My big fat weak church

Scarcely has the dust begun to settle from the news last month that emergency workers had to demolish a wall of a house in Wales to take an obese nineteen-year-old girl to hospital, than research is published concerning the entire world’s ‘fatness’ index! Whereas the unfortunate girl who had to suffer such indignity allegedly weighed 380kg, an even more startling figure was quoted by researchers from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine who calculated the weight of the total global population at 287 million tonnes. Some perspective was given to this figure with the disclosure that 15 million tonnes of this human ballast was due to people being overweight, and 3.5 million tonnes due to obesity. The less startling revelation was that Western nations were responsible for the majority of this latter figure.

My lack of surprise at this conclusion may partly be due to the fact that I live in close proximity to a fast food outlet in Bristol that famously specialises in Super-Scoobys that contain four beefburgers, eight rashers of bacon, eight slices of cheese, twelve onion rings and three types of relish. (These monsters apparently pack away 2645 calories and weigh in at 3lbs 4oz.) It may also be partly due to recently having to fight my own ‘battle of the bulge’. Having been decidedly skinny for the greater part of my life, I started ‘comfort eating’ a few years back when I was experiencing acute stress from working with a set of church leaders whose behaviour left much to be desired. The outcome of my stress-relieving indulgence was a palpable case of ‘furniture disease’, which is when one’s chest falls into one’s drawers!

As a consequence, my rather unsympathetic views towards those who were overweight were softened somewhat. Given the widespread occurrence of stress in today’s world, I began to appreciate that ‘comfort eating’, whilst undesirable, was entirely understandable. What I also came to realise was that “spiritual comfort eating” was also a widespread, but undesirable, characteristic of many Christians in the Church. It reveals itself through a mindset that tends to rate church worship by whether it “met my need”, or created the “feel good” factor.

Plenty of churches have tapped into this form of dysfunctional hunger by offering spiritual “Super-Scoobys”. The wholesome nourishment of Bible-centred preaching and God-focused worship has been replaced by an entertainment-rich menu often consisting of banal repetitive songs devoid of deep spiritual truths, and sermons that deliver lifestyle tips and pander to egos rather than challenging people to become serious disciples.

This kind of “spiritual drive-through” panders to our cravings with a menu that prioritises how people can “experience” God; whereas the priority the God of the Bible seeks is a relationship – something that goes a lot deeper than mere experience. The frequent result of this trend is a church that becomes progressively more ‘overweight’ with the constant emphasis on self-satisfaction, self-fulfilment and a form of faith that is no more than a comfort blanket.

What is noticeable in the “Obese Church” today is the tendency towards tailoring worship to pander to a consumerist mentality. Real worship is God-focused, not “me-focused”, but I have encountered an alarming number of churches where the congregations are fed the type of “comfort food” that we all tend to crave, a diet of who we want God to be, rather than who He truly is.

What that tends to produce is a body of church-hopping, self-obsessed Christians who become dependent on a regular fix, rather than generating mature disciples who learn to take responsibility for their own spiritual fitness and diet. Junk food is not just marketed in the aisles of big supermarkets and grocery outlets, but in the aisles of countless churches as well! The Message paraphrase of the Bible renders 2 Timothy 4:3 in these words: “There will be times when people have no stomach for solid teaching but will fill up on spiritual junk food – catchy opinions that tickle their fancy”.

Something I noticed in the period when I was “comfort-eating” was that the junk food that I stuffed down my throat was consumed on impulse. Supermarkets are only too aware of the impulse-driven sales, which is why sweets and chocolates are prominently displayed at check-out. I have come to realise that as Christians we need to be equally aware of the impulse-driven spirituality of instant gratification which doesn’t leave room for the real thing - an intake of pure truth from God’s Word (1 Peter 2:2) and a daily practice of exercise of faith. Is it time for an Obesity Check in our lives and in our churches?

Tony Ward is a Bible teacher and evangelist who was ordained in Zimbabwe. He currently lives and ministers in Bristol.