I remember walking into a historic movie theater decked out in slogans and boot prints with smiling faces passing out bulletins. It made quite the first impression! I would greet people along the way, but the service was about to begin and my attention was being redirected to the stage. Young guys in skinny jeans and side-wedge haircuts played their instruments like rock stars as a young lady followed up on keyboards giving praise to God with familiar songs I hear every week. Then we prayed, passed around a bucket for tithes and offerings, shook peoples' hands for 30 seconds and were finally fed the word—the message was "We need your seat.” It actually seemed fitting, going well with the motto “We exist for those not yet here.” Over the pastor's four points, it was driven home that we could not be spectators and that other people who have not come to know Jesus are out there and we need to make room for them. Now, from what I could see in the room, there were still plenty of seats available. The context didn’t seem to line up with what we were hearing, yet the mantra and the formula remained the same.
A “Wow” experience—a brand—doesn't facilitate genuine relationships. It doesn’t build a family. But these entertain-me “get pumped” rallies seem to be what many churches are focused on these days. We might spend all of 10 minutes connecting with each other but that isn’t the point. There’s a major production to put on so people will be inspired toward involvement in a process that gets more people to come in and do the same—over and over again.
God loves His church with a passion. So much so that it was His plan to send His one and only son to die and be raised again to entrust it with His promise, power and message—mankind has been reconciled back to Him. The word church in Greek is "Ekklecia" meaning "the called out ones." Paul refers to the church as "the Body of Christ" (1 Corinthians 12:12-14). Even the "bride of Christ." (Ephesians 5:25-27) We are betrothed to the Almighty. So when I approach the topic of “The Church" I don't want you to think I take it lightly. (Possessing an understanding of this “body” and bride” makes that impossible.)
A Hard-knock Bride
The Church (Universal) has survived many ups and downs to become what it is today. It survived Roman persecution to become Rome's state religion. It survived the fracturing of the Roman Catholics and Greek Orthodox. It survived the Dark Ages, the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Reformation, the Protestant-Catholic wars, the Enlightenment, the scientific age, post-modernism, etc. (We've been through a lot!) What we see today as the universal church is the net result of its faithfulness to God, in midst of making many mistakes along the way, while taking a pounding from the world, the evil one and even our own. Yet, the message of Jesus and the hope that He brings remain the same. Details and traditions may vary, but the message has still been preached. Whether liturgical or free flowing, the word of God goes forth and souls are still being found. This I applaud at every level, so I want to tread carefully in what I say.
The church described in my opening experience represents a certain brand of Evangelicalism that I've been a part of for 17 years. The format is predictable. The songs have been memorized and are packed full of encouraging folk theology. The sermons are forgettable, but seem to momentarily help us connect with Godly thoughts and ideas from scripture while promoting the brand...and Jesus, of course. The connections made with people usually aren't lasting unless you build your relationships with them outside the four walls of the church (growth groups or events) or you are a part of the "elite" inner circle behind the scenes that is making the production possible from week to week. It's a well-oiled machine—the program scheduled down to the second, leaving little room for any unpredictable move of the Spirit. In language, people are valued for who they are. In practice, people are valued for what they do or give.
Certainly this is not every church. I know there are people who do care and are in tune with God in a vibrant way. I don’t want to throw the “baby" out with the "bath water" here. Far from it! I just know far too many people who have come and gone in these kind of church environments without ever being noticed—without ever being changed—without ever feeling like they really mattered. They sure did experience the big production but they could take it or leave it. "We need your seat!” they heard. "You can have it." they replied.
When I read the book of Acts, I see something vastly different than what I've experienced in the Evangelical church. (Many have told me that the New Testament example is unattainable and out-of-touch with our current reality, but I don't buy it.) In Acts 2:41-47, we see a church that is alive in spirit—living and believing together—sharing all things in common. They sold their possessions so they could give to those in need. They broke bread and shared their lives with one another with a singleness of heart—hope had come and the world needed to know it! Such a group sounds more like a hippie commune than what we're used to getting on Sunday mornings. It's organic, not institutional. My heart longed for a place like this—a community where each person is valued and all unite in their passion to glorify God. I longed for something like family—where relationships come before obligations and sincerity in purpose isn't relegated to a volunteer job role. I wanted to see "church" be THE CHURCH!
Finding My Place
I have found a place that looks a bit more like this. It's renewed my thinking in terms of what church can be. Relationship with God and others can come first. A meal together can be more valuable than a three point sermon based on the hottest Christian self-help book. Worship can be intimate without an agenda of providing entertainment and all can share their gifts freely. The vision to expand doesn't involve buildings, parking lots and all the amenities we've come to expect on Sunday mornings. It’s centered on familial environments—actual homes where people are welcomed and get to know each other, love each other, and love God. To have found such a place is refreshing. I pray it never changes, because I'm seeing a glimmer of hope for what the church was intended to be and what we all could become in the future.
Bless your church! Have mercy on us! Help us to grow and learn what it means to fully rely on you! Empower us! Embolden us!
Teach us of your loving kindness. Help us to love one another so we may share this love with a world that is so in need of it. May You be exalted in Your church as You are in Heaven.
Thank you for your Son, and our Lord Jesus, and the great call You have placed on our lives through his finished work. We want to "win for the lamb the reward of his sufferings.”
Thank You for the Holy Spirit, our comforter and guide. Thank You for preserving your word through scripture so we might grow in our understanding of what it means to follow you.
Thank you for our brothers and sisters in faith for the blessings we are to one another. Give us a vision worthy of You that we may carry it out on earth in obedience to You.
We love you Father. We need you. Amen.
ABOUT THE GUEST AUTHOR
Michael Strycula and Joe Courtney go "way back" to their Bible college days. Mike has pastored and ministered in many contexts and is now finding a home in the L24 Collective community. We're so thankful for him, his heart for Christ's Church, and both his humility and wisdom. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences with us Mike!