Emerge and Restore

Exploring faith, God, and church in the 21st century...

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Location: Kansas, United States

Friday, August 19, 2005

Blessed by a bad church

Those of you who know me know that I spent a few very long years as a youth minister in Texas. You know that those years both scarred and strengthened me. My outlook on faith, my philosophy of ministry, everything about the way I think and act as a minister was ripped to shreds and eventually rebuilt. When I'm being honest and not trying to re-frame my failed ministry in a falsely positive light, I'll tell you straight out that this was a terrible church. Some churches are hurtful because they are complacent or tired or simply misguided. Others are un-Christ-like and self-righteous and hostile. This was such a place. I could make you queasy with stories of hungry, hurting people who were treated like dirt. Your jaw would drop as I recounted evil words from the lips of those who were supposed to be the most spiritual ("We're ordering you to stop giving food to the needy. That's not the demographic we want to reach"). If I told you how my family were treated, you'd wonder why we stayed past the first month. As I've said many times, it was hard for that church to know God because they wouldn't ever let Him in the door.

Earlier this week, my wife and I were talking with a group of friends, discussing negative events in our lives that we later became grateful for and it reminded me of something I wrote before I ever had a blog. When I moved to my current location, a friend from a nearby church in Texas who happened to be a sidelined observer to everything that happened during my tenure there, e-mailed me the question:

"Why are you still a minister?"

Besides the obvious and relatively troubling, "How else would I support my family?", my answer to him was that maybe that experience taught me some things I needed to learn. It wouldn't have been right to give up because I believe that God put me there. I think he did it for my good. That particular church has imploded and will likely close its doors soon. That too, I think will be good. But I learned more in my time there than I could have in virtually any other situation. I went there as a lifelong member of the Church of Christ, and I thought and acted like one. I was the fundamentalist, ultra-conservative legalist that I now rail against in this blog. And a couple of months into it, I looked around and said, "Hey....this isn't working. Not even close." So then I began a rollercoaster ride that has brought to where I am today (although the ride continues).

A bad church taught me volumes about how not to do church, about how to alienate people and stifle them and keep them from pursuing the Kingdom of God. A bad church taught me that the church is not a building, and it taught me the dangers of thinking that it is. A bad church taught me the difference between an institution-builder and a disciple-maker. I learned to be ferociously honest with myself because nobody there was honest or real or willing to face reality. I learned to get up and get working even when I didn't want to; when I knew that I would be opposed from within the church. I developed the thick skin that it is helpful for ministers to have. I learned what it does to your soul when you keep silent when you should speak up, just for the sake of keeping your job. I learned that Christ-like churches don't just happen because you fill a building with Bibles and smiling faces. I learned to wring every last bit of living water out of a very, very spiritually dry place; I learned to look for God in the little things. And maybe most importantly of all, I learned that just as God has grace for the addicts and the abusers and the prostitutes, he also has grace for the hard-hearted, the self-righteous, the parched soul just going through the motions of faith, the frowning face who has forgotten how to love. And I think that those lessons will serve me well in the future.

And if God could bless me that much through a bad church, think of what he could do with a good one...or even an decent one that's occasionally frustrating. I understand that there are such things as toxic churches (although my understanding is narrower than Arterburn's), and would never advocate staying in such a place, I do want to send out a word of encouragement to those who are struggling with their place of worship, who feel disappointed and let down. Even if my church lets me down, drives me crazy, or holds me back a little, I think that if I can get past my consumer attitude thats too concerned with what I get out of church, if I can subdue my pride that feels like I deserve a bigger and better place, then I bet God has some blessings waiting for me, maybe he's waiting to reveal himself in some way to me...if I can just get out of the way and look to him.

Monday, August 15, 2005

It's been so long...

It's been a while since I've blogged, and even longer since I've done more than a current event update. Sorry. I'm tempted to offer up the excuse that my family has just moved into a new (to us - it's like 120 years old) house. Packing up and repairing the house and unpacking...that's a lot of work and has truly been consuming our lives. But in reality, the blog silence has been because I've felt very spiritually empty lately. I might be forced to act spiritual and pretend I have something redemptive to say twice a week from the pulpit, but I don't have to do it here. The truth is, I spend a good bit of time at my computer composing things to say to different groups of people. I could have posted something had I wanted to. But I couldn't...not without pretending.

That said, while still a little out of sorts, I feel myself coming out of it. I'm spending extra time in prayer and meditation, and I'm starting to see God at work again. That's how I know my spiritual life (I know, false dichotomy...everything about me is spiritual in a sense) is on a downslide...I lose my ability to see God in the little things. I begin to look at life through "secular" eyes, and my practical nature takes over. I see my vocation as a job and not ministry. When I overlook something or someone I see a threat to my job security, not a failed opportunity to care for someone. And all the little tiny ways I usually see God every day disappear. Then I get grumpy, which is another indicator of a spiritual famine.

Sundays are often hard for me. I love the church that I minister to, but these wonderful people exist in a church structure that is not of their own choosing (what's worse is that many of them have been taught that any other structure is apostasy). The lingering legacy of the old school Churches of Christ (although many have broken free of it) is one of shallow relationships, legalistic hermeneutics, external focus, institutional leadership, and stilted, rote worship. My congregation doesn't exemplify those things, but vestiges still linger.

So I can usually expect to face people who criticize me for not wearing a tie, who become suspicious and stop listening if I mention the Holy Spirit, who complain if I preach an extra two minutes, who question me if I'm not smiling every single minute. I can often expect an attitude that cares more that we take Communion than if we actually commune with God or with each other. I can expect many people to care more that songs were sung, regardless of whether anybody understood what we sang. We always fulfill our obligation to the "five forms" of worship, but many times it feels as if things like authenticity, humanity, our heart...maybe even God, get left out. Heck, yesterday in a stunning display of institutional rather than relational thinking, I watched my wife who was attempting to rock our baby daughter to sleep during class time in the church nursery, get kicked out of the nursery because that room also doubles as the church mail room and it was time for members to go get their bulletins. [note to future church leaders: 1. Always put people ahead of institutional concerns - even corporate communication. 2. The nursery can NEVER double as anything else. If mothers don't have a private place to care for their children, they won't come. i.e. - our solution is for my wife to care for the baby at home during Bible classes, and come later for worship]

I believe that Sundays (and all other times of worship) should be invigorating, challenging, energizing, and life-giving. Yet the majority of the time I feel so drained (most Sunday nights, we go out to eat with a certain group of wonderful friends...and they are gracious enough to let me sit and brood and glare at everything, without letting me rain on their parade and ruin their fun). So many times, my heart just cries out, "Isn't there more than this?...Why can't we change?...This is religion, it's not faith...Can't we be real, can't we be spontaneous, can't we be passionate, can't we be...MORE?" I see so much that is by definition un-church-like about church that sometimes it pains me to be there. I'm tempted to cut and run, to find a place that fits my understanding of church.

But yesterday, after the normal, predictable morning worship, we shared a meal together in our fellowship hall like we do nearly every week. And I got an odd request from a man who would qualify as a "semi-regular." He's not from a CoC background, he's not well-kept, well-to-do, or articulate. He's here because friendly is something this church does well - because of that, we are surprisingly diverse. He asked if he could "bless the church with a song." Although slightly awkward in the middle of our straight-laced, routine-oriented bunch, there was no reason to deny his request. So this inelegant, uneducated, penniless man who struggles daily with what my people might call "major" sin issues stood up with confidence and presence and introduced his song by saying, "I believe if God gives you a gift and you don't use it, he'll take it away." And he began to sing. This wasn't a song that has ever been written down, it just came from his heart. And in a huge, soul-filled voice that filled up the entire room, he gave us 5 or 6 heart-peircing improvised verses. Verses about yearning for God, about waiting for him, about needing to see His face, about boldly demanding his presence, his blessing. I know a little about music, and this guy was good. Shockingly good. But also shockingly real, as the man who probably had the most to hide bared his soul for us all. Everyone in the room, from my 7 month old, to the 70 year old, was focused unwaveringly on him. Tears began flowing down faces that were startled to find them there. My wife began to weep and my older daughter asked, "Mommy, why are you sad?" She looked up toward God and whispered, "I'm not." And there for a few minutes, we experienced worship...and once again, I saw God.