Those who stumble onto this blog hoping for answers will instead find lots of struggles and will probably leave with more questions than answers. My questions and struggles here reflect the process of my pursuing a graduate degree in Christian leadership. I find my Father allowing a good shaking that is going down to my roots.
Most recently I’ve been working on what seems to be a simple question, “What is the church?” I’ve been listening to the Psalms on my iPOD using The Bible Experience. I’ve been reading books about character, leadership, time management, integrity and marriage. I’m discovering my definitions are off. I’m discovering that my foundation has some pretty week stones that the Lord is gently crumbling and replacing. Some of those stones are represented in the language I have grown up with having spent my entire life in “church.”
I realize it may sound like symantics, but bear with me for a moment. Jesus never talked about church as a destination. He never talked about it as a place. Instead he talked about church as something we are. It’s a significant difference. It changes the way I think. I have spent thousands of hours in buildings that I have called “churches” over these last 45 years. Christians go to church, nonchristians don’t. That was my conclusion. People will know we are Christians by our attendance at church, right?
Scriptures that stressed loving one another were all interpreted through my church lens. If Jesus told us to love one another that meant we were to love each other at church. The commandment to love God was to be fleshed out at church first and foremost. Even the commandment to remember a Sabbath rest was a cloaked directive to go to church. In fact, it seems to me that most of us in the church have reshaped Jesus’ command to make disciples. Now it includes a general understanding that our greater goal to get them to come to church. “Lost sheep” now refers to people who have walked away from the church because to walk away from the church is to walk away from Jesus. Even the statistic that 90% of kids who grow up in the church walk away from it when they are in college betrays our bias. Are they walking away from Jesus or the institution?
Scripture teaches us that when we come to Christ we become part of the church regardless of whether we invest in an institution or not. The church is believers. The Lord is present in the church wherever believers happen to be.
Am I saying we should stop going to “church?” Yes. Instead the church (believers) should not give up gathering together to live life, share and discover the width and breadth of God’s love. If an organization is filling our lives with more and more demands, adding to our burdens and making us weighed down so much that it zaps our energy and makes it impossible for us to live in the peace and rest that Jesus promised, we need to do whatever we can to get free to pursue Jesus. If an institution is using guilt or manipulation to get us to serve it, we need to step away. If we are using an institution to build ourselves up and convince others how much we are worth and how important we are, we need to recognize prideful motives and step away.
As a pastor, how often have I berated the people who show up, because of the people who don’t? Do you know what I mean? I am guilty of spending time and effort in a bible study where the attendance was not large enough for me, sharply grilling those who came with, “Where is everybody?!?” I am guilty of attaching a higher level of significance and spiritual maturity to those who are “truly committed” enough to show up week after week. Maybe the truth was that some of those who stayed away were actually spiritually mature enough to recognize that their position in Christ did not hinge on getting to my study.
As a pastor, have I promoted the organism that feeds my needs, pays me and keeps me busy to a place where it is an idol? Do I serve the organization or Jesus? Do I equip people to operate as the church or do I promote a system that limits them and invites them into a codependant relationship? Do I work to convince them that they will fail away from our organization so that they will not leave? If they leave it will weaken our organization which needs their time and money to exist.
I want to do all I can to build the church, which is the people of God. I want the organizations I lead to free people and help them discover true community that exists outside the two hours we meet each Sunday. I want to provide a place where the church can gather, a place where the church can find resources and be refreshed. I want to provide a structure that is not much of a structure at all.
We have no sanctuary or holy of holies where God hangs out. Our building is not “God’s house” and is no more special than the storefront on the corner or the corner table at Panera’s.