Saturday, May 31, 2008

Is Church Necessary?



“I’m not sure if we should consider people wicked? I’m not saying that there aren’t people who do terrible things, but whenever Christians make that distinction it always sounds like we’re being condescending. As in, thank God I’m not one of THEM.”
I paused, and looked at the small group, all of whom I’d met an hour ago. There were six of us gathered on the couches, my good friend Val sitting to my right, who’d invited me to her weekly small group.

“Maybe we should condemn trees. You know, the "Wicked" trees.” I said, unable to hold back the grin. The group quickly waded into my absurdity.

“Like the giants?”

“Huh?”

“In that movie. You know, the giant trees.”

“You mean the Ents?” I said, laughing now. “In the Lord of the Rings?”

“Yes!” Christina said.

“But weren’t they good?” Jake asked.

“Yeah. They carried around the…”

“Hobbits.” Val said.

We are all laughing now and the conversation continues to bounce between the absurd and the serious for the next hour. They are an open and loving group, and I feel a great sense of welcome and acceptance in their midst. When we finish our ‘study’, we talk about our week, our goals, our struggles… and then pray for one another.

I haven’t attended a Sunday service in three months, but as Val and I say our good byes, one thought refuses to go away…

I love church.


Unfortunately, most people in North America do not love ‘church.’ The statistics are quite clear about this, (read "Un-Christian for more information) especially in the younger 16-29 age group (which I consider myself an err… honourary member). Spirituality is of an increasing importance in our society, even as the perceived need for a church declines. Most of my friends and colleagues have little or no use for the Sunday service. And too many of us who have been raised in the church either have no concept or understanding of this fading interest or spend far too much time trying to pour old wine in new wineskins. We imbue our Sunday events with current themes, better music, and more video. We build coffee bars and dress down and manipulate our lights like a modern disco club. All of which are (generally) good things, and all done in the name of making ‘church’ relevant.

But it isn’t working. Most of the time I find myself agreeing with my friends. Despite my experience and training as a pastor, the Sunday event holds little appeal for me. (From here on, I refuse to call it ‘church’, as I'll explain) It’s nice to see friends, the music can sometimes be uplifting, and there are some pastors who are compelling speakers. Other then that, well, I can do without it. Or so I’ve thought. But the truth is that not being involved in a community creates a void in my life and I am convinced it is impossible to follow Jesus outside some type of fellowship.

None of this helps me, and the questions remain.

Is church necessary? And why do so many people, like me, not enjoy the Sunday event.

...The bookstore is quiet for a Friday night. I’m sitting in my spot by the electrical outlet. My laptop is over ten years old, a nine-dollar bargain I picked up two years ago, that now needs a plug to work. (This goes nicely with the packing tape along the side that keeps the CD player from ejecting.) It’s a good spot to write. Just beyond the in-store cafĂ© is the children’s section, and every time I go for a walk, I pass some of the greatest children's literature of our time. The Chronicles of Narnia. Harry Potter. Charlotte’s Web. Sometimes I’ll stop and look at some of the newer titles, notice the outlandish, attention grabbing colour schemes, and smile at the memories of my experience as a kid, when going to the library was so much fun.

For me, books have always been the road to adventure. Throughout my life they have taken me to different worlds and different possibilities. There was no boundary that could hold me as a young knight, as a traveling cleric with magical powers or as a boy on farm with talking animals. (My one internal switch when first reading Charlotte’s Web.) And even now, brushing past these worlds inevitably bring a fresh wave of excitement.

When I first became a Christian, it was this same idea, this same discussion of hope and possibility in God and life that captured my imagination. Like any organization however, I soon learned that more people were interested in rules and behavioural standards for the Sunday group than the radical ideas of who Jesus was and what He’d taught. The concept of 'chucrh' as a place of hope was there in the letters, in what we said, but rarely evidenced in spirit, in the unhindered freedom of authentic relationships.

Through the years, I've come to understand this human tendency towards rules, but the concept of church is so much more than that. It's not that I think life is easy, because it isn't. The human story is inevitably a tragic one. But I wonder if the sobriety and need for rules in our buildings make life any easier or bring out the best in us, especially when trouble comes. It certainly doesn't hold a compelling reason to go to the Sunday event.

Too often though, we associate the "Gospel" as little more then an explanation why our rules are better than the Mormons and the Muslims. At least, that’s the perception for too many people outside the church.

The most disappointing aspect of this perception is that church, the gathering of people who believe Jesus to be the Son of God, can actually be uplifting. One of my own failings is that I often judge the church based on my own scars and wounds, but my time last night with the small group reminded me just how great it can be to share and laugh and pray with one another and why I still believe in Her. Believe in the people who are sincerely interested in serving God and helping others. What a wonder the church can be...

But the church is not the Sunday event. The church is me. The church is you. And the church only works when we are able to get together, not for the sake of establishing what sets us apart, but to explore that which holds us together in the first place.
When the church reflects the same magic that we find in great stories, we understand that the greatest magic belongs to the greatest story…

A story that is actually true.

...More people have filed into the bookstore. To my left a long line of teenagers are waiting to order their frappucinos and lattes before heading over to the movie theatre next door. The Sunday event seems irrelevant to them, and I understand that. It does to me too. But church, well, that’s another story. I still believe in her, and it is a song I will continue to sing, a story I will continue to share, no matter how frustrated I become.

My prayer this week is two fold: For those of us who are seeking, that we will all find our way into church; a place of community where people seeking God and serving each other come together. And second, for those of us who have found a community, that we will remember that the Gospel is best expressed not in the rules and regulations of corporations, but in hope and possibility… and in the freedom and love of a God who loves us, despite our failings.

-Steve
NOTE: Special thanks to Chad and Crystal for opening up their home this week (I think I ate all your chips) and to Jake and Christina (and Chris) for their warmth... and to Val, well, for being you. :) Blessings...