10 Thoughts on the Church
by Troy Cady
When the poor, broken, powerless and hurting encountered the self-righteous power-brokers of society in Jesus’ day, they walked away from the encounter worse off than they were before.
When the poor in spirit found Jesus, he saw them, he loved them, he cared for them. Jesus was known by the broken as a healer, he was known by the hurting as a friend. They did not want to walk away from him. They wanted to be with him. He was like living water to thirsty souls.
The only people who walked away from Jesus sad or angry were the self-sufficient or self-righteous.
I have seen the poor in spirit hurt by the church. When this happens, the church is no better than a group of self-righteous power-brokers who fail to perceive their own need for a Savior.
This should not be. If the church is to be the Body of Christ, she should not silence the voices of her poor, powerless prophets. The church should be a place where small voices are heard, small people are seen and enfolded in love.
The church should not be a place where people get wounded. It should be a place where wounded people receive and administer healing. The church should be a people known as Wounded Healers.
I have heard people talk of getting “back-handed” by the church. That is, they share something of themselves and their comments are met with judgement or condemnation, whether implicit or explicit. As a result, the person who shared their real self with others in the church then grows reluctant to share again. Because of this, they feel inclined, rightly so, to put on a mask for fear they will be rejected if they share again what they really think.
All this because of insensitive hearts, thoughtless, hurtful comments.
Just who do we think we are?
God listens to us when we share our real self. He does not care a fig about our pious appearance. He wants us to come to him just as we are, without pretense. Yes, everyone is imperfect, but He does not reject us. It is a good thing he sees through our pretense, because when he sees us trying to present ourselves as better than we really are he simply invites us to see ourselves as he sees us, truthfully in love. God longs for us to come to him in truth…not with a pretty mask. He promises to listen when we speak to him truthfully.
So we should do likewise for one another. We should just listen when we hear another speaking to us from their true self. We should not judge or advise or put them down. We should just listen. In fact, we should marvel and count it a high honor when someone shares from their true self. It is a precious trust they give us. We should not betray that trust. We should treasure it. Such true sharing is indeed sacred.
The church should be a place of good listening and honest, humble sharing.
“Let’s be sure!” That is a phrase I have heard a church use as a motto for various programs they run. I think it is because they are afraid of not having all the right answers. Their goal is to give people (especially the young) a tool box of “answers that are certain.”
The problem is: there will always be doubt and we will never be able to know everything with one hundred percent certainty and accuracy. Only God knows everything.
Just who do we think we are?
We should make peace with uncertainty because as long as we are human we will always be uncertain. We don’t know everything. We can’t.
God invites us to worship, and our worship of God grows stronger in the soil of mystery. The church should foster an environment of childlike wonder. We should invite questions—doubting, honest questions.
We should befriend doubters. Jesus did. And he helped them in their doubt—not by giving them straight-forward answers but rather by boggling their minds with subversive parables and defiance of the laws of nature.
Remember: everything we once thought certain is called into question when we meet Jesus. He messes with your mind and shows you the limits of your understanding.
Think about it: it is counter-intuitive to bless those who curse you. Jesus doesn’t make sense to us. That’s the shock of it and that’s the point of Jesus’ ministry: we don’t know, but he does. Trust him.
Trust does not have to have all the right answers. That is the plain, simple truth. Children do not have all the right answers but they do know how to trust. Trust, not certainty, is what God invites. Certainty is not bad, but trust is better.
It is good news to know we don’t know everything. The kingdom of God is a milieu of wonder in worship. We should experience that kind of atmosphere when the people of God gather.
I have heard people talk of leaving a church or leaving a certain denomination, in search of something better. I have heard people say of the church, “We’re leaving. It has been too long we’ve been here. It’s time to go.”
It seems to me that the church is no more than a prison for people who feel that.
How is it that we have appointed ourselves wardens of another person’s soul? We do not hold the keys to their salvation. Only Jesus holds those keys. And Jesus frees.
Christians like to distinguish one community of faith from another by looking at the various belief systems but the fact is: communities of faith are defined more by freedom and captivity than by creed.
Jesus came to free the captives. If the church feels like a prison, she has failed the people Jesus came to set free.
The church should be a place of freedom. If people are captivated it should be because of the presence of beauty and desire. When we are captivated by what is good, lovely, and praiseworthy we experience real freedom. We are truly present to the good because we want to be present, not because we are coerced into presence. The church should be a place of freedom.
Church attendance at Sunday morning services in America is declining drastically. I hear pastors lament this. Christians speak of “dying churches” and begin to worry: “What will become of us?”
It is as if we think the Church is equivalent to a Sunday morning program.
But the Church is greater than the sum total of people who gather on Sunday morning between 9:00 and 10:30.
Among other images he employed, theologian Lesslie Newbigin spoke of the church as a “sign, foretaste and instrument of the kingdom of God.” We needn’t understand all the details of what he meant by that image to grasp that it includes the notion that the Church cannot be contained to 90 minutes each Sunday. The kingdom of God is a vast terrain, too much for any one person or group to explore in one lifetime. And the Church is to be a sign, a taste of that trackless dominion.
What makes us think that something as small as shrinking church service attendance on Sunday mornings can prevent God’s vision for his People from coming to full fruition? God’s imagination is bigger than any strategy we devise, schedule we keep, or attendance we tally.
I love how the poet ee cummings contrasts God’s playful vision in creation and our human attempt to control that vision.
when god decided to invent
everything he took one
breath bigger than a circustent
and everything began
when man determined to destroy
himself he picked the was
of shall and finding only why
smashed it into because
God’s breath is bigger than a circus tent! Everything that was and is and shall be owes its existence to the great Maker. So what makes us think this same God, by the power of his Breath, by the power of his Spirit, is not able to bring new life into existence? Do not worry. The Church may change its form, but her beauty will never fade. Jesus the Groom loves his Bride too much to let her fade into oblivion. The Church shall be renewed.
Speaking of imagination. The church should be a place where creativity and imagination flourish.
We live in a world where people apprehend truth through encounters with beauty. We are formed by art. The church should pursue artistic endeavors with such passion that we find ourselves continually living on the front-line of creative innovation.
Whatever one believes about the text in Genesis 1 and 2 (whether it is metaphorical or literal), one thing stands out: the text portrays God as creative.
In fact, God’s creativity is so incredible, our attempts to create are but poor imitations. He is the Master Artist.
If the Church is to reflect the goodness of God, she should seek to imitate God’s artistry.
And we shouldn’t skimp. When God makes something, he gives his best. We should, too. Church, give your best to make new, wonderful works that contain such power we feel the work has a life of its own.
It’s the seed of many a joke, but I’m not sure what to think when people fall asleep in church. (Here I’m using the word “church” to mean “Sunday morning service”; forgive the misnomer, but humor me all the same).
On the one hand, I’m glad people feel at ease enough to sleep in church. It means they are at home. Besides, if someone is so tired that they need the church service to catch up on some sleep, then we have done them a great service, pun intended.
Rest. That’s good.
But sometimes we fall asleep in church for one of two reasons. One: it’s boring. And two: we’re bored.
There’s a difference between the two and neither of them are forms of rest.
I was speaking with a friend last night and she was telling me about some classes in theology she is taking at a graduate school. She’s a part time student and is sacrificing both time and money to take these classes. She’s there because she wants to be there.
But the professors and the school are blowing it. Because she’s a part time student the classes she takes are held one day a week for three hours per session. Three hours in one go. That’s strike one.
On top of it, one professor insists everyone show up on time (so as to honor his time) but then he consistently goes overtime at the end, disrespecting their time. That’s strike two.
What’s more: the professor’s mode of education is…lecture and “let me show you how to do it.” When there is a little bit of discussion, the professor uses it as occasion to see if the students know the “right answer” instead of using it to generate more wondering. That’s strike three.
Finally, the professor has given them learning assignments outside of class time, so what does he give them for homework? Attendance at a special…lecture. Yep, that’s right: more lecturing.
That next pitch was a bean right on the noggin.
Good call, knucklehead. Don’t you know anything about effective learning? My friend told me that when these two classes are over she will seek another school for study. I don’t blame her.
I know the example above is not about “church” but it is apparent to me how the situation parallels what many church-goers often experience on Sunday mornings.
I cannot tell you how many churches use exclusively these two modes of formation on Sundays: singing and preaching (lecturing). The singing happens in two chunks (that are too long, by the way) and the preaching goes for AT LEAST 45 minutes.
Oy vey. Get over yourself already, preach. You’re not all that. I don’t care how good you are at public speaking.
This is something I love about the church we attend. Our pastor knows the value of creative communication and interactive forms of learning.
The church should be a place of engagement and interaction. The church should value time, because time is precious. Thought should be put into how we make the most of the time we have together. If we can make the experience hands-on, that is wonderful!
That said, I have also seen instances where church leadership does a good job of providing hands-on kinds of experiences…churches where the leaders put creative thought into how to use the time…but these efforts are met with a general malaise.
I liken it to how we often approach air travel nowadays. Air travel is a wonderful thing. How incredible that we can fly from place to place like birds!
Yet, we’ve grown used to it and so we feel entitled to the marvel of it. So, now there arises competition as to who can offer the best perks for the cheapest price. If even the slightest portion of service is out of whack, we complain.
Sometimes boredom in church is due to our own deadened affections. No matter how thoughtfully leaders prepare, the response is…yawn.
The church should be a people of quickened affections, a people sitting on the edge of our seats waiting eagerly to hear a word from God saying, “Go!” The church should be a people who are ready for action. Maybe we should take away the chairs and pews and just ask people to stand as if at-the-ready.
Just think what is possible if we all bring this kind of soft, pliable heart to our gatherings…if we say, “I want to be on time because I don’t want to miss a moment of this precious fellowship!” and “I don’t want to leave this place, because the time we have together is so, so sweet.”
The English word “church” is a translation of a Greek word that is “ekklesia”. Some people spell it with two c’s but it should really be spelled with two k’s. More later on why this matters.
At any rate, the word “ekklesia” is sometimes translated as “gathering” or “assembly.” It is a compound of two words: “ek” and “kaleo”. “Ek” means “out of” and “kaleo” means “to call” or “to name”.
The word “ekklesia” carries the notion that the church is “a people called out” to be with Jesus…together. Hence, the gathering. Jesus calls Peter, James and John to be with him. When they are all together, they are gathered, assembled.
He calls more people: Andrew, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew and Simon the Zealot. All in all, he called twelve to be his closest companions.
But he called out more people, too. Too many to count. They are all his disciples. And they are all “named”. The “naming” is like a magnet, drawing us to the side of Christ. He calls us by name and then he gives us a new name. The “new naming” is the experience of receiving a new identity now that we are in the company of Jesus and other Jesus followers. Jesus creates a new family with a new family name. He redefines us.
No matter the number of people gathered, the pattern is what matters. He calls us out to be with him and with each other. He does not call us out to be with just him and he does not call us out to be with just each other. He calls us out to be with him together.
But there’s more. I have only mentioned one movement in this “out of” pattern. Broadly speaking, the church is a people who are simply “out of” one space into another.
The first part of the pattern is when Jesus calls us out to be with him and others. The second part of the pattern is when Jesus calls us out of that space into the space of those who do not follow Jesus yet. In the first movement, he makes us his disciples. In the second movement he names us as apostles.
The word “apostle” carries with it the notion of being “spread out.” This is when the church is “called out” from a “gathered” form to a “scattered” form. Both movements matter. Without gathering, the scattering has no substance and cannot be sustained. But, without spreading out…we are just another holy huddle.
That is why I love the word “ekklesia”. It carries both sides of this coin. It means that we are called “out of” darkness into light (to be gathered to Jesus) but it also means we are called “out of” ourselves and into the world of others (scattering so that more people may be gathered to Jesus and scattered for him).
This is the same rhythm that resides in God’s self. God himself is ek-static. He is the out-of-himself One, eternally “self-emptying”. It’s a portrait of joy. The Father leaps out of himself into the Son and the Son reciprocates. They are gathered to one another such that they are One, but they scatter themselves like seeds cast into one another. They bear the fruit of the seed that is cast: divinity.
Then, the Son, one with the Father, leaps into our world in the person of Jesus. Notice that he is “sent”, “scattered” like a seed in the earth. He is “out of” himself, ek-static.
Those called by Jesus respond to his leap. They leap to him, leaving everything to follow him. We replicate Triune relationship in this new way of being with Jesus. So…
…just as the Father sent the Son to the world, Jesus sends those he has gathered to be his presence in the world. He calls us “out of” ourselves, to leap into the world of others. We become an “apostolic church”, which is to say a “spread out gathering”.
He does this by the ministry of the Holy Spirit.
I believe the church should be apostolic. I believe we should be a “spread out gathering”. We image God when we live this way.
I believe the church should take risks.
I remember talking with a pastor in Madrid who was afraid his church was going to fold. I asked him why he thought this and the conversation turned to the fact that they were on the brink of losing their building.
I said, “Why are you worried about that? The church doesn’t need a building to be the church. In fact, maybe this building is something that’s keeping you from really being the church.”
Jesus had a church that didn’t have a building. Jesus gathered people.
If it is true that the church doesn’t need its own property to thrive then it follows that the church can be a risky bunch.
So what if our money and land are taken? The kingdom of God is greater than money and land. The church, as a sign of the kingdom, has the opportunity to demonstrate that reality.
Don’t fear losing money and land, Church. That is not your power. Your power is in walking humbly, working for justice, showing mercy. Money and land are incidental to those purposes. If you need money and land to fulfill those purposes, God is big enough to provide it. If you lack money and land, you can still be about the work of the kingdom of God.
So, take risks. Dream big dreams. Enjoy thinking of new ways to be a redemptive presence in the world.
Just think of all the beautiful people all around us every day. Take a moment now to see their faces in your mind’s eye.
See the color of their skin. Those colors are good. Every color…good.
See their eyes…windows to a soul so deep we can never fathom its depth. Every soul…beloved.
Some of those faces have wrinkles. The wrinkles tell stories of joy and pain, community and loneliness, loss and gain.
There is also that face of the baby: fresh and wide-eyed with wonder. The baby giggles at strange sounds and new shapes.
See all the faces: children, teenagers, college students, twenty-somethings…
…accountants and teachers, builders and boxers, planners and waiters.
Some people are rich, others are poor. Some are gentle and quiet; others are bold and loud. Some are pioneers, while others are settlers.
Everyone is beautiful and everyone has a unique gift to offer others.
The church should be a place where everyone is accepted and loved, a place where everyone can know and be known.
The church should not be a place where everyone has to be just like everyone else. Unity is only valuable in so far as we possess diversity. If we are not diverse, our so-called unity is only conformity.
We like to think of ourselves as appreciative of diversity but I think we have a long way to go to truly appreciate it. Too often we think of appreciating diversity as “I’ll leave you alone and you leave me alone and that is how we will live together in peace.”
But that is not peace. Peace is not “being left alone.” Peace is friendship. Friendship doesn’t leave one alone. Friendship embraces one another.
That is the tricky part. The embrace. The playing together.
I believe the church should be a place of playing together, a place of friendship. If that “place” is not in a church building, that’s okay: it’s in the kingdom of God.
“I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it. On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there. The glory and honor of the nations will be brought into it. Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life.” (Revelation 21:22-27)