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The church needs to be real, not manufactured
The words we use matter
I think I drove the Hub staff a little crazy when we were thinking about how to put up apparent signage at our meeting location that told our neighbors and passers-by that we’re a church. I just couldn’t call the building that the church meets in “a church.” There is something about that designation that disrupts some deeply held beliefs. I will risk sounding verbose (LOL, like that’s ever stopped me) to explain who we are in Jesus, because the words matter! I can’t take a shortcut. So I enjoy the process.
The trouble, of course, with seeming so pedantic is that people might fear speaking up because they don’t use the right language. To be completely honest, that’s not the church I want to build with you. I want to disciple people, not just give them a list of rules to adhere to. I don’t want to create a “sacred” and “secular” division, and that goes for the language we use too. Jesus is redeeming all of us and everything. Words included.
Repenting of separating the sacred and secular
I am concerned though that we still live in a word that divides the sacred and secular, the pious and profane. And I think if we’re not careful it leaks into our churches. I understand the impulse to make a meeting feel sacred. Drama helps us experience the metaphysical. And I’m all for dramatic worship and ecstatic experience, but this is an element of the theater of worship, not necessarily something sacramental. I know I will get myself in trouble with my higher church friends, but the body of Christ is the “sacrament,” and that means the church.
So that’s why I go to great pains to declare that we are the church; and that the church isn’t a building or a meeting, even though it has buildings and meetings. This shift is important because it changes how we see ourselves in the world. We’re always the church, always disciples of Jesus, always on a mission. This shift also changes how we see our meetings, our times for worship; they are times for communal fellowship and adoration of Jesus. They are special because we don’t always carve out the times in our week to do that. Our cells offer a similar opportunity too. But those meetings are expressions of our full life in God, not the sum of our full life in God.
Your faith isn’t just an ornament
I think, perhaps ironically, that both the high church, with its emphasis on the sacramental, and the lower Evangelical church, with its emphasis on an “attractive” meeting, really have very similar ideas of what the meeting should be. I’m afraid that this emphasis has led to Christianity simply being an augmentation of life in general. That our faith is just an ornament on our already well-established containers.
The transformation of Jesus is much bigger than a meeting, and the administration of His grace happens through much more than a ritual contained in a meeting, locked in a building. Similarly, you don’t get your Jesus-fix with a light show and a smoke machine. This is not to knock either tradition; in fact, I think Circle of Hope borrows from all of our past and brings it to the present. But we aren’t simply reduced to the show on Sunday.
And if you want that, I can probably point you to a place with a better show. This is not to say we don’t want to have quality meetings and experiences. I think production and drama help deliver the Gospel to people who might not know where to look for it. And worship leaders need to help us get there, guiding us along the journey, because we have a variety of experience levels in how to worship. We make our meeting together. It’s a homemade meeting. That doesn’t mean it's sloppy or careless; but it means that everyone can do it and we need everyone to do it.
Leading people to worship and to cook aren’t that different
Worship then shouldn’t be a given. Most people just don’t know how to do it. It’s not natural or instinctive necessarily. Worship is taught and also caught. We learn it by hearing it, and by seeing it modeled. There’s a reason why flag worship in the United States is so instinctive to so many people: most of us learned to pledge allegiance to our flag at a very young age.
People who grew up Catholic or Evangelical were also indoctrinated at a young age to participate in worship. I grew up Evangelical and grew up in the church, so I have an idea how to use songs and worship with little experience. We want to create an environment where assembly isn’t required, or if it is, the leaders lead you to do it, teach you to do it.
It’s not unlike a good recipe. I love reading cookbooks and recipes. In fact, my pleasure reading is often comprised of reading a good cookbook. A good recipe is detailed and thorough; it doesn’t assume you know anything about the kitchen. It uses clear descriptions and is concise. I’ve actually read a recipe that had an initial instruction of “make puff paste.” And that was it. It assumed you knew how to make puff pastry. Granted, it was an old-time cookbook. Leading worship is not unlike helping someone cook. Do it as if they have no idea what they are doing and everyone can succeed; and honestly, I’m an experienced cook and worshiper and I still like good instructions. In fact, bad instructions are often distracting! It’s a little bit disappointing to buy a new cookbook and correct the recipes as I’m reading them!
But don’t get me wrong; the recipes, and the worship, don’t necessarily come out picturesque. But we can do them together, and that’s the point. The pie crust might not be perfectly crimped, because an all-butter crust is just harder to work with, but it’s gonna be delicious. Because what shortening adds in versatility and durability, butter adds in flavor, and when it comes down to it, flavor is what counts.
The flavor of worship and community needs to be authentic
The flavor of our worship is the same as the flavor of our community: it’s authentic, it’s real, it’s homemade, as I said before. It’s genuine. It’s a reflection of the life we live. It is not irreverent, but it doesn’t fall prey to the temptation to separate the sacred and the secular. We still want an authentic flavor, an inclusive meeting, that results in a numinous experience that actually leads to metaphysical transformation and alleviates existential dread. We want it to make you feel better and more hopeful. And quite a few people need that hope in this dark, troubled world.
My cousin came to the meeting on Sunday. He was born and bred in Egypt, and become a self-described atheist a few years ago. After the Arab Spring (he was one of the young men in Tahrir Square rebelling with the rest), Egypt was in enough turmoil that he fled the country. He ended up in Denver, but eventually found himself in Philly, where he says, "we're real, because we're assholes." I appreciated that.
Anyway, he visited my cell and thought it was cool. But was hesitant about coming to a meeting since he thought we might be too church-y. Turns out we're not. He said we’re real, and authentic. Easy to get into it. He didn't feel put upon at all; meanwhile, I thought we had a Spirit-filled meeting. We didn't dumb down the Gospel, but we delivered it personally and authentically. That’s what we’re trying to do.
The church isn’t a show, it’s a life. We are the church.