Are Churches Like Zoos?
A decade ago I spent an unforgettable week in the Galapagos Islands. This archipelago of islands off the coast of Ecuador hasn’t changed much since Charles Darwin sailed there on the HMS Beagle in December 1831 and studied fifteen species of finches. The Galapagos may be the closest thing to the Garden of Eden left on Earth!
My son and I saw a two-hundred-year-old turtle weighing in at nearly a thousand pounds. We came face-to-face with giant iguanas that weren’t the least bit intimidated by humankind. We watched pelicans that looked like prehistoric pterodactyls dive into the ocean and come back up with breakfast in their oversized beaks. And we went swimming with sea lions, which we later learned isn’t altogether safe!
A few weeks after returning home, our family went to the National Zoo in Washington, DC. The National Zoo is a great zoo, but zoos are ruined for me. Looking at caged animals isn’t nearly as exhilarating as witnessing a wild animal in its natural habitat—it’s too safe, it’s too tame, and it’s too predictable.
As we walked through the ape house, the four-hundredpound gorillas looked so bored, so emasculated, behind protecrive plexiglass. That’s when a thought fired across my synapses: I wonder if churches do to people what zoos do to animals.
I don’t think it’s intentional. In fact, it’s well-intentioned. But I wonder if our attempts to help people sometimes hurt them. We try to remove the danger, remove the risk. We attempt to tame people in the name of Christ, forgetting that Jesus didn’t die to keep us safe. Jesus died to make us dangerous.
I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.
That doesn’t sound safe, does it? That’s because it’s not. The will of God isn’t an insurance plan. The will of God is a dangerous plan. It takes tons of testosterone, and it produces high levels of holy adrenaline.
Three pastors got together for coffee one day and found all their churches had bat-infestation problems.
“I got so mad,” said one, “I took a shotgun and fired at them. It made holes in the ceiling, but did nothing to the bats.”
“I tried trapping them alive,” said the second. “Then I drove 50 miles before releasing them, but they beat me back to the church.”
“I haven’t had any more problems,” said the third.
“What did you do?” asked the others, amazed.
“I simply baptized and confirmed them,” he replied. “I haven’t seen them since.”
Reader’s Digest, July, 1994, p. 64.
This story deals with a rather old-fashioned lady, who was planning a couple of weeks vacation in Florida. She also was quite delicate and elegant with her language. She wrote a letter to a particular campground and asked for reservations. She wanted to make sure the campground was fully equipped but didn’t know quite how to ask about the “toilet” facilities.
She just couldn’t bring herself to write the word “toilet” in her letter. After much deliberation, she finally came up with the old-fashioned term “Bathroom Commode,” but when she wrote that down, she still thought she was being too forward. So she started all over again; rewrote the entire letter and referred to the “Bathroom Commode” simply as the “B.C.”. Does the campground have its own “B.C.?” is what she actually wrote.
Well, the campground owner wasn’t old fashioned at all, and when he got the letter, he couldn’t figure out what the lady was talking about. That “B.C.” really stumped him. After worrying about it for several days, he showed the letter to other campers, but they couldn’t figure out what the lady meant either. The campground owner finally came to the conclusion that the lady was and must be asking about the location of the local Baptist Church.
So he sat down and wrote the following reply: “Dear Madam: I regret very much the delay in answering your letter, but I now take pleasure of informing in that the “B.C.” is located nine miles north of the camp site and is capable of seating 250 people at one time. I admit it is quite a distance away if you are in the habit of going regularly, but no doubt you will be pleased to know that a great number of people take their lunches along, and make a day of it…
They usually arrive early and stay late. The last time my wife and I went was six years ago, and it was so crowded we had to stand up the whole time we were there. It may interest you to know that right now, there is a supper planned to raise money to buy more seats…
They plan to hold the supper in the middle of the B.C., so everyone can watch and talk about this great event…..I would like to say it pains me very much, not to be able to go more regularly, but it is surely not for lack of desire on my part….As we grow older, it seems to be more and more of an effort, particularly in cold weather….. If you decide to come down to the campground, perhaps I could go with you the first time you go … sit with you … and introduce you to all the other folks. … This is really a very friendly community.
Submitted by Chris Stroup, Source Unknown
Christians & The Church
Whether we like it or not, the moment we confess Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior, that is, from the time we become a Christian, we are at the same time a member of the Christian church … Our membership in the church is a corollary of our faith in Christ. We can no more be a Christian and have nothing to do with the church than we can be a person and not be in a family.
Membership in the church is a basic spiritual fact for those who confess Christ as Lord. It is not an option for those Christians who happen by nature to be more gregarious than others. It is part of the fabric of redemption. There are Christians, of course, who never put their names down on a membership list; there are Christians who refuse to respond to the call to worship each Sunday; there are Christians who say, “I love God but I hate the church.”
But they are members all the same, whether they like it or not, whether they acknowledge it or not. For God never makes private, secret salvation deals with people. His relationships with us are personal, true; intimate, yes; but private, no. We are a family in Christ. When we become Christians, we are among brothers and sisters in faith. No Christian is an only child.
Taken from A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society by Eugene Peterson Copyright (c) 1980, 2000 by Eugene Peterson. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com
The Church Does Exist Not Outside of Me
And here’s a further complication: the church is not an entity outside of me. I do not stand on the outside looking in. I am as much part of the church as (in the words of Paul) a hand is a part of a body. That means that when I see sin in the church, I am implicated in it. I contribute to the brokenness of the church.
I have dealt wounds to others; I have been unfaithful to the bridegroom. Every church leader and church member is, in no insignificant way, a failure. But here too we see God’s power because, in this body of Christ, we find a place where we can be gloriously and devastatingly human. We find a place where we can fail and repent and grow and receive grace and be made new. Like a family—but even closer than a family—we can learn to live together, weak and human, in the goodness and transformation of God.
Taken from Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life by Tish Harrison Warren. Copyright (c) 2016 by Tish Harrison Warren, p.123. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com
Collective Narcissism in Churches
In His book When Narcissism Comes to Church, Chuck DeGroat shares about a unique phenomenon that occurs in organizations: Collective Narcissism:
Churches are particularly susceptible to a phenomenon called “collective narcissism,” in which the charismatic leader/follower relationship is understood as a given. Sadly, in recent years we’ve witnessed too many instances of charismatic Christian leaders gaining a massive following, both within the church and on social media, only to be exposed as manipulative, abusive, and dictatorial. Jerrold Post argues that a mutually reinforcing relationship exists between leader and follower.
The leader relies on the adoration and respect of his followers; the follower is attracted to the omnipotence and charisma of the leader. The leader uses polarizing rhetoric that identifies an outside enemy, bringing together leader and followers on a grandiose mission. The followers feed off the leaders certainty in order to fill their own empty senses of self. Interestingly, in this mutually reinforcing relationship, both are prone to a form of narcissism.
We live in a culture today where we are used to evaluating and giving our opinion on everything. Whether it’s the pizza we ate, our Uber driver, the movie we saw, or our friend’s picture on social media, everything is set up for us to be able to critique and compare.
So in the Church, rather than marveling at the incredible mystery that we are a part of God’s body, we critique the leadership, the music, the programs, and anything else we can think of. We point out the flaws in our pastor’s sermon with the same conviction we critique a movie star’s acting or our favorite team’s recent loss.
The Greek term ekklesia, translated church over one hundred times in your English New Testament, is translated differently in this passage. Let’s see if you can find it:
So then, some were shouting one thing and some another, for the assembly was in confusion and the majority did not know for what reason they had come together.
Spot it? Here’s how the passage would read if ekklesia had been translated church.
As you probably guessed, ekklesia is translated assembly in the passage above. Why? That’s what the term means. Ekklesia was not, is not, a religious term. It does not mean church or house of the Lord. It certainly shouldn’t be associated with a temple. The term was used widely to describe a gathering or assembly, civic gatherings, or an assembly of soldiers. An ekklesia was a gathering of people for a specific purpose. Any specific purpose..
Different Times Everywhere
William F. Allen, who in 1883 “pulled off a miracle.” What he did was to get not just an entire coast to pull in sync, but an entire nation. In [New Jersey Governor Tom] Kean’s words,
Until high noon on October 18, 1883, every rail line ran on its own time. Every train station set its own clocks by the sun. So when it was noon in New York, it was 11:58 in Trenton and 11:56 in Camden, and so on. Pure chaos. Allen was chosen to sort out this mess, and after eight years he convinced the nation co adopt the time zones that we have today.
The task the church faces is a lot like Allen’s, except we are trying to get people to adopt the time zone of eternity. As my mother, Mabel Boggs Sweet, used to put it, “God’s clock keeps perfect time.”
Don’t Let the Church Keep You from Being a Perfect Christian
In this satirical excerpt from How to be a Perfect Christian by the Babylon Bee, the point becomes clear that our often-consumeristic approach to church leaves much to be desired:
You want to be a perfect Christian, and that is a noble goal indeed. But first things first. It’s impossible to get to the maximum level of holiness if you’re currently attending a church that is focused on the wrong things, namely, on anything other than you.
Paul David Tripp once wrote that church is a place “where flawed people place their faith in Christ, gather to know and love him better, and learn to love others as he designed.” It’s a nice sentiment, but its also completely wrong. Flawed people? Excuse us, Paul, but we’re trying to become absolutely perfect here, not hang out with a bunch of messed-up folks. We don’t need that kind of negativity in our lives.
We know you may have feelings of loyalty or attachment to the humble, local expression of the body of Christ that you’ve been a part of for years. You need to rid yourself of these unholy emotions. It’s time to step back and objectively evaluate whether or not your church is properly equipped to encourage you on your sacred quest to become the ultimate manifestation of impeccable spirituality.
So open your eyes and start looking for the red flags that indicate your church isn’t a spiritually fulfilling congregation.
Some of the most common warning signs that your church isn’t conducive to your personal growth into a perfect Christian include a pastor who preaches sermons that make you feel uncomfortable, a worship experience that centers your attention more on God than on your own feelings, and a church staff who refuse to incorporate the advice from the thousands of helpful comment cards you’ve left over the years. These kinds of churches are dangerous. If you find yourself treading water in a similar spiritual wasteland, its time for your very first step toward spiritual awesomeness: church shopping.
Dunkirk: A Ragtag Armada
In his book, The Word and Power Church, Doug Banister writes:
The spring of 1940 found Hitler’s panzer divisions mopping up French troops and preparing for a siege of Great Britain. The Dutch had already surrendered, as had the Belgians. The British army foundered on the coast of France in the channel port of Dunkirk. Nearly a quarter million young British soldiers and over 100,000 allied troops faced capture or death.
The Furhrer’s troops, only a few miles away in the hills of France, closed in on an easy kill. The Royal Navy had enough ships to save barely 17,000 men, and the House of Commons was told to brace itself for “hard and heavy tidings.”
Then while a despairing world watched with fading hope, a bizarre fleet of ships appeared on the horizon of the English Channel. Trawlers, tugs, fishing sloops, lifeboats, sailboats, pleasure craft, an island ferry named Gracie Fields, and even the America’s Cup challenger Endeavor, all manned by civilian sailors, sped to the rescue. The ragtag armada eventually rescued 338,682 men and returned them home to the shores of England, as pilots of the Royal Air Force jockeyed with the German Luftwaffe in the skies above the channel. It was one of the most remarkable naval operations in history.
The church, likewise, is God’s ragtag armada. The church is a mix of flawed individuals on a rescue operation commissioned by God.
Submitted by Chris Stroup, Doug Banister, The Word and Power Church, pp. 33–34.
Today, the church in America seems to have traded in its mandate to be eccentric and aimed instead at an unconscious conventionality. Rural norms are too quaint, urban norms too dangerous, so the church finds a happy medium in a suburban spirituality.
It’s impolite to think of ourselves as rich and demoralizing to think of ourselves as poor, so we find a happy medium in the middle class. We are happy. We are medium. We fit in. And very often we baptize that conventionality by suggesting that God is primarily concerned with order, and with us living peaceably with our neighbors. I’m certainly not suggesting we shouldn’t be peaceable, but neither should we be indistinguishable from our fine, upstanding non-Christian neighbors.
“I’m in the Secret Service”
Jim was leaving church after Christmas services when the pastor greeted him and said, “Jim, it’s time you joined the Army of the Lord. We need to see you every Sunday.”
“I’m already in the Army of the Lord, Pastor,” Jim replied.
“Then why do we only see you on Christmas and Easter?”
Jim looked to the right and to the left, and then leaned over to whisper, “I’m in the Secret Service.”
Just as I Ain’t
I grew up attending churches designed for church people. No one said it, but the assumption was that church was for church people. The unspoken message to the outside world was, “Once you start believing and behaving like us, you are welcome to join us.” The corollary of being a church for churched people was that we had a tendency to be against everything unchurched people were for. We were against just about everything at one time or another.
We were against certain genres of music, alcohol, the lottery, the equal rights amendment, gay people, and Democrats. Seemed like we were always looking for something or someone to boycott. As strange as all that sounds now, it didn’t seem strange at all back then. Funny how time does that. But our dilemma then is a dilemma the church has struggled with throughout its history. Who is the church for? Who gets to be part of the Jesus gathering?
The Motivation to Attend Church
Francois Fenelon was the court preacher for King Louis XIV of France in the 17th century. One Sunday when the king and his attendants arrived at the chapel for the regular service, no one else was there but the preacher.
King Louis demanded, “What does this mean?”
Fenelon replied, “I had published that you would not come to church today, in order that your Majesty might see who serves God in truth and who flatters the king.”
Submitted by Chris Stroup, Source Unknown
A New View of Church
The idea of everyday stuff done for God’s purposes in the world had gotten Greg’s attention. “Brett told me you guys are starting a church,” he said. “But you don’t seem like church people. You’re hosting a poker party!” I thought about what Greg had said while I stared down at my hand, trying to keep my poker face on. Greg had grown up in the church, but he had vowed never to go near one again. All he saw when he looked at the church was an empty, lifeless, loveless institution with structures and events.
He rejected the church because he hadn’t experienced the love of Christ there. For Greg, church seemed disconnected from everyday life. He observed people doing church, not Jesus living life through his church. In his mind, church had become merely a religious event. Greg and Mary were also struggling in their marriage without much relational connection to others for help. On top of that, Greg was personally struggling with a lack of purpose in life.
At that moment, they felt hopeless and helpless. Brett had been sharing with him our vision of church as the people of Jesus living intentionally together on mission in the everyday stuff of life. Brett had been inviting Greg to come to our dinners and parties for a while, but Greg had continued to refuse. He held onto his belief that the church was not something he could be a part of. But Brett was changing, and Greg could no longer ignore this.
The two of them had grown up together as friends, but something was different. Brett was different. Could there be something to this church that Brett was talking about? So Greg came to the party. “ Many people have the wrong view of church,” I said to Greg. “They see the church only as a building or an event they go to on Sunday. Others see the church as the leaders or pastors who put together programs for its members. That’s why, when people say, ‘I like or don’t like such and such church,’ they are actually referring to the way the leaders or pastors lead, teach, or organize the people. They don’t usually mean they like or don’t like the people.” This wasn’t the first time I had explained what the church is. Several times over the previous six months, I had pulled out a napkin at a coffee shop or restaurant, drawn a picture of a church building, and described how most people have this wrong view of church in their minds.
Not Going to Church
As was the normal routine on a Sunday morning, a wife got ready for church. She got up, had breakfast, showered, got dressed, put on makeup and was ready to go. It was just as she was ready to leave that she noticed her husband was still in his robe and pajamas. She asks him what’s going on, “I’m not going to church” he says. “What do you mean, you’re not going to church?” Give me one good reason why you’re not going to church?“
The husband responds, “I’ll give you three good reasons why I’m not going to church. Reason number one, the church feels cold. Reason number two, no one likes me. And reason number three, I just don’t like it there. Is that good enough?” he concluded quite proudly.
“Well, what if I give you three reasons why you should go to church.” the wife answered. “Reason number one, the church is actually quite warm and friendly. Reason number two, there’s a few people there who like you. And reason number three, you’re the pastor sweetheart, so you better get dressed and get to church.”
Original Source Unknown, Stuart Strachan Jr.
The Pastor’s Visit
The story is told of a man who had gone to church for several years but suddenly stopped attending. His pastor dropped by one evening unannounced. The man answered the door and invited him in. Of course, he knew why his pastor was there.
They went and sat in two chairs in front of a roaring fire. Neither man said anything. After a few minutes, the pastor picked up the fire tongs, took one of the logs out of the fire, and laid it on the hearth. The flames died down and flickered a few times before going out. They watched in silence as the log started to grow cold.
After a while, the pastor once again picked up the fire tongs and put the smoldering log back with the other burning logs. It immediately burst back into flame.
The pastor got up and said, “Well, I need to go now. But I’ve enjoyed our visit.”
The man rose too and said, “I appreciate your message, pastor. I will be in church on Sunday.”
These Impious Galileans
A passage often referred to in order to describe the sacrificial, countercultural quality of the early church comes to us interestingly enough, from one of its strongest critics, known later to history as Julian the Apostate, the last non-Christian (or pagan) Roman emperor (serving from 361-363 AD).
Julian had begrudgingly acknowledged that the Christians, or the “Galileans” as he referred to them, took care of the needy far more so than its pagan counterparts, which led to many new converts. This concerned the emperor because it threatened Julian’s attempt to restore the supremacy of the Roman pantheon. Most importantly, the passage describes just how powerful the Church can be when it models the sacrificial love of Christ to its neighbors:
These impious Galileans (Christians) not only feed their own, but ours also; welcoming them with their agape, they attract them, as children are attracted with cakes….Whilst the pagan priests neglect the poor, the hated Galileans devote themselves to works of charity, and by a display of false compassion have established and given effect to their pernicious errors.
Such practice is common among them, and causes contempt for our gods (Epistle to Pagan High Priests). Those in the early church lived in a conflicted but beloved covenant community in peaceful opposition to the militaristic, materialistic, racist, and sexualized culture of the Roman Empire. The church was distinct, noticeable, and uncompromising. This type of prayerful resistance and faithful witness is needed today.
Introduction by Stuart Strachan, Source Material from Julian the Apostate, quoted in Michael Craven, “The Christian Conquest of Pagan Rome,” Crosswalk.com, November 8, 2010.
Unchurched Attending Church for the First Time
It took months of building a relationship, but my (David’s) neighbor Rick finally showed up at church. At the time the church was meeting in an old movie theater. As Rick was greeted that morning, it was obvious that he was out of his comfort zone. With sweat beading up on his forehead he nervously asked, “Where do I pay?” He received a reassuring response: “Rick, it’s free. Relax and enjoy your experience.
We are so glad you came.” Rick represents a growing number of people born in North America who have no Christian memory. There is no doubt that the landscape has radically changed, as Dorothy puts it in the Wizard of Oz, “We are not in Kansas anymore.” The spiritual landscape of North American culture is falling apart and coming together again at the same time. Spirituality is up, while church attendance is at an all-time low. It is commonly reported that at least 80 percent of churches have either plateaued or are in serious decline.
The Value of a Church
The value of a church is not in its longevity but in its love. The success of a church is not in its size but in its service to the people and the community. We are a people founded by a person who never established a church or built a building or led a finance campaign to build impressive buildings. Our leader just came and served and then died for the good of others. I suppose that would be a pretty good mission statement for a church, but one I am not likely to see: “We exist to serve others and then die, just like our Founder.”
Taken from The Good and Beautiful Community: Following the Spirit, Extending Grace, Demonstrating Love by James Bryan Smith, Copyright (c) 2010 by James Bryan Smith. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com
What is the Church For?
Yet many believers of my generation are not sure what the church is for. Some have denigrated the need for it all together. We have produced a me-centered faith that would be foreign to most Christians throughout history.
We have made a false gospel with individualized communion-on-the-go kits. A popular Christian author can write that “most of the influential Christian leaders I know (who are not pastors) do not attend church,” and can refer to the church as a university that he has “graduated” from.
But if Christianity is not only about my individual connection with God, but is instead about God calling, forming, saving, and redeeming a people, then the church can never be relegated to “elective” status. Christ did not send his Holy Spirit only to individuals. He did not merely seek personal relationships with his followers.
The good news is not simply that I can believe and thus make it to heaven, or even that I can believe and live out my life among a band of Christian friends. Jesus sent his Spirit to a people. The preservation of our faith and the endurance of the saints is not an individual promise; it is a promise that God will redeem and preserve his church—a people, a community, an organism, an institution—generation after generation, and that even the gates of hell will not prevail against it…
There are times, though, when the wounds the church gives are even more profound and complex than conflicts between individuals, as painful as they can be. Sin in the church can be insidious and systemic. We can be injured by a misuse of power or entrenched institutional pathology. Any of us who have hung around the church long enough have a few scars to show. I was once deeply wounded by someone in a position of power in my church. Suddenly, a place that had always been a refuge for me became a place of rejection and condemnation.
The pain of that hurt felt sharp, even physical, a blow that knocked the breath out of me. I was tempted to give up on the church altogether. I felt that everywhere I looked, left and right, I saw ecclesial dysfunction and brokenness. I was becoming cynical and guarded. Yet where else could I go? The church was where I heard the gospel in community, where I received nourishment in Word and sacrament, where I touched the body of Christ, where I was shaped and formed as one beloved by God. So we returned to church, albeit a different congregation, after a lot of prayer and talks with close friends and mentors.
Taken from Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life by Tish Harrison Warren. Copyright (c) 2016 by Tish Harrison Warren, p.120. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com
What is the Mission of the Church?
The answer to the question, “What is the mission of the church?” depends, to a large degree, on what is meant by “mission.” One could make a case that glorifying God and enjoying him forever is the mission of the church, because that is our chief end as redeemed believers. Someone else might argue that loving God and loving neighbor is the best description of our mission, because those are the greatest commandments.
And someone else might borrow from the nineteenth-century hymn and argue that trust and obey is the essence of our mission, because that is the great call of the gospel message. In one sense we would be foolish to argue with any of these answers. If mission is simply a synonym for living a faithful Christian life, then there are dozens of ways to answer the question, “What is the mission of the church?…We believe the church is sent into the world to witness to Jesus by proclaiming the gospel and making disciples of all nations. This is our task. This is our unique and central calling…
We are convinced that if you ask most Christians, “What is the mission of the church?” they will hear you asking, “What is the specific task or purpose that the church is sent into the world to accomplish?” This is our working definition of mission …
We believe the church in the world to witness to Jesus by proclaiming the gospel and making disciples of all nations. This is our task. This is our unique and central calling.
Why the Church Gathers
We don’t gather as the church for our own sakes. We come together as the church to rest up, recharge, and get nourished so that we can go into the world and be the church. The church, not the “you are marvelous” club of mediocrities…In other words, church isn’t something you go to, in here; church is something you are, out there—outimacy…
The fellowship of the early church centered on the dinner table. Believers shared the Lord’s Supper there. It was a place of great intimacy. But the measure of the greatness of their community was not the experience of intimacy; it was the extent to which their intimacy with God and with one another overflowed to the blessing of those not yet at the table.
Working on Our Muscle Memory
Editor’s Note: The following illustration came from one of my own sermons, as I was trying to help a congregation see itself not as a building, but the body of Christ. It has been adapted for TPW.
Now, one of things I’ve realized, even in my own perspective on the church, is that we all have a default way of thinking about “church.” That is, for the majority of us in North America and Europe, when we hear “church” we often think of a building with a cross on top.
We know from studying biblical passages about the church we should picture a human body or a gathering of Jesus followers instead, right? But it’s kind of like muscle memory. You all know what muscle memory is right? It’s the idea that we have certain ways of doing things, say swinging a golf club and when we try to say, change that swing, we struggle, because we already have muscles that expect to move a certain way right? So for instance, recently I had a golf lesson. And the instructor, who knows a lot more about golf than I do, said, “I think I’d like to change your swing.”
Now, this wasn’t exactly what I wanted to hear. I wanted to hear, “Oh, you are just doing this little thing wrong. Fix it, and you’ll have a zero handicap.” Okay, let’s be honest, that was never going to happen.
So, let me demonstrate how I used to swing. (Show the congregation.) It wasn’t terrible, but it also had its problems. So the instructor made a couple tweaks, and I’ll be honest, at first, felt very awkward, even flat out wrong. I thought to myself, “I’m pretty sure I’ll never hit the ball well with this swing.”
But strangely enough, with a little practice, not only did I start to hit the ball straighter than I was before, but I was also hitting the ball further. So why do I bring this up? It’s because we all have quite a lot of “muscle memory” related to the church. We all see and expect the church to look and act a certain way. The problem is, sometimes, in order for the church to grow, we need to look back at scripture and ask, “What if our muscle memory is off?” What if we are doing things, not because they have to be done that way, but because they used to work well this way, but they don’t really work anymore? Remember, we’re not talking about changing the gospel or the essence of the Church. We are talking about fixing some of our mechanics in order to more faithfully proclaim the good news that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior, in our place and time.
Stuart Strachan Jr., Sermon, Luke 15: Locating the Lost, Oct.10, 2017.
The Worldwide Church in Action
It is a phone call no parent wants to receive. “Jerry,” Bethany said, “Catherine’s had a little accident.” “Accident! How bad?”
“She’s going to be okay. You want to talk to her? We’re in a kind of ambulance crossing the Andes, headed down to Quito. Here she is.”
My daughter Catherine and Bethany, one of her dear friends, spent the 2006-2007 school year in Central and South America, studying Spanish, traveling and serving in nonprofit organizations. They spent their last three months in Quito, Ecuador, working in a Catholic street ministry. During Mardi Gras weekend a number of volunteers and staff members, both Ecuadorians and Americans, rented a bus and traveled to the coast to spend a couple of days relaxing on the beach.
Not surprisingly, the beach was packed with people. Catherine decided to go for a swim to escape the crowds…Swimming in deep water far from shore, she noticed a speed boat fast approaching her. The driver did not appear to see her. She yelled and waved as best she could, but to no avail. The boat continued on course. She finally decided to dive head first to get out of the way. She waited a split second too long. The prop caught her on her lower back. She knew immediately that she had been cut badly and would probably drown. Two thoughts immediately came into her mind, both quintessentially Catherine. The first expressed a sense of surprise, as if the accident were an irritating interruption. I wasn’t planning on dying this young, she said to herself. The second was a pleasant thought, borne out of the experience of losing her mother. I get to see my mom!
As it turned out, here first thought was the more accurate. Two young Ecuadorians witnessed the accident from shore and frantically swam to her reaching her in just enough time. Once on shore, she was rushed to a medical tent where an EMT began to work on her. He stopped the bleeding, cleaned out the gaping wounds and stitched her up as best he could. However nauseated, Bethany stood by her through the entire ordeal, holding her hand, praying for her and singing hand, praying for her and singing hymns to her. Another friend secured transportation back to Quito, the trip took roughly seven hours, much of it over gravel roads. Once in Once in Quito, they took her to a missionary hospital where a plastic surgeon removed the provisional stitches, cleaned out the wounds and then sewed her back up with over a hundred stitches.
Over the next week, Catherine discovered what it means to belong to the worldwide church. As word spread, people in the U.S. contacted Christian friends in Quito, who began to visit and help her. A retired missionary doctor, for example, stopped in to see her every day and took personal responsibility for her care. People sent letters, emails, flowers, and gifts.
Though complete strangers, they treated her like a dear friend and showered her with attention and affection. She felt like a celebrity. Over the course of the next month she kept telling me about it, “I just can’t believe it Dad. Those people loved me for no other reason than that I needed to be loved.” “It’s the church,” I responded. I told her that when the church is functioning at its best, there is simply no community on earth that can rival it.
Why People Don’t go to Church
Rick Warren, perhaps the most famous missional code breaker, surveyed his community and found why people in his community did not go to church. He found that there were four primary complaints about church:
Church is boring, especially the sermons. The messages don’t relate to my life.
Church members are unfriendly to visitors. If I go to church, I want to feel welcomed without being embarrassed.
The church is more interested in my money than it is in me.
We worry about the quality of our church’s childcare.
You Smell Like Church
A student of mine called me late one evening after worship. He was really excited on the other end, and I had to ask him to slow down. So, he says, “Mother Kim, this strange thing happened to me today. After worship tonight, I was riding the train back to my apartment, when this woman sat down next to me. I had my earbuds in, so I wasn’t really paying her any attention, but she tapped me to get my attention.
She said, ‘Son, you smell like church. You smell like church.’” Now the Apostle Paul tells us in his letter to the Corinthians that those who know Christ have a particular smell.
When we come to know God—come to trust and believe in the power of God’s love, there’s an aroma, a fragrance that lingers in the room even after we leave. To borrow from the words of the woman on the train, when we encounter God, we begin to “smell like church.” Or to borrow from Paul, “We smell like Christ.”
…That evening on the phone with my student, I asked him what happened next. He said, “She started to cry. And she looked up at me and said, ‘Thank you. I haven’t been to church in a long time.’”
The Reverend Kimberly Jackson, “The Smell of Christ” (Absalom Jones Episcopal Center: August 27, 2014)
Still Looking for inspiration?
Consider checking out our quotes page on the Church. Don’t forget, sometimes a great quote is an illustration in itself!