop turning our weekly gatherings into ‘do what you feel’ festivals. We are not called to ‘do what you feel’; we are called to love, follow and obey Jesus Christ. Forget doing whatever feels right and spend more time resolving to do what God tells us clearly is right. The church doesn’t exist to meet your preferences and make you feel good, it is there to help you grow up to maturity in Christ.

It seems worth pointing out that Jesus said, ‘if you love me, you will keep my commandments’ (John 14:23). He did not say, if you love me you will obey me whenever you happen to feel like doing so. Let’s drop the feelings-led approach to church and make sure we are Word-centred, which is another way of saying gospel-centred, which is just another way of saying Christ-centred. We cannot have Christ without his gospel and we cannot have either without the scriptures that make him known. We can have all of them without fulfilling whatever feels good to us.

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