Monday, 5 October 2015

Visiting a new church

This past Sunday I visited a new church. Again. This would be the 6th church in as many years.  And I had practically given up hope of finding meaningful fellowship. 

But this Sunday was a profound experience.  I was moved to the verge of tears throughout the service.  And I enjoyed being there.  And I didn’t feel critical or guilty or angry or annoyed once.  I don’t know when last I was in a church where I actually felt like singing or being there or actually looked forward to going again the next week.

Here are some of the things that made it such an enjoyable and meaningful experience for me.

1.       When we arrived 10 minutes early for the service there was almost no-one there.  When I questioned the pastor, he said, “It is happening, everyone just comes late.”
Why does this comfort me so? Perhaps because it acknowledges our human-ness.  Perhaps because when we arrived late at another church; after the effort of getting together ourselves, our 4 children, my father from his retirement home, negotiating a 35 minute car drive, parking, and getting my frail father who walks at about 2 metres per minute into the church 20 minutes late; we were subjected to a lecture about how disrespectful we were to God.

2.       As we sat in the pews (yes!) waiting, the bells began to peal to call the faithful to church.  It delighted my heart to hear those bells and to see people arriving and greeting one another.

3.       The church was 90% black and 10% white – exactly the South African population demographic!  It made me feel so good to NOT be in a pre-dominantly ‘white-privileged’ church. The age spread was also fully representative. It felt real, not artificial.

4.       Our presence was acknowledged and welcomed without putting us on the spot in any way.

5.       Several times throughout the service the pastor called on people in the congregation by name for comments.  The atmosphere was relaxed and open and participative. 

6.       The pastor did not open with a sporting joke. I cannot tell you how this has come to grate me over the last few years.  I know pastors (male pastors) are trying to be relaxed and relevant when they do this, but it makes me feel like I’ve stumbled into a men’s club.  I don’t follow rugby or soccer and often I come to church so needy and ready for God that I am alienated by these irrelevant jocularities.  Perhaps if they were alternated with something other than sport, or even sport other than soccer or rugby, it would mean something to me; but mostly I feel that life and faith are so important and that I crave a short time in the week where we can be serious and earnest and not amused and entertained.  I have television for that.

7.       There were no expensive glossy brochures or banners promoting how awesomely hip and cool the church was.  There were no videos proclaiming how connected they were to other campuses or leaders or movements.  It felt authentic as in ‘this is who we are’ – not ‘who we think we are or hope to be.’

8.       The band led a time of singing that was simple and free from manipulation.    Too often in what I call ‘Ra-Ra’ churches there is such a demand for ‘the presence of God’ that the ‘worship’ has a forced intensity that ironically drives me out of the presence of God.  Too often the repetition, the volume, the time for ‘free’ worship in tongues makes me feel inadequate and excluded (everyone’s in but I’m not!).  In contrast, here the songs were led with easy tunes and a simplicity that to me spoke of a confidence that God and not the band, was in charge.

9.       The pastor spoke simply and without dramatics.  Once again in some churches it seems the message must be delivered with great passion to drum home each point, as though any lessening of pace and volume would perhaps result in congregants nodding off.  Whilst I applaud passion, there is something about a measured tone and simple words that allow Spirit truths to cleave bone and marrow.  I experienced such profound inner conviction during this particular sermon. 

10.   He preached a ‘walk this way’ sermon.  What do I mean? A friend of mine astutely observed that there are typically 2 types of sermons: ‘Woe is me’ is by far the most frequent usually causing us to feel like shite.  The other kind is ‘Wow God!’ which is infinitely preferable and points to God’s greatness.  This particular sermon was on the 10 Commandments and could easily have been a ‘woe is me’ sermon, but somehow the pastor managed to make it reflect both reality and the goodness of God.  It left me feeling satisfied and challenged rather than guilty. Which was a nice change.

11.   Women were in places of significance.  The pastor was male and white, and has clearly been there for many years.  Yet he spoke with humility as a servant of the church and not the CEO.  Women were present in the band, made announcements, spoke out from the congregation and served communion. I don’t know enough about the church to know their views on women in leadership, but what I saw was refreshingly egalititarian.

12.   The communion table was open to all who loved Jesus and children and teens also participated.

13.   There was evidence that social concern was part of the church’s regular agenda.  I have sat in churches for months wondering where and when there would be an opportunity to meet any needs related to poverty or injustice.  Here I saw several practical opportunities to get involved.

I know that there are no perfect churches, I know those pews were full of people who I probably will have significant theological and other differences from.  People that will annoy and irritate and disappoint me.  There are probably practices in the church that will annoy and irritate and disappoint me.  But truly in 6 years I have not had such a deep spiritual reaction to a service and connection to a church.   It felt a little bit like falling in love.  Although I’ve been going through 6 years of on and off battles with church, my gut (my spirit, God's spirit?) told me my issues were valid.  However I really was starting to wonder if I had issues with God, or if He had issues with me.  On Sunday I finally felt again that perhaps I was okay, that perhaps my faith was okay and that perhaps I could attend a church again.

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