Saturday, December 17, 2011

Come As You Are

We went to church today, and God was there! There was a richness, a depth of worship, a freedom of expression, which is a bit unusual in our culture and our time. The “worship” time (i.e. when we sang worship songs) was robust and energetic. The body of believers was engaged—standing up, sitting down, praying, singing—completely at ease to respond to God as He interacted with them. 

This was a true “come as you are” church, and that means a lot more than the clothes you wear. Indeed, the clothes people wore went beyond “Southern California Casual.” There were no hipsters here, no V-neck t-shirts, no Toms. Jeans, leather coats, sweatshirts, and cowboy boots were more the norm. But it was evident that a person could come to this church just as they were—sin, addictions, issues, messed up lives—and they were welcomed and embraced. I have to ask though, why is this unusual? Are we that hung up on good appearances? How many of us live the Christian fa├žade, pretending all is well when it really isn’t? I am sure there were facades here too, but there was a rawness, an openness that was pretty refreshing.

Of course what made it so refreshing was that there was such evidence of God’s grace and healing and restoration all over the place. Here was a church where people could come with messed up lives, with gripping addictions, with no pat answers, and find love and acceptance and healing. They could find Jesus, who is the Master Healer.

The pastor clearly knew his people and what their lives were like, and he laid out a solid biblical presentation of what we all need. “Lets ask for more,” he said. “Let God be God and do what He wants.” At the end of the service he invited people to come forward to pray, repent, whatever they needed. People swarmed the front, falling on their knees and their faces. Of course, only God knows what really took place in each life, but it was pretty cool. 

We went to a different church shortly after this visit. I found it interesting that the pastor said a very similar thing—we need to have a big vision of Christ. It was a very different church. There were Toms on peoples’ feet, and there were V-neck t-shirts in the crowd. But so what? Doesn’t matter who you are—hipster, biker, addict, business man, criminal, mother—we all need Jesus, and we all need a bigger view of God, and we all need to let God be God. There are so many different expressions of the Body of Christ, and there are so many that are doing it well. That gets me excited, and gives me hope! But I still have to ask, how many of us would be willing to commit ourselves to a genuine “come-as-you-are” church?

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Toddler Church

This church is two years old, and the day I attended was actually their 2-year anniversary. This is a brand new local expression of the body of Christ just learning how to be a body, and I would say they are doing a pretty good job of it! The body life was vibrant and fresh with an extended greeting time between the corporate worship music time and the sermon; never seen it done quite like that before, but it worked well.

The pastor was young and used his iPad for his sermon notes, scrolling down as he preached. I couldn’t help but observe that when I started preaching, I used ‘yellow pads’, and now they use ‘iPads’! Such a contrast, yet an awesome example of the church moving forward with the culture, not afraid to use the latest tools and technology for the advance of the gospel.

New methods and technology did not in any way change the old, old message, the truth of Scripture, and the fact that Jesus is the only way. I wrote down a salient quote from the sermon: “how we respond to Jesus determines everything.” Indeed.

It is widely recognized that it will take new churches to reach new generations; that it is incredibly difficult for older churches to change with the culture. Some would say they shouldn’t change, but they should stick with the old methods and styles that they have been using for the past 50 years. Regardless of one’s view on that point, this church was using new methods and a new vibe to reach a new generation. Even so, there was no shortage of gray hair in attendance. And I was blown away when the pastor shared that 80% of the congregation was involved in ministry! That turns the old 80/20 adage on its head, and in a good way!

I quickly recognized that attending a Sunday morning service was not a completely fair way to get a feel for this church body; by their own statements they proclaimed, “community groups are the heartbeat of [this church].” Nevertheless, there was an energy, a youthfulness, an innovation that came through loud and clear, even as the truth was proclaimed without apology. On bad days, I can be pretty cynical about the existing church. But today was a good day!

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Church in Alkmaar

The service was in Dutch, but we had these pretty nifty wireless headphones that we wore. In the back of the room was Terri, who translated the service into English, and it was piped right into our heads! We were in Alkmaar, a city about the size of Simi Valley 40 minutes north of Amsterdam by train. Chris & Terri are missionaries with Greater Europe Mission and have been assisting this Dutch church for nine years. The church itself was some 20 years old, and was currently meeting in a large room at a community center.

The group was young—lots of kids. They sang a kids’ song or two, then dismissed them to the children’s program. The room, which had been pretty full, suddenly seemed sparsely populated. Lots of empty chairs. I guess there were more kids than I realized! The worship songs were mostly familiar, even though they were in Dutch. I tried to sing in English, but found myself forgetting the words as I studied the Dutch on the PowerPoint slide! Weird, but pretty cool.

This was indeed the Body of Christ, another expression, a different group, but the same Lord and God. Many of the elements of the church in America were here: worship team with its full complement of drums, keyboards, and guitars; PowerPoint slides; a video showing kids in a third world country getting shoe boxes from Samaritan’s Purse—I noticed several shoe boxes under the chairs of kids—and of course the sniffling and tissues followed; coffee, tea, and snacks; a baby dedication was uncannily similar to many that I have done myself.

But those are just the pieces of the frame that surrounded the reality of a group of people that had gathered because of their common love of their Savior and their God. That was the true portrait here. The newly installed, youngish pastor shared how without God we can do nothing; that our activities are worthless without His power. He prayed and asked God to be present in the service that day; He was.  

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Church in Amsterdam

It was like walking into a big living room, but with all the furniture turned the same direction. There were couches, bistro tables, pitchers of coffee and water—the necessary elements of family life—all warmly presented. I was an ocean and a continent away from home, and here was the body of Christ very much alive, very much in love with Jesus, very much attuned to the Word of God. The Dutch name for the church was Zolder—attic—but it was meeting in a basement! The church had started in the attic of a narrow canal-side Dutch house, but had outgrown that space and was now meeting in a basement.

We sang worship songs—many the same ones I was familiar with. We heard a report of recent mission activity. We had a greeting time and since we were clearly visitors, we were pounced on with smiling faces and firm handshakes and lots of questions. We gathered in small groups and prayed for some of the needs of the Body as listed on a PowerPoint slide. This was the church, conducted in English, in the heart of Amsterdam.

The sermon was presented by a young man who was interning as a pastor. His text was Philippians 2:1-11. He was visibly humbled to be preaching on a text that teaches humility, and he was clearly an incarnation of the truth of the passage. He was so real, so humble, so gentle. The character of shepherd was evidenced in every word he spoke.

I was reminded that the gospel goes to the entire world, that the church is a multi-cultural expression of Christ’s ingathering of His followers, that there are so many common elements when the same Lord is worshiped. Yet each culture, each people group, each area of the country or the world, stamps its uniqueness on the timeless Bride. I suppose it is like attending weddings in different cultures: many common themes, but with a unique twist.

The family living room feel was genuine. The Body of Christ was real. These were our brothers and sisters in Christ, worshiping the same God, the same Bridegroom. It was a privilege to worship together with this Zolder church!

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Family Reunion

This felt comfortable, like the churches I was most familiar with. It seemed to fit like a favorite pair of slippers. People were friendly, greeted us with that look of “I don’t recognize you so you must be new here.” It reminded me of a family reunion, where everybody belongs there, and is related, but that doesn’t mean you know everybody. We were treated like long lost cousins or uncles and aunts.

There were probably 80 people in the worship service. They loved being together, worshipping God with enthusiasm. It just felt good. The pastor preached without notes, near as I could tell, and that impressed me (because I can’t do it!). He challenged the Body to live for eternity, not the fading things of this world. Don’t lay up treasures on earth, don’t live for all the stuff you can get here, but live in light of the home God is preparing for us above. Good stuff, and all the more significant realizing that this church is a stone’s throw from Hollywood, and all that goes with that culture.

The bulletin and announcements indicated something else about this church: they believed in prayer. In the course of a week, there were several different kinds of prayer gatherings. They were serious about communicating with their God. It didn’t seem like they were busy about playing church, but serious about being the church.

I waited around after service to talk with the pastor, but he was deeply engaged with one of his congregants. He spent a long time talking to this person, and I ended up leaving without chatting. I later learned that he stayed for well over an hour talking to people. This shepherd cared enough about his sheep to enter their lives and hear their stories. I was impressed and encouraged.

God was present in this place. These people loved to sing and worship. Their pastor loved them. The Word was presented accurately and without apology. Size of congregation matters not. Jesus inhabits His bride wherever she is, whatever size she is, wherever she honors and exalts Him as her Groom and King and Lord and Savior. I really did feel like a long lost cousin, part of the family, but unknown, and now welcomed home.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

he Knows his Sheep

This was big, really big. And confusing. I wasn’t sure where the entrance was, where the worship center was. It was a like being on a college campus with numerous buildings and never quite being sure where I was supposed to go. But I plunged in. I wanted to see what worship was like at the infamous megachurch—10,000 worshippers at five weekend services.

The first thing that impressed me was that I found a parking spot that was walking distance to where I thought I was supposed to go. Impressive, especially since I am not a fan of large crowds, or of parking shuttles from distant parking lots. The next thing that impressed me as I walked in and found a seat was the ethnic diversity of this church. It was as if I had entered the throne room of heaven where worshippers from every nation and tribe and people and language express their adoration to the Lamb. I actually had to turn around and look at the faces of so many different races, all worshipping the same Savior. This is the Body of Christ as it some day will be!

But maybe what really caught my attention is that this pastor knew his people. And his people responded to him. There was a shepherd-sheep connection that was unexpected for such a huge church. His preaching was directed specifically to his people. And they were engaged. Listening, taking notes, responding to his tender calls for interaction. It struck me that there are pastors of much smaller churches that do not have this kind of knowledge of his people. It reminded me of Jesus whose sheep know His voice and follow Him.

But perhaps the most lasting impression I took from here was that the name of Jesus was exalted and lifted high. They were just beginning a series on Revelation and it was made very clear that this final book of the New Testament is all about Jesus. King Jesus. Savior Jesus. Lord Jesus. Messiah Jesus. The one and only name worthy of our praise and worship and allegiance. This was a beautiful expression of the Bride of Christ, an earthly, localized Bride that is deeply in love with her Groom.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Surprised by Church

This was most unexpected. We were simply trying out a new church in the area, doing a reconnaissance to see what it was like, to see if I should recommend students attend here, that sort of thing. Neither of us was expecting to be moved, touched, like this.

It was a church of some 400-500 people and they had two morning services. The music was very well done—there were some hints that the worship leader had Hollywood connections in the recording industry. The senior pastor was away on vacation or something, but the staff pastor who preached was rock solid. His style was far more classroom type teaching than preaching, but good meat nonetheless.

It wasn’t a particularly friendly church—only one person talked to us. We made it through the gauntlet of donut tables, coffee stations, and door greeters without a single personal contact. Yea, even the door greeter didn’t say anything or hand us a bulletin. We had to go back later and ask for one. But OK, I guess that is pretty normal.

This is a church that has communion every week. The plate of tiny wafers is passed, then the tray of juice cups. It is done near the end of the service with little or no instruction. Each person can take the elements when they are ready. A bit new to us, but OK. I can flex. As I held the broken body of Christ, and a symbol of His blood, I found myself deep into the presence and communion of Jesus. I was not expecting that. I have sat through hundreds of communion services, and unfortunately can be pretty numb to the beauty and mystery of the elements. But something was different. I was swept away.

We stood to sing the final worship song, and something or Someone filled my soul with such love and emotion that I could not sing. God was truly present in this place; the mystery of the cross became incredibly tangible in a quite intangible way. Tears came down my cheeks, and I realized Dawn had been moved in the same way.  

We didn’t know a single person there, still don’t. There are no doubt lots of problems and issues—marriages in trouble, board members who don’t like the pastor’s vision, some who thought the music was too loud or soft or modern or old. But this place is the Body of Christ, the mysterious bride. And that is where the Bridegroom likes to be—with His bride. He was there today. I will recommend this church to my students.