The Heart of the Matter

Recently, CJ and I have been contemplating the state of the American church and present-day Christianity. I say present day, for those of you that have not read our most recent blog post, because we believe that what is widely represented in the world today is a far cry from what Jesus called His disciples to. In our last post we discussed the desperate need for authentic Christ-centered community outside the four walls of the church (as depicted in Acts 2:42-47). This current post will build on the last as we expand on our views by explaining how God has used our life experiences to shape our current understanding.

I (Lance) would like to share with you some of my story. During my childhood, my family regularly attended a Catholic church in our neighborhood. I grew up in this church, I was confirmed in this church, and my family volunteered at this church. When I was 19, my father committed suicide… the news spread fast in our small town. Just days after the incident, my mom, sister and I pulled ourselves out of our misery and attended Sunday mass. Because we arrived late and all the back pews were full, we began that long walk to the front of the church. Of course, this was not the first time we were late to service and had to take the walk (which I always found slightly embarrassing), but this time was different. As we walked towards the front, I noticed everyone staring at us with cold eyes. And to make it worse, the priest actually stopped speaking as he too watched us make our way forward. It was beyond awkward…it felt an awful lot like we were standing before a judge and jury for sentencing! At that moment, what we most needed was a loving community to surround us, to mourn with us, and share the love of Christ. Instead, what we received was condemnation…the church believed that suicide was the one unpardonable sin and we were stained by association. In the darkest days of our lives, we were alienated by our church family and rejected by the church (the only place we knew to take refuge and hopefully find some answers). I blamed God and I blamed the Church. An anger began to build deeply within me, and as a result, I turned away from both.

Years later, at another very low point in my life, I realized that I needed to make a change, although I wasn’t sure at the time what that change was. All I knew was that my life choices had brought me down this path, my heart was broken, my life felt empty, I felt lost and alone and I didn’t know where to go from there. At this time, I had some Christian friends in my life that were genuine and truly showed me care and concern, what I would later recognize as the love of Jesus. I never got into any details about my heart struggles, but the way I lived my life it was pretty obvious I was not a Christian! However, what I most noticed about these friends was that they never judged or preached to me about the way I was living my life. I sensed in my heart that they actually cared about who I was as a person. They invited me into their homes for meals and to outside group activities, which given my state of loneliness, I desperately needed. A few of them even invited me to church, which I politely declined. But after months of watching these friends, I began to think that given their actions, their church had to be vastly different from the church of my youth. Based on my past experience, the people that I associated with church were judgmental and cared little for the pain and suffering of others, yet these friends were the exact opposite. Eventually, I decided to see for myself what their church was all about, so I got up early one Sunday morning for the first time in almost 15 years. As I remember, the truth was spoken boldly in that first church service and I was intrigued…not offended! That was the beginning of my journey back to the God that I was taught about as a child, but never really knew.

Over time, as I came to know Jesus in a very personal way, I realized that God never turned His back on me, He was patiently waiting for me the whole time. Waiting for my heart to be softened and my eyes to be opened. I believe His heart was broken over the way my family was treated and I know that He yearns for the church, His church, to represent His love, not sit in judgement! In case you missed it, the experience that turned me back to God was the power of a loving, RELATIONAL community!

Let me diverge for a second and say that I don’t believe that what I experienced as a young man is the norm in the American church today. However, what CJ and I have seen in many churches is that good intentions without relationship also turn people away from church and from God. Not too long ago, we experienced this first hand…

CJ has always had a heart for the lost and the lonely. If any of you know my wife, you know that she’ll change her plans on the spot in order to pick up a hitch-hiker and take them where ever they need to go (even if it’s miles out of her way) or invite home anyone in need of a hot meal, all in an effort to share the love of Jesus. And not too long ago, CJ had the opportunity to introduce a young lady to the reality of Jesus. She spent weeks building a relationship, sharing her story, and pointing her to the grace and mercy of our amazing God. After some time, this young lady agreed to attend church with us. We were both super excited for her to experience what it was like to be a part of a church family and we were thrilled to see how much she seemed to be enjoying the praise and worship. However, after the service was over, our young friend was stopped by some well-meaning ladies as we were heading out of the church. Although we would hope that it was not intentional, all backs were turned on CJ and I as our friend was encircled by a group of ladies asking her questions, directing her to the best way to get connected, and giving her all the details about an upcoming ladies bible study. If you’ve ever seen a deer in your headlights you can imagine her expression! If these ladies had known anything about our friend’s background, they would have known that their actions, although they believed them to be helpful, was the last thing this young lady needed. After this experience, not only did she choose to no longer attend church with us, but she also began to avoid CJ, eventually pulling away from us completely. Despite our best efforts to convince her otherwise, this experience solidified her views on what “church people” are like…pushy, only interested in one thing, convincing her that their way is right.

As “church people”, we have the ability to turn people away or draw people to God. As you may have noticed, people outside of the church will equate our actions as individuals with the church as a whole and vice versa. Given that, it’s so very important for us to represent the love of Jesus above all else….We need to get outside the 4 walls of the church and meet people where they are. We need authentic Christ-centered community, and at the core of that community is relationship! People are people: each person with a story, each person with past experiences (both good and bad), and each person struggling with something. People are not to be put in boxes, based on appearance or circumstance, and they are not to be treated as projects! Only through relationship can we overcome what the culture tells us and begin to see people as God sees them. “The LORD doesn’t see things the way you see them. People judge by outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” 1 Samuel‬ ‭16:7‬ ‭(NLT). God is a personal and relational God, shouldn’t we (as His disciples), be the same?‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬

Categories: Church, Communty | 1 Comment

Outside the Box

So it’s been about 10 months since our last post. And although it appears there has been little progress on the retreat front, there has been tremendous growth and understanding on the personal front. As always, God is good and ever present in our lives, lovingly molding and guiding us in a deeper understanding of His heart…which brings us to Sonshine. Our original understanding of Sonshine’s focus was that it was to be a retreat center for out-of-town groups. With that focus, we would need a home base (which is still in the works). However, God has recently laid on our hearts that the retreat aspect of Sonshine needs to be much smaller and more intimate than we originally anticipated. On the other hand, we believe that God is wanting Sonshine to be much more than a retreat center…it’s to be a place of gathering, of fellowship, of community!

We look around and see so many lost and lonely people (both inside and outside of Church) and we wonder, who’s caring for them? For their physical needs, their emotional needs, but most of all, their spiritual needs. As Luke writes in Acts‬ ‭2:42-47‬ ‭(NIV)‬‬‬‬‬‬, in the days of the early church, believers were being added right and left because they saw the disciples and other early believers living in radical ways. They saw the love of Jesus being actively lived out and it looked and felt different than anything they had previously experienced. ‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬ The lost found a home in community.‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬

“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”

‭‭ ‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬So what about the Church today? Does it look different? Are we, as Christ’s disciples, living in this same radical way? The lost are growing in number and finding no place to belong. So what’s the answer? We believe that America is in desperate need of authentic Christ-centered community, like the early church! 

When CJ and I lived in Austin, we were part of a vibrant, God-centered community. It was by no means perfect, but we strove to live according to the scripture above and lives were changed. We did life together, sharing meals, heartaches, burdens, achievements and adventures. We sincerely cared for each other, sacrificing for and serving each other as well as serving the larger community around us, together. And above all we spoke truth to each other (out of love, not in judgment), holding each other accountable to the standards laid before us by our Savior. But I think what really set us apart was the fact that we welcomed with open arms anyone and everyone interested in joining us. This invitation was not a check the box activity based on what we thought we had to do. We, like Jesus, had a heart for people regardless of how they looked, where they came from, what they had lived through, whether they went to church or not and even if it made us uncomfortable. After a while, we looked more like the island of misfit toys than what was expected of a “Christian” community. It resembled a family: young and old; single, divorced and married; some with kids and some without; both mature believers and others just trying to figure God out. And yes, we were a tad dysfunctional, often times angry with or hurt by others within our tight knit community. But one thing never changed, our love for one another and for those that we touched outside our 4 walls. With our open door policy and inclusive nature, the community continued to grow.

What we’ve come to discover since that time is that our community was a rare occurrence in modern day Christian communities. It appears that the way many Churches treat community today is based on a world view of putting people in boxes: singles, married with kids, retired folks, mature believers, cool or uncool (yes, I said cool or uncool! As un-Christ like as that sounds, we’ve been to churches that directed people that were uncool in the world’s eyes away from certain groups, while only “accepting” people of a certain pre-defined standard). How is this Biblical? This does not look anything like the early church described in Acts. We believe that Jesus’ plan for community was to resemble a family in order that we might learn and grow from the diverse life experiences and gifts within that community. If we’re all placed in a group in which everyone is at the same point in their life or has similar backgrounds, can we truly experience the beauty of a community that challenges us, grows us, molds us into Christ-likeness?

Since we moved, we’ve been searching for a Christian community that exhibits the Biblical qualities discussed above. Unfortunately, we’ve been to multiple churches and have always felt like outsiders. In response to the Spirit’s urging, we began inviting couples into our home, in addition to hosting larger gatherings, in hopes of building relationships. However, in the course of the three years that we’ve been here, we’ve only been invited into a handful of homes and very little has transpired from those encounters. When we voiced our frustrations, we were told that we needed to meet people where they were, which in this community, is church. So although we believe that doing life together most often happens outside of the 4 walls of the church building, we began going to Sunday morning Bible study at the church (something that was completely out of our comfort zone as we had always met in people’s homes) and served at the church in multiple capacities. Often folks would say hi and engage in small talk or even offer to pray for us, but we had no sense that people truly cared or were really interested in knowing us at all. There was always superficial conversation, but we were still missing those deep, authentic relationships that we were craving. So we brought our concerns to the leadership. Their response was not what we expected: “things are different here”, “ you can’t expect what worked in a big city to work in a small town”, and “you shouldn’t try to replicate what you had in Austin”. Maybe that’s true…. Maybe the culture is different here. We understand that some people come to the mountains to get away from it all, to isolate. But let me tell you something, Jesus was COUNTER CULTURAL! And as His followers, we should be too!! Biblically speaking, there should be no difference between a Christ-centered community in a big city versus a small mountain town. And as far as replicating what we had in Austin, we recognize that every community is different and it will never look exactly like it did. But we have ONE truth, the Bible. And the core tenets of a Christ-centered community are clearly outlined. Not only do we see them in the early church, but we also see them lived out by Jesus and His disciples. They studied together, ate and prayed together, sacrificed for each other, spent time with and invited in the tax collectors, prostitutes and the like (people outside the “church”). But most of all, they walked many miles together, sharing their lives. How can we not do the same?!

So where does that leave us? Well, it’s been over six months since we last attended our local church, and in that time, only one person has proactively reached out to us and asked how we’re doing. Does that give anyone else pause?

Regarding the local churches that we’ve attended, biblically sound doctrine is being preached from the pulpit. Where we see the disconnect is in the translation! We understand that there are individuals within the church doing good in the community, but what we’re not seeing is a church that is unified in heart and mind, welcoming and loving on those outside the 4 walls of the church. We believe that this condition is much bigger than a small mountain town; it’s true for many churches throughout the U.S. They’ve become internally focused and have lost Jesus’s love for our neighbors outside of the church. Many of them are filled with little cliques which have their backs turned to those new to or outside of the church. At first appearance newcomers may be greeted with friendliness, but there’s not a true welcoming into the community. We often use the analogy of a football huddle to describe these groups, a.k.a holy huddles. Compare that to a church that is looking outward with open arms…which is more inviting? The latter is what Jesus demonstrated!

CJ and I have been believers for a long time and have always been proactive in relationship and community building. For us to not feel welcomed and included, what must others feel? We recognize that being in this type of community requires sacrifice and commitment and can often be messy. But we’ve seen significant life change in the messiness and it’s our belief that this is what God has called us to as His disciples. And that’s why we believe Sonshine is so important, to reflect the glory of our God by the way we live our lives, as a unified body.

Despite the push back of local churches, we continue to invite all people into our home for fellowship, bible study, and the breaking of bread. We continue to be proactive in building relationships and doing life together outside of the 4 walls of the church. What about you? What do you see in your local church? Are you connected in such a community? Do you see a need for change? If so, we encourage you to think and act outside the box. Let’s live counter culturally! Let’s reflect the light of the Son!

Categories: Church, Community | 1 Comment

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