Saturday, February 12, 2011

Why I Go to Church But I'd Rather Be the Church

My sweet friend asked me the other day, "Sharon, where do you go to church?"  Ah, good question!  I replied that I don't really go to church anywhere.  At least I don't consider myself a "church attender" by my definition of what I think a church attender looks like.  Anyway, she e-mailed me a week later and asked me why I don't go to church.  Her note caused me to smile... and ponder for the duration of the day.  By evening, I decided to ask my friends the question that kept running through my mind.  I asked it via Facebook:

Why do you go to church?

Ah!  And so inspired am I by the passionate responses that I thought I'd share my subsequent thoughts here.  (I wouldn't ask you to go read the conversation on Facebook as I don't spend much time there myself... albeit I'm thankful for the connections with people I love... and feel especially appreciative of this most recent "conversation.")

"I believe the local Church is the hope of the world."  ~Bill Hybels

I believe that with all of my being and I shout a loud "Amen and amen!"

We pulled into Spokane, Washington on a typical Sunday afternoon this last August.  I dialed my in-love's phone number to get directions to their new house.  Aunt Kathy and Uncle Jake, the ones who raised my husband; the mother and father-in-laws I prayed for since I was twelve-years old.  "Do you think we'd have time to pick up our vehicle and still make it to the six o'clock service at Life Center?" I asked.  Our friends were special guests, sharing their passion and vision for Malawi, Africa, and we were hoping to get to hear them.  Besides... the whole Church... all our family... butterflies alighted in our stomachs, the way it happens when you're about to see someone who you haven't seen in what feels like forever, someone loved and treasured. 

Aunt Kathy's voice, soothing, perpetually solution-oriented, "No, I'm sorry.  Our house is too far away.  Is this something pretty important to you?"  I sighed quietly, letting go.  The butterflies didn't cease... in just minutes I'd throw my arms around this woman who occupies such a large portion of my heart.  And Uncle Jake, dear, precious Uncle Jake.  She finished giving directions as my sweet sister-in-law exited the freeway onto Maple Street.

A moment later the phone rang.  "We've figured out a way for you to be able to make it in time for the six o'clock service."  She told us where to meet them.  Told me they were bringing the vehicle to us.  I am overwhelmed by this tangible grace.  And so, minutes later we shared hugs all around, a couple of the children opting to go with Grandma and Grandpa while the rest of us went on to Life Center.

We pulled up just in time.  Holding hands, LeRoy and I and our two oldest children entered the enormous foyer, more like a great-room or family room, with its cafe table sets, sofas and armchairs.  Deliriously happy, we made our way toward the auditorium, where we could hear Pastor Joe introducing our friends.

But we never made it into the auditorium.  We met up with a friend coming out and stopped to talk.  And by the time we finished talking, our friends had finished their few minutes of sharing.  Though we know it was great... laughter bubbled all the way out into all the spaces.  That's the way they are.  Our friends.  Funny.  Courageous.  Faithful.  Fully alive... contagiously so.  They pushed open the double doors, entering the lobby all smiles and hugs and Amy's famous kiss on each cheek, the men doing the man-hug with slaps on the back.

Then it was another couple of hours of sitting on couches, putting our feet up on the ottoman, drinking coffee, catching up with so many friends passing through the commons area or coming there to loiter, to pass the time conversing, connecting, getting filled up, and pouring out... these people who have become family over the last eighteen years, dear loved ones who we've done life with together.

After a while I looked over to see a friend of ours talking to our boys at a nearby cafe table.  Their conversation appeared conspiratorial, them leaning in, our friend apparently asking questions as I watched my boy's expressions, thoughtful, somewhat serious, and then smiling broadly.  Some time later I looked over to see the same friend, his hands on their shoulders as he prayed for them.  Later I would ask them about the conversation and they would tell me he asked about their dreams, about their passions, that he prayed they would become mighty men for God.

And my heart... the seams pulled and stretched, me wondering how I'd keep from bursting with love... for this family... the local Church.

That week we got to spend more time with these people who mean so much to us... people we'll get to spend e t e r n i t y with -- such extravagant Grace! -- at the Global Summit Leadership Conference.  A conference with the vision "to transform Christian leaders around the world with an injection of vision, skill development, and inspiration for the sake of the local church."

Because we're passionate about the Church.

To say that I don't "go to church" isn't completely accurate, I suppose.  We went to church (buildings) three times in January.

One Sunday we went to Kingdom Hall with our friends who are Jehovah's Witnesses.  They came to our door sometime back in late August, asked if they could study the Bible with me.  They hardly finished speaking before I invited them in, made us all a cup of tea, began to get acquainted... to build relationships.  They've been coming to Church every Wednesday afternoon since.  (Since their religion doesn't permit them to go to any other other religion's church but their own, they won't attend a service in a building that we'd typically visit.  And this is that abundant Grace that lives in me, this Spirit of Love that loves through me, this lifelong adventure of being the Church... so that whoever I come in contact with... is visiting Church.  That makes my heart beat fast!  Lord, have mercy!)  So maybe Kingdom Hall didn't exactly count as church since our belief system isn't in accordance with theirs.  The important thing is that we were with people we genuinely love and care about.

Another Sunday we went to Trinity Baptist Church in the morning.  Got to be there to show our support for A. as she got to be baptized by her daddy.  Since she's only five-years old, he shared on her behalf a little about her spiritual journey...  It was the best part of my day!  The pastor spoke from Nehemiah and I was reminded about God's vision for our lives and His power to see that vision carried out.

But now I have to tell you... this is where my passion runs deep for the Church.  After the service was over, and we all stood there chit-chatting, (which, Lord help me, is constantly a source of anxiety for me), and my mind started to race, This can't be it!  This isn't Church!  A few praise songs, a Scripture reading, a sermon... though blessed by all these, Church isn't Church with me staring at the backs of the heads in front of me, (what? no eye contact?), wondering about the person's week next to me, wanting to know how God is moving, transforming, rocking these people's worlds, wanting to share my own experiences with my Lord and King over the past few days!  And so...  "What are your plans for lunch?"  I asked two families standing there.  When they said they didn't have plans, "Great!  Then will you join us for lunch at our house?  We'll have, um, uh, chicken salad sandwiches annnnnd, uhh, tomato soup.  LeRoy will run to the grocery store and we'll see you shortly.  Oh.  And here's our address.  ...And phone number in case you get lost."  You see, it seemed the only sensible thing to do.  Because God's heart is to enjoy intimacy with us... that must mean He wants us to share in-to-me-you-see with one another.  Right?

(By the way, my house was a big mess... which translated into more and more and more grace.)  

While going to church certainly has the potential to draw me closer to God's heart, it doesn't necessarily cause me to feel more "worshipful" or "closer to God."  Intimacy with Kingdom family who are Church draws me closer to God's heart.  Showing up in all my sloppy weaknesses and failures and knowing I'm loved for the mess that I am... receiving the gifts of grace and patience... receiving encouragement to press in to my Savior...  knowing we're sojourners on this adventure together...  This is the Hope of the world.  It's this Kingdom culture, this culture of honor that draws me to go to church to be with the Church.

I appreciate how my friend, Amy, said in our FB conversation, "I love when the Word of God is passionately changing me -- and without the body (the Church) -- it is a lonely journey."  Exactly.  The only thing I love more than a grand adventure... is experiencing a grand adventure with people I love.  Fellow sojourners.  The beautiful privilege of being together with other saints -- to be vulnerable, real -- to do life together.  Yes, an immense privilege!

And what about the sermon aspect of church?  Oh!  I love this part, too!  I feel like the pastor is talking just to me -- same as a concert, conference or a class -- but the person up front can share the message more efficiently than meeting with us individually over coffee to share the same thing he or she can share with 40, 150, or 5,000 at a time.  I just like it better when we can discuss it over lunch later.  That's all.     

The enduring weekly reminder to be the Church.  To meet once a week to get centered -- always, always with the focus to draw closer to God's heart.  Or, sometimes to draw my wandering heart back to God.  To challenge us to a higher standard.  To remind us to fill up on His Love daily so that we can pour out that which strengthens souls. 

Later that same day we went to the four o'clock service at the Chapel on Base where Chaplain Costin preached with both passion and compassion from Psalm 139 on the sanctity of life.  Again, what blessing and encouragement poured into my heart! 

God, you know me!  You knit me together in the womb!  You know my comings and my goings!  You see.  You know.  You know my insatiable appetite for depth and intimacy.  With You.  With people.  Savior, Jesus, help me dream bigger dreams.  Help me live a faith that is reckless, knowing You know all the details... knowing my messes don't scare You or overwhelm You.

So why do I go to church?  Because I'm drawn there by the overwhelming desire to spend time with really cool people who are as messy as me in this crazy world we live in.  People who are mutually passionate about living God-sized adventures.  People who get scared, lose faith, stumble, have foolishly arrogant moments, and walk in, grasping for Hope, (much like when Hope pulled Christian out of the Slough of Despondency in Pilgrim's Progress?).  My friend, Diana R. said, " realize how much your church family and attendance and being in his presence to worship with others who love him means to you and God."  What a privilege to be His Church.  What a responsibility we have to each other and to the world to be the Hope that pulls people out of a state of despondency!

I think the best example of why I go to church is the story of the time I saw my friend Marilyn R. in the Commissary (grocery store on Base).  We had only been here in Germany a few months and were just starting to get to know people.  A new couple who also recently arrived had visited our church the week before.  Since I didn't really know her as we had only briefly met, I glanced over and then quickly continued up the grocery aisle.  I stopped momentarily to find an item on the shelf and that's when I found myself in a holy moment.  The next thing I knew, Marilyn was there beside me, her beautiful Puerto Rican accent praising Jesus, me caught up in her motherly embrace.  She planted a kiss on my cheek and said, "Praise Jesus, I just had to come over here and give you a big hug!  I love you, Sister!  God loves you!  Praise Him!"  And then she walked away.  And I thought, I'll go to church where she goes.  Oh, wait!  How cool, she's goes to the same church as me!  I want to journey with the same Jesus she knows.  I want what she's having!  Praise Jesus!  And you know what, that wasn't just some weird moment for her... her and her husband and their teenage daughter live that all-out crazy-in-love-with-Jesus adventure faithfully, consistently.  They are the Church.

It's people like that that draw me into the presence of God, whether it's in a church building with a group of Christians, or it's just our family gathered for "pajama church," listening to Pastor Groeschel on and praying for one another in the "hot seat."  Or on a hike with another family, admiring God's creation, discussing marriage, parenting, friendship, and how it all fits into the grand scheme of eternity.  Or sharing a meal with folks after the basketball game, the one where I worried over blowing our grocery budget for the week until Spirit reminded me that we are the Church meeting in J.R. Rockers for church and how during our time together we even made plans to visit Hamburg, (and possibly Denmark?), together.

Like one of my most favorite people on the planet said in our FB discussion, I go to church for "A million one reasons and counting..."  (Thank you, Uncle Brian.)  Another reason is for those hymns I am so passionate about!  Those hymns that I hum or sing all day long.  The ones I play on the piano during my personal worship times with Jesus.  How I'd love to hear the tenors, bass, and sopranos sing all three rousing verses of Wonderful Grace of Jesus!  If I close my eyes, I can still hear the harmony in our congregation when I was a child -- I'm sure it's a small sampling of what it will be like in heaven!

And do you remember this one?
Blest Be the Tie
Blest be the tie that binds Our hearts in Christian love;
The fellowship of kindred minds Is like to that above.

Before our Father's throne We pour our ardent prayers;
Our fears, our hopes, our aims are one, Our comforts and our cares.

We share our mutual woes, Our mutual burdens bear;
And often for each other flows The sympathizing tear.

When we asunder part, It gives us inward pain; 
But we shall still be joined in heart, And hope to meet again.
~John Fawcett, 1740-1817

I am so grateful for the privilege and freedom to meet with Christians to read and study God's Word together.  What a joy to be able to live boldly, with conviction, without worry of persecution.  I hope that my life draws people to Jesus.  I pray that my testimony causes people to want to know Him and go deeper with Him.  Oh!  How I long  to step courageously, counter intuitively, passionately, full-on into living scandalous, tangible grace!  That my life might reflect gratitude.  To be the hope of the world.  That I would let Christ love His Church through me. 

I suppose sometimes that might be in a church building.  I'm okay with that.

Would you like to come over for lunch after? {humble wink} 

Books I recommend on the topic of living the passionate, adventurous life of a Christian, on Being the Church and leading others to passionately Be the Church:


  1. ah Sharon, the more I learn about you...the more I just can't get enough! Thank you for sharing. You seem to always say what I am thinking :) Thank you for sharing!

  2. whew... how do you live in that body with a heart that size... one of these days I swear you are going to blow up! LOL I love your crazy passion... I love your crazy everything :) I am a huge fan of going to church in the community that you live in. I think it is a window into the lives and needs of those you are closest too and can be used regularly and effectivly.

  3. SOOO grateful that you guys are part of OUR 'church', a DIVINE meeting on this side of the ocean! In the short time I've known you, I've felt loved and stretched as never before. Your sweet words flow like honey but also call me to action. THANK YOU!

  4. Hi, Sharon. I recently read a book titled " so you don't want to go to church anymore" by Wayne jacobsen and Dave Coleman. Very interesting book and well written. I must say that I agree with the " author" and it certainly talks a lot of what you shared in your blog. Church is simply a building, we are the body and Jesus is the head, so consequently every where we go or do is church, worshipping, glorifying our Father.. However, this is only church when it is done with Him in our hearts. Church is in our home, at the coffee shop, waiting in line, and it is any time and not only on Sunday or Wednesday.