Stories and community

Typewriter with Story buttons, vintage

We’ve recently started hosting a life group[1]– our first foray into smaller church since we arrived back in Whangarei.

I didn’t realise how much I missed this kind of fellowship and community – it’s so different to what a Sunday service (in a larger church) could ever realistically accomplish.

Our life group is reading through Rachel Held Evans’ Searching for Sunday, discussing a section of the book each week (each of the seven sections is thematically-based on a sacrament, e.g. baptism, confession, communion, and tells the stories of Rachel and others based on the relevant theme).

It is eliciting fantastic conversation so far – what we are valuing the most is hearing each other’s stories – it’s given us a much deeper understanding of each other – where we come from, why we believe what we believe, our struggles, our frustrations.

In one of the chapters we discussed on Wednesday, Rachel says (emphasis mine):

“I came to see just how much tension and misunderstanding can exist between the churched and unchurched, particularly when we are unfamiliar with one another’s stories”.

How true this is, not only between churched and unchurched, but also within the church. How often do we make silent assumptions about people without actually getting to know them, to know their stories?

That’s why I believe life groups are essential to being part of a vibrant, authentic church community. We need to have deep connections with people that go beyond just Sunday clichés. Small groups, when done well, can be places of depth, where people feel comfortable and safe enough to be authentic and vulnerable with others. Where we can encourage each other and uphold each other in prayer. Where we can live out what is exhorted in the New Testament, including Hebrews 10:24-25 and 1 Thessalonians 5:11.

This is what I long for in community – it’s what I think we’re starting to find in our new life group – and it’s what I didn’t realise I had been missing until we started experiencing it again.

Image source

[1] small group, home group, cell group – call it what you will, my definition would be any group under about 15 people – in our case there are seven of us.

Advertisements

Are you not entertained?

I must confess that I’ve never seen the movie Gladiator – I assume this means I’d probably have to hand in my man card if such a thing existed! However, despite not having seen the movie, there is a scene from it that I’m very familiar with as it regularly pops up as a meme on the Internet (see the clip above).

Are you not entertained? Are you not entertained? Is this not why you are here?

What an impactful scene; Maximus (Russell Crowe) forcefully questioning the crowd that has just witnessed his gruesome gladiatorial exploits. It may seem like an unusual connection, but the words he shouts frequently come back to me when I think about church – corporate Sunday services in particular.

Have you ever left a church service saying to yourself (or others) something like:

  • I didn’t like the songs we sang, or
  • I didn’t feel God today in the worship, or
  • I didn’t get anything out of that message.

Debate ensues about our experience of Sunday services, usually focusing on the singing (‘worship’) and sermon. I know I’m guilty of it myself.

How easy it is for the consumer culture of the world to infiltrate the church. For us to look at those up the front and expect them to entertain us – like Maximus we could almost see them saying at the end of the service: “Are you not entertained?” – although hopefully with a little less bloodshed!

Now I’m not saying entertainment is in itself a bad thing. If I want to be entertained I’ll go to a Foo Fighters concert or tune into a Warriors game (that’s the basketball team rather than league team, I’m not a masochist!). I just don’t believe that entertainment is what we should be aiming for as we gather on Sunday.

What should we be aiming for, you might ask? Let’s have a look…

The early Christian church in Acts is a good place to start. In Acts 2 we see the church in its infancy, with verse 46 saying “They worshiped together at the Temple each day…” Surely this is the ancient tradition we are continuing when we gather together as a church family on Sunday.

Worshiping together.

Just as this crowd of believers from different backgrounds gathered together two thousand years ago to worship God (and they would have been different – remember this was all happening at Pentecost – a Jewish holiday that saw people from many foreign lands gather in Jerusalem – from the get go the church was a group of very diverse people), so we gather together today to worship God.

So what does it look like to worship God together?

Worshiping God together includes not only singing praise (Colossians 3:16; Ephesians 5:19), which worship is often equated to, but also prayer (like the Acts church), listening and responding to teaching (Romans 15:16), the sacraments (baptism and communion), and the simple act of just gathering together.

Jesus’ key teaching on worship is when he is talking to the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4:21-24. In verse 23 Jesus says “the time is coming – indeed it’s here now – when true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth. The Father is looking for those who will worship him that way.” So worship is about glorifying God – the Father, the Son (aka ‘Truth’) and the Holy Spirit (aka ‘Spirit’).  Importantly, worship must be sincere:

“Worship without truth does nothing for us and God rejects worship that is not done in truth. Truth without the Spirit is a manmade worship so true worship must be in the Spirit and in truth. God is seeking those who will worship Him in this manner. ” (link)

So when we gather together on a Sunday we are doing so first and foremost to worship God, in Spirit and in Truth. However, as is so often the case, the prevailing culture of the world, in this case consumerism, has crept into how we worship together.

Mick Duncan, in a sermon titled Do I really have to be religious?, talks about the need to name modern gods in order to dethrone them. When it comes to worship, he says it is the god of self that needs to be dethroned, and God himself enthroned. He says that we often reduce worship to ourselves, it’s all about us and how it makes us feel. This is the complete opposite of what worship actually means – that is, to ascribe worth – it’s not about us, it’s about God.

Rachel Held Evans, in her book Searching for Sunday, touches on entertainment and the church from a millennials perspective. She writes (bold emphasis mine):

“We millennials have been advertised to our entire lives, so we can smell b.s. from a mile away. The church is the last place we want to be sold another product, the last place we want to be entertained.

Millennials aren’t looking for a hipper Christianity, I said. We’re looking for a truer Christianity, a more authentic Christianity. Like every generation before ours and every generation after, we’re looking for Jesus – the same Jesus who can be found in the strange places he’s always been found: in bread, in wine, in baptism, in the Word, in suffering, in community, and among the least of these.”

This consumer culture also places undue pressure on our pastors, worship leaders and others involved in the Sunday service, potentially transforming them into mere entertainers. Ben Sternke writes about this pressure, saying:

“It’s easy to look at your congregation on Sunday morning and feel like the pressure is on.

They got up early instead of sleeping in. They got the kids dressed and ready for church. You’d better show them it was worth it, or you won’t see them until Christmas.”

Ben also looks at the differences between worship and entertainment:

  • Entertainment depends on my skill. Worship depends on God’s presence.
  • Entertainment draws people to me. Worship draws people to Jesus.
  • Entertainment causes amazement in the talents of people. Worship causes awe in the love of God.
  • Entertainment leads to repeat visitors. Worship leads to discipleship.

This lines up with the words of John the Baptist in John 3:30 “He must become greater and greater, and I must become less and less.” True worship is about glorifying God, about bringing people to Jesus. If we approach Sunday mornings with a desire to be entertained (or to be an entertainer, for those up the front) then we’re only there for ourselves, not for Jesus.

So, if we are not here to be entertained, why are we here – what is the question we should be asking ourselves and others as we walk out of the church service on Sunday? I suggest it could be something like this:

“God, have you been glorified? Have you been glorified? Is this not why we are here?”

Is it wrong to doubt?

doubt

At our church members’ meeting this week (which I mentioned in my previous post), a Word for Today devotion was shared on the topic of doubt. The devotion suggested that doubt is ‘the doorway through which Satan enters your life’ and that ‘your doubts reveal a lack of confidence in what God says’ – I’m not sure I agree with these statements.

Surely some level of doubt isn’t unhealthy, or is even healthy. I believe that questioning what we believe and why we believe it strengthens our faith. Sharing these doubts and working to understand them with others is crucial to developing a truly authentic community of Christ followers.

I recently listened to a sermon by Nate Pyle where he touched ever so briefly on the topic of doubt in the context of speaking about the Great Commission. Matthew 28:17 says “When they saw him [Jesus], they worshiped him – but some of them doubted!” Here it is in black and white – it’s not wrong to doubt, it doesn’t make us a bad Christian. Nate finished by saying that doubt only becomes a problem when we use it as an excuse to not continue seeking God. Doubts, knocking on the door, asking him to answer, is okay.

Rachel Held Evans, in her book Evolving in Monkey Town, discusses doubt and makes an important observation:

Doubt is a difficult animal to master because it requires that we learn the difference between doubting God and doubting what we believe about God. The former has the potential to destroy faith; the latter has the power to enrich and refine it. The former is a vice; the latter is a virtue.

I think this differentiation is key, and perhaps the Word for Today devotion was primarily addressing the former. However, it portrayed it in such a way that it suggested all doubt was wrong, which is so unhelpful for those of us sitting in the pews with nagging questions of ‘why?’, ‘how?’ and ‘when?’ running through our head.

I’ll finish with another quote from Rachel’s book (which is a great read if you haven’t already picked it up!):

Doubt is the mechanism by which faith evolves. It is a refining fire, a hot flame that keeps our faith alive and moving and bubbling about, where certainty would only freeze it on the spot.

Faith isn’t about being right, or settling down, or refusing to change. Faith is a journey, and every generation contributes its own sketches on the map. I’ve got miles and miles to go on this journey, but I think I can see Jesus up ahead.

And for further reading, few interesting articles on Christians who aren’t afraid to doubt:

Image source

Aylan Kurdi

Aylan Kurdi

Note: I originally wrote this post two weeks ago, however have taken a while to upload it due to family illness.

The photograph of the young three year old Syrian refugee lying face down on a Turkish beach broke my heart today – I experienced a soul wrenching sadness that I haven’t felt for a long time, probably since the shock I experienced when my job was made redundant in 2010.

I think having a son around the same age made it all the more real for me. This was a young boy who wore the same clothes and the same cheeky, adorable grin. The only difference between his family and ours being that we were born into a country that isn’t ravaged by war and persecution. What a terrible situation you must be faced with to be desperate enough to attempt crossing the open sea with your family in a tiny inflatable boat – I can’t even begin to imagine.

Seeing the images and thinking about the injustice of the situation brought tears to my eyes – so much so that I had to get out of the office to find space to think and pray about it. Sitting in my car at lunch I opened the Bible we keep on the glovebox and turned to the psalms seeking some solace, with the nagging question of ‘why?’ stuck in my head. I came across Psalm 37:17-18, which in the NLT translation talks of the Lord taking care of the innocents.

For the remainder of the day I have had Matt Redman’s 10,000 Reasons stuck in my head. It reminds me that no matter the situation, we still have a Lord and saviour that loves us.

I still have many questions, including the thorny one about whether Aylan is now at rest with Jesus (in my heart I hope this is the case – reminds me of a similar question Rachel Held Evans posed in one of her books: “If salvation is available only to Christians, then the gospel isn’t good news at all. For most of the human race, it is terrible news.”). I struggle to reconcile a loving God who would see innocents die and not be with him in heaven – although where does the line get drawn (10? 14?), or is there a line to be drawn at all?

I also wonder what we can do in New Zealand. There is a lot of heat on John Key to increase the number of refugees we accept from 750, which is a great idea. But this must come with a ground swell of volunteers to look after those who arrive in a country totally foreign to where they’ve come from. What a great opportunity for the church. Kim mentioned the possibility of taking an ESOL class to be able to then work with refugees and new migrants when they arrive in the country. What a great idea – this is something she’d be incredibly gifted at.

POSTSCRIPT:

Since I originally wrote this post, a few things have happened:
  • John Key has announced that New Zealand will take an additional 600 Syrian refugees, and will look to review the current quota of 750 next year
  • Churches around the country are responding to the need to step up and support incoming refugees. I was heartened to see an email from Craig Vernall, our Baptist National Leader, calling for expressions of interest from churches willing to sponsor and support a refugee family to live in your community – surely this is something that any church would be willing to do – a no brainer?!

Image source