In Mark’s Twain’s posthumously published collection of essays, Letters from the Earth, the fallen archangel Satan sends correspondence back to Gabriel and Michael about the curious creatures who inhabit the orb he now calls home. Satan describes how man finds church a bore, has minimal interest in music and places sex above all other joys. Yet the heaven that man imagines features only prayer and praise.
“The man who did not sing on earth sings there . . . it goes on, all day long, and every day, during a stretch of 12 hours,” he writes to his divine pen pals. “And everybody stays; whereas in the earth the place would be empty in two hours.”
It is a relief to know that Twain wasn’t writing about Mennonites, since everyone knows Mennonites love to sing all the time. Still, his sarcasm was pulled from more than thin air.
Eight decades after Twain typed his critique of modern religion, Kirk and Deby Dearman’s simple song, written in 1984, proclaimed in so many churches across North America that “we bring the sacrifice of praise into the house of the Lord.” On the surface, the praise song is pure adulation, but the theological undercurrent stresses sacrifice.
These days, the most valuable sacrifice first-world Christians have to offer is their time and attention — something worth far more than a burnt goat. “A sacrifice of praise” means more in a time when researchers say fewer than 20 percent of Americans attend church weekly.
Let’s set the bar low and run with the idea that merely attending church regularly and praising God is a sacrifice. All of a sudden, just sitting in a pew counts as an offering — to the alarm of finance committees everywhere.
But that’s not enough. The phrase “church shopping” can be uttered without fear of rebuke. No one bats an eye to hear someone is looking for where they fit best. This can mean a number of things, but fundamentally it is code for finding the most comfortable and convenient sacrifice.
Is it more important that we find worship pleasing or that God does? Should church be a challenge or a comfort? Sure, one could offer up the fattest calf in the herd, but wouldn’t it be more comfortable to slay and burn a couple of rabbits, call it a Sabbath and get back to the weekend’s to-do list?
As followers of Christ saved by his greater sacrifice, we are called to more.
“Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise — the fruit of lips that openly profess his name” (Heb. 13:15).
A living sacrifice asks more than the Dearmans’ song does and more than we often ask of ourselves. A living sacrifice goes out of the church doors and into the other six days of the week. It won’t be comfortable, and it won’t be convenient, but Jesus wouldn’t have it any other way.