There is something that is always off about church to me. I don’t mean to put down congregations and good people who make some of them up, but there is something at either my core or at the core of our church life that leaves me unsatisfied with the shape congregational life takes. It’s not inherently bad, but it’s was never a place I could bring my old coffee shop friends, the ones that smoke and listened to punk music, the ones that think Jesus was an enlightened one like the Buddha, the ones who throw really good parties.
My disappointment with church isn’t just that I can’t bring all my”unclean” friends to some Sunday event. I believe Jesus, and long for community, yet I am the one that feels continually out-of-place in a church, so I am disappointed.
Right after highschool, I jumped into the world of “volunteer church work”. I believed that I could find the community my soul longed for if I helped create it for others in the church. I wasn’t satisfied with the standard idea of church and congregation life. That normative thinking was what left me feeling out-of-place; the standard way of doing church was what made me feel I couldn’t bring the coffee shop crew into those doors.
When I taught the youth group, I tried to make experience for people to remember, hoping to jar some young impressionable should out of the expectations of church life. I wanted something real, something that would shake up our assumptions of who Jesus is and what it meant to follow him. When I took over the music for the youth group, I scoured the fringes of Christian music to find worship songs that weren’t variations of the over played three chords that seemed to make up every song sheet in the church. I wanted music that mattered to the heart as well as to our theology. It wasn’t enough to have kids get together for games and social time in a church building. Faith matters; I needed people to begin to feel that the way I felt it in my ribs. I figured if we changed the shape of what we did enough, then the kids in the margins, the kids that I felt drawn to, the kids that needed unconditional acceptance – I figured with enough Church change they could find a place.
I couldn’t shake it enough; I was still disappointed with Church, still out-of-place in its halls.
Eventually, (mostly due to my own personal failures – a story for another time) I “graduated” from the youth group. I inherited a newly forming young adult/college age group, and began being more involved with the discipleship programs in the congregation. I took my dissatisfaction of the shape and form of church with me. I refused to spend Sunday mornings talking about kissing dating goodbye, how to prepare for a good husband/wife, or any of the other shit that I pandered in the local Christian bookstore. None of this really got to the core of believing Jesus. These topics were fluff. I wanted the church to talk about the meat and bones and blood and guts of what it meant to have faith. If changing the shape, sound, and sight of Church wasn’t the answer, maybe changing our curriculum was.
Just after the turn of the century, I spent many hours in the pastors rectangular office: white walls, flat, brownish red carpet, and one single window that faced east, toward the mountains of northern Utah. Books shelves lined three of the walls. The pastor sat on the other side of his rich, deep brown desk. His name was Ross, and he remains the closest thing I’ve ever had to a mentor. He was the one that talked with me about my theology questions, about how to lead a small group better, about how to correctly interpret a passage of scripture. We spent many hours hashing out my ever-growing unrest with our church forms and functions. We both began dreaming what it meant to do thing differently, to connect with people who would never come to our current form of church. Ross was the one that pushed me to lean into my teaching and speaking gifts. He urged me to dream big, and to start figuring out the steps that would help us all get from where we were to the Jesus dreams I was discovering in my soul. Ultimately this man did more to empower me as a rebellious church theologian than I think either of us understood or envisioned at the time.
So, we talked about what it meant to follow Jesus, what it meant to actually live as a Jesus disciple, and how we could serve others. We talked about topics that should matter to all Christians, not just the young adult age bracket. I couldn’t shake the feeling that the Bible was telling us there was more to a Christian life than being a good person and trying to inviting people to Church on Sundays. The thought that Church could be different consumed me. I knew than this thing we all assumed it was when we gathered every Sunday and Wednesday night was not some holy shrine. I desperately wanted Church to be the place I could bring my friends from the fringes: the people who lived together, the gay coffee slingers, the chain-smoking humanists, the perma-fried musicians, and the foul-mouthed riot girls. I needed Church to change so these people I knew, cared about, and spent most of my weekdays with would have a place to dip their toes in a community that was on the Jesus way.
The change never happened. The Church never embraced the fringes; they always remained “out there”. I remained feeling out-of-place; I remained disappointed.
Ross asked me a question one Tuesday.
“If you could make a church how ever you wanted, what would it look like?”
This question started me on a haunting journey, one that I am still on. As I sat with this challenge, I quickly realized that the forms I was hell-bent on shaking and all the new teaching I was introducing was flawed at it’s very core. I began to understand that what was keeping my coffee shop friends out of the church doors wasn’t about the shape we the church took or the language and topics we spoke about; the fact that we demanded they come was the problem.
We had decided that our goal was to bring people to our congregational life, inviting them to come and see. We assumed the privilege of being an influential place simply because we were the church. Our assumptions of power, authority, privilege, and even hospitality were all skewed and made no sense outside of the sub-culture we have created to be comfortable in. Why would anyone come to a church if they didn’t buy into our claims of authority and privilege?
This reality is also the root of my dissatisfaction. Our decisions to perpetuate an idea that people should come to us baffles me when I look at Jesus. He was sent from heaven to live in the neighborhoods we call home. He didn’t open his doors and invite us in. He blew down the walls of assumption and then bought a house in the middle of our street. Jesus was, and is, and ever will be the god who was sent, the god who came close to us.
So why are we still trying to make our church places inviting and attractive to the people we want to introduce to Jesus; why aren’t we moving our congregational life, our church into their bars, their coffee shops, their smoke shacks? Why aren’t we going like Jesus did?
Ten plus years after Ross asked me that question, I have a much more articulate answer, but I still don’t have the final answer. I don’t even know that there is one. What I do know is that my disappointment with the church, this feeling of unrest that sits on top of my lungs, this hunger has been part of a strong tide that has driven me to the margins of the church. I am no longer ok with trying to make our Sundays better, more edgy, more authentic. I am no longer accepting of theology that either drives us into refuge from the evil world out to get us or lets go of all sense of defined hope so that we can “love” and do good actions.
There is no quick answer, no set of principles that can be manipulated to fit every”missionary field”. All that we have is an ongoing human life, one that is messy and unpredictable and full of triumph and tragedy; a human life just like the one that is given to every person around us. We don’t get to claim privilege or authority. We do get to talk about the hope we have. However, if we keep the hope, the gospel, the good news about Jesus mostly locked up in our Sunday service and weekly home bible studies, we are nothing more than an institution, a social club, an out of touch, back water, spiritually and mentally inbred conclave. Institutions like that do more harm than good. Institutions like that will either bully outsiders or slowly lose their identity because they can’t remember why they are bound together.
We need to question why we keep beating the dead horse of change without ever finding different results. We need to ask where our good, earthy, human bread theologians have gone. We need to challenge the privilege and resulting injustice that has become almost normative in a christian church. We need to ask what it means to go, to be sent just like Jesus. After all, isn’t he our head, our namesake, our god?
I am still disappointed with church; I’m ready to ask some better questions.
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This post is the beginning of my interactions with the book Prodigal Christianity by David E. Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw. They opened up their book by talking about some of their history in coming to a place of needing a way through and beyond the neo-reformed Emergent/liberal tensions. I do hope you will pick up the book and throw your thoughts into the ring as we keep talking about being a believing community that is sent, just like Jesus.