Thursday, 12 March 2009

A long talk with Father about church.... "our church" ... and church generally too

December 28, 2007

Lord, I keep thinking about that line from The Shack (p 66) “He realized he was stuck, and Sunday prayers and hymns weren’t cutting it anymore, if they ever really had… he was sick of…religion, sick of all the little religious clubs that didn’t seem to make any real differences or affect any real changes. Yes, Mack wanted more .. much more.”

I just don’t know, Lord, There have been many times when I have had moments (sometimes more than moments) of joy in You in the “church” … but I am sick of “programs,” of everything being “programmed”… I want to see, to experience the freedom of Your Spirit moving as You will… but what if it is? What if it’s just me being not content?

I wonder and wonder about the folks who have “left the church” … are they now part of the “real church” as compared (opposed?) to the “institutional church”? Or are they “unplugged” from people but more “plugged into You”?? Is that what You want? Are they experiencing Your Presence and joy? Are they knowing You? Are they getting ever deeper in relationship with You?

Do they get together and truly experience You in their midst? What do they really mean when they refer to themselves as “free range Christians” (or “not cookie-cutter Christians”) ??

Why do most of them seem to have just CUT OFF all ties to those who have “stayed” in the “church”? Do they feel they no longer need fellowship with other believers? Or that those who have stayed aren’t real believers, or at least are not on the “same level”? Or maybe they just don’t know how to explain what is happening in their lives? Or have just been hurt so bad before they left? Or??

Father, for so long I longed for Your church, for believers who longed to know You, love You, trust You, obey You, believe in You with all their hearts and souls and minds and strength… and loved each other with Your love. (And yes, I still long for that… or I wouldn’t be writing this)… I talked to people about how Your Word describes the church… I begged people to reconsider what You mean by “church” … to be willing to listen to You, to change things drastically if need be (and, oh dear God, drastic change is what You require – both individually and corporately, in relation with You, and in relation with others... isn't it?)…

When the life groups started, I thought there was real possibility there for Your people to really become Your body… but sadly it seemed that it became all about human control and numbers and programmed programs instead of living in Your Spirit… and then when we were “pastorless” and free to toss the old “constitution” and even basically “building-less” – I was so happy because it seemed to me to truly be the perfect time and opportunity to allow ourselves to leap free of the past, leap free of the structures and chains of human “church tradition” – to cast it out, and to fling ourselves at the foot of the cross, giving up all that is “me” or “us”, and letting You, by Your Spirit, truly “set God’s people free” instead of us trying to do Your work in our power, in our filthy rags and utter weakness!

But no. So here we are, with a new “pastor” (who I like and respect, and I think he is a “Godly” man … but somehow it seems to me that You can’t do the work You want to do through him because of the way we “define” his “position”) … and another 2 year lease on a building (and while I do “like” the location in some aspects, and can “see” how it can be an “opportunity"… I can’t help but wonder if You really want us to pour all our resources into rents and heat bills and salaries and paper for bulletins ad video sets for children's programs etc etc etc … when those resources could go so much further if put directly into whatever day-by-day, moment-by-moment opportunities You provide – and give guidance and strength by Your Spirit – to do Your work in Your way with Your purposes – to truly live out Your love to You and to others in the body, and to reach out to bring others to You…) …

And we have, also, a new “constitution” (well, I think we do… I don’t know if it was ever “finalized” and “ratified” – I actually am hoping not – at any rate, we are acting like it is (and does that mean that we’ve tied ourselves up yet again?)… and we’re busy rebuilding old “ministries” and/or developing “new ministries” … and here I am feeling “guilty” because I simply don’t have any inclination to get “really involved” (the only thing I’m “officially” part of is “Women's Ministries” … and I don’t attend their weekly “Bible studies” – book studies – and I haven’t been very fond of their monthly gatherings: I want more of You, Lord! I am not interested in “Pampered Princesses” or “pyjama party/ movie nights” .. or even group trips to fancy “conferences” in Vancouver…

I did want to start another Bible study, but somehow I have not felt free to do it… frankly, I’d rather just get together with a few friends I know who really care about it… not listed in the “bulletin” … no set program per se… not a “ministry of the church” or even of “church members” … but just getting together with You… Is that even possible? (I want it to be possible… but, oh, dear God, is that just my wants?!?)…

We started “Sunday Soup,” of course, and it was not meant to be a “church thing” and then the powers-that-be listed it in the bulletin as a ministry (or whatever) even though I asked them not to… and somehow that seems to make it a “members only club” which is so not what I longed for… so maybe we just need to change the day/ time to something that isn’t so “traditionally church” eh? Or ??) (Maybe not even a set day/ time/ place??)

Lord, I terribly miss so many people… the ones I really felt loved You… and now they’ve moved out (which I don’t mind at all if You have called them – I just hope it’s not because of hurts and unforgiveness and “giving up” and such) and the funny thing is that I was the one going around talking about the early church, and encouraging people to read “subversive!” literature about the state of the “church” … and now, all of a sudden, after they “couldn’t agree” with what I was trying to explain to them, now they are gone, and I feel like I’m left standing alone… and they didn’t even say good-bye, or tell me what they were planning, and except for a couple of them, it seems like I don’t even exist to them any more (even when I try to contact them by phone, email, chatting in the store, whatever)….

I hear little “whiffs” in the grapevine that some of them just get together casually like in the “So You Don’t Want to Go to Church Anymore” book… but I don’t get invited… and I don’t know where or when so I can’t “crash” either … so maybe You just don’t want me there, now??? Or maybe the “whiffs” are just that… rumors…

Maybe it’s just time for each of us to really get to know You.. and learn to depend on, lean on You alone instead of depending on each other… maybe we need to get firmly grounded individually in You, first…

You know how much I want to discuss things from The Shack with other people…

You know how much I had been wanting to explore with others what it really means to be part of the “Kingdom of God/ Heaven” (I so wanted to carry on with ___’s study on that.. I’ve never felt it was finished… in fact, I just felt like it just got started… and that there’s so much more to explore, so much more to be in being Your child!)

I am feeling so confused. A new year is starting. I feel like it will be a year of drastic change – if I will allow You that freedom – if we will allow You that freedom…

I want it to be said of me, as it was said of Mack in the Shack: (p 11) “And with respect to God, Mack is no longer just wide, he has gone way deep. But the dive cost him dearly.”

I’ve been studying Matthew (etc) and the Kingdom of God. I know going deep with God is costly. And yes, it’s bound to be lonely. It’s not the “broad way.” There is bound to be great loss… but the gain is infinitely greater. And the relationships may well be fewer, but oh, how much greater! For ever!

Here I am, Lord. Take me. I’m Yours. No matter what. Thank You.

(Even if it means “giving up” the “church” and my job at the “Christian school” and losing friends who don’t understand.. actually I don’t really care about that “giving up” .. only I feel sad because so many folks are so contented with “the way things are” and I’ve been maybe trying to hang in there to change their minds… but maybe that’s Your job – including changing my mind to what You alone desire…)

___ wrote to me: “What do we do? we know this truth, yet I “feel” like I should go to “church” … I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE the people.”

And I replied: I know what you mean… I fell like I should go to church, too…. Though not as “addictively” as I used to. At least I don’t feel so guilty if I miss once in awhile. And it’s not the “habit” it used to be (like I said to you the other day, “the hardest habit to make and the easiest to break” which is a saying I often heard when I was growing up…. But after I said that, I realized that that is not a very good reason to meet with the church!).

Like you, I go because I love to get together with the people… and that, in itself, is, I think, a very good reason to go! But at the same time, what kind of relationships are they when you only make a point of seeing people once a week at a set time, and most of the time you’re with them you’re sitting somewhere in the same room but really not interacting with them much at all? I think there are lots of “good” reasons to “go to church” - or rather "be the church" …. We are admonished in scripture to not neglect meeting together; we are a body and need each other in many ways, spiritually, emotionally, even physically, mentally, etc; there is great joy and growth in praying, learning from scripture, and worshiping God together; we are the “family of God” and families get together and love on each other etc etc etc.

BUT do we need the building, the programs, he holy man, the constitution, etc etc etc? The early church did meet together daily! In each others homes, by river banks, while sitting sewing tents… They ate together, they put their funds together to make sure that each person had enough to eat, etc, they sat under the teaching of those who knew more of the gospel and even helped support them (some fully, some as gifts to top up the money they earned from their trades, etc). They shared the Lord’s supper together (always at the time of Pentecost; it seems like maybe the other times they ate together, the “love feasts” were more than just meals they shared together, but I’m not sure about that.).

They had different talents and gifts, and they used those to help each other, like Dorcas making clothes for the poor. They had “elders” who were men strong in the faith and in the Spirit, who shepherded those under them, and taught and prayed a lot; but it doesn’t seem clear to me whether they were paid at all; the one who seem to have been paid, so far as I can see, were traveling evangelists/ church planters/ apostles…. They had “deacons” who took care of practical needs of the body, like serving tables and taking care of widows and stuff, though I don’t see anything about them taking care of buildings and stuff. Anyway, the whole buildings and hierarchies and stuff didn’t really set in until Constantine (and boy oh boy, that’s some story!).

So…. I think its okay to “go to church” only I think that includes a lot of things like you guys coming over here for supper, and Sunday Soup, and getting together to pray for people at their houses, and going to visit sick people, and helping seniors clean their yards and fix things, and helping at soup kitchens, and having coffee together, and getting together to just share what God is doing, and to study His Word together, and so on. It seems obvious that the early church did “meet regularly” and that there were some kind of regular activities at those meetings, but they don’t look much like “going to church” as we know it.

They didn’t have formal buildings of course, and they didn’t have sermons (though they had teaching), and they didn’t have a worship band, and it sounds like they all met together, no children's church and such, and everybody (well, the men at least; I’m not quite sure about how the women fit into the “meeting” picture… though they obviously taught and participated in various ways in other settings)…. Well, according to their gifts, and as the Spirit led them, they shared words from God, and different people would lead out in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs (which means that probably they had more variety in their music than our “church” does!), and sometimes people would give a prophecy, and they would pray… which is really all about God! not too much about what “we” like… (it sounds to me like the elders spent an awful lot of their time praying… so much that the church “had to” have deacons to take care of other things!)….

So I can see why people, when they think about that, feel trapped in the building and programs and costs that we have come to think of as “the church” …. (interestingly, a lot of places in the world today don’t have, can’t have!!! all that stuff, because the church has to be “underground” to survive and grow… and in those places it is surviving and growing and “alive!” far more than here where we’ve gotten all wrapped up in that!) (which somehow isn’t so surprising, considering that was the situation of the early church most of the time, and in spite of it “they turned the world upside-down!”) … so I don’t know what we “do”… I don’t think we need to totally “ditch the church” … but if we don’t then that does bring up the next problem you brought up…

She wrote, “Wouldn’t that be great to just give your money where you sense God is telling you to. If we attend the church, I feel I need to give the church money. I almost feel like I would be cheating the pastor out of things. I’ve seen pastors and their families struggle financially and still continue to give what they have and be willing to suffer.”

And I responded… So yeah, this is something I really struggle with, too. Cause if we do “attend church” then it kind of seems that we are obligated to support the whole thing. I mean, can we just support the parts we agree with and not the rest? How do we determine that? Do we look at the church budget, pick out what we agree with, and support in that percentage?

And what about the pastor? That is really a big problem, I mean it does seem that if we attend the church, and listen to the sermons, and call on the pastor when we have an illness or death or marriage or whatever, shouldn’t we be financially supporting him? I wonder… what if everybody just seriously thought about what the pastor is supplying for them, and just handed him whatever they felt he earned (as in “the worker is worthy of his wages”) - do you think he’d “earn” more or less? I wonder? And what if, what if… what if everybody in the body really did their share, really used their gifts and talents, really gave generously as God directed them, in whatever needs He directed them to… would we really need a “full time pastor/ holy man” at all?

And here’s something else I wonder about: In the early church I only see references to “the church at Antioch” or “the church at Sardis” or “the church at Rome” …. Hey, these were not tiny cities. Rome had over a million people living there. Granted, in the very beginning the churches were small, but they must have been growing pretty fast if they were really “turning the world upside-down” and “threatening the empire” in various ways, and so on… But I never see any references to “the churches” in any one city… the church was the believers… and the believers met (with God in their midst!)… and I have to wonder how they would have managed that if they tried to do things “our way” ….

And the churches shared with each other and supported each other as needs arose (like the Asian churches sending gifts to the Jerusalem church) (or like one church Paul planted sending him gifts/support – but not salary, notice, though apparently some “false apostles” were already looking for salaries! - so he could plant churches in other cities)…. What do you suppose Paul was planting? Organizations? Buildings? Programs? Or maybe just groups of believers, extensions of the growing body, family, church of God?

And yet… they did have some common “rules” it seems… or were those more like principles? or just simple obedience to Christ?) (Yep, I am a bit wondering about some of Paul’s rules like those head-coverings and women keeping silent…. Like where that came from and how it fits into the church today and stuff… I think they seem like “majoring on minors” … but Paul was sure strong-minded about them?!?)….

But I sure hear what you’re saying about the Pastor’s salary… and you’re right… an awful lot of pastors do go without… willingly… which doesn’t make it right, of course (assuming that we are supposed to have salaried pastors, which is a good question, and if we aren’t, then what?). So many pastors feel “called” and are so willing to “suffer” (go without, and suffer in lots of other ways, too… which shouldn’t be happening in the body of Christ anyway, whether it’s a formal or informal thing, structure or organic, or whatever)…

If pastors (in our way of thinking) aren’t really meant to be, then what does that say about “callings”? And “vision statements”? Are those something we’ve got sucked into? It seems like so often I get all excited about one thing or another, and “feel” that God has “called me” to it, or that it is “His will” or that “He has spoken to me” and then it doesn’t happen at all, or it happens but turns out to be what seems to be a total disaster… (which isn’t necessarily true, because I don’t see the big picture, and cannot see how God is working out his purposes, and besides, I know how often I am simply wrong-headed about things and self-centered, and easily taken in by people telling me that “God’s shown them” that I have this or that gift, or should do this or that thing, or whatever)….

Anyway, you could, you know, as long as you still want to, or feel called to, or whatever, go to church… you could maybe just give directly to the pastor as you feel called…. Some folks really, really wouldn’t like that of course… but heh, it’s between you and the Lord, so maybe you should just pray about it, and give joyfully and generously as/if you feel led… If our giving is by obligation, maybe we shouldn’t even bother, since the Lord loves a cheerful giver, and is not into the whole obligation thing (and hmmmm… that “obligation thing” kind of brings in a whole lot of other things, eh?).

(I’m not big on the whole “tithing” thing…. Though I’ve usually mostly done that, maybe because it’s a habit I’ve grown up with, and I “feel good” about it – or maybe just don’t feel guilty – but now that I really think about it, I have to wonder… It just doesn’t line up with what Jesus taught about giving… and anyway, when you add up all the tithes the Old Testament folks were obligated with, it adds up to about 33% per year, plus offerings! Ha! How many Christians are willing to get into that? [Some cults insist on their followers doing that!] …. Another thing to think about…)

Maybe you and me sitting there talking about all this, by email, is church, too?

[Note: written while typing this a year later! : I DO – and DID then – believe in giving – cheerfully, generously, and as God leads by His Spirit, and as you walk with Him and see His activity and participate in it, including financially…. BUT as long as “church” continues to include buildings and other similar expenses – I’m still not sure about the whole “pastor” thing - a “tithe” does seem to be a way to give people a sense of how much to set aside of their first fruits, recognizing that everything we have belongs to God anyway…

But I don’t see it as a “rule” but more of a guideline… and if it isn’t a large enough part of your income to be considered “generous” (not to mention sacrificial) giving, maybe you’ll want to give more? And for people who have low incomes and are barely covering their needs, maybe they can “give” in other ways… time, talents… I still keep wondering how much money the church really does need… I heard it said just yesterday that churches which have money to spare often end up in a lot of fighting about it!

And if everyone was really participating by using their spiritual gifts, and sharing what they have (food, clothing, housing, talents, etc) – and, oh my, not having to pay huge “overhead” items – well….what do you think? How much does it really cost to do the work of the church: praying, worship, teaching, telling your neighbor about Jesus, helping out the poor, visiting those sick and in prison etc…?]

But in the end, what I really want is to know You, Lord. To be in relationship with You! To spend eternity with You (starting now) – to worship You, to see You face to face, to have Your name on my forehead…

When I was reading the scripture this morning, and kind of thinking about what comes next – what You might have me study next – I found myself wanting to go back through scripture and see and list what it really says about: - the church… - yes, the kingdom of God (and what that tells us about You – and about our place in it)… - You (Remember the year that I recorded all the names of God, all the metaphors, etc – and then I lost the sheet…) (I’m still curious about the whole genealogy thing, but only as a “structure” or “framework” for the OT part of the story…)

(Sometimes I think it would be so cool to have a year off to just study Your Word – in whatever paths You set down … with disciplines… set hours each day.. like a “job”… Lord, You know how I wish for more structure just generally in my life… but maybe You want me to have Your Spirit as my “structure” … every moment open and aware and instantly obedient, moving instantly in response to Your wind! (Like a seed-puff floating in the wind until it is settled… into fertile soil where it puts down roots and produces more seed, and the cycle continues..)

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