Choirs of unicorns singing gospel hymns, humorous sermons by Stephen Colbert and joyful potlucks with BBQ ribs afterwards comprise the church of my imagingation. Well, not actually, but it’s fun to picture right? Unicorns, Colbert, ribs- sounds like a divine trifecta to me.
Dave and I have been looking for a church here in Cleveland and I’ve been reflecting on what we value in a church, how we go about evaluating those values, the dissonance that occurs between what I picture as an ideal church and what we experience in reality. Recently I took a class with Rick Richardson (aka Slick Rick) at Wheaton Graduate School on various models of evangelism and church. I was easily inspired and going to places like Lawndale Community church where the church has helped to provide health services, a low cost fitness center, a dental clinic and arts cafe in Lawndale, a struggling community just outside of Chicago.
Especially exciting is that they look to the leadership of people who are in the community for the answers to the problems that they face rather than coming in with their own ideas of cleaning up trash from the streets or painting houses to make superficial changes. Churches like Lawndale are truly bringing the kingdom of God here on earth as it is in heaven.
The phrase “church shopping” has come into the vocabulary of evangelicals in recent years, I believe in large part because so many churches have structured their services around a consumer Christian experience- “do I like the worship? What kinds of programs does the church offer for me? Did I “get fed” from the sermon?” When did Christians become so lazy that they need someone to spoon-feed them spirituality instead of experiencing growth as a daily part of life? In the last year I’ve had a growing discontent with various models of church and have felt like moving to Cleveland offers a great fresh start for finding and investing in a community that we can be part of to live life and serve Jesus together.
If you’ve ever been to a wedding or any variety, it’s likely that you may have heard 1 Corinthians 13 read by someone’s cousin, friend or uncle- “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” The earlier part of this passage talks about how there can be many impressive things present in a church; generosity to the poor, speaking eloquently about God, faith that can move mountains- yet without love it amounts to nothing. Nothing.
This has become the main factor for me in determining whether I want to join a church community or not: does it seem like a place where the love of Jesus is present? Are there people there who through the love that Jesus are seeing to always trust, persevere, hope and rejoice together? Are they the type of people who will judge me when I inevitably hurt, offend or slight someone? Or will they forgive? Do people seem proud of themselves because of what they’ve accomplished? For how big the church is or how edgy they can be? I’ve realized I can listen to great sermons online, buy a worship cd for world-class praise music or even call up friends who live far away that I can pray with.
The thing I can’t replace is people. And that’s what church is all about- the mess, glory and joy of being with people who are in the process of being transformed into the divine creatures that are agents or peace, love and hope because of Jesus. It’s hard, there are hurt feelings, horrible conflicts. Yet in my imagination I see a community that is overflowing with the love of Jesus- where they’re able to have ridiculous amounts of fun together, pray like God is really listening, cry with one another in the midst of suffering and serve the needs around them without needing a church program to tell them that’s a good thing. That even when the hard, horrible things happen, they’re able to look to Jesus as their source of forgiveness and hope to heal the wounds we inflict and that are inflicted upon us. I hope that the church in my imagination can become more and more of a reality here in my neighborhood and community as we become involved in the lives of people seeking to follow Jesus here in Cleveland.