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.
1. 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.
4. 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.