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Sunday, February 13, 2011

One Reason to Be Desperate to Go to Church and Six Reasons We Aren't

In a previous post I mentioned a recent pastors' gathering that I attended.  There were about 30 pastors there in addition to about five staff who facilitated the event, and it was probably the most diverse group of clergy on almost every axis except denomination that I've ever been in.  We had very rewarding, constructive conversations, but they were also exhausting conversations.  Listening to "the other" when "the other" is so different from yourself, maintaining your own position while refraining from passing judgment on the person you're listening to, is really hard work.  So despite how valuable our together-time was, we were all resegregating by the second evening.  It was most easily visible in our hotel lobby, which became a sort of tribal map—young, white, male evangelicals here; black women there; Upstate New York liberals by the window.  I don't think anyone that night became insular out of a rejection of the rest of the group but simply out of fatigue.  For rejuvenation we each needed to join with someone with common experiences, values, and assumptions where we could let down our guard and be replenished.

Last week I preached on Luke 6:12-26, in which Jesus selects the Twelve and pronounces some tough-to-swallow blessings and woes.  The thrust of my message was that being a disciple of Jesus means being a misfit in this world in respect to prayer (vv. 12-13), power (vv. 17-19), poverty (vv. 20-21, 24-25), and persecution (vv. 22-23, 26).  (I had actual points in my sermon, and each one began with the letter "P," so it was pretty much my best sermon, like, ever.)  It occurred to me later that if we're really misfits in the world but really loving the people in it and being people of peace within it, we should be chomping at the bit to get to church on Sunday, because that's the only place in our lives (in some cases including our families) where we're with people like ourselves, where we fit in, where we can be ourselves without fear of the consequences.  Our lives through the week should be so emotionally exhausting loving "the other" that we need to gather with the saints in order to fill up, and we won't want to leave.  In other words, we should feel like the folks at my pastors' gathering did on that Tuesday night.

So if you don't have that urge to gather with the saints and worship—in other words, to get your butt to church—what's gone wrong?  Probably one or more of the following:

1) You're not a misfit in the world.  You aren't emotionally drained by the rest of your life in the world because the world is actually your natural habitat.  You're a comfortably worldly person and not a holy one.  In fact, you don't like going to church because that is the place where it's hard to fit in.

2) You're not listening to "the other" in the world.  You may feel somewhat beaten when you're in your world, but you mitigate the damage by retreating from it even while you're in it.  You avoid interaction with non-Christians around you, taking your lunch and your breaks alone.  When you do engage you are constantly measuring what others are saying so that you can retreat or pass judgment at the first sign of corruption, so your conversations are short and abruptly ended.

3) Your church isn't a community of misfits.  You don't have an urge to gather with the saints because there is no discernible difference between that gathering and the rest of the world.  The arduous task of maintaining self with others is just as arduous in the church as in the rest of your life, so it's just as much a struggle to get yourself there as to get yourself to work, and without the paycheck to boot.

4) You never leave the church to enter the world.  Virtually all your choices tend toward spending time with the people that you do fit in with—believers.  You're not panting for Sunday morning because it is basically the same group that you've spent Monday through Saturday with.  When you do enter the world—for example, to shop at the grocery store—you get in and get out with what you need without taking time to notice the other people there.

5) Your world is culturally Christian even if it's not actually holy.  You live in a community in which Evangelical Christianity is a cultural assumption (e.g., Grand Rapids [I've seen], Colorado Springs [I've heard], Mississippi [which according to a citizen I met "has more Southern Baptists than people"]).  You get along well in your world because you're supposed to say and do Christian things there.  But for this reason it is all the harder to distinguish between what your quasi-Christianized culture considers acceptable and what Christ himself does.

6) You fit in Christ's Church, just not your church.  You feel like a misfit in your church not because you are so comfortable in the world (as in [1]) but because your church has its own norms that mark who belongs and who doesn't, and you don't conform to them.  These norms aren't inherently biblical but are just the way these folks do things (e.g., using the word "share" in place of "talk").  But they unconsciously recognize these norms as the marks of holiness and aren't sure that you measure up to them.

I guess (6) brings me back to my situation at my pastors' gathering.  I am confident that I will have fellowship with the overwhelming bulk of those pastors in the new heavens and the new earth.  But I'll be darned if it isn't hard to have fellowship with a lot of them now.  I don't think it's that hard for Jesus.  But it tires me out, because "my people" with whom I feel comfortable are not the saints of God but the subset of saints who think, talk, and act like I do.

John's Revelation describes the highly adversarial relationship between Christians in the 1st-century Roman province of Asia and their world.  Because I believe that there is also futuristic, "last days" significance for that book, I believe that eventually this will mark all Christians' relationship to the world everywhere, as in much of the world it's already going on today.  Maybe when the whole Church and the whole world look like the Book of Revelation all Christians will feel like misfits in the world and feel at home with all other Christians.  Maybe then and only then will we appear to Christ as a pure and spotless bride.  And maybe then, when we're taking our lives in our hands to do it, we'll all go to church on Sunday.

1 comment:

  1. Great post!

    (although, believe me, the evangelical cultural assumptions are fast retreating from Grand Rapids.)

    I really like the picture of Church being the place we can let our guards down and recharge.