Thursday, June 2, 2011

Is This A Church?

"Going to church doesn't make you a Christian anymore than standing in your garage makes you a car." ~ Billy Sunday

"A church that lives within it's four walls is no church at all." ~ Morgan Chilulu

" When our churches become spiritual spas in which we retreat from the world, our salt loses its saltiness and we are no longer able to impact our culture." ~ Richard Sterns

I stumbled across a blog today in which the writer posted about how she has chosen to not go to church anymore, because she was looking for Jesus and she wasn't finding Him there in the church. This along with a recent article in our local newspaper regarding my former churches 120th anniversary celebration, has me revved up for a rant.

I spent over 30 years of my adult life in a denomination that has left me deeply disappointed and saddened. I started out the first 16 or so years of my life in a church that taught a lot about burning in hell and what 'good christians' can't do, but taught very little, if any, about grace. Legalism was the backbone of this non-denomination congregation, yet I am quick to credit them for the scripture memorization I did all through my Sunday School years with them. And it was there I made a public profession of my faith and followed this with believers baptism a few months later.

As an adult I attended the church my (first) husband and his family attended and I conformed to the order of worship, the liturgies, the rituals, the traditions, and even appreciated the comfort of this as time went on. By the time I divorced and started making my own way, I was steeped deep enough in the denomination that I stuck with it, but began attending at a different church. I became an Elder, served on council, taught sunday school, youth groups, led some adult classes and even 'preached' a time or two when the pulpit needed filling.

I received excellent teaching and the opportunities for continuing theological education was vast. But I don't remember learning much about the Holy Spirit and the difference He makes in our lives, until about 10 years ago. The pastor at this time introduced my husband and I to ALPHA and that was our first taste of what was to come. Next we participated in a Dunamis Conference that taught in depth about the Holy Spirit and what being filled with the Holy Spirit could look like. What it should look like.

About this time I became restless with the style of worship that was so traditional in our little congregation. When I worship through music I am often moved to tears. I yearned for more peppier music and a contemporary style service. Over time, the restlessness grew and I realized it wasn't so much about styles of worship as it was about attitudes of the heart and spirit. When I looked around on Sunday mornings, the faces I saw didn't contain joy. There was a visible resistance to anything that smacked of anything less than tradition and I could see it more clearly as time went on. I began to understand that the families of this little church were friendly and welcoming; but it was totally up to the outsider to come through those church doors. Evangelism was NOT practiced.

Some of us got an idea to host a supper once a month as a way to invite neighbors in. Come for a hot meal; free, no strings attached. What a great way to offer community for those who lived alone, and a helpful service, especially at the end of the month when the pantry was low. We didn't offer church services. It was just a "Friendship Supper". Too bad the majority of our congregation thought it was just a new way to have a church potluck. In the nearly 10 years that we held the suppers, I can count on one hand the new faces we saw as a result. And I blame it on the attitudes of the hearts. They were not open to seeing this as a great outreach opportunity.

I went to a church sponsored conference on Transformation (big word, scary word-- it meant... 'change'.) I experienced new ways of worship, was exposed to fresh ideas about reaching the un-churched and learned a ton about what was working --and not working-- in churches across the nation. Pumped up, I came back to report to our session board. And was immediately shut down. They thanked me for my sharing and grimly returned to the treasurers report; a function that monopolized every session meeting I ever attended. There wasn't time to talk about anything else. Like worship, discipleship, missions or evangelism (that word again!)

If it hadn't been for the faithful dedication of my sweet hubby and the pastor who introduced us to Alpha and Dunamis, I would have defected sooner rather than later. I hung in there because of them, and because, grumble grumble, I did love my little church family despite their seemingly complete lack of understanding about what it meant to BE a church.

Church was a building. Church was something we do on Sundays. Because. We've. Always. Done. It. That. Way. Church was about potlucks and Sunday school picnics and Easter Egg hunts and potlucks and singing 3 hymns and praying the prayer printed in the bulletin and potlucks.

That people outside the four walls of the building were lost and empty and in need of Hope --of knowing the Way, the Truth, the Life,  was a fuzzy concept that was best left to the preacher or missionaries. And preaching the gospel was something a missionary did in China or Africa. Not in our own neighborhood!!

Because I served on session for many many years and because I did my turn at being the clerk records keeper, I have looked back over the record books of this particular church. In it's pages of rich history, you will find many entries about the ladies sewing circle and Mother- Daughter Teas, budget reviews and revisions, weddings, infant baptism's, funerals and when communion was served and to how many. There is not one salvation recorded. None.

In the entire time I was a member with this church, I can remember only one salvation. It was while we were without a pastor and relying on weekly pulpit supply. Our speaker that Sunday was a former youth pastor and was comfortable with presenting the gospel and the saving grace of Jesus Christ. He gave a simple invitation at the end of his talk, for anyone who had never asked Jesus to come into their heart to do so. And someone raised their hand. It was later said that "our church (denomination) doesn't 'do' alter calls."

ONE person saved. In 120 years of existence this is the only salvation I know of and it took place because a visiting pastor gave the invitation. (Ok to be fair, there may have been salvation's that took place in Sunday School or perhaps in the privacy of someone's home but this is the only one recorded in the churches history and to me that says something)

I attended a lot of prayer meetings and bible classes that were made up of a handful of people. When a church has been in decline for several years and you decide to get serious about a turn around so you gather each week to pray about it and only your pastor and your husband are there with you, you begin to wonder about the spiritual condition of the rest of the few in the pew. (And I'm not even going to go there, when it comes to the  overall spiritual condition of the people who voted for the rights to ordain gays in ministry)

Today I look at the article in the paper that has (again) riled me up. 120 years of history will be celebrated this weekend. The interviewed congregants talk of how active the church was in past years but it gives no listing of what it was active in. They speak of hoping to reach out to former members but do they understand why so many have left?
They left, like I did, and my husband did, because they began to understand that there was more to church than just 'going to.' We understood that church was something you were supposed to BE and DO and after fighting against the tide to try and turn things around, tired of struggling with years of apathy and hard hearts and stubborn attitudes, we went in search of other like- minded, like-hearted believers, so we could together make a difference in our communities. We could invite the lost to be found and have something besides potluck to offer them.

Lest you think I rant and point fingers without looking inward, I will stand and shoulder my share of the blame. How many years did I coast along, quiet, complacent, lethargic and apathetic about those outside the church walls. For too long I was content with being spoon fed watered down teachings. For too long I had no idea how hungry I was-- starving-- for the meat of the teachings of Jesus. Once I got a taste I knew I had to have more and that is when I began campaigning for change that was, alas, mostly in vain.

Almost 2 years ago my husband and I discovered a church where the purposes for being is made clear: worship, fellowship, discipleship, ministry and mission are taught and exercised. The first time I attended I cried through pretty much the whole service. Because after an entire lifetime of attending church, I had finally found my church home.

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