Friday, June 6, 2014

Why Start a New Church

Since we started this project, I have been reading books and articles about starting new churches. This is not a heartening genre. The subject tends to attract the bitterly idealistic. An article on how to start a new church often carries the silent subtitle "Because Every Existing Church Fails to Live Up to My Standards." 

This is a dangerous thing to believe.

If our new church fails to grow and become sustainable, my family will look around for a few weeks and find somewhere else. In any place we settle, the gospel will be preached, Jesus will be worshipped, and we will be alternately satisfied, challenged and hurt. This is the nature of congregational life. There is no shortage of churches where we could settle.

We are not starting a new church to create one that is worthy of us and our precious, precious ideals.

Churches are supposed to disrupt our preferences. If everything is being done the way I want it, then I can't grow. A congregation that lives up to my ideals is, perversely, a congregation that lets me down. My ideals can't always be right. There will be too much of me in them. I will mix up "the music I like" with "the music God likes," or live in the uncorrected certainty that my expectations for a pastor are the universally-recognized dictates of the deity. 

There are lines that must not be crossed. There are dictates from the deity. But the forces of habit and the imperious preferences of personality and the sloth of unexamined priorities can masquerade to us as the will of God. Sometimes we need a good shaking to remember where the real solid ground is.

Starting a new church is disruptive. No one can say "but we've never done it that way before," because we have never done it before. The disruption makes us think more deeply about why we are here and who we want to be. The disruption makes us flexible, with more freedom to speak in the language that our neighbors are best able to hear. A new church is, it turns out, new. Fresh and green and pliable, like the honeysuckle shoots I cut out of my yard. They bend.

The reason to start a new congregation is so we can bend when we need to bend. The point is to have lost so much already - the stability and familiarity and comfort and steadiness of the church you left - that you can give up whatever you are asked to lose next. Because the gospel asks us to give up all sorts of things. 

The loss of the familiar helps us make Christ our steadiness. The absence of cherished friends in our worship service reminds us that Christ is even dearer. The dislocation we feel reminds us to see Christ in the faces of strangers and welcome them as brothers and friends.

Welcome. Come in. Come learn with us.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Worship is always practice

Our big start date is June 8th, but we've been having "practice" worship services the last two Sundays. We called it that, but real worship happened.  We sang songs to God, we read aloud the scriptures and we prayed. I preached a sermon and the congregation listened.

We have been working so long and so hard to get this little church up and running, and it finally happened.

Our worship service is at 4 pm, which is an unusual time for a worship service. The afternoon sun through the stained glass windows gave everything in the sanctuary an unfamiliar glow. I looked into the faces of the people in the pews and I saw hope and friendship. It felt like the first day of summer camp, when you see those special friends you haven't seen since last year.

And most importantly, worship happened.

Christian churches do many things, but worship is the center of it all. Charitable projects, feeding the hungry, visiting the sick, caring for children, teaching church members -- all these are important parts of a church, but their roots are in worship. Acts of helping other people are like the hands of the church, but worship is its heart.

But it is also probably the weirdest part of Christianity to anyone who did not grow up attending church. A traditional sanctuary has seats like nowhere else in our culture, not even the bus station - long wooden benches, made as pretty as a bench can be with paint or varnish, and shined till they're lustrous. Nowadays they are also padded so they are slightly more comfortable to sit on. Everyone faces the speaker, and we tell God how great he is, sing some songs, read the Bible and then the speaker gives a speech.

And every piece of this event has Christian terminology that isn't used anywhere else. A bench is pew, a podium is a pulpit, a song is a hymn, a speaker is a preacher, a speech is a sermon. Somehow those words stuck, and no one thought to change them. We only use them out of habit, even though every reader understood me when I used the word bench instead. The average sermon is almost indistinguishable in style from the average TED talk, but the word "sermon" persists, and gives it an austere and disapproving air.

And then there is the actual worship.

I am trying to think of another place in our culture where we focus on telling someone how great they are. Sports game and concerts can be filled with cheering, but they also boo, and that does not happen in worship. Awards shows like the Oscars or the Kennedy Center Honors are more sedately complimentary, but they usually include some comedian making fun of the recipients as well. Preachers crack jokes, but they don't poke fun at God. Graduation ceremonies celebrate the graduates and include a long speech, but the speech is usually giving instruction to the same people who are being celebrated. A sermon does not instruct God.

So maybe the worship service is the only place something like this happens.

Ringing in my ears is the advice of someone's grandmother for the hard times of life: "Praise him. Praise him till the power comes." Worship chases away the fear and the sorrow. Worship lets me cast aside the weight of the day and know the glory of God.

This side of heaven, worship is always practice. Our thoughts get distracted. Our weakness creeps in. Our fusty old preferences exert themselves and become more important than the presence of God. We resist these things, and we keep trying. We practice worship.

And God, in his mercy, shows up. Our fumbling and faltering does not keep him away. He is not waiting for the grand cathedral and the flawless hymn. He comes wherever "two or three are gathered in my name." We ask for his presence, and he comes.

Even when we're just practicing.