The Purpose-Driven Centrist: Questions of the Meaning of Church

The Purpose-Driven Centrist — By on February 28, 2009 at 8:17 pm


In the middle of the day, I realized that I had not fulfilled my commitment to publish this column. I’ve been traveling a lot over the last 28 days, in fact as many days this month as I have in a typical year for my job. It was a reasonable excuse, but not one that sat well with me. Tonight my family met our relatively-new small group for dinner at Wegmans before attending a free concert at our church by a local band that is seems pretty close to “making it”, whatever that means. And the night turned out to be more thought-provoking than I expected.

My 2 1/2-year-old daughter was excited for the concert and sat in my lap and smiled largely as she pointed at the “pretty lights” while the band sang their first few songs. After a few songs, she wanted to sit with her friend in the row in front, so I lifted her to that row. She sat there for two minutes and then turned around with her arms extended wanting to come back. My wife was giving our own 3-month-old son a bottle down the hall and chatting with a friend. All of the sudden my daughter, who clings to us in public in case these giant people would squish her with their feet, jumped out of her seat and wave buh-bye to me as she left the row and headed toward the door of the gym. I followed her quickly, and asked where she was going, to which she responded “To play with my friends.” This is the same girl who, for the past three months, had severe separation anxiety every time we drop her off for Sunday school during worship time. Her instantaneous boldness was impressive, but her sudden awareness of her “friends” touched my heart.

It touched me because I’ve been wondering a lot about the meaning of church, and by church I mean the formal organization part, the Sunday morning part, and the part we think we know what we are describing when we say “church”. For me church has had very distinct meanings over my lifetime. In childhood it was the place that I memorized more verses than anyone and where my father was the music director, so I had to be participate in every children’s choir and such. In high school it was the place where I learned how to argue with my non-christian friends to try to save them from hell. In college, it was being introduced to a come-as-you-are Saturday night service with contemporary music we went to as a community from our college InterVarsity group; it was the first time I felt I was actually hearing God. Since college, church has been an organization of habit and a place that I hope to find that community I had on campus in college. Ironically, the actual church I attend is the same as I did in college, but the community element is much different.

It became clear to me a number of years ago that was community that really defined my positive church experience, and since I’ve been looking for that same type of community. Defining that community is very difficult, especially when some of the people in that college community also still go to that same church. What has changed is our stage in life, and adjusting community through that stage has turned out to be the hardest thing I’ve ever experienced. I’ve read lots of books that I hoped would help me define this community I’m after, such as A New Kind of Christian or Dear Church: Letters from a Disillusioned Generation. One that I truly identified with is So You Don’t Want to Go to Church Anymore by Jake Colsen (a pseudonym of two co-authors). So while still attempting to find this community, I keep wondering what exactly the is the purpose of my going to church. Yes, the purpose-driven centrist is searching for a purpose in this particular situation.

As a father, I am now invested in both my own faith and that of my children. I want to introduce them to the communal aspects of faith, not just individual, even though it is sometimes the individual faith that helps me gets through some days. I want to be sure that what they hear in Sunday school aren’t just nice stories, or they aren’t put on a performance/reward track of Bible memorization and perfect attendance. I want our faith to be life breathing and love giving, not head knowledge that can knock the wind out of an antagonizer at school. Most of all, I want them to recognize that they can be themselves and not need to have it all together. But that requires true community.

On my personal blog, I posted a quote about community from a short-lived television series of which I am very fond. The reverend character made this statement:

The gift of community is that each one of us is absolved of the burden of completeness. In and of ourselves at every moment we can lean on one another for the elements we lack.

It is one of the fittest definitions of community I’ve ever heard, and I think it can define a community of two (especially in friendship or marriage) or 2,000. What strikes me is that I never hear this type of community discussed in a sermon or in planning the next small group study. What I hear more is what we should study next or what we can/should do to become complete, though maybe not in those exact words. We hear about what we believe, which is important, or should believe, which might be important, but rarely, if ever, hear that it is truly ok to be incomplete, and in fact our community embraces your incompleteness. My wondering now is if that is because the churches I’ve attended since college really aren’t communities in its truest sense.

But my daughter is finding some toddler-sense of community now in the very same place that I’m doubting I’ll ever find true community. And it’s making me wonder more if I’m missing something or not. Is real community in churches getting lost by us adults through budgets and church programs and various worship services? Or is it getting sucked right out of the room the moment the inductive Bible study or Christian book study starts in our small groups? Or is it never making it through the door because we don’t really believe we are allowed to be our incomplete selves together in the same place trying to find the same God while trying to make it through the same world? I don’t know, and I’ve been looking for a long time now. I’m tired and incomplete; I hope that’s really ok to admit here.

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    2 Comments

  • Stephanie Nikolopoulos says:

    Funny, I was just leaving a comment about this on another blog:

    http://www.concretethoughts.com/?p=391

    I think ministries, Bible studies, volunteer programs, etc are great, but it seems so often people are just so busy because of all their church commitments that they don’t have time to be friends anymore. I was going through some stuff a while back and tried over and over again to get three or four Christian women together for dinner and no one’s schedule matched up because of all their Bible studies etc. It wasn’t until six months later that they learned about what I had been going through, and of course by then I had already dealt with the issues by talking about it with my nonChristian friends.

    In a similar vein, I have been church hopping lately and one of the things that has bothered the person I’ve been going with is when a pastor says if you want to experience community in church you need to join a small group; instead of it being the church’s responsibility to reach out to newcomers and to those who aren’t involved.

    I see the point of all these programs and believe that you can make friends through them, but sometimes it feels like we’re in church but not being the church.

  • Tim says:

    Stephanie, you hit the nail right on the head. As our small group tries to figure out what to “do” next, I just want to scream “How about we just not get together for dinner and become friends first?” Obviously screaming that wouldn’t be very friendly, and sometimes I fear being labeled as watered-down by not wanting to do a “study”. But really, what I desire are friends/community, not study buddies.

    It definitely feels like we’re just in church and not being the church. Almost all the time. And it sometimes makes me want to stop going altogether.

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