It had never happened to me before: Blairlee and kids heading over to church while I stayed home. That may not seem so out of place for some of you, but considering I’m the pastor of the church, believe me, I felt way out of place. Granted, recovering from surgery is an excellent excuse to take a Sunday off. And I had no worries, either. An awesome guest preacher and a well-abled group of laity lead things along just fine without me.
But I’m glad an oddball couple of couple hours on a Sunday morning didn’t go to waste. In fact, they opened up an opportunity I otherwise wouldn’t have had, especially if I was simply away on vacation. My friend Bill came over for a while. Before he came, Bill asked me, “Hey, you’re not going to drag me over to church are you?” I told him not to worry. After all, the pastor’s on medical leave.
I’ve known Bill for almost four years now. He’s in his 20’s, a maverick, extremely intelligent with an entrepreneurial streak, and a natural ability to affably connect with people of all kinds. I’ve always deeply enjoyed our conversations. His keen insights and quick mind never fail to keep me on my toes. And I think more than most any person, Bill has taught me well about the gifts and perils of today’s church.
Bill was raised Roman Catholic and after getting completely fed up with the church sometime in his teen years, he quit going and became fiercely agnostic. Then, when Bill was 17 or 18, a youth-young adult pastor from a local church befriended him, loved and accepted him, and over time led him to Christ. Bill’s passion, talents, keen mind, and people skills quickly led him into ministry opportunities. He became an effective youth and young adult leader, teacher, and mentor.
When I met Bill while working in my extension office (Starbucks), he was discipling well over a dozen guys in his house, guys who were either Christian, marginally Christian, or just curiously spiritual. Few of them had any kind of church affiliation, but they loved and trusted Bill. If there was anyone who could befriend and engage young guys like these and disciple them to follow Jesus, it was Bill. I always marveled that God was using this guy to reach and disciple people I’d never even have a slim shot of reaching.
But Bill’s keen insight and maverick streak never let him sit too comfortably in church. If there’s even a shadow of inauthenticity or insincerity, Bill will sniff it out, then resist it or leave it. In that way, he resembles most young adults in today’s post-Christendom culture. Turned off by self-perpetuating, non-Christlike attitudes and ways of the church and church people, they’ve either abandoned Christianity altogether or are being disciples of Jesus on their own, often in alternative modes like informal small groups or house churches (without calling it “church”).
As Sunday School and worship carried on as usual at my church, Bill and I sat together in my home talking about faith and church. He’s struggling right now, and I try as best as I can to be in the struggle with him.
On the one hand, Bill has discovered and still rigorously embraces the biblical message of Jesus Christ. He loves philosophy and the historic thinking and writing of great Christian thinkers, particularly in the Reformed tradition. Bill even believes in the Holy Spirit-ordained and created collection of Christ’s disciples called “the Church.”
Yet Bill is completely disgusted with just about all the current manifestations of congregational-style church and wider church culture (such as Christian marketing, retail/publishing/media industries, and a lot of parachurch organizations). To put it another way, he rejects the concept of an “organized religion” church most people think of: a church building, a structure of leadership headed by a pastor, and the kinds of values, goals, and approaches programmed into the DNA of most such congregations. This is true whether these congregations call themselves traditional or contemporary, old-style or modern, denominational or non-denominational, established or newly planted.
More often than he probably knows, when I think of my church’s ministries, aspirations, methods, and attitudes, Bill’s face and voice come to my mind. I ask myself, “How would Bill react to this? Would he dismiss it as just more-of-the-same churchiness or would he find something authentically Christ-centered?” Now let me say, I love my church, passionately so. I dearly love our people. Our church does a lot of incredibly valuable work that impacts and changes lives, both inside and outside its walls and membership rolls. Yet conversations with Bill continually remind me how far we have yet to go. That reality doesn’t discourage or embitter me so much as keeps my senses sharp and my heart tender to never forget the struggles and challenges of non-believers, young Christians turned off by church, or even my own pre-Christian, unchurched roots.
Following up with Sunday’s visit, I asked Bill to think of three things that would help churches be less churchy and more like Christ. Here’s what he said, raw and unedited:
1. Consistency/Authenticity/Empathy. No matter how hard Christians try to pretend they’re accepting and open, there’s always hot button issues that make Christians turn their nose up, as though they don’t have their own vices or doubts. In a coffee shop, over a private discussion, most Christians are a lot more down to earth. But on a Sunday morning, it’s like a brooding pool of self-righteousness. It’s not always the words that are used (e.g., We’re all sinners… etc.), but more the attitude. Christians need to understand that even their best attempts to be welcoming turn sour because the skeptic or the non-beleiver can feel right away that under the facade, the congregation looks down on their unbelief. Christians have to have empathy for the unbeliever, and remember that not believing is a reasonable position. It doesn’t make them stupid or delusional.
2. Substance. It’s very un-church like to deliver messages tackling, or at least attempting to tackle, challenging issues. But that’s what I want, that’s what my generation wants. Substance.
3. Showmanship. The whole process of church is a production. In the landscape of our culture, church almost always looks like a wonky, low-fi version of a preachy high-school play. How are people in attendance supposed to respond with honesty to something that looks, feels and sounds like entertainment. I’m talking about everything, from the size of the congregation and their seating arrangements, to the posture of the preacher, to the stage, to the lights, to the sound-system, down to the fact that people are seated in an audience, looking foreword at other people ‘leading’ something that is supposed to be for God, but to any objective eye looks more like a show. Why aren’t all these things out of sight? If ‘church’ is all about Jesus, then it should really, really be all about Jesus. Include only those things that support that end. And no, watching someone on stage ‘worship’ is not a viable excuse. It’s a crutch. (e.g., perhaps painting helps me worship, but where is the worship if I need to paint to do so?)
So, I stayed home, but I think Bill and I had Church together in a way I don’t often get to enjoy. It was brutally honest, painfully sincere, and truly all about Christ and one another. I can’t speak for Bill, but I certainly parted with him closer to God and encouraged. So, thank you, Bill, for bringing Church to me while opening my eyes a little wider to the pitfalls and potentials of being the Church of Jesus Christ in 2011.