What You Might See and Where It Might Come From

>There’s a great blog I’ve been following, Neighborhood Churches dot blogspot dot com, that “Bob McGrath” put together as he attends 50 different churches this year and comments on what he experiences in these diverse traditions and churches. As I read about his experiences and observations I’m left wondering about what he might write of my/our church if he ever happened to stop by.

This is what I see and experience.

Our congregation is small. The building smells old, but you might also smell coffee. We have a carafe of coffee off to the side for anyone who might have missed their morning pick-me-up or happens to feel more comfortable with a cup of something in their hands. If you happen to look up, wondering why the building is dark, you’ll see 3 burned out bulbs, and our newly installed ceiling fans are inoperational as they are disconnected from any power source. We don’t pass out bulletins, and there’s no central place that serves as our information highway (a bulletin board, an information table, statement of beliefs on the wall, church calendar, etc.) Our church library sits on one of the windowsills nearest the door so that all can see it, but it’s a jumbled mess. (A good idea that needs a bookshelf. Why doesn’t someone get a bookshelf? you might ask.)

Looking toward the back of the building an oversized mural of Jesus on the banks of the Galilee sea hangs from the back wall, just above the altar credenza, signifying His life and death and resurrection to which we gather for and learn from each week (or hope to anyway). A few other pictures hang around the building, all faded and discolored, all containing some form of the long-haired, white-robed Jesus to which we’ve become accustomed, except that Jesus’ robes look more yellow than white.

The entrance/foyer/greeting area in our church serves also the purpose of storage. Being a one room building, with no surrounding property to accommodate a storage shed, the winter decorations, folding chairs, oscillating fans, vacuum cleaner, banquet tables and other random odds and ends have found a home in the corners and along the side walls trying to be conspicuous but not necessarily accomplishing the task of being hidden. 2 windows are homes for air conditioners, ’70s-ish models, and as you look at them you are left wondering if those things even work anymore.

On the upside, the hardwood floors are wonderful. The old pews, the same color as the floors, might be uncomfortable, but they do look nice, and complement the heavy wooden pulpit on the stage area and the altar credenza. These all remind you that you’ve walked into a church, and you might even be able to envision the “greatness” of this building in it’s heyday.

These are the things you might first see. I know I do.

But as I put these things out of my mind–the things that need fixing or are out of place and outdated–I focus on what takes place here. What am I about to experience?

Our worship music comes from a small personal stereo, and the words are followed along on pages of card stock. With the volume turned up all the way, the people follow along as best they can, lifting their voices when the volume is able to drown them out and they feel comfortable enough with the words. They try, and it’s nice to know that no one expects an accomplished choir or a semi-professional worship set put together by a semi-professional worship leader and accompanying band.

Prayer is varied. Sometimes it’s 3-5 minutes of silent introspection and reflection on God. Sometimes it’s the Lord’s Prayer with stops at each juncture to allow for personal expression that is guided by the sentiment within the prayer. Sometimes we take prayer requests as a group and pray over those. Sometimes we follow the ACTS model (Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication). Prayer is always different, and how you experience this portion of the service is dependent on how comfortable you are with different avenues of prayer. (I like it because there are as many ways to pray as we can think of–we might as well tap into at least a small variety of those ways as a collective group.)

Then it’s the sermon. It’s usually the largest portion of the Sunday morning service. (I’m working on becoming more concise.) We don’t have power point. There are no pages with fill-in-the-blanks or an outline to follow. Some people come with personal notebooks to take notes and some come with Bibles in hand, most, however, do not. We don’t follow the liturgy in our congregation, at least not regularly, so it’s up to the preacher (me) to listen to where God is leading. The congregation sits attentively, nodding from time to time, but no hallelujahs or amens ring out, no hankies waving in the air. We are a reserved bunch.

We don’t take a formal offering. The offering plate sits on a little table near the door for anyone who might want to contribute.

We don’t light candles.

We don’t have a formal benediction each week.

We don’t do altar calls.

We don’t burn incense.

We do end in prayer, usually preceded by a personal challenge for the week that’s tied to the sermon, and sometimes we go out singing a final song. We gather near the doors before heading out, sharing our weeks’ activities, family stories, funny jokes. Some fill up their coffee cups, some grab a mint or two on their way out. Our lingering reminds us all that we’re a community, a family that God has assembled for such a time as this. Attire is casual. Greetings are casual. Conversations are casual. Come as you are is the message we hope to convey. We hope that as we come together, each and every one of us might be more open to God’s Holy Spirit working in us and on us to spiffy us up. Our job as believers is to come and let Him do what only He can do. And if we do our job, we believe God will do His job.

What I see and what I experience sometimes clash. We believe in the transformation of people– of growing, changing, becoming. And yet, while we’re accepting the challenges to sing songs we’re unfamiliar with, to pray in ways that are new, and to reflect on God’s Word and our lives in light of it, we fail to attend to some of the most basic aspects of our worship space–burned out light bulbs, broken chairs (that we can’t get rid of because someone donated them 30 years ago and we don’t want to dishonor their generosity by throwing them away), addressing storage issues, etc.

If you come to our church as a visitor, you won’t know that we don’t have an actual pastor. You might think that I’m the pastor, but I’m not. I’m filling the pulpit on a verbal agreement between me and one of the actual members of the church. I’m not even required to lead the music or prayer portions, but I do because no one was doing those things. You also won’t know that no one is designated for building maintenance (the reason for those burned out light bulbs), and there are no guidelines for who can make purchases on behalf of the church and to what amount (now you know why we don’t have a bookshelf). You also won’t know that the current board doesn’t meet regularly to make decisions, and that only one board member actually even attends church. Out of all the people that attend church every week, only one is authorized to make any decision whatsoever about what happens to the actual building and the financial gifts that people contribute (we don’t have an information center because there’s no information to relay). The lack of pride in and ownership of our worship surroundings and the lack in some of our worship practices are directly related to our lack in leadership and governing policies. You might never know that, but you will see it and experience it in some way, shape, or form. It makes me sad.

I realize that no church operates in its ideal; even those churches that seem to have everything are still striving for something. But some are operating much closer to that ideal than others, and I’m ashamed to say it, but I think we’re on the farther end rather than the closer end. My last blog post was filled with exhaustion and frustration. Maybe that sentiment came through, maybe it didn’t. (I think it did, but I can’t read it apart from my own voice and know how it came across.) It’s because I want so much more from our little church, our little congregation. I don’t want to stay stagnant. I want what we believe to be fully fleshed out, lived out, and on display for the world to see. And without proper protocol and procedures to make even the most basic of decisions, no one is free then to make decisions. There’s no accountability. There’s no visible transformation. Who we say we are and who we show we are forever remain at odds.

If you ever stop by our church to worship with us, I hope that you keep all this in mind. Go easy on us and let your eyes of faith see what the eyes in your head cannot. I continue to look forward in faith of what this church can be and what we as a church can do. We are in process, a long, difficult, sometimes taxing process, to iron out the wrinkles so that we can be the beautiful bride that God is helping us become. I look forward to those days.

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