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?