Monday, 6 October 2008

An open response to non-churchgoing believers (but actually 13 c's & some change)

Hi Chris (and those who confess to being like him),

As I read your blog many things came to mind. But as I began my comment I realized it might be longer than your blog and thought that might be a little much for a comment. So I decided to give it full rein and let it be what it is. A lot of people will think I’m criticizing you. I hope you take it as encouragement.

When I was at SL Fish and I would often talk about how we felt our little traveling family was in many ways more like a church than the ones we attended. We spent MASSIVE amounts of time together talking about life and faith, eating, having devotionals and corporate prayer. We attended hundreds of worship services led by the best pastors and worship leaders out there. It felt a lot like church, and like the church should be. But it wasn’t the church. It wasn’t the church because I never made the decision to be there. I never humbled myself before God and submitted to his process, his plans. I didn’t do any of that because it was my job. Sure, I worshiped, I prayed, I learned. But I was working the whole time. I never submitted myself to God’s ordained community. I’d go to church and feel dead inside, disconnected. “I’ve sung this song a million times. I’ve heard this sermon over and over and over!” I’d leave frustrated, feeling as if church just wasn’t for me.

But singing songs and listening to sermons has very little to do with being a member of a church. What I finally learned to be the truth about the church is not the trappings: the building, the songs, the teaching. It is about commitment to the body. It is Ephesians 5: “just as Christ loved the church…Be subject to one another.” When I subjected myself to the body…when I (as Ms. Ten Boom says) obeyed, my feeling of commitment to the church developed. I spent a year keeping two year-olds, and I loved my church.

When Jacob was born we took the hiatus that we feel we deserve because WE JUST HAD A BABY. And when we came back I felt it all over again. Disconnected, world and church-weary. Every class Shannon and I went to we didn’t fit. Frustrated, our attendance wavered. And then I read this:

“Whether we like it or not, the moment we confess Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior…we are at the same time a member of the Christian church…Our membership in the church is a corollary of our faith in Christ…Membership in church is a basic spiritual fact for those who confess Christ as Lord...For Go never makes private, secret salvation deals with people…We are a family in Christ.” (Peterson, “A Long Obedience…, 175)

And I know you know this. You say as much in your post. But the next part is the one that got me.

“…So the question is not ‘Am I going to be a part of a community of faith?’ but ‘HOW am I going to live in this community of faith?” (ibid, 176, emphasis mine)

You don’t get to choose. You have to be involved. The only thing left up to you is how. And I know you know this too. Your acknowledgment and admission of your sin says as much. So I started teaching a class. It was a class I started for all my friends who felt the same way I do. I figured we could all get together here inside the church instead of outside. But none of my friends came. And for six months the class was on life support because I refused to submit myself to God’s plan for the class. Then, in the midst of my frustration, a funny thing happened. People started coming. They weren’t my friends. But they weren’t church-goers either. They were recovering addicts. They were outcasts that didn’t fit elsewhere. They had lived through harrowing and messy divorces. They were single looking for a community, not a date. They were married and were trying to figure out how to be married. They were broken and painfully aware of their brokenness. Our prayer requests didn’t contain health and wealth concerns. We were praying for people caught in addiction, people who were desperately alone, people who needed a community. I felt like I was swimming in the ocean with no land in sight and I heard God whisper “this is your church.” But I was so uncomfortable with these people! I liked my little insulated SL life. I didn’t want them wrecking things! And then I read this:

“You say that you have almost nothing in common with these people. But isn’t that just the point? YOU have nothing in common with them, but God does. This just happens to be the way that God goes about making a kingdom, pulling all sorts and conditions of people together and then patiently, mercifully, and graciously making something of them. What he obviously does not do is pre-select people who have an aptitude for getting along well and enjoying the same things. Of course you don’t have much in common with them. The church is God’s thing, not yours…The church is not a natural community composed of people with common interests; it is a SUPER-natural community. And the super in that word does not mean that it exceeds your expectations; it is OTHER than your expectations, and much of the other is invisible to you… (Peterson, The Wisdom of Each Other, 26-27).

When I read that and got over myself, I saw this rag-tag group of irritating and disturbing liars and narcissists for what they are: a God-collected group of beautiful believers. And it was never easy and I was ALWAYS uncomfortable but I was never closer to God and have never had such a tight-knit group of God community (or the church, if you must).

We moved to Nashville. We moved to disconnection. Again the world & church weariness. Again the frustration. I wanted to find a “cool” church. But none of the “cool” churches had a good kids program. Or they were too far away, or in bad neighborhoods. “Cool” churches in the hood are fine if you’re 24 and single, but for a 35 year-old father of four? Not so much. (And the whole “cool churches in funky neighborhoods” is a whole other discussion).

The church we kept coming back to was the church we grew up in and this absolutely galled me. I like the preacher well enough, but I’m not wild about his style of preaching. The worship is too adult contemporary. I don’t find many people like me here. I didn’t want to go to this church.

But here we are. Instead of if we choose how. We choose obedience, and we’re waiting for the feeling. It’s not the ideal church for us, but it’s God’s thing, not ours. A new class, new people, new challenges, new awkwardness, but I’m already fiercely protective of them. I still find small talk impossible as I try to get to know them, but I know that God’s in it, and that’s enough.

And there is the option of starting your own church. You could absolutely do that. I hear the ATL dream team is giving it a go. But I think that, like me, you’ve noticed our nation is filled with thirty year-old mostly empty buildings. We’ve got plenty of churches. We just need to be subject to one another and commit to them. We need to find one, roll up our sleeves and get to the work of allowing God to mold us into being part of his community.

I hope you take this in the manner in which I wrote it. I like you quite a lot and believe you’re one of the good guys that gets it. I know you already know all the answers. That’s not the problem. The problem is living them. The problem is getting over ourselves and realizing that being ministers doesn’t make us above it.

Engage. Participate. Even if it’s uncomfortable. Especially when it’s uncomfortable. Open yourself and see what God will do.

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