5 New Ways Of Seeing Church

I’ve heard plenty of stories of people who love their church or those who have a story of why they’ve left their church. It can be everything from “Our band is great” to “I wasn’t being fed.” I’d like to look underneath our likes and dislikes and suggest five characteristics we’re all searching for. Beyond personal preference or style these are the five qualities you and I long for in a church.

car-image-300x1981. Limbic Space. Have you ever taken a warm shower and suddenly had a new thought or idea? How about while you were performing a monotonous task like driving down a long stretch of road or gardening on a warm summer afternoon? These moments are known as limbic spaces where our mind is free to wander. They are the in-between places that give us enough stimuli to keep our brain active but enough comfort and rhythm to allow our mind to go somewhere new. They are generally the spaces for epiphanies and they are essential for spiritual growth.

When someone complains the worship band is too showy, this is what they’re getting at. With all the noise, stimuli, and distractions in our world, just think how rare these limbic moments really are. The church has a rare opportunity to offer something our souls truly crave. It could be the slow lighting of a candle or the moment you stand quiet while all others are singing. These moments satisfy the soul as we’re aware we are in a very profound and divine moment.

2. The Third Question. Laura and I have this habit during dinner where we ask each other, “Tell me three things that happened today and how you felt about it.” It’s one of the ways we intentionally connect. I usually handle the first two moments of my day easily but I often struggle with the third. My days aren’t that eventful, I guess. However, it’s that third question that provokes honesty. The first two could be about traffic or a meeting I had but it’s in that third question I often go somewhere unsafe like, “I noticed on Facebook a bunch of my friends got together and they didn’t invite me and that made me feel lonely.”

Most church services I’ve been to stick to the first and second question and rarely go somewhere honest and vulnerable. You’ll mostly hear success stories from up front and if it is a mistake the pastor is admitting, it’s in the very distant past. However, when a church dares to go to that third question by admitting their doubt, questions, struggles, sin, recent convictions, and hurts, things get very real. I believe we’re all searching for a faith that matters and makes a difference. These authentic moments express a faith that rings true and satisfies our souls.

3. Gentle Reminders. It’s nice to go to church and be around a bunch of other people trying to do the same thing you are. The fact is, I suck at being a Christian. There’s been some Sundays I stumble into church on the verge of quitting this Jesus following thing. It can be so encouraging to be reminded there are other’s trying to follow Jesus as well. It’s helpful to be reminded I’m not crazy. It’s better to give than receive. I’ll find my life if I lose it. Self sacrifice is a better way of living than vengeance and violence. Forgiving someone will free me. These concepts don’t come easy to me and every Sunday I am reminded it’s not easy for others either. When the pastor reads from the Bible and talks about God I hear words that ring true and gently remind me of a life I was made to live.

181qmcl6s82cbjpg4. Fight Or Flight. When we hear something we disagree with, there’s actually a chemical released in our brain that triggers the fight or flight mechanism. Conversely, when we hear something we agree with there is a chemical released that actually gives us pleasure. It’s scary to think how many go to church to get their weekly fix because of their addiction to being right. However, I’m beginning to realize a good church experience is one when I hear something that threatens my current world view or ideas. Every time I repel this fight or flight mechanism I’m actually choosing spiritual maturity and moving past my caveman instincts. (see, some of you six day creationists just had a chemical released. I couldn’t help it.) I’ve learned to beware of a church where everyone agrees with each other. God’s dream for Christians was unity, not uniformity.

5. A Chance To Respond. Remember the afternoon following 9/11? Our country was in shock. I remember everyone driving really slowly and politely. I also remember the restlessness. We all felt our soul shudder and the internal need to do something. Some of us bought bumper stickers or raised flags. Others donated money and even some got in the car and drove overnight to help. Regardless, to be human meant to respond.

I believe the same element is necessary in any church. If we’re to believe the God of the Universe has spoken and we leave and do nothing, than something has gone terrible wrong. An important element in any church is how are they challenging us to live differently. How will this hour I’ve spent on Sunday matter on Monday? What will  be my next step toward the self-sacrificial love of creation? When I leave restless and ready for a change in my life than I know it was an hour well spent.

A Word To The Pastor. Wouldn’t it be fun if this became a checklist for you after each Sunday? It could be less about attendance or the amount of money collected but specific spiritual goals that lead to transformation. I wonder if planning to meet these goals could create a dynamic team where everyone from the sound guy to the children’s volunteer to the pastor are integrally woven into the seeing transformation occur. Just a thought.

An Invitation To Be

An Invitation To Come

Call me a grinch, but I’m tired of all the church invitations lately. Whether it’s a full page glossy ad in the mail or a witty tag line on Facebook, they seem to be everywhere. Maybe it’s because I was part of that machine for so long. I remember how grueling it was to get the flier out on time. I recall pestering and manipulating people to volunteer. I can’t forget the pressure to come up with a strategy in order to get people to come back. I don’t miss incessantly comparing my church’s Christmas program with others.

The focus is entirely around coming to church. The metric is the number of butts in seats. The anxiety is around parking or the sermon or that special song at the end. It is an invitation to come (and hopefully come back).

An Invitation To Be

IMG_1976A few weeks ago, I caught a glimpse of something different. I posted an invitation on my neighborhood Facebook group. This group has been historically hostile toward any proselytizing, especially from evangelical Christians. My invitation was to join me on Search & Rescue through Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission. I go out one night a month with others to meet homeless people on the street. We go under overpasses, and walk through meth camps and offer up socks, blankets, hot cocoa, a listening ear, and prayer. King 5 recently did a segment on Search and Rescue if you’re interested. I know how cold it’s getting outside at night this time of year, and figured we could use all the help we could get.

The response was surprising.

I immediately received messages from people wanting to help. Over the next few days I counted a total of 35 responses from complete strangers. This is primarily a non-Christian neighborhood and the organization they would be serving with is overtly Christian. I did not receive a single negative response from my invitation and, in fact, it spurred a new thread of people sharing other ways they are serving those in need this winter.

My point is simple.
Generally speaking, people are not interested in coming to your church. I’m sorry Christian, but it’s true. No matter how big your band is or how great the sermon will be or how much you spent on that banner. They just don’t care.(1)

However, people are very interested in being the church. We want a life with purpose and meaning. Knit into our DNA is a desire to care for those in need. It’s the low hum of our creator inviting us to become who we were designed to be. We intrinsically know our skills and talents are not meant to only benefit ourselves. All of us feel a pull toward a life larger than ourselves.

Now, let me be clear. I love the local church, and in fact, I plan on attending one this Christmas eve. I am a member of a great church and serve there most Sundays. However, I think there is a real danger if that church is the entirety of what I invite my friends into. If my goal is to get you to attend a service I’ve vastly undersold the invitation of Jesus. He invited people to come and die(2) – and they accepted! He dared people to a self-sacrificial, reckless, and adventuresome life that was incredibly attractive. For most, their souls ran ahead of their minds as they couldn’t wait to accept a way of living that finally rang true. Jesus even called some out of the church and into a suffering world. So don’t be surprised this holiday season if your co-worker looks at you with a blank stare as you hand them a glossy flier. They’re waiting for something more.

Don’t invite people to come to church.
Invite people to be the church.

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. (2)

May you love extravagantly, give generously, and serve recklessly this holiday season. You’ll be surprised how people will respond. They may even invite themselves.

  1. Similarly, people are not interested if God exists. They are interested if God makes a difference.
  2. Matthew 16:24
  3. James 1:27

Love, and…

785px-Rembrandt_Harmensz_van_Rijn_-_Return_of_the_Prodigal_Son_-_Google_Art_ProjectFor much of my life, I saw Jesus and God like a good cop, bad cop. Sometimes I wondered if Jesus came to make God a Christian. “Calm down Dad, they’re not so bad.” I can almost hear Jesus saying. I think this is where I got the idea that love is merely part of God’s character. I’ve heard plenty of preachers say God is loving and just. As if these two ideas are mutually opposed to each other. Like God is some kind of cosmic Jekyll and Hyde and you better mind your manners because you’re never quite sure which one you’re going to get.

But this isn’t what the Bible says about God. It says God is love.(1) The Bible didn’t say God is loving like he could also be hungry. He can never, not be love. If God ceased to love, he would cease to be God. Sure, the Bible talks about God also being just, but that’s different from God being justice. The characteristic of justice, mercy, holiness, grace, and so much more fall under, and in submission to, love. God is just because He is love, not in spite of it. The Rembrandt painting pictured above is of the prodigal son. Some say the hands of the Father represent Mercy and Justice and the larger hand is Mercy. Maybe that’s true, but please notice, it’s the loving embrace of the father that holds all else together. God is love. This is what one author of the Bible was getting at when he wrote,

So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love. (2)

This is important to me because I don’t ever have to wait for the other shoe to drop. God is not love and… He is just love. And I can trust that kind of God.

I love you, but…

I think an “I love you, and…”view of God leads to an “I love you, but…”view of the world. We don’t get to close to our neighbor but merely tolerate them. We keep our co-worker at arm’s distance but instead, treat them like an evangelistic project. We try to act friendly but constantly worry others think we’re condoning their actions. We invite them to church but never accept an invitation to their party. We portray a love that is hollow, limited, and even patronizing. We treat love like a warm up to judgement and many see it coming a mile away. We love others, but…

Our role in this world is not to point out sin. The only thing Jesus pointed out was all the religion that got in the way of sinners. We’re not tasked to uphold God’s dignity. Jesus dared to be undignified and wash his friend’s feet. We don’t need to defend God from the world. Jesus freely gave up his life for the world. We must not be known for what we’re against but who we are for.

How we need to relearn those three simple words.
When we’re talking to a muslim neighbor.
When we’re listening to a gay co-worker.
When we’re walking by a homeless person.

God is more than
“I love you, and…”

You can be more than
“I love you, but…”

It is simply,
“I love you.”

 

1 John 4:8
2. 1 Corinthians 13:13
3. Colossians 1:15
4.I used to think God loved me but I should really get my act together or else. He was putting up with me for now. I can almost see him rolling his eyes and sighing with disgust after I messed up. His love became one out of obligation like a stepdad forced into a father role with an annoying child. However, this is not at all what I see in the person of Jesus which some say was the visible expression of the invisible God. He seemed to genuinely enjoy spending time with the worst of sinners. He spent most of his time with the outsider. He often made them the heroes in his stories and allowed them to interrupt him at any moment. I don’t think you get the reputation of being a friend of sinners by merely putting up with people. It was as if the dirtiest of sin being displayed in front of him wasn’t an offense or uncomfortable or a threat to his character because his love was greater. He lived the greatest love story ever told and when confronted with anything less than love, he had the quiet confidence to know how the story would end.