Sunday, September 21, 2008

Tangible & Intangible

I think that Christianity is a lot like love. Love is an abstract concept, but it doesn't mean much without the tangible practice. I don't think that means you have to go to church to practice Christianity, but I also think that going to church can really help.

I know it sounds like I'm contradicting myself. The trouble for me is not whether or not going to a church building is good or right.I think it certainly can be. The trouble is more that it seems very difficult these days to find a church that is about those things that are central to the Christian faith - service, community, love... Church is supposed to be the people, the body of Christ. If the people in a church building keep that focus, they are BEing the church. If they don't, I don't think being in a church building makes them the church.

Candles, incense, liturgy, ritual *can* help keep us focused, but they can also become the focus. Eucharist is supposed to point us to Jesus. Eucharist itself is not the focus. Jesus is the focus.

In the same way, lots of churches right now seem to be getting hung up on the finer points of theology, rather than building community and breaking bread together. I don't think it was this way when I was a kid, but I definitely think there's something going on in Western church as a whole right now. We've traveled all over and visited lots of churches. I don't think it's that we're so very picky. We're just having trouble finding something so basic and life-giving as a community of faith struggling to live the Christian life together in love and joy, walking together in a way that draws other to them.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Personality & Ritual

Wow! 4 posts in 2 days! I was going to reply to Heather but decided it might get a little long, and I want to keep talking about this.

I have to say that I totally think people choose churches according to their personalities/experience/family dynamics. We (people) choose a church that fits us in somewhat the same way we choose a marriage partner...someone with quirks we can put up with and a communication style that matches ours (though it can get pretty muddled up sometimes). People who are less demonstrative, for example, are way less likely to choose a Pentacostal church. People who are introverted and more reserved by nature may be drawn to quiter traditions, Catholic, Lutheran, etc... And I think how we feel about the church building also has something to do with who we are as individuals, how our personalities function, and our current worldview. When I was studying family therapy we used to talk about how we also tend to choose our denomination based on our family's flavor of dysfunction. Isn't that encouraging?

I can't tell you how difficult it is for me to deal with all that I just said above. I know it's so true, and, to a certain extent, I think it's ok. We come to God however we are, and we seek out a niche where we fit. God loves us in whichever niche we choose. But then there's this other part of me that wants to see a more unified body of Christ. AND there's a huge part of me that wants to say, "No! I'm not choosing this because of me. I'm choosing this because it's right." It isn't just that I want to be right, though I don't mind that either. It's that I don't want to be choosing out of my brokenness or dysfunction.

I *think* maybe this is related to what Heather was talking about when she first posted on the subject. She wanted to know if all people sit in church with prickles running up & down their spine or if it was just her own stuff getting in the way. I worry about that all the time, too. I don't want to be choosing not to attend the building just because I've been burned in church or because I'm too worried or judgmental or self-righteous or whiney. I want to choose whatever I choose for the "right" reasons. Which is maybe why this is such a huge topic here all of the sudden. We're talking it out, trying to figure out what's right.

Ok, the other thing I wanted to respond to is the importance of weekly/daily ritual, as Heather also mentioned. This is the one thing that draws me back to a church building, the one thing that keeps me second-guessing where we're at right now. Sure, we have family rituals, but the ritual of going to church can be so valuable. It's so tangible. Maybe this is why I miss going to church most for the sake of my children. Spirituality/Christianity is so abstract. The church building is SO concrete. It's so tangible and visable. I have to confess that, although I grew up in a Pentacostal tradition, I have always been drawn to incense & stained glass, memorized prayers and making the sign of the cross. I think it is innately human to desire the physical and tangible rituals to connect us with the things we cannot see. It helps up to move Christianity from our head and hearts into our bodies, our flesh and bones.

So, at this time we've chosen to live intentionally outside the walls of the church. We're hoping to create more ritual, community and connection outside the building. It isn't easy to be in either position right now, though - either inside our outside the church building. Both places have challenges. I can't help but feel that there's a stirring going on right now of God's people. We are getting restless and ready to change. Nothing sits well or easily. As I've said before over at The Midnight Cafe, you always know that if you're a little (or a lot) uneasy and you feel like you're living on the edge of a cliff, you're probably exactly where God wants you to be. You have to hang in there & follow God's lead. Life on a Cliff

Thursday, September 18, 2008

I Don't Know (Miles chose that title and I think it's perfect)

The term Church definitely means different things to different people. Some people read the Bible to mean that we are called to attend church (the building). Some may interpret Scripture to mean that Church is simply the body of Christ in communion, fellowship, and service to one another wherever that might be.

I don't know that we can find a "right" answer to which Church term is "correct." (But please give me scripture if you know of it, backing one side or the other.) I don't know that there is sound biblical evidence that I'm to attend a church building each Sunday in order to be doing this Christianity thing "right."

After reading the post from Midnight Cafe, I thought of how their family home schools. They do not have their daughter enrolled in classes at a school building with paid teachers and staff. But they do have school on a daily basis. They are doing school. Whether or not it's as organized as it is at a private or public school building, it is still school. It is learning, challenge, growth, stretching, reading, writing, interpreting, investigating, hypothesizing. If done in such a way that meets the individual needs of Mango, it serves it's purpose. Possibly even more fully than she could be served within the actual walls of an actual school.

Now I realize that this isn't necessarily the perfect analogy. But bear with me. What I'm getting at is individuality. We're all made in the image of God, but we're all unique too. Some were made to be teachers, some learners, some seekers, some thinkers, some talkers, some doers, whatever it may be. I'm starting to wonder how much of our individual make-up decides for us how we define Church. Just as some families need a structured school environment to be able to learn effectively and others thrive in a school setting right at home.

Maybe some people need church (the building) every Sunday and some do not.

Maybe some people have a personality that allows them the ability to focus on God and "do" Church on a daily basis, fellowshipping with family and friends, talking about God, teaching one another and serving each other with all the love they can muster. These people may even be blessed with an immediate family that is all fired up for the things of God, just constantly exuding His goodness, all parts of the family working together as "hands and feet." I've heard of this and seen it with my own two eyes. It is rare and beautiful and it makes sense to me that the desire for an organized church setting would be so little in the face of such spiritual abundance (Church) at home or in your immediate surroundings. This can happen with an individual too, who lives focused on the heart of God and seeking Church in all their relationships and experiences. Some people are blessed with the ability to see things spiritually without weekly reminders at a church building.

Then there are others that need Church (the building) in order to stay focused and to feel connected to the body. To find ways to serve. To be reminded on a weekly basis what life is all about. Maybe these people don't have a lot of natural spiritual support and flounder without this weekly connection to the family they have in Christ. Maybe some people need church or they totally lose sight of what they're here for, they can't focus, they struggle. They need a concrete sense of accountability and maybe even a concrete sense of boundaries, a reminder of God's love restricting some of what we do so we don't hurt ourselves or others as much as we would without these concrete reminders. And for these people, a large part of Church (the building) is the community, as Riley commented on. Some people have no other real sense of community, or have a very isolative existence, so they need weekly community gathering in order to fulfill the call to be in service to one another. I think this is the majority of people today because we do live such individual lives. Most people don't live in any kind of community setting and may even have limited friendships.

You get the idea.

The problem for many people in either of the shoes described above, is that finding real community in Church (the building) is definitely hard. It's sad. That has been said by each person giving input here. It's hard to find. And that's hard to swallow. I wonder what God thinks about that? What does He think of the Church today, the Church His people have created with good intentions (and some not-so-good). I wonder what He thinks about how difficult it is to find a "home" among "His people." For those that do need this structured routine, this place to feel safe, this place to call home, it is rarely what we're looking for. Or for those who simply love it, like Sabrina: the music, the teaching, the encouragement, it's even hard to feel comfortable when you're coming at it with this good attitude.

I guess the question is individual. What is God speaking to me personally? What do I need? What does my family need? I will be honest here and say that we need church (the building) in my particular family. We need a concrete focus. We're a household of ADD folk with little patience and easy-to-flounder personalities. That's us. If we don't have concrete set-apart time for learning and spiritual community we tend to watch too much TV and spend too much time on the internet, rather than talk about what really matters, pray together or spend time serving others in our community. Our hearts are in the right place, we just have a tendency to get distracted quite easily. I think the weekly ritual of church helps center us on what we believe and reminds us of who we want to be. Some people have all of that without having to attend a weekly meeting to find it. And I think that's okay too. I'm a bit jealous actually. I really wish I were more focused and self-disciplined if left to my own choices for learning and growing.

I don't think either choice is wrong? Is that way off base? Maybe I'll never know in this life.

Just more fuel to the conversation fire.

And my thoughts too...

I guess this is a hot button topic... Have we had one of these yet? I guess since I am a contributor I would like to contribute. I share the same sentiments as Heather and Midnight Cafe. I do not have a church. It's not that I don't like going, I am one of those strange people who enjoys it. But I never feel "at home". Should you have a building to feel at home? Sometimes I feel more at home sitting on a friend's couch fellowshipping then i do in a pew? I often feel more connected with people when I'm making a meal for them then when I'm half-heartedly making small talk and shaking their hands on a Sunday morning. I have no answers. There is no right or wrong.
The early church was not just one service one morning a week, it was everyday living.
Loving, giving, worshipping, serving can happen anywhere at anytime and that is more important to me then a service once a week.
Truthfully, I am made to feel guilty by others who say I'm not Christian enough if i don't go to church every week. Should=Shame. I don't want to go to church out of shame or guilt. I want my heart to be in it, but I want my heart to be in it everyday with everyone that is around me.
Love joy peace patience kindness gentleness faithfulness self control.

Coming out of the closet...

About church.

I was talking with Heather of the EO the other day and realized that I'd never really come out and said where I'm at with regard to church. I guess it isn't something I advertise, though I'm putting it out there now as just a piece of information.

The short story is that we don't go to church. We've been to a lot of churches, regularly attended a few, and finally decided that this is not what the church is called to be. We believe that we ARE the church, that the church was intended to be the body of believers who are called to live and work together, loving each other in a way that calls others irresistably to Christ. Last I checked that isn't what happens in most church buildings...on Sunday or any day. I believe in church as the community of believers, not the church building. So, we don't go to in, we don't attend a service or a building, which calls itself church. I actually don't believe that one can go to or attend church because church is supposed to be who we are not where we go. But anyway, we don't go. Have I said that enough times now?

The truth is that I can listen to great music, sing, and hear a sermon all at home, on TV or over the radio. There isn't time when we go to church to actually BE the church. No actual, real live fellowship happens in most churches on Sunday morning as near as I can tell. Small talk? Sure. Real friendship, sharing, discussing, exhorting? Not so much. Where real fellowship (or church) tends to happen for me is in my small Bible Study group, in coffee shops, in my living room, around the kitchen table... Corporate teaching and worship may have its place, but I don't think it was intended to be the bread and meat of the Christian life.

We are called to BE the church, and the church is not a building.

This is not to say that I don't feel guilty about not GOing. It's pretty tough to grow up going to church and feel like it's ok to NOT go, especially if you still call yourself a Christian. My neighbor called the other day to offer to take Mane to Sunday School. Ouch. She's of the firm belief that we should be GOing to the building, and we aren't doing the right thing for our children if we're not.

We DO teach our children about God. We read the Bible and pray together. We talk about living our lives in service to God. It's part of fabric of our lives and our conversation with each other.

So, that's the beginning of those thoughts. There's a lot more to say and a lot more I'm thinking through, but this seems like a good stopping place for now.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Some "Finding a Church" Wisdom

After my last post on feeling uncomfortable (again) in church, I received an email response that I couldn't help but want to share here. This email was exactly what I needed for reasons I won't explain in this post. I'll let you make your own conclusions as you read this well-articulated, non-judgmental view on the importance of church, and what issues need our consideration before making a decision of where to attend. I've highlighted a few things that really got me thinking, and I'd love to hear what you think. Give it a read, it's worth your time:
We got your email and I read the post. Yes, first, it is sad--regardless of whatever reasons, or whoever's "fault", it is sad when we can't feel at home in a church. So I hear you there. I obviously didn't hear the pastor, but some of what I "do" with that thinking, whether or not he intended it, is:
I distinguish between attending church as a legalism that we "must" do to be Christian, and attending because I do think it is the biblical way. It seems Jesus continued to go to "church" pretty much through out his life, especially early on. He went to Synagogue, listened to the teachers, even did some teaching--I think Jesus was first and foremost a Jew, not creating something over-against Judaism--his life and ministry was grounded in the church and Torah. Eventually he didn't have a "place to lay his head", but that doesn't mean he didn't want to (I think).

It sounds like the pastor's message sounds condemning or exclusionary. To that extent, it is not gospel, and should make you feel uneasy. If I want to listen to the sentiments though (from a distance), I've changed my way of thinking about the church to more of what he's getting at (without the overstatement and condemnation:) For a long time I was primarily wounded and sad about church, that I couldn't find one that I felt really accepted in, and to a lesser extent, that I basically agreed with the theology/worldview. I always had an ideal that our family life and my ministry would be rooted in a church home, but it just wasn't happening--it was very sad, and isolating, and I was very cynical/sarcastic (which exacerbated the "not being accepted" part....I was probably a hard guy to accept). So, what changed for us/me, was partly my own work which included clarifying my actual beliefs and passion (vs. what I thought I should believe), and some soul-searching on how I wasn't as able as I liked to say, to open myself up to real friendships. In other words, I mostly blamed others for not accepting me, but as I got honest, I realized 1) I didn't accept myself that much, 2) Being on the "fringes" was more comfortable for me than I thought, 3) I was not accepting others about as much as I blamed them for not accepting me. It was a humbling, and freeing time.
Those were the first steps. The fact remained though, that even if I did alot of my own "work" to open up and let go of some of my resentment and "righteousness", there are still many churches/denominations I just couldn't be a part of any longer. I realized leaving the AG wouldn't just be for my sake, but for their sake too--It was healing and liberating when I let go of the AG, not in reaction/judgment, but in getting realistic about the differences, and how they were genuine (no one's fault....and insurmountable), I was able to claim the gifts I got from my AG heritage, and maybe most importantly, thank them, and bless them to continue in God's work the way they felt called to (even though it wasn't my call). This is where I "might"? agree with the pastor: I really do believe that the Christian life is not primarily an individual thing, or even family thing, but that is grounded in the church, in fact a particular church--I mean this as a positive not legalism. Placing my "story" in the context of a church, and the heritage of that church and the global church, has broadened my faith to something beyond just me, just my "decision". It is a gift from God, found in the "story" of the church--it is grown and even safeguarded by the church. This is pretty Lutheran thinking, but it's pretty much where I'm at. It has melted my heart to think I'm not alone, it's not up to me to "do" my faith under my own power, but to be held up in grace through the history of the church--in some real sense I am a Christian because I commune with the church (not legalistically:), but the church as a gift, as a "people growing place" where I can be flawed and screwed up and scared and lazy on a personal level, but still be wrapped up in the grace found in the body until I am able to grow, from that grace, to the "next" place I can become.
So, 1) I did/am doing a lot of personal work, 2) That wasn't the end of the story, I had to find a "good enough" fit (never ever perfect) where I could be myself and have "enough" people be genuinely interested in me, and me in them, to be able to talk openly, and feel accepted "enough" to grow and face each other, self, and God. I'm not a flame'n liberal, but frankly, I could no longer be a part of the AG or most baptist, E-Free, type churches. There are significant differences--the easiest theological distinction to raise is whether a church ultimately sees the world as "us" (saved) and "them" (unsaved), or not. Of course there's something to this, but does the church have this distinction as the primary piece of their identity and mission? Arguably all/most AG/Baptist/Efree churches do think this I think--they try to be "nice" about it, and "caring" for the unbeliever (in there assessment), but the fact remains, there is a pervasive and enduring "culture/worldview" of judgment, unavoidably built into the fabric of the church. When this is it at the heart of identity, it naturally gets applied within the walls of the church too!
So, I don't know where you're at, but if you are "somewhat liberal" like you say (I know I am), it might be time to do some soul-searching, grieving, and decision-making??? I'm admittedly biased here--I think theology/worldview/culture of churches are extremely important. Not because of "right" and "wrong" but because it has real, felt, effect on our spiritual health and livelihood--I could care less about alot of theological topics in the church, if the underlying ethos is humility first, followed by openness and genuine interest in each other, and those outside who are different--assuming first that God is working in the lives of all even if they differ from us--maybe we could be just as off base as they are--that's the most important part for me--when that's the primary culture, the rest can be "worked out" with freedom and trust.
There are alot of us struggling evangelicals out there, I feel your pain, and really wish the best for you and your family!!

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Where Two or More are Gathered, Communion, and Church

I think I might be either overly rebellious (entirely possible) or overly sensitive (totally possible) or both (pretty sure that's it).

Because when I sit in many of the churches we've been to, at least once during the sermon, I wince. Or my heart starts to race. Or I start looking around wondering if anyone else is shocked and notice no one seems to have felt a thing.

I'm frustrated. Mostly with myself. I don't expect a church to cater completely to the needs of my family. It's just that so many times, like I've said before, I come away feeling as if I don't fit in. Then I wonder why no one else seems uncomfortable, and figure it could just be my rebellious, cynical nature. Maybe I just don't like hearing certain things. Maybe they don't sit right with me because I don't want to have to change. Maybe the double-edged sword is a bit too much for me to handle in my immaturity sometimes. Maybe I hear things through my somewhat liberal ears, twisting what the person is saying so I can be offended and say, "I told you so, another judgmental closed-minded sermon."

Other times I think there's no way around it. Something is said that seems so far off, I never want to come back again. But I don't want my family to switch churches every six months when we're hopeful we've found a church home, then suddenly surprised by the misrepresentation of the word of God. I don't want to find out that things I hold dear are not being lived out. I don't want to feel as if there is no way the Holy Spirit is a part of the services, classes and other gatherings. I'm frustrated.

Today the pastor spoke on communion and the doctrinal beliefs behind it. All was well and good until he got a bit fired up and said some things that didn't sit well with me. I tried to check myself, asking myself not to judge him. I tried to understand where he's coming from, what he could mean. The sermon took a turn when the pastor started to talk about a poll that was done asking baby boomers if they're attending members of a church community. Many of the boomers answered that they would call themselves Christians, but they did not attend church each Sunday and were not members of any certain church.

I understand that the body of Christ is a vital aspect to faith. We hold each other up, we teach one another, and we even keep each other in line a bit, wanting to see one another living the fullest of lives possible. I agree with that.

But then the pastor started to talk about how "absurd" it would be to call yourself a Christian and not go to church.

He talked about the act of taking communion, and it's mysterious power when we do it together. True. That's cool. But then he said that if you were to take communion at home, with no one else there, "Jesus will not show up." He used the "where two or more are gathered" verse and basically said if there are less than two, God will not be there. He was specifically talking about communion.

I'm still chewing on this, so forgive me for rambling and thinking out loud a bit.

Then he also said that what you do in the world as an individual Christian is basically useless. It has to be done as a part of a church body (he was meaning a body that meets on Sundays, not the body). He said that handing out tracts on a corner by yourself does nothing for the people that read them (I'm not a fan of this method either, but I wouldn't be surprised if God has spoken love to someone at some point even through tracts.) He then moved on to say that loving people on your own, not representing a church, does nothing for the person you are loving. Because in the end it doesn't last. The person would not be witnessing Christ because they could just go and find the next person to love them, someone that may not even be a Christian and they'd find the same thing there. Basically saying that if your love cannot be traced back to a church or ministry, it is separate from Christianity.

I'm pretty sure that I think this is way off. Maybe I'm missing something. Yes, the church can definitely be effective in the world for those reasons, but first of all, how often is it effective in our world today? And what did Christ mean by "the Church?" And I sure hope that God still shows up when I'm not a part of a church community, because I can't seem to find one.

Mostly I'm just sad. Sad that we just can't find a home. A church where our kids can love other kids and learn about God. A place that doesn't sneak up and hit us over the head with stuff we just can't swallow. I was hopeful and now I'm disappointed again. Maybe it's wrong to not go back and give more chances. But to be honest, we had already heard a few things that didn't sit well with us, and we kept coming back because we were hopeful about the lovely congregation and children's programs.

But we don't want our kids to hear these kinds of messages either. I'm so frustrated.
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