Posted by: LucidMystery | August 30, 2010

What Church Is (or What it Should Be) and What Church Is Not (Or What it Should Not Be)

I’ve been going to church regularly for most of my life. It’s not something that’s foreign or distant for me, and I’ve found it to be both unsettling and exceptionally comforting, sometimes simultaneously. As someone with a decent idea of church is like, it bothers me when I hear someone expressing their view of what church is…and they have it all wrong. Worse yet, it really bothers me when I see an entire church going about their business…and they have it it all wrong. With that in mind, I just wanted to clear the air for anyone who has ever had a bad experience at a church or someone who refuses to go because of an idea they have about it.

First, let me just remind y’all that I’m no theologian, and this list is by no means the be-all-end-all definition of a church. It’s just some common misconceptions I’ve noticed. Second, I’m not saying this as the beginnings of my holier-than-thou movement. I do stupid crap all the time. Think Halloween 2009 and Jose Cuervo…enough said. I make bad choices like they’re going out of style! Then I realize how stupid I was and deal with the aftermath. I want to make it clear that I don’t have any illusions of myself in saintly grandeur. In spite of my best efforts, I miss the mark…a lot. But thank heavens that doesn’t mean He loves me less.

So…church…

What It Is:

—Something of a spiritual version of Weight Watchers or Alcoholics Anonymous—

That statement is a derivative of of this past week’s sermon by the awesome Kelvin Walker from NY. The man knows how to speak it, and this was a message I could really relate to. A few years ago, I was telling someone about the time my purse was stolen while I was in a church (granted, it was a homeschooling event, not an actual church event.) But as soon as I highlighted to this person that my purse was stolen from within a church, he replied coldly “Well that’s not surprising.” Offended and indignant, I had no idea how to respond. He was referring to the number of hypocritical people who regularly attend church and pretend to be Super Christians, but in reality are snarky jerks. What I didn’t think to explain to him at the time was that church is not supposed to be a place for perfect people who have it all together (or heavens knows the pews would be empty!) True, there are some hypocrites who legit don’t care about what they do Monday-Saturday as long as they look shiny good on Sunday, but most people in church really do have good intentions…but they fail sometimes. This brings me to the Weight Watchers and AA metaphor. Do only skinny people go to Weight Watchers? Do only completely sober folks go to AA? Um, heck no. Kind of defeats the point. We’re all struggling with something, and church was supposed to be the place we could go to get help and support from each other. When Jesus was here, the people He talked to first were the criminals: thieves, hookers, etc, etc. Wouldn’t we expect to see all of these folks in church then? Um, well, we should. But look under the first point in “What It Is Not” to realize why we don’t.

—A place of worship—

I will clarify first that you most certainly do not need to be in church to worship! Songs are always bouncing around my head, and I doubt God prefers my church singing voice to my lab singing voice 🙂 That being said, it’s such a safe feeling to be surrounded by other believers during church worship! I sometimes try to imagine God smiling as He hears us all together, the tone-deaf and beautiful voices all together–He made them all, so He must love them all! 

—A place of learning—

 As a scientist, it’s hard for me to accept an idea without reasoning or evidence (unless my research advisor tells me it’s true 😉 Contradictory as it may sound, my faith works the same way. I need to know why I believe what I believe, and church gives that to me. Each week, my pastor (who is amazing, by the way!) breaks down something from the Word that I never would have found on my own. He explains passages and gives historical context, in short helping me understand basic elements of Christianity that I probably would have either overlooked or not realized.

What It Is Not: 

—A place of judgment—

This is a major reason why we don’t often see folks who will break down in church and say “I’m an addict” or “I had an abortion” or “I steal” or “I like to drink on the weekends.” People are afraid of being judged, and the church has acquired a stereotype of being harshly judgmental. I won’t lie and say that many churches don’t deserve that adjective, but that’s not how it was meant to be. Christians were called to love EVERYONE. We don’t have to love all actions, but love all people. A very important distinction. If someone with a history of drugs, gang involvement, or adultery walks off the street and into a church, they are to be treated no less kindly than the little old lady who has worked in the church office all her life. Jesus said that the world should recognize us by the way we love one another, not by the way we keep tabs on how often someone falls off the wagon or by how we turn up our noses at the pregnant 15 year old girl.

The catch is that sometimes you have to love someone too much to let them stay the way they are. Let me expand on my last two examples. If you’re in a good church and you’ve admitted to people you’re an alcoholic, odds are you’ll be given five different phone numbers from people who want to help keep you accountable (and again, odds are at least one or two of those five have shared your struggle.) Does that mean these people are judging? No, it means they aren’t going to let that person fight their battle alone. With the example of a 15 year old pregnant girl, she will probably be strongly encouraged to change the lifestyle that led her to her situation.

And as a sidenote, a church that is actually following what the Bible says will never shun someone. I’m definitely not saying that a blatant wrong will be ignored, but there are ways to handle when a person within the church knows that they are doing wrong (and refuse to correct it). The answer is not to shut someone out completely, though.

—A place where unrealistically chirpy people all get together and gush about how happy and perfect their lives are—

Gag me with a wooden spoon. If any of you have ever attended a church like this, I apologize and I would love to introduce these people to a little book called “The Bible.” Let me be exceptionally frank about this: God is not going to make your life perfect. Let’s just quote The Princess Bride “Life is pain, highness. Anyone who says otherwise is selling something.” A lot of phony pastors and tv preachers will tell you how perfect and happy and rich you’ll be once you start following God–and by “follow God” they mean give them money by calling right now on this toll-free number. Well, that’s a crockpot of crap with a sidedish of megacrap. If Jesus Himself was born into a working class family and told people wealth would be among your biggest stumbling blocks…why on Earth would He…I’m not even going there. But back to the point about having a perfect life…I’m going to be honest and say that following God makes your life harder in a lot of ways (even if it’s something as simple as turning down a night out that you will know end in compromise.) But since when has anything that’s easy been worth anything? Case and point, working on my PhD is killing me–it’s frustrating when my experiments don’t work and everyday I cringe that I’m just barely smart enough to be here, if I’m actually smart enough to be here at all! But if getting a PhD was easy, it wouldn’t be worth anything. I’ll go with another Hollywood moment and quote Tom Hanks in A Leauge of Their Own, “It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard… is what makes it great.” Christians don’t have perfect lives, but we do have Someone who walks with us every step of the way.

—A happy-go-lucky social gathering—

Some churches are like an ongoing potluck! Just keep bringing the meatloaf and apple pies, and we can keep singing toe-tapping songs that no one really understands the lyrics of. We’ll baptize somebody, dedicate a few babies, marry a cute couple, read a Bible verse or two, and then start up another round of meatloaf! Ummm, nooooo. Now don’t get me wrong, some of my best friends in life have come from churches I attended and “socialized” at, but church is more than that. It’s a place of accountability, a place of worship, a place to learn more about what you believe and why, a place to serve the community through outreaches. Part of what I love about my current church is how much work they do to help the neighborhood. They have all sorts of counseling groups, financial advice and services, career help, urban youth sports leagues, after-school tutoring, and the list goes on and on! Here again is that thing about Christians being called to love everyone. And loving on someone doesn’t just mean hanging out (although it can!) It means serving people.

Well, as I said before, this is not a comprehensive list, it’s just some thoughts I’ve been chewing on today. Please comment!

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