Experiencing More of the Church

My three kids are, obviously, pastor’s kids. Yes, that alone is enough to keep them in prayer. But for them, church has been a certain way all their lives. While not necessarily a bad thing, it does mean they have had a pretty narrow experience of church. Not only are they mostly familiar with Baptist churches, they are mostly familiar with our Baptist church. I know, I know. I can just hear you, “What? Not all Baptists are the same? Get out!”

Beyond that, of course, they have had very little exposure to other Christian traditions such as Anglican, Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Pentecostal, etc.

However, a few weeks ago my wife and I took our two sons (Alas, we couldn’t convince our 16 year old daughter to join us) to an Ash Wednesday service at the nearest Anglican Church. It was the start of the Lenten season of the church and we wanted to begin it the right way.

For our sons, who are 12 year old twins, it was a very strange experience. The priest wore liturgical vestments (which they called robes). They thought that was cool (and for this reason said I should get some robes for myself). There was an altar at the front of the church rather than a pulpit or music stand for the pastor’s sermon notes. Much more of the service felt formal, of course. And we had to go forward twice, once to receive Communion and once so the priest could place ashes on our foreheads.

It was not at all Baptist-like.

Now, since I have been on vacation during our kids’ March break, yesterday we had the unusual opportunity to attend another church on Sunday morning. We could have gone to any number of churches that would have been very similar to our own, where we would even have known the pastor and some of the people in the congregation, but we really wanted to do something different. Both for ourselves and for our kids. So we went back to this same Anglican church yesterday for a regular Sunday service.

Interestingly, the priest of this particular Anglican Church was raised a Southern Baptist. Given that I was raised Roman Catholic Church and am now a Baptist pastor, it made me wonder how his journey of faith would compare to my own.

Here’s the thing: Our own experience of church–mine and yours–can often be so limited. Understandably, since we can only visit churches of other traditions and styles so often depending on where we live and the opportunities we have. But this can mean that our vision of what church means and what being a Christian means is also narrow. Sometimes by virtue of our limited experience we can reduce what is right, good, and true to our own tradition. We can go from having a limited experience of church to thinking that our experience ought to be normative. How we do church is how church should be done.

Looking back at my own life, I am grateful that I have had the chance to experience a variety of churches. In addition to being raised Catholic and now being Baptist, I’ve worshipped in Lutheran, Anglican, Pentecostal, Presbyterian, United, Wesleyan, and plenty of non-denominational churches.

For me, there are at least three ways in which this valuable. First, just like I came to faith in Christ in large part outside of the church in which I was raised, I need to be open to the possibility that it can happen in the same way for my kids. Or that a wider variety of experiences can help them see past the limitations of their own. Christianity is much, much larger than the congregation they know most personally. I don’t want their spiritual journey to be shaped only by their experience of our Baptist church.

Second, there are spiritual riches to receive, and ways to encounter God, by experiencing other church traditions. This is because different traditions have different emphases. I remember, for example, hearing my first sermon in a Baptist setting. I was blown away. I was used to 5 minute homilies. It was such a refreshing change. Indeed, sometimes God can reach our stubborn hearts more easily when we are out of our comfort zones and familiar settings. That’s certainly how God initially got a hold of me.

And lastly, experiencing other church traditions can help us see our own in a fresh light, good and bad. Maybe we (especially if we’re pastors) will see ways of augmenting our approach to worship with practices not typical of our own tradition (in our case Baptist). Most recently, I have made more use of responsive readings and confessions of faith in our worship. I also think it can help us have a deeper appreciation for our own tradition. It gives us fresh perspective.

I don’t know about you, but I can be blessed by God through hymns accompanied by organ or worship songs accompanied by guitars and drums. Both deeply exegetical sermons and more succinct homilies have spoken the word of God into my life. I appreciate quieter, comtemplative worship and more energetic, vibrant worship. I hold in many respects to what one might call “mere Christianity,” the faith that was delivered to the saints once for all (Jude 1:3). Churches that are orthodox, affirm the earliest creeds (The Nicene Creed and the Apostles’ Creed, for example), and the authority of Scripture, are ones I feel able and welcome to worship in. Whatever else is true of the particular church beyond that, I can rejoice that I have a much larger family of brothers and sisters in Christ than I am usually aware of.

Ministry According to Jesus (thanks to the Gospels of Matthew and Mark!)

ImageOne of the hallmarks of Jesus’ earthly ministry is the opposition it aroused among the religious authorities of the time: the Pharisees and the Sadducees. One key example of this is Matthew 23. This chapter features Jesus’ response to having been challenged and tested by the Pharisees and Sadducees both (Matthew 22:15—46). He essentially excoriates them for the hypocrisy of their religious practices that had the effect of neglecting what he calls “the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith” (Matthew 23:23). Specifically, Jesus accuses them of weighing down people with the burden of man-made traditions without actually demonstrating the love of neighbour, the “weightier matters of the law.”

The church has the responsibility of asking itself the questions: What among our ecclesiastical traditions and practices and beliefs are man-made? What about our church culture, whether as a local congregation or as a denomination or faith tradition, prevents us from reaching people or from them being able to get to Jesus? We have to be a self-examining community. Particularly in a culture increasingly unfamiliar with our liturgical and theological traditions, we have to be increasingly self-aware of what may make it more difficult both to hear and receive the good news of Jesus.

Ultimately, we want to bring people to Jesus, not be driving them away from him. For example, there are the people who bring the paralyzed man to Jesus (Mark 2:1—12). Insistent on getting their friend to Jesus, they go as far as removing the roof when crowds prevent their friend from entering the front door. The religious authorities who witness Jesus’ forgiving the paralytic and then healing him accuse Jesus of blasphemy. Their inability to recognize Jesus—on account of their preconceived ideas about the Messiah—blinds them to the work of salvation occurring right under their noses. They are blind to the paralyzed man’s need. The church needs to model itself more after the people who bring the paralytic to Jesus rather than the Scribes who are furious for Jesus for forgiving him.

One example of this is our use of church facilities. Traditionally, many congregations view their physical facilities as sacred. How a congregation uses the space is therefore predetermined by this assumption. This prevents a church from opening their space as a means of adding value to the surrounding community. Whether for a local community supper or a coffee house or to a local sports team or community group, a congregation that considers their building a public space makes it possible for members of the congregation to bless and engage their neighbours. It could have the effect of building bridges and relationships. There are a number of factors to consider in allowing such use of its physical space, but the church always has to weigh reasons against taking such a step with its obligation to do all it can to demonstrate the gospel. It has to ask itself: are our reasons theological (and, if yes, then are these reasons sound?) or are our reasons practical?

Another distinguishing feature of Jesus’ ministry is that he is almost always out among the people with his disciples. Very little of Jesus’ ministry takes place in the synagogues and in the Temple; and on the occasions it does he is often challenging the religious establishment. He teaches openly. He shares table fellowship with “tax collectors and sinners” (Matthew 9:11; 12:9—14). He is publicly visible, giving those in need a chance to bring their needs to him (Mark 5:21—43; 6:53—56). While Jesus is not portrayed as actively seeking people to heal, he is always doing so, responding to people who reach out to him in faith.

‘Missional’ is a catchword in many churches today. A catchword is not that helpful, but the principle behind it is. A great number of local congregations are struggling because no one is coming to their programs and services. The churches that seem to be experiencing growth, spiritually and numerically, are those that are finding ways to serve their communities without strings attached. Churches need to transition from a “come and see” model to a “go” model. Jesus is hands-on; in other words, he is willing to meet people where they are. This has to be a mark of his disciples too. Individually, as disciples dispersed to workplaces, classrooms, homes, and neighbourhoods, Christians need to view the ground on which they stand as the mission field. Evangelism needs to be transposed into relationships, conversations, and acts of generosity and kindness. Corporately, the church needs to find creative and authentic ways to go where people are, whether it is handing out free water at a community parade or offering to plant fresh flowers on the grounds of a local school.

Underlying all of this, however, is Jesus’ modus operandi as found in Mark 10:45: “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” No amount of missional strategies or programs or events or even encouragement and teaching will make it possible for the church to reach the people Jesus came to save. Jesus’ ministry is fuelled by a passion for people, a love for the searching, the hurting, and the lost. Only love explains the ultimate trajectory of Jesus’ ministry, the cross.

The attitude of the church needs to correspond to Jesus’ modus operandi. It was Jesus’ intent to create a community that exists for the purpose of proclaiming and demonstrating the good news (Matthew 5:14—16; 16:18). He gathered disciples to go out and duplicate his own ministry (Mark 3:13—19; 6:7—13). The church needs to be a community of people so transformed by the message they seek to proclaim that they share both Jesus’ heart for those who need to hear it and the willingness to sacrifice in order to do so. The church needs to ‘love thy neighbour.’ This means the church is not only to proclaim the gospel but is also to be an expression of the gospel.

The reality Christians face is that most people who are among the un-churched are not going to come to their local church on their own and are not going to initiate spiritual conversations. The onus is on believers. Such a situation necessitates some re-learning on behalf of believers, especially those that have been more accustomed to their neighbours having an interest in the church. There is perhaps much for congregations to give up in order that they might gain the trust and goodwill of their surrounding neighbours.

Much can also get in the way of bringing the good news to those who need it. Key to making sure that this is less and less so is keeping Jesus at the center. After all, he is the one at the center of the gospel; he is the gospel. Reading the gospels of Matthew and Mark it is clear that people sought Jesus. They sought the healing he could bring, they sought his compassion, they responded to his love, they were attracted to and amazed by his teaching. Crowds flocked to him. He was where they were. The church needs to be there too. In fact, this is what Jesus commissioned the church to do when he said “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:19—20).