Lately I’ve found myself distressed at the trajectory (or lack thereof) of my church family. We’re young - and launched into pandemic church just 3 months after becoming our own individual church. We have underdeveloped rhythms and structure. In many ways, that leaves room to be creative, agile, responsive, and unique to the needs of the community and our church body. In many ways, that leaves room to be messy, human, incomplete, inconsistent, and stretched-thin.
Our leaders have carried heavy burdens to love one another and us as a community - across deep divides of difference, preference, circumstance, politics, geography, identity, and theology. I think we tend to view church and leaders through the “standard” U.S. church lens - which often looks more like a business. Strong leadership, clear direction, named mission/vision/values that we must perfectly align to, organizational structure with clear lines of communication, goals, objectives, stated and achieved purpose (at least, for independent churches - not speaking to mainline though I'm sure there's echoes). Honestly, very little room to be real, human, seen, known.
I was shocked to realize, yesterday, that in many churches the pastor doesn’t have capacity to personally know and relate to each of the members of their church. I forgot that wasn’t normal.
Our pastor, George Hopkins, is deeply humble. He calls himself “lead servant” of our church, and lives in that way. His leadership style is reflected in our whole church body. It’s not a top-down structure.
But when you have new & old members demanding answers, wanting to know the mission/vision/values/goals/objectives/achievements…accolades and reasons to be a part of this church body…it’s the business mindset. It’s the “I don’t want to be affiliated with an organization I don’t 100% (or at least 80%) agree with” mindset.
And after 2 years isolated, through major justice movements, focused time for individual reflection and reconsideration of values - that discernment and decision of where to invest our time, resources, and lives is even more refined.
My church is not unique in having shifting members and shifting faith. In many ways, it’s like The Great Resignation, but occurring in churches. Pulling out of systems and structures, organizations and workplaces that aren’t for our best. Finding new ones. But because there are literally less people because of the overwhelming number of Covid-related deaths in the past two years - the reshuffling, even when new people come, feels mostly like loss.
We have lost many people. We have lost many parts of ourselves, and our communities, we once found familiar. It’s easy to feel unseen, unheard, unknown.
So, why church?
After all this shuffle why would we bother to continue on with a church that doesn’t/may not align with our expectations? Or a church that may have deeply hurt us, left us hanging, or misunderstood us. Or a church that was silent when they should have spoken. Or spoken terribly. Or a church that accepted years of our time, resources, and life - only to ignore and disregard us when we longed to be engaged and heard.
The business of church is not church. The production of church is not church. The system of church is not church. Mechanism, tactics for emotional engagement, clearly outlined roles/goals/mission/vision/values, clearly achieved goals.
The church is a body of many parts (1 Cor. 12:12)
Each given unique gifts to build each other up (1 Cor. 14:12)
Full of people in need of help & healing (Mark 2:17)
Sent to share very Good News, that help and healing is possible (Lk. 9:2, Mk. 16:15, Matt. 5:13-16)
And embody that Truth, Love, Peace, Justice, Restoration, Hope in a challenging and upside-down world.
Some quotes from Dan Mohler (who’s preaching I looked up when I started getting distressed, again, about church - I remembered vaguely him yelling “you come here to get stirred up!” and looked him up, trying to answer “why church?”):
“You don’t church shop, you become a part of a family.”
“You’re not here to get a blessing, you're here to get stirred up for good works…to celebrate a truth. To stay focused on a truth.”
“That’s why we gather…a place where we sharpen...edify...encourage...remove deception...build up weak things...this is the football huddle before the break to play in the field.”
“but instead it becomes all about us, in His name.”
Church wasn’t meant to serve us. To conform to our perfectionist vision of what Jesus would look like and be like. We’re folks who’ve met Jesus. Who’ve been transformed for our greatest potential and purpose, hollowed-out of all our old ways of doing and being and re-filled with a powerful and loving Holy Spirit, impossibly loved and given grace by God, and impractically invited to work with God who is bringing about the Redemption and Restoration of all things.
Transformed to shine. Not to be so caught up in all these little finicky details and so wrecked by things gone wrong. Not to be silently judging others and unable to rebuke or reconcile or talk about hard things. Not to be disappointed and disillusioned and stuck shopping for a “perfect” church or family or community or workplace.
Fully aware of how fraught, frustrating, and unfulfilling the world is and yet living in it with the most unlikely jazz. Walking face-first into fires because Jesus didn’t redeem us to walk on eggshells.
Why don’t we live like that?
If you’re one of the Christians who has been sticking out this Great Shuffle. Who, despite all the mess and failings of churches somehow still gathers with fellow Christians. Why don’t we live like this?
If you’re one of the ex-Christians or uncertain folks who just needs a break from church/Christianity right now. I can understand why. I’ve talked with a some of you…I miss you but I also don’t begrudge your distance.
If you’re not a Christian/never been a Christian and are somehow still reading this - welcome to the mess, I guess? I’m curious why you’re here. Sorry if you ever heard church was perfect. That was absolutely a lie.
Jesus…transform us again. Your church. Your body. Many parts. And such a mess. I pray in the Shuffle You’d sift out the perfectionism and performance and pride from Your Church. Make room for the hurting, make room for the weak, make room for the unlikeliest. Change us again and make us freshly alive with Your Spirit burning bright inside us. Help us remember who we are. Amen.
This Tuesday our Growth Community (Bible study) read through and compared these prayers:
2 Thessalonians 1:3-12
The echoes that astonished us? No prayers about circumstances. Paul wasn’t focused on changing anything - but focused on changing the people he wrote to, praying in a way I'd probably be afraid was offensive. Praying specific things for them: To be deeply, constantly, increasingly transformed by love, knowledge, insight. Powerfully led by God who orchestrates all things. Following in His will and way. All for His glory.
Glory. The word for glory in Hebrew can mean both glory and weight. Jesus bears the weight, and Jesus gets the glory. It’s not US doing the things and becoming the best and manufacturing the perfect version of ourselves (or our church) but GOD bearing the weight of all our messiness, sinfulness, inability to grasp, see, hear, know, understand - and miraculously, graciously, comprehensively, changing us and transforming us every. single. day. to look just a little bit more like Jesus. To shine just a little bit more. In whatever messed-up context we’re in.
One other Dan Mohler quote I want to include here (because I'm tired of Christianity that's about avoiding hell):
Not a destination someday [that's only part of the Gospel/good news]. New life, now.
"I didn't get saved to go to heaven. I got saved so that I'd become what He paid for. So I'd live what He desires. So that I'd walk in the will of God. The last reason on earth that I got saved was to not go to hell."
If we've got churches full of folks running from hell rather than running the race set before them...we don't got churches. Only one way to change that. Follow Him. Run. "Follow Me, and you'll find those following me" (a response I got from Jesus when asking Him if anyone was really Christian anymore).