I’ve worked with a home builder before. They built frames, walls, ceilings and roofs, and fitted their structures with plumbing & electricity; flooring & trim. Many times, I would see a home being shown to prospective buyers - young families, retired couples, single young professionals. They would walk in, look at the home builder’s work, and decide to either purchase or not purchase the building. They would imagine themselves waking up with their children in the morning, making meals in a bright, earth tone-tinged kitchen and to drink a glass of water from cold silver appliances, and after some meetings would sign the next several decades of their life to a mortgage and a promising school system.
In some ways, we approach finding a church in the same way. Like prospective buyers, we measure the trim, skim our feet over the texture of the flooring, and discuss our opinions on the total dissolved solids in the water (hint: it’s probably got too many phosphates!) We imagine our lives along these potential forks in the road, and who we could become, meet, marry & eat with. The music - does it give you chills? The pastor - are their teeth cavity free? The people - are they Portlandia weird or concerning weird? Is this place a fitting vessel for the next decade of my church life?
Jesus once spoke to a young rich man, who in a way wanted to start going to Jesus’ church. This man, he wore trousers MC Hammer would have been jealous of, and was looking to gain the best prize he could conceive: eternal life. He entered their space in the interest of gaining something, and Jesus asked him to sacrifice his own interests for the good & joy of ‘the others.’ He couldn’t, as the Kingdom didn’t match well with his self-service. Sometimes, we’re like the young rich man in how we go about churching. To ask, “How does this place fit me?” might be to assume the role of consumer, as opposed to the role of giver.
One of the U.S.’s most beloved speeches was given by President John F. Kennedy at his inaugural address. He said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” We’re beckoned today to attend in the same manner to our churches, communities and what James refers to as ‘the widows and orphans.’ This is why churches are important: because they are the people - not the places - in which Jesus’ command to love him and love others is practiced.
Paul, writer of the Epistles in the Bible, was an expert church goer. Writing to the church in Rome once, he said, “Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.”
To the Colossians, he said, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.”
And to the Ephesians, “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God…”
Paul illustrates churches are communities for love, fervency, service & self sacrifice, truth-telling, patience, rejoicing, prayer, giving, singing & thankfulness. Furthermore, he seems to indicate churches are made of those invested in one another, with each other for the long haul and intimately residual in their common hopes & desires, not only for what might be in the future, but for our present circumstances. N. T. Wright said once, “The work of salvation, in its full sense, is about whole human beings, not merely souls; about the present, not simply the future; and about what God does through us, not merely what God does in and for us.” Is this what you’re looking for?
Sometimes - in fact, in most cases - church experiences are not always like this. Instead of hope, we find doubt; instead of love, we see cliques, judgement and hypocrisy; the people who worship the lover of the marginalized in some cases perpetuate marginalization. Church is hard, because people compose it.
Speaking as one who at some times in my life could rationally consider my church one of the greatest sources of stress and pain in my life, I can happily show you the other side of a heavy coin: I was, and am still the source of much of the pain others have experienced in church as well. The beauty of the difficulty of church communities is that although we & those around us experience difficulty from others in our community, we’re far from perfect also. This might breed an attitude made of masks when visiting new churches. In order to escape pain, we pretend and elevate ourselves into towers where none might reach us.
When Jesus asked the young man to give all he had, he was asking for a presence only possible through vulnerability, commitment and integrity. Don Miller, author of Scary Close, wrote, “It costs personal fear to be authentic but the reward is integrity, and by that I mean a soul fully integrated, no difference between his act and his actual person. Having integrity is about being the same person on the inside that we are on the outside, and if we don’t have integrity, life becomes exhausting.”
Church done right is a breath of fresh air in heavy lives, emblematic of what Jesus refers to when he speaks to the woman at the well of the water which quenches thirst for all time. We thirst for love, acceptance & belonging. Churches can’t provide that, but they worship one who can. Burdens might have been placed on you by those in a few pews back, but what we all hope the future will become brings us back to one another with hearts open.
Churches have been around for a long while now because most of the principles which have always defined them still remain true. Churches are only people, and those people are meant to love one another and love God. They don’t always succeed, but in the times where God’s love prevails, the results are bright and true: love, fervency, service & self sacrifice, truth-telling, patience, rejoicing, prayer, giving, singing, thankfulness & many others. My invitation to you is to commit, lean in and take your masks off with your church, not as one who consumes, but one who gives. Churches are love in action, will you act in one?