In September, Heritage Baptist is going to start a series called “The Church You’ve Always Wanted.” Primarily, the study is focused not on what we want but rather what we wish church was but never seems to be.
I grew up in church – literally.
My father is a pastor, and in 1977 he started a church in Belvidere, New Jersey. The church was started out of the First Baptist Church of Philipsburg, New Jersey, who helped my dad and a small group of believers to purchase an existing church building on Pequest Rd. We lived in what had originally been designed as the Sunday School wing and had been remodeled as a living space for the pastor.
From the age of about 9 months until 14 years, I quite literally lived in the church. When it was raining, we ran amok through the auditorium, classrooms and upstairs (which was supposed to be a fellowship hall but generally was just used for storage. When it nice outside, we roamed over the three acres of land building forts, fighting imaginary hordes of Viet Cong and otherwise behaving like kids are supposed to.
When we moved to Grace Baptist Church in Franklin, Massachusetts, I still lived at church although the parsonage was now across the parking lot. I played hockey in the parking lot, spent most of my days either in the house or in my dad’s office.
My dad had friends of just about every kind you could imagine; and they were all pastors. There was Pastor Joe, from First Baptist Church of Easton, Pennsylvania, a Tennessee hillbilly who threw hoedowns and other eccentric events. There was Ronnie Fenwick in Bowie, Maryland, who my dad had met at United Wesleyan College and who had actually led his church out of the Wesleyans to become Baptists. We visited with Moe Small and his church in the middle of Brooklyn, New York. It wasn’t uncommon to hear gunfire or encounter street crime.
Over the course of the years, I found myself in the homes of ultra conservative Baptist pastors, as well as very liberal woman Methodist ministers and a generous sprinkling of many other kinds of Christians. We went to camp meetings in Georgia, revivals at Mt. Pisgah Independent Holiness Church in the back hills of Pennsylvania (yes they exist) and bus rallies in the Washington, D.C. area. We attended a local “black church” – Grace Baptist Church – every year for their anniversary fried chicken dinner.
I attended Bible college and met even more pastors and had even more church experiences. I met the good and the bad, the big and the small, the sincere and the fake.
After joining the staff of Tabernacle Baptist Church in Litchfield, New Hampshire, in 1998 and then becoming the pastor at Heritage in 2004, I have met even more. I’ve shared a cup of coffee with fundamentalists, evangelicals, Four Square, Vineyard, Charismatic, Pentecostal, Lutheran, Arminian, Reformed, conservative, emergent and every other shade of preacher. I’ve participated in the worship services of our local innovative church, started by my friend Steve, but I will be teaching in a more conservative Bible Institute in the fall.
Whenever I get a chance, I visit local churches and meet their pastors. I’m endlessly googling churches in our area and emailing the pastors.
I’ve spent more time around Christians, pastors and churches in the thirty-two years of my life than I really care to think about!
Let me be very clear – I love the church of Jesus Christ. I absolutely adore her. I would die for her, make any sacrifice her Head called me to make. I love her beautiful diversity, her amazing flexibility to adapt to meet cultures with her eternal message.
But (and you knew there was a but coming here), there has always been something slightly off. Maybe you can identify with what I’m about to say.
There is often this itch in my brain, this feeling that there must be something more. I see churches focused on programs, methods, appearances, dress codes, Bible versions, being right, being innovative – a whole plethora (like the vocab usage?) of agendas. But there’s something even more than that…
Church does not feel safe.
We all know that. Every one of us is careful about letting our guard down around Christians. Someone will talk; someone will compare.
There’s something about church – it is hard to verbalize – that just isn’t right.
We want church to be the safest place on earth; but we know it isn’t.
We want church to be the most honest place on earth; but we know it isn’t.
We want people to see the church as a loving community; but often it isn’t.
In our modern church, there is such a focus on the appearances of holiness or the accomplishment of some numerical goals. How many missionaries? How many missionaries? How much square footage? We have lost the essence of the church.
My missionary friend Rita – known as Jungle Mom in the blogosphere – worked with her husband for years in the jungles of Venezuela. In their church, the men of the village would come forward at the beginning of each Sunday gathering and share what God was doing in their lives. Try that in a modern American church…
Sad isn’t it?
There’s a line from a Michael Card song that I’ve been playing a lot lately. The song is called “Know You in the Now” and it goes like this:
Echo of history
A light so many strain to see
The One we talk so much about
But rarely ever live it out
Could You tell me why
Was it for this You came and died
A once a week observance
When we coldly mouth Your words
Lord I long to see
Your presence in reality
But I don’t know how
Let me know You in the now
We should confess
We lose You in our busyness
We’ve made You in our image
So our faith’s idolatry
Lord, deliver me
Break my heart so I can see
All the ways You dwell in us
That You’re alive in me
That should be our prayer. It is going to be our theme song for the series, “The Church You’ve Always Wanted.”
Because we should be straining against the limited form of church we have for something that totally reflects the character of Jesus – something supernatural.