I don’t like religious people. I might as well admit that right now. It sounds strange coming from a former minister, a seminary student, and someone who will tell you in his first meeting that his whole life revolves around God. But through the years I’ve seen too much. I’ve seen church people hide behind their religion instead of facing their fears, I’ve seen people use religion as a bludgeon to enforce their will upon someone else, and I’ve seen religion sold and politicized so much that you wonder where God fits into the equation. And when you see all this, you start to wonder if God is real. If you can believe. You begin to wonder why you would even bother to identify yourself with a faith, with a Man, and with a God that some people claim to follow but whose lives reflect the very opposite of your own beliefs.
I left the ministry many years ago, and for a while, I left the church. I didn’t like what I was seeing or what I’d seen, but I still believed in Jesus. Still believed He was the One. Strange, isn’t it? And so, I stepped back into the church. I was no longer in ministry, but I began to feel comfortable again in the church setting. I found like minded people who were concerned about the poor, concerned about social issues. I found other Christians who didn’t believe that gay marriage and abortion were the only social issues of concern. These people believed that God had called us to a deeper life, a committed life, a kingdom model of living willing to balance between sin and social concerns. But somewhere in my heart there remained a blockage, and while Sunday morning was a time for church, I closed a part of myself when I was there. I didn’t realize just how much of myself I’d closed until this past Sunday, but then, no one anticipates an encounter with God...
12 Years Ago...
“What about the music? We can’t have an altar call and expect people to come forward unless the transition after my sermon is smooth.”
The speaker was a large man, a traveling evangelist we’d brought in to speak at our Sunday morning and evening services. His hair was cut into a neat crew cut, and he wore a white suit jacket over a red shirt. The tie was yellow.
“I’ve been preaching for a long time, brother. Gotta get the simple things right if we want the people to respond.”
I looked over at my senior pastor, a former missionary who’d spent twenty five years in South America. Now, on the verge of retirement, he’d come back to help our struggling congregation find its way. He’d hired me little more than a year ago to work with the youth, and given the small size of our congregation, fill in the other places as well.
“Do know what I’m saying, brother? I’m not sure a piano and organ are going to cut it.”
The evangelist spoke with a slow drawl, and in my enthusiasm about having a famous preacher come to our little church, I missed the grimace on my senior pastor’s face.
“I can hook up a worship CD on our sound system." I said, eager to please this renowned preacher. "Maybe you can lead one song accapella and just give me a sign from the pulpit.”
The preacher scratched his chin.
“I figure that should work.” He smiled suddenly, showing two rows of brilliant white teeth. “All right, boys. What say we take this one for the Lord!”
My senior pastor just nodded and went along with it. I noticed how quiet he’d become, but I assumed it was because of his excitement for the weekend.
That weekend, with everything in order, we had a full house both morning and night, and it was thrilling for me to be involved with this great evangelist. This is what it looks like when people get a chance to meet God, I thought.
I was twenty two years old, and an exciting life in ministry lay ahead for me. I didn't see the land mines in the road until I'd run over them at full speed. Years later, when I'd left the church, it was those very same memories that helped keep me away.
Although we should always strive for excellence in our services, what I’ve seen over the years is an increasing dependence on production values. On manipulation. I’ve seen Jesus sold as a product, I’ve seen preachers use emotionalism… use music and lighting to create the necessary mood… and guilt people into responding. Because of that, I am uncomfortable with most altar calls these days. (For those of you who have never seen one, an altar call occurs at the end of a service. When a preacher finishes his sermon, he will ask people to come down to the front of the church after a sermon as a response to the message. The idea is that it is a chance for people to pray and respond to whatever God has laid on their hearts. But many preachers use the size of the response as a measure of their influence. This is especially true in Pentecostal circles.) In truth, I am always looking for authenticity from the preacher. And because I’ve been behind the curtain, I want to make sure that the Wizard isn’t just some old man with a megaphone. But if we believe God to be truly supernatural, that He really loves and cares for us, than its inevitable that even the most cautious of us will encounter Him, despite all the crap.
2007... The Encounter
I was late. It’d been a long week, and I’d slept in, but at least I’d be in time to hear the sermon. I greeted a few people at the front of the church and slipped into a seat near the front just as worship was ending. Pastor Jason was up front, and when I realized he was introducing the speaker and not speaking himself, I sighed to myself and leaned back in my seat. One of the reasons I loved coming to church was that no matter what Jay talked about, it was always authentic.The speaker was a young woman from England, wearing jeans and high heels, and in her language and mannerisms, all European. But from the moment she opened her mouth I could sense her authenticity. She was not an intellectual, and her humour seemed as much accidental as it was genuine. About twenty minutes into her sermon, and what a simple sermon it was, I felt my eyes begin to water. I looked around and inconspicuously wiped them, but they kept leaking.
This will sound strange to some of you who’ve never been to church, but I could sense the presence of something bigger engulf the church in a way that somehow filled me up inside. As if, suddenly, I’d both become bigger… and smaller. By the time she finished I was a mess, and when Jason gave the (thankfully) rare opportunity to come to the altar and pray, I bolted out of my seat. Mostly, I just didn’t want to sit around others while my face was dripping.
As I stood there praying, I sensed myself being taken back through time. To the times in my life when I’d first become a Christian. To the disappointments and heartaches ever since. I cried for about forty minutes. At one point the music had stopped, and I could hear people chatting around me. The lights were on. No manipulation here, which only produced even more tears. I could sense the comfort of God in such a profound manner. For one who had earned his degree at a Pentecostal school, and yet who had seen so much crap when it came to commercializing ‘feelings’ that I’d closed the door on responding with any emotion, it was a startling experience.
Three days have passed, and I am still trying to get my head around what has happened. What I do know is that I feel, more than I have in a long time, a burning sense of God’s purpose and vision for my life.
I don’t think that this type of experience can be replicated every week or sold as an event. God is not a vending machine, and someday we in the church are going to have to give an account for all the times we sold ‘The Presence’ like it was a cheap trinket. Maybe we need to stop worrying so much about setting things up so God "can move," and set our hearts in the right place. If God is God, than He doesn't need you and I to orchestrate or manipulate anything.
And I'm learning too. I'm learning that while being cautious is a good thing, being emotionally open to the Almighty is just as important. Faith in Christ is a relationship, and like any relationship, it can not exist on document and text alone. We are part of a story, an ages old narrative about a God and His people. A living, dynamic relationship that is ever changing, and ever the same, even as we grow in our understanding of just how much God loves us. My prayer this week is that all of you will encounter God as I did, and will be given a new vision for the great things He has in store for your life.