Tuesday, May 1, 2012

My Church Story

I felt challenged by Rachel Held Evans' call to share our church stories and so I'm going to try to wrap my mind around what has been an incredible adventure. It's small but it's my own and I treasure it.

When you grow up in a town that claims the most churches per capita of any city in the US, you wind up with some baggage. Church buildings are everywhere. Church was a place. You were supposed to invite people in and if they weren't coming it was that they were "hard of heart". It said we were good for being there, and everybody else needed a "come to Jesus" experience.
I grew up in a conservative nondenominational church in west Texas. I went to Sunday school and Sunday worship, I did AWANAS and all the kids programs. I was baptized there and drank the little cup of grape juice and ate the tiny wafer every Sunday morning. I doodled on the bulletin during the 45 minute sermon, sitting in the same avocado green pew. I thought youth group was da bomb and what all Christians were supposed to be like. I did some street evangelism and God bless the dear people who can actually pull that off, but I am not one of them.  

I began to notice a few things as I got older.

There were no people of color at my church.

There were a few poor people.

There were no hand-raisers. (Except for this one Sunday morning when we had a visitor who obviously didn't know the rule and raised a hand during the song...and everybody stared and felt so bad for her because, poor thing, she didn't know!)

There were generous people.

There were earnest people.

They devoured the Word.

They were a group of people spending their lives together, or at least their Sunday mornings.

For an independent stand-alone congregation we supported a surprising number of missionaries.

I think it is a typical part of growing up to question the status quo. I've always had a natural bent toward bucking the system anyway, and so I asked questions and demanded that my church home answer them. Why was there poverty if this town had so many churches? Why didn't we do what we studied on Sundays? What was the point of all this head knowledge if we didn't do anything with it? Why can't a woman pass a brass plate? What in the world is a men's meeting? Why are we raising money to move out of the poor neighborhood our church was in? Why do we always look twice in the parking lot after church? I'm a teenager, I'm "on fire" and I can't do anything with it because I'm a girl? What is this HOLY SPIRIT we read about and where is it? I didn't really get very satisfying answers and so in college I quit going.

I know this is not unique at all, in fact, it's pretty typical for people my age. I wanted to find something I could own as mine. So I tried the trendy churches where all of my college friends attended.

I didn't like them.

They did not feel like home.

But home didn't feel like home either.

But I never quit on God, and God never quit on me.

I just wanted to know where we were going wrong, and so I set out to find the "real church". Who hasn't? I wanted intimacy in a community with God at the middle, but I had to figure out what God at the middle meant. From my background it meant studying the bible together. Honestly, that sums it up. Bible study was the tool I had for knowing God.

And then, still in no man's land, and during a long distance engagement to my fiance, we stumbled into a little ramshackle community that was totally new to us.

A "house church".

We were fascinated, and my lonely fiance who was desperate for community having moved away for a job, invited himself to one of their meetings. Neither of us had ever been a part of something like this or even heard of a "house church" before. Family members were concerned we had joined a cult, sometimes we were worried we were off base too. But we prayerfully walked into it and I am beyond grateful that we did not listen to fear!

So this is when the deconstruction of everything I thought I knew began.

I felt so disoriented, so weightless, as my foundation was crumbled. The questions I had were finally being answered and I was hardly prepared for it. Each question brought on more questions. I for the first time questioned traditions. Frank Viola's book Pagan Christianity shattered my world.

We also attended several house church conferences over the years that were great sources of growth and information for us. But one of the most impacting things about the conferences for me was the willingness of the leadership to have speakers in the line up who did not agree with each other. There was such a diversity of ideas and personalities, and a spirit of trust that Jesus was in control and would speak to people as he planned. I mean, who does that at a church conference?? I was also struck by the cultural diversity that I saw represented at these conferences. People from all over the globe came to these conferences. People whose church stories were so very different from mine. People who faced true persecution in their countries and who literally meet in secret because it was dangerous.

Needless to say I was humbled by my seemingly frivolous questions such as "how do we get people to come?" or "what is the biblical structure of a church?" or "how do you know you've got your doctrine right?" when there were brothers and sisters there proclaiming faith and trust in the Spirit as the church spread like wildfire in a hostile land. They had questions about how to keep up with the exponential growth of new believers, or the most efficient way to pass on teachings in a way that empowered all believers because they were planting churches faster than they could keep up with and needed as many leaders as they could get.

If I could suggest anything, get a global look at the church. North American church is not the norm. The concerns of our church are met with baffled faces by our brothers and sisters around the globe.

We made some of the dearest friends we've ever had in our first house church. We had people walk beside us more closely and pour more love on us than either of us had ever experienced from a faith community. To this day, they are our family.

Church, as simply as I can state it, went from meaning a place, to being a people. It became a living thing, organic, changing, growing, dying, breathing.

I understood God as Spirit and engaged this for the first time in this setting. In this house church I learned that the Spirit could lead us. Not having an agenda was okay. Because there is a head, a source, and that is Jesus. It was scary because I couldn't control it.

There is so much I could say here about how dramatic this shift was for me. I was terrified.

It's been seven years since then and though we moved away, we still are part of a house church. It is so different from the first one and again my paradigm was shaken as we were unable to replicate what we had in the first group. It's almost like there's been a perpetual lesson of God saying "stop trying to think you have this figured out. You cannot rely on yourself. Trust Me alone."

I learned that it is smaller still. It starts in the very core of me and all I can possibly do is remain rooted in Christ. Knowing where my feet are, and leaning into freedom from fear so that I can be transformed and be willing to be whatever God calls me to at any moment. This is all I am now. I want to be willing to be all things to all people for the sake of Christ.

It's a kind of dying.

A dying of my own will, my concepts and ideas I hold so dear, my philosophies, my accomplishments.

I think I can say that Church at its best has been a place to learn to die. And learning that this death is a good thing. And through this dying, we step into life in unexpected, small, but inexpressibly beautiful ways and treasure them in our hearts as we walk together toward knowing Jesus just a little bit more.

Because that's really all that it is about. Years and years, a lifetime even, of stripping away anything that is not Christ.

Not to get cheesy on you or anything but the church is the body of Christ.
No, really, this analogy really works I think. Maybe because it's more than an analogy.

I am not the body, the Church is.

I'm not a hand or a foot or a heart either. I am a cell maybe. My purpose is so discrete that I cannot take pride in it. I can't. I am completely meshed with the purpose of my fellow cells, or I am nothing. I have to be obedient to my purpose, my new nature. I have to trust that I am doing what I was created to do and this is only possible by being fully abandoned and submitted to the force of Life. The Creator.


It's his church, not mine or anybody else's.

Someone once said to me that you either have a theology of a God who speaks or you don't. And what you believe has everything to do with how you approach God.

There is no doubt in my heart that we have a loving God who speaks. This is probably the biggest, fundamental shift in my life that changed everything about Church for me. It's the only way my life makes sense, and the only way that the church I have caught a glimpse of is possible.

Church is a people. A living creation breathing life into the world. And it is beautiful.


Laura said...

Loved your post. Thanks for sharing part of your journey! - Laura

idelette mcvicker said...

What a *beautiful* post ...

I grew up in the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa. (Talk about all white. And where are the poor. But that's another conversation.) I didn't see women I wanted to be like--the women were lovely, but I couldn't reconcile being young (then) and fresh and creative AND being in love with Jesus. I couldn't see it, so I left church, went to university and then moved to Taiwan. And there, amidst the Buddhist temples and incense, I was invited to a Women's Power Breakfast, to discuss the leadership principles of Jesus. My jaw dropped. Who knew?! I even bent my head in prayer and in that place--in community with beautiful examples of God-loving women--I re-discovered Jesus.

I also love what I can learn from a global body ... not just the North American picture. (I lift up my eyes to the globe ... )

Don't know why I just shared all that, but here we go. I'm glad I clicked on Rachel Held Evans' tweetlink tonight.

Elizabeth Gregory Brown said...

Thank you! Sounds like you have a beautiful story too! Love hearing how the Spirit leads us to unexpected places of growth.