Theologian Stanley Hauerwas has observed that many believers in Jesus “think they have a relationship with God that they go to church to have expressed. . . . I think that’s to get it exactly backwards.” A local church isn’t merely a gathering of people who already have a relationship with Jesus. Meeting together is central to that relationship.
Petty differences, grudges and jealousies were affecting a church’s staff. They didn’t fellowship with one another—working secluded in their offices behind closed doors. When they had to communicate, it was short and to the point. On Sundays, however, they pasted on happy faces in front of the congregation. Their inability to deal with conflict resulted in a poisonous work environment for the entire staff and hampered effective ministry.
“Sometimes, going to church just seems irrelevant. After all, we listen to sermons via podcasts and can live- stream a church service . . . in our pajamas. Personally, I enjoy having access to so many Christian resources at the swipe of my finger on my iPhone. . . . I also meet in Christian community on Wednesday nights for small group Bible study. That’s good enough, right?” Those words, from a thoughtful post by Lindsay Blackburn, reflect the ambivalence many people feel about being part of a local church.
Author Sarah Wells, in her blog post “Church, Why Bother?” writes, “On Sunday mornings, I have the keen sense of worshiping God with other believers in my community while other believers around my community, my state, the country, and the world also worship. All of those believers are strangely and mysteriously and powerfully connected to us by the Holy Spirit, and we are all together worshiping one God in a dedicated space at a dedicated time.”
During a visit to Melbourne, Australia, my hosts took me on a mini-tour of the city. Along the way, they pointed out some buildings that had been converted from churches to bars. I’ve learned that this is a common practice—not only in Australia, but around the world. Troubled, I wondered what the future held for places of worship. Imagine my elation when I read of a bar that’s reversing the trend and returning to its roots as a church!
The Allies suffered heavy losses at the Battle of Arnhem during World War II. Corporal Ray Sheriff of the 3rd Parachute Battalion was blinded in the battle, captured, and sent to a POW camp. After three months, his Regimental Sergeant Major J. C. Lord finally tracked him down. In a room full of men of different nationalities, he spotted the corporal sitting cross-legged on the floor, with his head slumped low. Striding up, he greeted him cheerily: “Corporal Sheriff, how are you getting on?” Sheriff instantly recognized the voice and jumped to attention: “Hello, Sir, it’s good to hear your voice.”
A ministry leader once tried an interesting communication experiment. Holding giant whiteboards and some markers, he engaged passersby on his city’s streets. On one whiteboard, people were asked to write what they wanted to tell the church. The messages weren’t very kind. On the other board, people were asked to write, “What do you want to say to Jesus?” To Him they wrote surprisingly tender messages such as, “I miss you,” “I’m sorry,” and “I love you.”
Years ago, the alumni magazine of a large US university featured an image of undergraduates, including an African-American student, cheering on their football team. The only problem was that the student hadn’t ever attended a football game! It turned out that—in an attempt to showcase the supposed diversity of the school—the editors had Photoshopped the student’s face into the crowd. This true story sadly reflects the shallow perspective people often have toward diversity.
The word fellowship conjures up some rather strange associations in my mind. When I hear it spoken, I immediately think of coffee and donuts, along with the basement meeting spaces in churches where those coffee and donuts are served. Most strangely, I also think about the 2001 movie The Fellowship of the Ring. So somehow my concept of Christian community has become inextricably tied to a tale of men, dwarves, and elves dealing with “one ring to rule them all.”
This week I bought $30 worth of toilet paper in order to qualify for a mail-in rebate. The rebate form told me to address my envelope to “Road to Glory.” Really? I hadn’t slain a dragon or won a championship. I had merely purchased TP. So I laughed at the ridiculous title as I wrote it on the envelope.
Accompanied by a cool breeze, the sunlight slowly spread over the horizon. It was a beautiful morning to plant. Grabbing various tools, my husband and I set out to rake back mulch and dig some holes. We had carefully selected plants that would work in the various growing environments our yard offered. Though the work had been strenuous, I later found it rewarding to stand back and see the fruits of our labor—a beautiful array of bushes, flowers, and trees.
While visiting a friend in Marseille, France, we stopped by an old church. I took in the cold stone floors, the magnificent ancient walls, and the smell of the musty wooden pews. Almost hidden from my view, built into a wall, was the confessional box. It contained enough for just one person on either side of a wooden slat. My friend quietly commented that the act of confessing our sins one to another seemed to have disappeared from many modern churches. This challenged me not only to confess my sin to God but also to others.
Poised at the door of the church auditorium, I hesitated. Why? I realized that I didn’t want to go to church. It’s not that I didn’t want to go to any church at all. I simply no longer wanted to go to this church. My wife felt the same way. A few weeks later, after 20 years as members, we made the agonizingly painful decision to leave. But leaving is not the same as quitting.
I recently read of a man who started a church and saw it grow and flourish over the years. But unlike some pastors whose fingers have to be pried from the pulpit, this man began grooming a younger man to take over his church. Why? Because he felt God was calling him to do so. And, at just 51 years old, this healthy, dynamic pastor humbly moved on as his 30-year-old protégé took his place.
Amenities. Surprisingly, I heard someone use that word in describing a church they had chosen to attend. I understood that the individual was referring to the different ministries the church had to offer, but I was also reminded of the big difference between a fishing boat and a cruise liner.