The year was 2007. The first iPhone was released, the Red Sox won the World Series, and Britney Spears (bless her heart) shaved her head. But amidst all that hoopla, my family and I left one of the most amazing churches we’d experienced to date. Our exit was not due to pastoral scandal, personal relationship turmoil, or the 30-minute drive one-way each Sunday. No, we left of our own accord, because we had made the decision to go local, much along the lines of Eugene Peterson’s sage advice. Over the years, the pastor and poet has been repeatedly asked what he would say to younger Christians searching for deeper, more authentic discipleship. He’s never wavered: “Go to the nearest smallest church and commit yourself to being there for six months. If it doesn’t work out, find somewhere else. But don’t look for programs, don’t look for entertainment, and don’t look for a great preacher. A Christian congregation is not a glamorous place, not a romantic place ...”
My family and I left one of the most amazing churches we’d experienced to date.
Not exactly the answer you might expect, is it?
As for us, we landed in a Lutheran congregation not four minutes from our home. And more than a decade later, we’re still there. Now, going local is not an option for everyone, and it is by no means an essential rule of the faith. But finding a nearer, smaller, unromantic church has taught me a great deal about who and what the church is and isn’t.
In Teaching a Stone to Talk, author Annie Dillard describes a Congregational church experience she had: “Week after week I was moved ... by the terrible singing I so loved, by the fatigued Bible readings ... the horrifying vacuity of the sermon, and by the fog of dreary senselessness pervading the whole.”
Wow, why in the world would Dillard subject herself to such an apparent worship-downer? She readily admits that certain church was the closest in distance to her, “the handiest.” Guess what—some Sundays the singing at our handy Lutheran church is sad. We’re not always familiar with some of the newer songs, or the screens go wonky on the minister-of-AV (or whatever that role is called). It’s possible the angels cringe a bit. Then again, there are those times when we all know the song, such as the Holden Evening Prayer we’ve sung during Advent for years, and I tell you something rises in the voices of those gathered that can only be described by the phrase sweet, sweet spirit.
And the sermons? Look, some Sundays the pastor’s groove is on, and we feel our hearts strangely warmed. In contrast, there are other Sundays—and I say this as a former pastor myself and as a good friend of our current pastor—when the magic simply doesn’t happen. On such Sundays one of the fruit of the Spirit comes into play: longsuffering.
My point here is that the reality we know as church was never meant to be a performance and certainly not intended to be filed under the category of “entertainment.” Yet here’s a truth we know but don’t always realize: A performing/entertaining world is where most of us live during the week, and if we’re not careful, we’ll show up Sunday mornings or Saturday evenings or whenever expecting something similar. Let there be a “terrible” or “dreary” month of Sundays, and we’ll proclaim: “God’s cloud has moved, and we must follow.” Well, maybe the cloud moved. But maybe not.
A big part of what church is, is family. Consider Paul’s words in Ephesians 2:19: “So then you are no longer strangers or aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household.” Careful—don’t think nuclear. What Paul and I are talking about are people bound to one another by love, the source of that word being our Father which art in heaven. Plus, if you’re talking about a “household,” then you’re talking about people in proximity to one another. In my case, that’s like fellow Lutherans Patsy and Howard, whom I regularly see at the grocery store and lacrosse games, respectively. They see me at my Sunday best, and they also see me in my sweaty clothes after running out of gas halfway through mowing the lawn. Any honest variation on the theme of family is one that’s never glamorous 100 percent of the time. It might not even be 50 percent. But the twinned devotion to God and one another keeps you coming back, showing up time after time, regardless of the “whether”—whether the sermons are epic or meh, whether the music is heavenly or not, whether you prefer the NIV and the pastor uses The Message, or even whether you feel like going or not. Church is family—you stay close and watch out for each other.
“I just wanted you to know I’m always encouraged when I see you here. I don’t know why exactly, but I am.”
Yes, some families can be dangerous. It is irresponsible to gloss over the significant problems and sometimes gross sins present in some churches. Those realities, especially in light of where we are as a culture, need to be addressed in a transparent and intentional way. Wearing Pollyanna glasses to view the church helps no one. We are saved, yes, but I’m sure you’ve noticed the saved still continue to rage and gossip and have extra-marital affairs and embezzle money. It is often only the forgiving love of Christ expressed by a local committed family that can cover a multitude of sins in a way that feels real.
About six months after joining our handy Lutheran church, I thought, Good grief. What am I doing here? It was one of those less-than-romantic Sundays. As I left the church that morning, a young father, who’d never said anything to me before, awkwardly approached me. “I just wanted you to know I’m always encouraged when I see you here. I don’t know why exactly, but I am.” In that moment I was reminded of a quote Kathleen Norris shared in her book Amazing Grace: “We go to church for other people … because someone may need you there.” I made the decision to go back the next Sunday, and the one after that, and the one after that. Someone may need me there, and I may need someone too.
Eugene Peterson’s right: A Christian congregation is not a glamorous place. But I’ve come to see it can be a beautiful place. A very beautiful place indeed.
Photograph by Ryan Hayslip