This post began back in 2008 on the day my husband and I joined the church that we are happy to now call home. As I got ready for church that morning I began reflecting on what makes a church 'good' and why we were drawn to this particular church after nearly three years of fruitless searching. I've re-written a bit, but most of my musings from that day remain consistent with what I feel today.
Every Wednesday morning from early fall until the end of spring I meet in the kitchen of our church with Anne and Betty. When I arrive the countertop is loaded with the fruits of Anne's trip to Sam's Club and occasionally the grocery store as well. Giant cans of tomato sauce, packs of ground beef, fresh fruit or salad, flour, sugar, maybe some cream cheese, eggs, butter, milk...the list varies depending on the menu of the day. We pull out the roasters, each one labeled with its peculiarities: "I run cold," "I burn edges," "I have no temp control," "I work fine." Having the right roaster is essential when you are cooking for over sixty people. One edge-burned batch of scrambled eggs can be a disaster.
And so we cook; measuring, scooping, filling, testing, recalculating in our heads just how to turn a recipe for eight into a recipe for seventy. (Unless it's an online recipe...most of those magically recalculate for us.) We cook because we love to feed people and we love to see the people of the church as well as guests bonding over a good meal before meeting for our Wednesday night Growth Groups. (And when I say good, I mean GOOD; Anne is the mastermind of our operation and what she does with two ancient stoves and a few roasters is a delight to all but the pickiest of eaters.)
I feel at home in this place, surrounded by people I love, people who love me. I look forward to the time we spend cooking together and I look forward to the joy of serving the meal. (OK, lets get real, what mom doesn't want the chance to feed a bunch of people who all say "Oh this looks delicious!" and "Thank you, that was SO GOOD!" and "Can I have some more, please?") I have been a member of several other churches in my lifetime, but this one has a place in my heart that no other church has held.
There are several things that drew us to this church, things that bind us here. I believe they are some of the essentials that many people are looking for in their search for a church to call home, things that are sadly lacking in some churches. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but I think they are a start to what it means to really be the church, the bride of Christ.
1. I've been in churches and movements where it was subtly or not so subtly proposed that somehow we knew a truth that all of those other churches 'out there' didn't get. Being church means cutting across those lines. It means going past the rhetoric, past the talking points of your particular denomination and seeking to show the identity of Christ reflected on Earth, not as the holy 'church of those who really get it.' No one denomination, worship style, etc. has a lock on all that is true and holy and biblical. In fact, we probably all get it wrong in some places some of the time. But from the stately organs and orchestras to the drums and guitars, from four part harmony to African chant we are all expressing our worship to the same God.
Give me a church that realizes it is a part of something bigger, that we are part of the body of Christ and we aren't going to let names separate or define us anymore.
2. Being church means allowing others to question without slapping them with the label of 'doubter' or 'weaker in the faith'. It means allowing ourselves to question as well, knowing that as we search for answers we will receive both guidance and patience. As humans we are going to struggle to understand the mind of God, to understand the word He left behind for us, to understand how and why He works the way He does in the world both in the past and in the present. Didn't it always irritate you as a kid when you asked your parent a tough question and their answer was "Because I'm the parent and I said so, you don't get to ask the questions." (Well, ok, maybe you were lucky enough to have parents that let you question with freedom.) But it is frustrating to be told you shouldn't have a question because that doesn't take the question away, it just makes you feel guilty for having it. What better place to struggle with the big questions than in a church, where we can learn together? I appreciate the fact that while cooking yesterday I could chat with my pastor about my prior post regarding decision theology and my doubts about it and he didn't call me heretic or toss me out of the church. (Although that may have been because we were cooking his favorite meal and because Anne is his wife and would not be happy if he got rid of her helper.)
3. Being church means accepting people as they come to you. You shouldn't have to be a 'certain way' to belong to a church. Yes, different churches will often ultimately draw different types of people through their worship style, outreach ministries, etc. But as the body of Christ on earth it's our job to show His acceptance to everyone who walks through our doors. I don't believe cliques have any place in the body of Christ. Nothing makes it harder on a newcomer than to realize that everyone has their own little 'group' already and that they are so content with who they relate with that they don't want anyone else coming in and messing up their dynamic. We visited a few churches like that. If new people stick around for a few months and then leave you might want to take another look at how well your church is handling this. Everyone who walks through the doors should be treated as an honored guest and a friend, tattoos, dreads, three-piece suits and all.
4. Related to point 3; church shouldn't be a place of plastic perfection. Church comes with real people and real people come with hurts and baggage and some Sundays we can barely drag ourselves through the door. But we come, and there we find other people with struggles, some the same, some different, but ALL with struggles. It is in watching other people struggle that we can sometimes find grace for our own battles. How frustrating it would be for me to walk into church and feel that everyone there had it together except me, that I was the only one falling apart on the inside? I don't think I'd be back. No, we don't all walk around wearing our weaknesses on our sleeve, but there's something in the air of a church that is genuine, something we sensed when we first entered the church we are a part of now. I still struggle with trying to put on that mask of perfection, but God is gently prying it from my hands and I don't think I want it back.
There are so many other points I could make, but ultimately I like the way the vision statement for our church lays it out:
Go out and be church. Be house-church, small church, big church, mega church. Just find some way to actually BE the body of Christ.