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Pastoral Pity

I was only a child, but I remember it vividly.  The preacher (we called him Pastor) had finished his sermon.  Lights were dim, and the sanctuary was hushed.  He strode the aisle towards the back.  And I remember it like a child would: the Bible in his hands, his tie, and then his face.  His lips were tight with an expression of grim pity, as a doctor who has seen a disease that could have been prevented but now through neglect is beyond cure.  It spoke a sense that his words had (or should have) brought conviction to his audience.  There was sadness, but mixed with judgment; he was removed from the situation.

I do not remember the sermon.  My reaction was entirely to the face.  It’s possible that all of our heads were expected to be bowed in contemplation and prayer.  I didn’t like it.

Maybe my reaction was proud, rebelling against the presumption that I was in need of conviction and repentance.  Or maybe it was confused, seeing things in grown ups that I didn’t understand.  Part of me still thinks that I was sensitive to something not quite right.  That perhaps the sermon needed to be preached, and the congregation needed to mourn their sins – but that the face was wrong.

In any case, what I have since learned about church and pastors brings new questions.  How should a man look and act and feel who has spoken rebuke to his church?  Why is a congregation left to deal privately with what they have heard, silently in a dark room?  Shouldn’t the one on whom the burden was laid to reveal the wound or canker in the church stay to help fix it, instead of walking down the aisle to the back?  Must sheep approach the shepherd for help, especially when it was he who pointed out their danger?

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There’s a lot of cynicism about the Church today.  And while I am stimulated by argument, by addressing something I identify as wrong, I don’t think of myself as a cynic.  Rather, this confrontation with status-quo is inherently hopeful.  I invest energy because I think Church could be better.

Before I left my last church, a few people were leaving slowly.  And my friends who were staying, they wondered why.  “There’s no such thing as a perfect church,” they argued.  “So why search for another kind of bad?”  Which reasoning rather baffled me.  What were they praying for?  Why did they do anything in the Church?  Didn’t they believe our community could be better?  And if we can get better, isn’t it possible that something better already exists?

Now, there may be other arguments for hanging around a church that is not as close to perfect as you hope.  But to say that leaving a church is for people with unrealistic expectations is silly.  Whatever your choice, your reason for staying should be the same as your reason for leaving: hope.  If you stay, be hoping to see God grow your church to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.  If you go, may it be because you hope that God has more designed for the Church than the divided and sterile institution you’re leaving.

I didn’t leave the institutional church in despair.  There was hurt and disappointment over the group of people I had been congregating with.  But there was joy over the release God had given me – not release from fellowship or love or truth, but release from schedules and structures and enduring a view of Church that I no longer believe.  I went out looking for people of God doing life together, praying together, participating together in teaching and worship and celebrating Communion.  My search has been for a high view of our Bridegroom as the Head of His Church, of a supernatural (but orderly) view of the Spirit of our God as He orchestrates lives and relationships and meetings.

These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth.  For they that say such things declare plainly that they seek a country.  And truly, if they had been mindful of that country from whence they came out, they might have had opportunity to have returned.  But now they desire a better country, that is, an heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for he hath prepared for them a city.” – Hebrews 11:13-16

I am persuaded that there is something better than what I have experienced.  And I will desire it and pursue it.  The things I write here on ChurchMoot really excite me.  What I read in the Bible about Church excites me.  The gates of hell will not prevail against the Church.  Christ is purifying and strengthening His gloriously beautiful Church.  He’s preparing a place for us.  There are visions of unity and purpose and power.  A joy in knowing that we believe in, serve, and wait on an Almighty and Good God.

What’s more, I have hope that the people of God are being awakened to the biblical descriptions of Church.  Now when people realize church is broken, they’re seeking answers from God, and acting on them!  No longer will they betray the Body of Christ by their silence, by their tacit approval, by being accomplices.  They don’t want the world to think that what it calls Church is the ideal Beloved Bride of a Radiant Savior.  He purified for Himself His own special people, zealous for good works!  They want the world to see a light set on a lampstand, not some pitiful ember fading into darkness.

We are not a cult.  We are the Redeemed.  Joyful.  Saying so.  Hopeful.  Believing it is our God who builds His Church.  Waiting for our Messiah to come back – begging Him to come quickly!  We are loving, caring for each other, not afraid to weep or to rejoice.  The God who created the universe, the Spirit who raised Christ from the dead, indwells us.  He speaks through us, comforts us, guides and instructs us.  The same God who rattled the Early Church prayer meetings with mighty rushing wind is among us.  Let that be known.  Let it be proclaimed.  Don’t contain it in schedules and corporate models.  Joy might be practiced, but not rehearsed!  Truth should be so familiar that it can be ad-libbed.  We share in a life that is saturated with God, with no distinction between the times when we are doing ordinary work and when we are worshiping.

God called His people to abundant life, life in Him.  My hope for the Church is that we embrace it.

In the model of church I read in the New Testament, particularly 1 Corinthians, when the believers gather, a few bring something – not by design of man, but by movement of God: a word, a prophecy (directing the people to a truth they need to hear), an edification, a testimony, a song.  In the New Testament, I believe there were no worship leaders preparing several songs for their congregation to sing.  Our churches today put the pressure on these men to open the door to worship, to lay out the path and charge ahead, teaching us to follow.  At my church there is a stage, and those on it perform – whether performing a duty or a concert, they are not “one of us.”

If a church meeting was participatory, those who brought songs to sing would have reasons.  The song would express not necessarily what we should feel or believe, but what we do believe, or do want to feel.  If a song was less relevant to me, I could sing it because I knew it was relevant to my brother or sister.  The singing would draw us together, and edify each other.

You run into practical problems.  How do people know the lyrics?  What about the tune?  Do we have a pianist?  If it’s a new song, how do we learn?  These aren’t really problems.  For centuries there have been folk songs, these melodies and lyrics rarely written, seldom studied, and almost universally known.  If you don’t know it the first time, maybe you will learn after a few times.  We carry on this custom in the practice of Christmas caroling.  No instrument.  A leader or not.

In other ways our church is struggling.  I know the lives of at least half our congregation, and how they struggle to follow God.  Their lives are hard, and many of them have blocked God into Sunday mornings rather than reconciling their pain with His sovereignty.  We hear reports of continued failure in devotional lives and evangelism.  And we have so many factions of people who don’t get along and don’t want to.  There is dissention from the congregation about the leadership.  Members suffer illness, poverty, depression – or distraction, materialism, and pleasure-lust.

We have no joy.

Some weeks I am attentive to God’s work in my life, and the joy wants to explode at the least chink of opportunity.  Outside of church – the channeled expression of prepared songlists and sermon series – I do: spin around, jump up and down, clap my hands, lift up my voice.  Inside children are hushed.  Conversation is silenced.  Movement is confined to the row of seats where there is not even enough room to bow, let alone to dance.  What if we did?  What if one day those of us who know joy simply couldn’t contain it?  Imagine laughter, tears, hugs, jumping, swaying, bowing, leaping.  Most of us don’t even know joy like that anywhere.

We have lost joy.  We can barely even imagine it.

Perhaps the church is weak because “The joy of the Lord is my strength.” Or we do not preach the gospel to the world because that would be, “Shout joyfully to the Lord, all the earth.”  Are we striving against each other because we do not “rejoice with those who rejoice”?

Worship has always been hard for me – at church.  I can think of maybe three times when during the singing at church I have been sincere and undistracted.  So many more times I’ve prayed through the service, offering to God my struggle and my discontent.  Pushing beyond that, I’m willing to consider that there is more going on here than my attitude, and that the atmosphere that stifles me at church might have a remedy.  When I talk to friends who go to my church, those who have experienced worship somewhere else during their lives, they agree that worship is hard there.  So this isn’t just me.

Teachers read us John 4 and say that true worship can be anywhere.  The people around you shouldn’t matter.  Neither should the color of the walls or the style of the music.  If your heart is right, they insist, you can worship.

Maybe the statement is true if your definition of worship is broad, something like: acknowledging that God is real and good and that He saved you – or even: doing what God’s will for you is this moment.  I have a few objections to the assertion made by teachers if the definition is more traditional.

  • The point of congregational worship is that you are with other people – and not just with them, but aware of them and united with them.  If they are not participating, that should bother you.  Maybe we need to stop the worship service and address what’s going on.
  • If you are standing in a room with someone whom you know is sad, and you care about that person, it is reasonable to let that sadness affect you.  On the other hand, if a friend is belting out joy to the Lord, that should affect you as wall.
  • The setting matters because it can be an ‘argument setting itself against the knowledge of God’.  I would have a hard time worshipping God in a Buddhist temple, idols all around.
  • Worship styles are not as subjective as people make them out to be.  Music has meaning.  Different genres express different emotions.  Trumpeting might be good for a battle cry or victory celebration, but less appropriate for repentance.  “Music” that gives its audience headaches or heart palpitations is not going to be conducive to worship.
  • What is being sung also matters.  Theologically false lyrics do not honor God. Some songs are theologically neutral.  Twinkle, twinkle little star is a nice song with nothing improper.  It just isn’t much about God, which worship is supposed to be.  In the same line, a song all about how we feel and what we will do for God is not really worship either, unless it is connecting this as a response to God’s work and worthiness.

In collecting, reviewing, and publishing these articles on ChurchMoot, I’ve been reminded of an idea that has been flitting on the edge of my mind.  The institutional church that I’m trying to refute is full of ritual.  Evangelical versions of rituals are so mundane that most of us don’t even notice.  Little things like shaking hands with the pastor as you leave the sanctuary, like bowing heads and closing eyes to pray are the protestant version of ritual.  Communion Services (or the Lord’s Supper) are some more obvious examples.

I cringe at ritual.  Christmas celebrations in church are famous for it.  Light this candle.  Recite this verse.  It makes me want to stay home.

But one must admit there is a lot of ceremony in the Bible.  The Temple regulations were specific about how to offer sacrifices, where to sprinkle blood, when to wash.  And this isn’t confined to the Old Testament.  In Revelation, John’s heavenly vision is of creatures throwing themselves repetitively at the feet of the King, crying the same praises.  A scroll is brought forth and they have to find the one who can break the seal.  Then the scroll is brought to Him.  When God could just speak and the plagues of the tribulation would come, He instead has angels with bowls and trumpets administering His judgment.

I wonder if our perspective isn’t off, though.  Maybe a whole lot more of our lives are ceremonial.  And maybe the things we do are figures of a reality we should be mindful of, but have forgotten.  Perhaps we have forgotten because we drew a line between ritual and everything else, between sacred and secular.  We got caught up in being ceremonious, and thought that was the point, and that the means didn’t matter.  When the means are everything.

Take the Lord’s Supper.  There is not likely anything else in a Christian’s practice with more significance.  Christ’s body is broken for us.  His blood seals a covenant.  Eating His body and blood brings life.  Jesus isn’t sharing this meal again until He shares it with us in the kingdom of God.  Do this as memorial for Him.  One loaf symbolizes and advances unity.  The Church is renewing a covenant of betrothal.  Jesus, the Husband of the Church, loves us as His own body, and gives Himself for us.  And we learn, we practice, we experience these truths in Communion.  All without scripts and choreography.  Without special plates or cups or robes.

But we have scripted it, choreographed it, and contained it in special plates and cups.  For the sake of reverent ritual, or convenience, we have mastered something that isn’t an art; it’s a child’s connect-the-dots.  Being so careful what we say and where we step, we’ve forgotten what we feel and what we believe.  Instead of a living parable, a stage drama of the Feast of Feasts, we’re living stick-figures.

I want to try living the metaphor, not just representing it.

Succession

“Why did God let His Church get so messed up?” I asked my brother.  The vision of the Church cast by the apostles, recorded by Luke, was so beautiful.  How did God let us lose so much?

  1. The vision is still there.  And the Church is still real.  And we all have access to the truth.
  2. It is possible that throughout the centuries there have been communities of Christians who lived as the Church, separate from the tradition of the dominant Catholic Church.
  3. Maybe Church practice was never supposed to be traditional.  Some things would be normative, because they are true, and because Jesus Christ is the head of all of His Church, everywhere.
  4. Maybe we’ve been caught up in the philosophy of succession.  Protestants rejected succession in the form of the Pope, who claimed authority by reason of “apostolic succession.”  But we failed to reject the idea of succession.  Why do we need to pass on the way we do things?  Do we believe in an almighty, communicating God, or don’t we?
  5. Perhaps the need to preserve and record our practices distracts us from really seeking the kingdom.  Are we forgetting that the kingdom of God is in the hearts of men?