Yesterday at a staff meeting I took part in one of those ‘getting to know you’ ice breaker games… I’m sure you’ve played it.
Everyone sits in a circle, with just enough chairs for those sitting and one person stands in the middle (there’s no chair for the person in the middle.) The person in the middle makes a statement like “I like cheese” or “I’m wearing a pink shirt” and everyone who shares the like of cheese or is also wearing a pink shirt has to stand up and then on the count of three, everyone, including the person in the middle runs and tries to find a new chair. The person left standing is the new ‘man in the middle’.
You’ve played this game.
Anyway, yesterday after a bunch of rounds of this game and lots of crazy running around and getting to know one another, someone in the middle made the statement, “I like going to church”.
Working at a christian school with an entirely christian staff, one can easily assume… everyone stood up.
Everyone, that is, except for me.
Sure, I felt the urge to stand up… Thoughts like, ‘what will people think?’, ‘I’m a missionary…’, ‘I have to like going to church…’, ‘how bad will I look if I don’t stand up?’ flooded my mind, but I was compelled to remain seating.
What’s worse, I thought, lying to please the crowd and save face or being honest and raising a few eyebrows?
After the game was finished another missionary came up to me, she had noticed my being the only person sitting during the ‘I like going to church’ round and she wanted to comment. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but instead of assumed reprimand or the usual questioning of my devotion to God, she said, “Yea… sometimes going to church here is really hard.”
And that’s the truth.
Sometimes, going to church here, is really hard.
Before reading on I need to say, I come from a great church family in Omaha, NE. The people in that church have become my family and have helped me grow into the person I am. I love my church in Omaha and while, it’s not perfect and still developing, I would not be where I am or who I am without the love and support of that body of people.
Since living in Thailand I have regularly attended three Thai churches.
The first of the three churches was the most international and the most western. The sermon was in both English and Thai, the worship was done in full Hillsong style and the Sunday meetings were held in a very air-conditioned, comfortable hotel ballroom. This was like the ‘adjustment’ church, while I was learning Thai. This church was comfortable, the sermons were predictable and no one talked to you, so you didn’t have to get out of your comfort zone.
But in the end, I think that was the biggest problem with this church. It definitely served its purpose in its time, but it was extremely comfortable. There was no ‘community’ aspect to the church, no need to adjust to a new culture, no need to adapt to something unfamiliar… and so, after about 6 months, we (the Lorensens and I) transitioned out. [No one noticed.]
The second of the three churches was a local Thai church near our home that many of the students from School of Promise attended. As Caleb and I were both teaching at the school, this church seemed that the natural place for us to land.
The sermon was completely in Thai, there was no air conditioning and everyone ate lunch together that was prepared by members of the church. At first this seemed ideal. The church congregation was a community. Everyone worked together, lived life together and shared church responsibilities together.
Unfortunately, the shiny ideal wrapping of this church quickly wore off and it became apparent that a lot of the ‘community togetherness’ was actually ‘community obligation’ enforced through guilt. Missing a week of church was followed up by the third degree. Performance, saving face and adherence to rules were more important than love and compassion. I left this church after a year of begrudged attendance
The final church I was part of was a church made up of people that I still love and respect very much. Coming off the bad experience from the last church, this church seemed like a breathe of fresh air. Again, it was all Thai and very community orientated. Everyone worked together and for the most part, lived together. This church was a family and welcomed me in quickly.
But again, after a couple months of attendance, it became clear that the congregation was there out of religious and communal obligation, rather than out of pure satisfaction and joy. Duty and tradition, adherence to rules was more important than the inner health of the individual members. I said a sad goodbye to this church family after a year.
So there is my church attending history. I haven’t formally gone to church in the seven months.
What I have done, however, is:
-prayed together with my housemates
-shared meals with my neighbors
-helped get a woman out of an abusive relationship
-worshipped with released criminals
-prayed for my struggling classmates
-loved on kids who don’t get enough attention
-listened to my friends’ burdened hearts
-hung out with the teenagers that I live with
-travelled to Malaysia to be a companion of a lonely friend
I was recently pretty rocked by this blog.
In this blog, the author, talks about how Jesus never actually told us to worship Him–but instead, 29 times, He tells us to follow Him. He gives a list of things that happen as people lay down their lives (and their religion) to follow Jesus. This list includes things like: the hungry were fed, the sick were healed, people were loved and discipled and the religious leaders were challenged.
The author also highlights Mark 7:6-9:
And He [Jesus] said to them, “Rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written:
‘This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far away from Me. But in vain do they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.’
Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men.”
He was also saying to them, “You are experts at setting aside the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition.”
How often do we allow the ‘tradition of men’ to keep us blind to the commandments of God?
How often does ‘saving face’ mean that we withhold truth or compassion?
How often do we allow religious duty to smother stopping for the one?
I know I’m guilty.
I know that I often bow to the god of approval from man rather than hone into the God of grace. I know that I often begrudgingly say yes out of fear, rather than be honest with my desires.
So, with all of this going on in my head and my heart, I can confidently say, right now, I don’t like going to church.
But I LOVE being THE church. Following Jesus. Saying ‘yes’ and ‘here I am God, I’m willing’ and ‘what do you want to do today God?’. I love smiling at people whom I don’t know and praying for people I just met. I love getting to be the vessel in which the Holy Spirit flows out of and being surprised in my times of quiet worship alone. I love being the body of Christ in my neighborhood, with my family…
Following Jesus is uncomfortable. It’s unconventional. It’s unpredictable. It’s uncontrollable.
Following the law is easier, clear cut, measurable… but it’s not through following the law [and going to church] that we will encounter God. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father, except through Me.”
So while I will surely be part of a formal congregation again in the future, for now, I just don’t like going to church.
verses to ponder:
John 14:6; Colossians 2:16-23; Isaiah 29:13