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Sunday, September 03, 2006

Stage or Altar?

© Staci Stallings

Plastic Christians. You know the kind. They know all the words, spout all the rules, sing all the songs, join everything, and they look really good doing it, too. Their suits are pressed. Their ties are straight. Their dresses are the mint of modesty. And yet, it all seems too good, too perfect. All plastic, no feeling.

Recently I came face-to-face with the plastic Christian in me. Oh, she talked a good game. To the world, she looked good in her deeds. She was no doubt Christian, but plastic nonetheless.

You see, deeds done out of fear of being found less than the perfect Christian are dead deeds--no matter how good they look. A song I heard by Casting Crowns puts it this way:

"Am I the only one that's traded in the altar for a stage?"

Now before you jump on the bandwagon of spirit-bashing the choir or the readers or those in other visible ministries, I suggest as Jesus said, that you look first at yourself. If you are without sin here, then you may cast a stone.

These words are not talking about the more visible ministries in the church. They are not meant to say, never sing in the choir, never volunteer for a visible ministry. They invite you to look at WHY you are joining whatever you're in. More than that, they are talking about you and your walk every day with Christ. Is it a performance or a sacrifice? Are you on the stage or on the altar?

If you're not sure, from experience, ministry of performance looks like this: you say all the right words, but your heart feels very few of them. You read the Bible religiously, go to church without fail, you can recite all the rules and the prayers as well--but it all feels empty as if you are going through all the motions because that's what's expected. You join the organizations, help with the youth, volunteer for every fundraiser, attend classes, teach classes. You serve and serve and serve until you've got no more to give, and then you find a way to give some more. You feel burned out and used up, and yet there are still people hurting, still more you should give. You want to live out the Christian life, but the reality for you is, it's tiring work.

That's performance. Performance is going on your own ability, choosing the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil over resting in the Tree of Life.

Things look and feel very different when you're on the altar. When you're on the altar, the comprehension of your smallness when compared with God's enormity is reassuring--not judgmental, frightening, and depressing. You suddenly realize you can't, but He can. That understanding frees you to jump into situations where failure in the world's eyes is a very real possibility, but even if you fail when He whispered the task on your heart, you know that somehow from His perspective, even that failure is a victory. Better, you trust that it's a victory and move forward in confidence--not because you think you can do it, but because you know you don't have to--He will.

On the altar when you read the Bible, you read it because it's fascinating, because you hear Him speaking to you through it--not because you have to or because you're supposed to. Prayers might be memorized or they might well be, "Hey, God. It's me, so glad You're here." Either way, they feel like a personal friendship rather than an empty exercise in pleasing a God you suspect will never be pleased no matter how much you do.

On the altar, you let go of the driving need to prove anything to anybody. You just are. You open your life to Him, just as a sacrificed animal on the altar is cut open, so are you. In a very real way, you die to who you were, to your own ability, to your own performance. Impressing others pales in comparison with being real and being honest about your fears, about your failures, and about who you really are. You suddenly have no desire to wear the mask of plastic Christianity, and the more it is stripped away by His loving, accepting presence, the more you begin to allow others in your presence to remove theirs.

As I thought about the concept of stage or altar, performance or sacrifice, the story of Cain and Abel slid into my consciousness. Has there ever been a more perfect example of what performance-based Christianity leads to?

There's Cain tilling his little performance heart out, thinking how pleased God is going to be with this offering and being pretty pleased with his offering before it even gets to God. How could God not be impressed? After all, Cain reserved the best of his harvest for the Lord. But when he presents the offering to God, God shrugs. Instantly Cain gets angry. How dare the Lord not fawn over his offering!

Then, in walks Abel who presents his offering to the Lord. Abel, innocent, trusting, a sacrifice personified. And the Lord is pleased with Abel's gift. This infuriates Cain who rises up, and in his jealousy and anger, kills his brother.

Are you Cain in your Christian walk? Do you look around and become envious of someone else's service, of someone else's gifts? Do you judge those who aren't as Christian as they should be? Are you completely sure that God will accept your gifts over someone else's because yours are so obviously better? Do you work for God, or does God work through you?

Take it from someone who was on that stage for far too long: It's a lonely, miserable, rotten place to be. Moreover, as scary as being on the altar sounds, the freedom it affords is worth every spotlight you have to give up.

So, are you on the stage or the altar?

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*~* Read the first three chapters of Staci's newest release "Cowboy" at: You'll feel better for the experience!


Mary said...

Wow. What great descriptions and insight...plastic Christians on stage. I'm going to have to reread this one and let it sink in more. I've been mulling this very thing over lately, touched on it a little bit in my blog as well.
Thanks Staci!

Staci Stallings said...

Thanks, Mary. I'm realizing more and more how very empty the plastic Christian thing is, but how totally cool it is to live just opening your life to Christ.

Jennifer said...

I also have thought about this concept lately. I wrote that following Jesus should be enough--not the outcropping of what I can do when I follow Him.

These are great thoughts and wonderfully expressed. Thanks.