Real (2) — doctrine and practice

I’ve been aware of so-called seeker-sensitive churches¹ for perhaps 20 years.  I’ve always thought that was a worthy goal, but have come to accept that being seeker-sensitive is elusive and even over-rated.  Every church I’ve ever visited has been “churchy” — inherently not “real” and not seeker-sensitive, and therefore not attractive to most outsiders.  To some extent, being “attractive” equates to being “real.”  (No one really likes fake.  No one is deeply drawn to facades and veneers.)

I remember my very good friend Greg, when “pastoring” (or perhaps attempting to pastor, in my non-pastor-driven-paradigm church), trying to probe some of the congregation’s practices.  I took it that he wanted us to examine some of our particular veneers.  Impersonating a non-existent visitor, he challenged, “Why do they sing like that?!” (perhaps especially targeting those who had never been in another denomination’s²  gatherings).  We needed to realize how odd we were in the singing arena — not necessarily to change things there, but at least to realize who we were and what outsiders’ impressions could be.

There are many aspects of a congregation’s identity and praxis that deserve some introspection, too, and maybe some scrutiny.  Not every specific should be tenaciously guarded.

Believing the above, although I have been lonely at many points, I have continued to probe my religious heritage.  I believe the inheritance of the Stone-Campbell movement — and actually, it can no longer be classed a “movement” — is worthy of love and respect, although it has veered off some of the better courses it originally set for itself.  (If you didn’t at least scan footnote #2 when its number came up above, would you please do so now?)

journey

It strikes me now, in considering and writing about “real,” that an intersection of the doctrine and practice of 1) “The Journey” and that of 2) a run-of-the-mill Church of Christ congregation might be instructive, if not intriguing.  So, here, I’ll paste in The Journey’s web statements and offer commentary from a CofC perspective.  The CofC, as some of you know, doesn’t have a standard “faith statement” or creed — although “vision” and “mission” statements, plus some thinly veiled creeds, have been cropping up in bulletins and on websites for years.  Truth be told, there’s a tacit set of doctrines that could be seen as a baseline “creed.”  We just don’t generally hold them forth as such.³

Onward to The Journey’s “faith statement.”  I’m no theologian and not even much of a church historian, but I have enough experience in the CofC to formulate a few responses to some of this.  The original statements will be in bold; my comments will be in italics.

1.  The Journey believes that God is infinitely creative, so we express our faith in infinitely creative ways.  We’re Spirit-led without being weird and mission-minded without diluting the message of Jesus.  We’re not scared of culture or seduced by it. Our approach to church isn’t traditional, but our commitment to Jesus shapes everything we believe, say, and do.

The CofC would say most of that these days, but the nicely qualified “Spirit-led” wouldn’t have been a CofC phrase until the 70s or even 80s.  Many congregations today would still shy from such a statement, irrationally fearing that attributing leadership to deity would be tantamount to denying scripture’s instructional place.  “Hogwash,” you say?  Yep.

Not diluting the message of Jesus would resonate with most of “us” in the CofC, and congrats to The Journey for claiming, and doing (based on my limited experience), just that.  

The CofC is typically much more “scared of culture” than The Journey, and has tended not to be seduced by it.  In other words, The Journey aims to hold these two in appropriate tension, whereas the CofC has traveled the more counter-cultural path more often.  Now, to be counter-cultural can be evidence of either a scaredy-cat or a courageous man, and I’ve seen both.  Inasmuch as I’m on target here about the relationship of acknowledging and using culture (acculturating?) on the one hand, and seduction by culture on the other, The Journey is clearly more balanced.  I would also hazard that it is more relevant than most CofC groups, although perhaps not without a culture-related pitfall here & there.

Further on the “traditional” concept:  I find a sense in most CofC congregational leaders that “traditional” is not all that bad.  Some think they’re not very traditional (most of these are, anyway, no matter what they think), but whatever … most of them go through their church stuff sitting and standing comfortably within RM tradition — and in some ways within mainline Christian tradition, as well.  “Traditional” almost always, at some point, collides with “relevant.”

2.  We believe God has given us a book (the Bible) that is true and can be trusted. It was written by men but inspired by God – and every part of it points to Jesus.  Everything that’s described below may be helpful, but when the dust settles, the Bible is our statement of faith.

This statement would meet no disagreement in the CofC.  I myself would pick at minor points:  1) the Bible is better described as a library of various books/documents, not as a single book; and 2) I might have opted for “written by men who were specially inspired by God.

Pickiness aside, the idea that the Bible is the ultimate guide for faith and practice, seen here in updated, more understandable wording, certainly constitutes common ground for these two groups.  And oh, how I wish more churches would get serious about this principle.

In the eyes of cynical seekers, belief in the truth of the scriptures might smack of blindness, i.e., not being rational or real.  This is where “real” must take a back seat to relevance, though, and The Journey does a good job of not retracting.  To believe in the truth of the scriptures is to believe you have something authentic and relevant to offer people.

3.  We believe in God.  He created everything, including you and me.  He is all-powerful, all-knowing, everywhere-present and worthy to be loved with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind.

Again, no disagreement here.  (Well, OK, grammatically speaking, I take exception to the notion that we all have one collective heart, soul, mind, and strength; I would have put that in the singular or left out the “our” altogether.)

4.  We believe God is revealed fully in Jesus, who was born of a virgin, lived a sinless life, died on a cross for our sins, and was supernaturally raised from the dead.  This planet hasn’t seen the last of him.

Standard stuff, adhered to by most evangelical (not necessarily mainliners; some of those are out of the closet with their theological liberalness these days) Christians.  “Supernaturally” is a good word that gets at the heart of the matter, neither clouding it with the word “miraculous” nor skirting it by not mentioning the resurrection at all.  I particularly like the second sentence and think Paul and Jesus would smile at it, too.  This is at once an engaging, “hip” expression and a biblically true one.  Way to go, Journey.

5.  We believe the Holy Spirit is God in his power and presence, drawing people to him, saving us, and empowering us with gifts to work for him and fruit in our attitudes and relationships that testify to him.

I’m very impressed by this statement.  I infer, first, a wise, spiritual openness to the miraculous working of God.  Second, I perceive a stopping short of requiring that one must accept that God works now just as he did when initially confirming the deity of Jesus (in, say, the years 33-63 or so).

I find nothing in this statement that most thinking CofCers would disagree with.  To argue that the Holy Spirit is a definable “third” of the “Godhead” — which The Journey does not do here — is always scripturally a bit tenuous, but to affirm that the Holy Spirit is God at work is requisite to biblically based faith and practice.  

6.  We believe all human beings are spiritually lost, wandering around trying to make sense of this life and consistently messing it up.  Only through Jesus can we be found, and this is very much what God wants.  If we submit to Jesus’ leadership as Lord, we will be saved; if we continue on our own path, we will end up separated from God forever.  This is something God does not want.  That’s why Jesus came, and it’s also why…

First sentence:  check.  Second:  check.  Third (“If we submit …”):  big check.  Hold that thought, and skip the rest of this paragraph if you’re not interested in the Stone-Campbell Movement or the Church of Christ.  The phrase “if we continue on our own path” could be found in many conservative, dyed-in-the-wool CofC sermons, as the preachers attempt to paint a simplistic picture.  In other words, they want pew-sitters to believe that it’s all very easy:  1) if they continue on their own paths, left to their own devices (read:  the devices of other religious groups or their own misunderstandings of religion or the Bible), they are hell-bound.  And 2) on the other hand, if seekers will simply accept the RIGHT path (read:  the one that lines up with my opinions and interpretations), everything will be fine.  Let alone that the bulk of the given CofC preacher’s interpretations might be biblically sound; this sometimes amounts to little more than arrogant posturing.

Much better to do as The Journey has done, calling attention to Jesus’ leadership.  Leadership is a word I haven’t often seen in connection with “lordship,” and I find it both helpful and relevant, although it would be a trifle light if not accompanied by the theological underpinnings of what it means to have a Lord.

Style points there, by the way, with the ellipsis that leads the reader to #7!

7.  We believe in the church. It’s a community where people can find Jesus and follow him fully. The church isn’t perfect, but Jesus its leader is. God doesn’t want us doing this spiritual life in isolation; that’s why he created the whole church thing in the first place – and he’s still totally committed to it. The church is incredibly important because we have a much better chance of succeeding in our spiritual journey when we’re surrounded by other people who are moving forward in theirs.

The CofC would go with this, mostly.  Although on paper it would agree, it might not have thought to emphasize the imperfection of the human church.  Often, the CofC has been found (and can still be found) calling attention to its rightness, its supposed doctrinal purity.  Again letting alone that there are many right things in the CofC, and, I happen to think, more than in most other religious groups, it is downright repulsive to brag.  The CofC should get over its insistence that it is “right” and merely keep trying to restore, to reform, to draw ever closer to God’s revealed will.

The Journey gets an A for #7 (and really, for the entire series of statements).  It’s attractive to acknowledge that the church is imperfect and to call folks to community.  It’s also compelling to portray God as “committed” to church in this age.

In my next post, I’ll share some thoughts about the reality of music in The Journey church and in other, would-be seeker-friendly churches….

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¹ I’m leaving the ill-begotten “seeker-targeted” and “seeker-oriented” labels alone.  “Seeker-sensitive,” however, is either neutral or good.

² Still … STILL, there are many in the Church of Christ (or Churches of Christ, or churches of  Christ — take your pick — they are used interchangeably) who stubbornly refuse to believe it is, in point of fact, a denomination.  I don’t expect ever to sacrifice the scripture-based ideal in my heart — that there be no sectarian denominations.  The Lord’s church transcends this humanly conceived, and humanly perpetuated, group.  I happen to believe that many — perhaps most — who call themselves members of the Church of Christ are also part of the Lord’s universal church.  But, c’mon, guys, reality is that the Church of Christ, even without an earthly HQ, is a Yellow-Pages-identifiable sub-group.  It has many other hallmarks of a denomination.  Its denominational language and the obvious loyalties of some of its adherents betray its status.

³ It is not my purpose here to advocate for creeds.  Far from it.  I think creeds run the risk of superimposing man’s mob-mentality word on top of God’s.

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Keepin’ it real

I s’pose the notion of keepin’ it real is important to most of us.  And it’s more valid than this phrase’s association with less-than-desirable elements of society suggests.  In other words, just because hoods and hoodlums in hoodies use the phrase doesn’t mean the idea is bad.  To be “real” is to be relevant, honest, and genuine, right?

For nearly as long as I’ve been aware of so-called seeker-sensitive churches,¹ I’ve thought the descriptor represented a worthy goal, but apparently not a readily attainable one.  I mean, every church I’ve ever visited (a good number — score and scores, if not hundreds) has been “churchy” in one way or another.  Being “churchy” seems inherently not “real” and not seeker-sensitive, right?

It’s more than a tad ironic that each of the churches I’ve visited has probably thought it was fairly, or even extremely, seeker-sensitive.  Churches’² opinions of themselves rarely resemble the public’s opinion of said churches — rendering the churches’ self-generated opinions fairly useless.  (Footnotes³ in a blogpost are also fairly useless, but sometimes they help to eradicate parenthetical expressions [except in this case].)

The real question for would-be seeker-sensitive groups to consider:  how would a church go about being attractive to those outsiders who might show up, actively seeking what a church has to offer?  Being attractive doesn’t equate to being real, but the two are related.  No one really likes fake.  No one is deeply drawn to facades and veneers.real

Knowing this, a church in Delaware takes as its slogan “real church for real people.”  A church in rural New York tries to attract outsiders, as well.  One succeeds more than the other, in my estimation — if success is tied in any way to the name of the church, at least:

  • In DE, the name “The Journey” (“Your Journey” in its URL) seems inherently honest to me.
  • In NY, the name “Joy Community Church” strikes me as off-putting to real people with real lives.

It’s not that people don’t want joy.  It’s that real life doesn’t consist entirely in joy, and if I’m feeling seeky or needy or searching, I’m not going to be drawn to a group that erects a joy facade to hide behind.  Few people experience joy as a life-motif, I’m convinced.  So, leaving that NY group’s pretense aside (c’mon, stop humming “I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart . . .”), let’s talk more about the first group.  It’s the one I’ve actually visited, and it does “real” pretty well, in my estimation. . . .

The DE church, which my old friend Bob had invited us to visit when in town, is called “The Journey.”  And what about this metaphor of the life-journey?  It’s a cliché, and I sometimes tire of the surface-level interest in the so-called “Christian walk” or “faith journey,” but “journey” really is an appropriate simile.  Undergirding this idea, we have a prominent figure of speech in the gospel of Mark:  following Jesus on the way.

I would here inject a reference to a couple of prior posts on Mark’s content:

These both mention the centrality of following, of walking.  Authentic discipleship may well be summarized as “following Jesus on the way.”  The individual believer’s discipleship is to be seen as eclipsing inherited membership & institutional establishmentarianism.  Not only is “walking Christianly through life’s journey” a realistic descriptor for the contemporary mind; it’s also a biblically apt metaphor.

Now, back to real response and analysis. . . .

All the while at The Journey, I’m sitting there considering my real-life journey, because of the name.  Then as I drift in and out of awareness of those around me, I’m thinking thoughts like, “I wonder what that guy’s journey has been like” and “Is that guy hearing the same way, and making the same applications for his journey as I am for mine?”  There’s something relevant about making church gatherings tie in to the real living of real lives, and speaking in terms of “the journey of life” is one way to tie in.

journeyThe Journey has until recently been renting its facilities.  I think that if a church is large enough to need a building, renting is the way to go.  It’s less wasteful.  The Journey’s facility has been an office-type space in an industrial park, which strikes me as “real.”  The group is preparing to inhabit its own facility (seen at left) for the first time this coming weekend.  Although I wish the group had spent its money on something else, I have to give it credit for a) using rented facilities for years and b) not going into more debt to build anything new or elaborate, but rather, purchasing a pre-existing, vacant facility.  If The Journey had continued renting, it might have been even better, but I wish it well and trust that it will do good things in its more visible, larger structure.

Also at The Journey church, there is a “lead” (not “senior”) pastor.  I don’t know that this label has anything to do with sensitivity to less-churchy seekers — out in the world of workplace hierarchies, we find ample use of both terms — but I like “lead” better.  At my age, I figure I’m allowed to have some simple preferences (and will leave it there, not complaining about the ubiquitous, non-biblical use of the word “pastor” right now.)  “Lead” seems to speak of function within a group more than calling attention to age or position.  It communicates relevance and not stodgy hierarchianism.

Mark, the lead pastor, is not referred to with the paradoxically irreverent label “reverend,” a ghastly vestige of Latin/Roman origins.  Inviting ears to attune to his message rather than appearing to demand that respect be shown to a titled position, Mark connects his own real life and inward feelings to that of “average Joe.”  In my (admittedly spotty) experience, he does this convincingly and without facade, also connecting these human experiences to biblical narrative and imperatives.  In the lobby, I see Mark doing the preacher thing a bit — meeting and greeting, you know….  But I observe that while Mark is thinking about, and talking to, those who might be “seekers,” he is all the while naturally moving back and forth between dealing with them and with those who are already disciples.  Mark’s name, not incidentally, does not appear on the church’s “business cards” or on the sign in front of the building.  I had to look all the way into the podcast section of the website to remind myself of his last name.  Admirable!  It’s not about him; it’s about everyone’s lives and souls.

An official “greeter” starts things off in an upbeat vein as the assembly gets underway.  While this is mostly unnecessary for a temperament and get-down-to-business head like mine, I recognize that it helps most people to feel good, and the greeter serves this function well.  Other evidences of being “in touch” with real life include provision of protected children’s environments and pretty good coffee.  Coffee at church is also a cliché these days, but since you can’t avoid it, you might as well offer it (and tea, and maybe hot chocolate) in an attractive atmosphere.  Add to all these things the general sense that friends are talking all around the lobby, and the considerate, all-too-often-ignored “visitors excepted” clause when an offering is taken, and you have a pretty inviting, seeker-sensitive church gathering.

I’ll soon share 1) The Journey’s “Who We Are/What We Believe” statement, and 2) a bit about the reality of music in The Journey church and in other, would-be seeker-friendly churches….

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¹ Here, I’ll leave the ill-begotten “seeker-targeted” and “seeker-oriented” labels alone.  “Seeker-sensitive” can certainly be a good thing, but church gatherings are for the church, after all, not for the seekers.  Orienting “church” to seekers is counter-rational by definition.  Other methods and events might well be considered for drawing in seekers.

² It’s been a long time since I harped on misplaced apostrophes.  See this post for some fun.  Just this morning, I read this “quote” of Acts 9:16 in an e-gram from a highly educated, respected editor/theologian:  “I will show him how many things he must suffer for My names’ sake.”  Now don’t go gettin’ all Christian-markety on me and say that God has many names.  He really only has one.  Anyway, I don’t think the other identifers/descriptors of God were in the picture there in Acts.  It should have read, “I will show him how many things he must suffer for My name’s’ sake.”

³ It’s also been too long since I used footnotes in a blogpost.  I once asked, in a physically posted print, whether anyone read my footnotes, and Randall responded, “I read your footnotes,” but he may be in a small crowd.  🙂

Observations based on visits (1)

For the next two days, as I’m finishing off Harold Best’s book on worship and the arts, I’ll be sharing a few observations based on recent visits:  tomorrow, it’ll be rants about visits to the beach and to a Phillies game, but first, a recap of our visit to an old friend’s new church:

Positive & neutral impressions

  • Substance
    • The “lead pastor” introduced himself with his first name only (no title)—while this might seem minor, it went a long way toward making me have a good morning.  By the way, this really is substantive:  it manifests both a non-hierarchical dynamic and a desire not to separate “clergy” from “laity” (a concocted, abiblical distinction).
    • There was an emphasis on small groups—perhaps not more than typical, but it seemed significant in the church’s life and thought.
    • The “real” style and content of the sermon (that, not incidentally, matched the website’s message and the church’s intended ministry focus).
    • Much more significant than the style of the sermon or its delivery—the preacher’s humble, transparent mentions of his own weaknesses struck me as genuine.
    • The worship content
      • was theologically quite palatable … nothing extreme
      • was more abbreviated than in most other churches I’ve visited
      • did not use scripture in any memorable, direct, or appreciable manner
  • Periphery
    • An “impressions” minister who clearly cares about visitors and the “face” of the place had presumably set the tone in multiple aspects.
    • We experienced a few introductions to, and by, strangers (not everyone we passed)—very natural for this church.
    • The musical performance was mostly fine.  There was one particularly talented vocalist, and a tasteful electric guitarist who knew more than most guitarists know about playing musically.
    • An active, inviting children’s program existed.  (And the attendants loved our boychild.  [Who doesn’t?])
    • The appearance of the place was new/attractive and tastefully decorated.
    • Fresh-baked cookies and coffee were offered—the former being nice addition to the new norm of righteously above-average coffee that’s served in “relevant” churches these days.

Negative impressions

  • The church assembly was based on a performance/audience model (like most other churches).
  • The hall was darker than usual—like a movie theatre.  I suppose a relatively dark light-mood is more normal than not, but still should be moderated, in my view.  On the positive side, the darkness could help newcomer-seekers feel inconspicuous; on the other hand, it surely doesn’t contribute to a real “family feeling.”  See this prior post on lighting in church halls.
  • The sound mix
    • drums & bass too heavy
    • audio level too loud & even dangerous for young ears (9 speakers and 3 monitors—perhaps a little excessive for the size of the room)
    • audio feedback issues
  • A Beatles song was tied in to the sermon topic—a negative for me since I don’t like the Beatles.  (Don’t ask.  It’s a bandwagon thing … along with a general annoyance over out-of-tune guitars, combined with not understanding the pop culture that made these average musicians so popular for decades … oh, and there’s probably a little jealousy, too.)

So, overall, a nice Sunday morning with a church that’s trying its best to be real, to encourage discipleship, and to serve its community.  Thanks, The Journey, for your hospitality, and for making a difference where you are.  As Leroy Garrett says, “soldier on.”