The church has never done well when it was latched onto power. The church has always done better when it was on the margins. —Dr. Joseph B. Modica
I suppose it would be a colossal understatement to say there is a lot of hierarchy in church.
With all the titles and positions, posturing and power-grabbing, manipulating and controlling, and the ever-present sense that we are not enough—we need to be given advice, we need to fall in line (and if we don’t we can expect some form of dismissal, disapproval, excommunication, shunning, etc.), it’s no wonder people say they don’t believe in “organized religion.”
In William Sloane Coffin’s book Living The Truth in a World of Illusions, he describes the fable of the king who fell in love with a maid:
When asked, “How shall I declare my love?” his counselors answered, “Your majesty has only to appear in all the glory of your royal raiments before the maid’s humble abode and she will instantly fall at your feet and be yours.”
But it was precisely that thought that so troubled the king. He wanted her glorification, not his.
In return for his love he wanted hers, freely given. The one thing he did not want was her submission to his power. What a dilemma… Finally, the king realized love’s truth, that freedom for the beloved demanded equality with the beloved. So late one night, after all the counselors and courtiers of the palace had retired, he stole out a side door and appeared before the maid’s cottage dressed as a servant.
The trouble with the usual notion of Christian obedience is that it sees obedience in relation to God’s power, rather than to God’s love. It overlooks the truth grasped finally by the loving king.
Obviously this fable (originally told by Søren Kierkegaard) is about the incarnation – God coming to us, born in a barn, flesh-and-blood, moved into the neighborhood. Jesus did not come to exert power over us, he came because of love.
We know this about Jesus. But his church… his church is often motivated by power. The church loves its military metaphors and conquest is perhaps its greatest ambition.
The youth ministry at our church exists to be “A Place to Call Home and People to Call Family.” I really love that. And I love the stories of people being family.
Our church’s theme for the year is “La Familia.” We hope to discover what it actually means to be the Family of God.
We are trying, imperfectly – and maybe a bit like a 10 month old toddler attempting to walk – to be motivated by love and not power. I’m trying. And it’s not always easy. I’m finding myself having to relearn things. There has been a lot of deconstruction of the old model and hopeful reconstruction of something different. I don’t know that we have it right. But we’re trying. We are trying to be something like Jesus.
On Sunday, I was moved to tears in the first of three services as I watched our prayer team spread out across the front of the church and people came forward to receive prayer for their needs. People came, they shared their needs in such vulnerable honesty – some through tears. They held hands with the prayer team member. They prayed together. It was such a beautiful picture of with-ness, kinship… family.
In the second service, I went forward for prayer. My friend Cathy heard my request and she prayed with me. After the service, she came to me and told me about something else that came to her mind (about my situation) and she said she would be praying about that too. La Familia.
These images were on my mind through the day and I had some thoughts forming around them. Before our final evening service, I took to Twitter and began sharing them:
About 4 years ago, I started doing some soul-searching about church and the model(s) we were following. I knew I needed to ask some difficult questions about why we were doing what we were doing. (1)
The types of churches we were following… they were all big with celebrity-type pastors. We went to their conferences and brought home their practices – because, well, they were “successful.” (2)
I started to notice something – a trend. These churches we were copying structured their services to maximize the amount of time their celebrity-type pastor had to speak. And as a result, historic practices of the church were sidelined and demoted. (3)
For instance, communion was less frequent, rushed-through, offered as a serve-yourself-if-you-want-it option with pre-packaged all-in-one little cups and wafers for speedy distribution. (4)
Another example—baby dedications started being scheduled just once or twice a year in big groups and done assembly-line style in order to minimize the number of “extra’ things happening in regular services. (5)
Same with water baptism. Baptisms started being done after church services (freeing up that time once again) and less frequently. The focus shifted away from the individual and toward big numbers of people being baptized on the same day. (6)
Another thing that seemed to disappear – inviting people to come forward to receive prayer for their needs during the service. (7)
There are more examples, but I want to share how I’m processing these changes and choosing to go a different way… (8)
The shift for me started with communion. I knew it couldn’t be right to minimize the sacraments of the church—something Jesus told us to continue doing often. I wrote a little about my journey with communion here: http://www.northwestleader.com/2014/fell-love-table-2/ (9)
This led me to prioritize and take time with communion, but it also led me to do the same with water baptisms, baby dedications, and praying for the needs of people during church services. (10)
Today, we had a baby dedication in one of our services. It’s also a Sunday where we take time to pray for the needs of people during the service. Back when I was following all the cool churches, this never would have happened… too many “extras” in a service. (11)
Sermons are easily and quickly forgotten (ask a pastor what she preached on two weeks ago—or ask their spouse). There are so many messages—we can’t keep them all. But when someone steps forward, opens their heart and shares their need and receives prayer—you don’t forget it (12)
You don’t forget being the one family on stage having their little one(s) dedicated. You don’t forget sharing your story with the church from the baptismal tank. You don’t forget really good fresh-made communion bread. (13)
So now I tend to be eager to reduce the sermon time as often as necessary for communion and baptism and prayer with people and baby dedications and… all the memorable, participatory stuff the church has done through the ages. (14)
More than ever, I’m convinced that when people come to church, they don’t really need another lesson or advice or inspirational thought… but they need an embrace, they need the bread and cup and reminder they are forgiven, they need to be loved and prayed for and celebrated (15)
And I think this might be the opposite of the cool church trend where celebrity is celebrated, the gifted orator is celebrated, the professionals on the stage are celebrated. Maybe I’m wrong. I just want to celebrate the real people, not the “public figures.” (16)
Here are a couple pictures of today’s baby dedication… little Isaac and his mom Maggie (a single mother working on her master’s degree in psychology). We celebrated them both today, prayed as a church over them, blessed them… because we think they’re absolutely wonderful. (17)
If they (people like Maggie and Isaac) can’t have 7 or so minutes of our church service—in order to stand with them, celebrate them, pray with them, and bless them—then really… what the heck is the church about anyway? (18)