“The Spectacularly Unsuccessful Church”
April 23, 2006
Community of Grace Christian Church
New Brighton, MN
I want to start off reading you something. It’s from a pastor in Texas by the name of Gordon Atkinson. He writes a blog called Real Live Preacher. Com and I happened to stumble upon a column he wrote for the magazine Christian Century. It’s from November of 2004 and it’s entitled, “How to find a Church.” Since it’s short, I’m going to read it in its entirety. It starts:
I keep getting e-mails from people who say, "Your church sounds nice. I wish I could find one like that."
Let me guess. You're looking for a cool church, filled with authentic Christians who aren't judgmental but also have convictions, and are hip and classic in just the right mixture. A church where people forgive each other, love children and worship in meaningful ways. A church with a swingin' preacher who makes the Bible come alive, tells great stories, is a wonderful inspiration—and plays too. A church that isn't liberal or conservative, but seems to transcend weak-ass categories like those. A church where the hunger for truth is honored, and people can disagree but still love each other and share a plate of tacos. A church where people are committed to "The Christ Life"—and it shows in the fabulous and creative ways they love the world.
That what you're looking for?
I got ya. I understand.
Here are some tips to help you in your search:
• You won't find that church.
• Open the yellow pages. Tear out the entire church section and burn it. Offer prayers for your journey while warming yourself at the fire. Dance if that's your thing.
• Surely I don't need to say anything about churches that have billboards and commercials featuring preachers with $200 haircuts.
• Dedicate yourself to this quest.
• Call denominational offices in your town and ask if they know of any spectacularly unsuccessful churches. Explain that you do not want a church that is huge and famous and full of all the right kind of people. Tell them you are looking for a ragged bunch of pilgrims who might be meeting in a laundromat or someplace like that.
• Try the Quakers. You'll have a hell of a time finding them, but that's the point.
• Find out if there are any "house churches" in your area. Not every house church is what you're looking for, but your odds are better. These are Christians who have decided not to have buildings. They put a high premium on authenticity and relationships. Think guitars, Ritz crackers and singing Jesus songs with a baby in your lap.
• Let's talk about my first tip again. As I said, you won't find the church you're looking for. Go ahead and grieve. You'll have to make do with a silly bunch of dreamers and children, prone to mistakes, blunders and misjudgments.
• Find some people you can hang with—people you can trust. Be patient. You'll change them and they'll change you. You'll meet somewhere in the middle.
• Relax. It's all good. God might use this journey to teach you something. If you don't find what you're looking for, you might pick up some friends along the way and start your own church. All you need is coffee, a Bible and a couple of kindred spirits.
• Don't skimp on the coffee. Get the good stuff.
This column came to me at the right time, because I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be church, and to put it more precisely, what it means to be Community of Grace Christian Church.
You know, I’ve learned something about starting a church: it’s damn hard.
Okay, you probably didn't expect a pastor to use the word “damn” in a sermon, but the fact of the matter is, planting a church is hard. It’s hard for a lot of reasons, but mainly because those involved in planning the church have such grand visions. I had hoped tons of people would show up and that our denominational bodies would give us tons of money to help us get started. In a way, I’m like the person Gordon Atkinson is talking about: I wanted to create this really cool church with a swingin’ pastor that would just be kick-ass.
What happened? Rev. Sanders got introduced to little thing called reality. Lot’s of people haven’t shown up. Some have stayed for a while and then moved on. Others made tons of excuses. As for the money, the denomination isn’t in the position to give us loads of money, though the money we have received has been helpful. To top things off, I worry about my colleague and fellow co-pastor who is trying to look for work and keep his financial ship from sinking. I can remember preparing wondering worship services with mind-blowing sermons and only two people show up. And there are times when I feel that no one cares about Community of Grace and no one would miss us.
Maybe that's why today's gospel text is so important for me, and someone must have thought it was an important word for the Church to hear, because it's the only text that appears during all three years of the revised common lectionary. As the story opens, ten of the disciples are in a locked room in Jerusalem. They were scared. The religious leaders and the Romans had succeeded in killing Jesus and they were probably fearful that they were next.
Now, what's interesting here is that they knew something was up. We didn't read the earlier parts of John 20, but let me give you a recap: Mary Magdalene went to the tomb on that first Easter morning and found the stone rolled away. She tells Peter and the disciple who Jesus loved, that Jesus was gone. They both go to investigate and it's true; the body is gone. Mary stands outside the tomb weeping and then in time sees the Risen Christ. Of course seeing your friend, alive and well isn't something you keep to yourself, so she went to tell the disciples saying, “I have seen the Lord!”
Now, being on the outside of this story, I would think that if someone tells me a friend that was dead was now alive, hiding in a room wouldn't be my first impulse, but even after they had heard the good news, the disciples locked themselves in a room in fear.
You know, this text includes the story of the disciple named Thomas, who has forever been given the name “Doubting Thomas” for refusing to believe the disciples when they saw Jesus was alive and well. But Thomas wasn't the only one who doubted. Mary Magdalene had told the disciples that Jesus was alive and well and yet they still locked themselves in a room. And yet, even in spite of their doubts, Jesus appears to them and gives them peace.
You know what’s interesting about this? These were the people that were entrusted to start the Church. These scared and doubting people were the ones that the Son of God picked as the ones to spread the Gospel.
You have to wonder what the heck Jesus was smoking.
But if you read this again, it brings hope to me and I hope to you. You see, this is what the church is all about. I don’t care how great the pastor is, or if the church has 1000 members and a Grammy-winning choir, at its core, a church is filled with people who are scared, full of doubt and sometimes dumb as a post. And the wonderful thing is that Christ is in the midst of us and brings us peace and love and grace.
You know, if one were to look at Community of Grace, they might think this is a failure. We have very little in the bank. None of our staff is paid, and Lord knows we want to be. We have very few members and it seems impossible to get new members. We seem like a big flop. But as I re-read the article by Rev. Atkinson again, I realize that we don’t have to be the perfect church. We are basically a ragged bunch of pilgrims who are silly bunch of dreamers. And we are also people who come together and we learn from each other and teach each other. This is a long way of saying, we are a community, and frankly, there are a lot of churches that act more like country clubs instead of the community that loves each other as Jesus says.
The Risen Christ bypasses the locked doors of my expectations and does something wonderful out of something that at first glance seems so insignificant.
It hasn't been easy being on staff. Not because of the other staff, Bryan and Dan are great colleagues and friends. What has been hard is expecting the church to be bigger than it is-filled with people on Sunday evening. I read stories about new churches that start with 200 hundred people and I wonder, what am I doing wrong?
And yet, God has done something with the small gathering of believers. God appears in this group that includes the beleaguered and those on a quest and gives us peace. I've seen God at work here. I've been in other churches and I've never seen such honesty and such Spirit as I do here. We are all struggle with doubt and yet, that's okay- we are welcomed by God and God still works through us.
I have seen resurrection happen here. I've seen people, who were long estranged from the church, come back. I've seen people who might not agree on tax policy, pray for each other and befriend each other during dark times.
The ending of this chapter explains that these stories of Jesus are written that we might believe. Belief here isn't about certainty. It isn't about having the facts or proof of Jesus. Instead, these stories are written so that we might believe, to rely on Christ, to place our trust in Christ. These stories are here to remind us during the dark times of our lives that Jesus is with us and we can place our trust not in a dead god, but the Risen Christ.
You know, if you are looking for a large church where you can be anonymous, that has a big choir and a beautiful building of its own, then this is not your church. If you are looking for a church where the cool people go, then this isn’t your church. If you want to belong to a church that has a massive endowment, then this most certainly isn’t your church.
But if you want a church where you are part of a community of fellow pilgrims, welcome. If you are looking for a church where people are who they are, warts and all, then this is your church. If you want to church that knows it isn’t perfect, but knows that it’s loved by God, then this is your church. If you want a church that doesn’t have all those bells and whistles but where Christ is present, then this most definitely is your church.
And maybe that's what makes this all worthwhile: despite all the mistakes and less than perfect lives, we get to see how God works in us and how God can change lives.
As I said, starting a church isn’t easy. It is frustrating and sometimes I want to give up. But in the midst of this mess that calls itself a church, the Risen Christ is present, changing lives and giving us peace. And maybe in the end, that’s all we need.
Thanks be to God.