I don’t think they carried as much weight as the liturgy or hymns, but for a budding teenage journalist, caught up in the raw strength of sentences, I latched onto our pastor’s words, repeated every time he introduced a new member to our congregation.
“Our church is not perfect, no earthly church is,” he said, and, I have little doubt, he still says to this day.
The words resonated then and linger now, because they moved away from elevated language and long-standing traditions to the honest-to-God, experienced truth. Sure, we all did our best, whether with our Sunday best or our glossy smiles, to extend the myth of ideal and immaculate, but in reality, and I knew from practice, there was plenty of dirty laundry and hidden smirks.
The words did the work of Toto to remind me that my little extension of the Church wasn’t meant to operate like the Wizard in the Emerald City, all smoke and flames, curtains and levers, intended to make impressions and coerce me and my ragtag group of friends.
A recent submitter to MyFaithHurdle asked, “How can I find positive spiritual community?“ I can relate to many of the sentiments expressed.
Yes, churches can be frustrating places, where hype and thinness, constraint and control, make for unpleasant experiences, but, as anyone who’s been involved with Christian communities knows, and as the use of the word “positive” implies, they are also rich and good places to be.
The gathering of churches, from its outset, has been an sloppy collection. Look at the list of the people who remained after Jesus’ ascension to carry out his purposes and proclaim his message: the doubter, the agitator, the extorter, the denier, the murder, the adulterer. Now go read Corinthians and try not to cringe at the dirt Paul had on that gathering of believers.
All this has me thinking. What if I were in my pastor’s shoes? What would I say to someone about to join my imperfect church? Or maybe, more likely, what would I say to those dear friends of mine who have abandoned spiritual community because not all their experiences have been positive?
First, I’d ask them to reconsider conversion.
Graham Tomlin, in his book Provocative Church, writes about how the classic model of conversion suggests an instantaneous change. Saul on the Damascus road. St. Augustine in a Milan garden. Martin Luther with a flash of lightning. Even the New Testament uses language that suggests sudden and drastic change.
The difficulty, he says, comes, when we realize that many conversions are not experienced like this. In my life, for instance, it took the piling of a heck of a lot of wood, over the course of long period of time, before a spark set the stack ablaze. And even in the lives of the three men above, their signature moments came in the context of much greater processes.
Tomlin desires for conversion to be seen as not just a momentary event, but also a lifelong reality: “Conversion can be thought of as encompassing both of these — the momentary transfer, as the letter of the Colossians puts it, from the ‘dominion of darkness’ to the ‘kingdom of the Son’, and the lifelong process of change.”
The problem is many churches equate lifelong process with involvement, and think that ongoing transformation, ongoing conversion, only happens inside the walls of church building.
I remember one guy who, after two months of steady involvement in our church, stopped coming around. His sudden departure seemed to discourage many people from sustaining their relationship with him. I decided to persist, though. I wasn’t interested in his attendance as much as I cared about him. I intended to be faithful accompaniment for his conversion journey, whether his path took him through the doors of our church or not. I need similar people for my journey, people willing to know me and be with me in my every day moments, where much of my spiritual formation occurs.
This is a small glimmer of God’s persistence and patience to find and care for us where we are, not where we “should” be: “Look! I stand at the door and knock. If you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in, and we will share a meal together as friends.”
Second, I’d ask them to reconsider gathering.
I think much disservice has been done to Hebrews 10:25. Many take the phrase, “Do not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing” and say, “See, you need to get your butt in the pews.”
We equate “meeting together” with “Sunday services.” But as I read this verse in context, I see something much deeper, much richer.
On the front end we find: And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds.
On the back end we find: But encouraging one another.
If all you do is show up for an hour-long church service, sing a couple songs, listen to a sermon and then leave, you can only go so deep. I don’t find services to be the primary place where my hurts or disappointments or doubts get spoken into or cared for.
These verses speak of something much more intimate and impactful. To consider how to spur someone on or encourage them means I know them and their present experiences well enough to know how best to do that. And to let others give the same in return means I’ll have to be vulnerable in opening myself up to others as much I let them open up with me.
I think of my dad who, several times during my childhood, came to me after he had yelled at me to admit he had been unjustly angry and to ask my forgiveness. He was admitting he was not perfect, and this, like my pastor’s simple sentence, helped me name something: It is with fellow broken, burdened, burnout people that I am meant to gather and experience what it’s like to be at home.