“I’ve just got one more question,” Jamie said, taking a swig from his freshly filled coffee cup.
The café was empty, so we’d received an absurd amount of attention from our waitress. If I sipped from my mug, she was there to top it off a few seconds later. Our experience had been the same the past three Tuesdays. Jamie and I had picked the place for that reason. We needed a quiet spot to talk.
“I don’t think you’re allowed another question after that last one,” I teased.
I was helping Jamie read through the Gospel of Luke. He’d plow through six or seven chapters on his own between our meetings, then we’d get to talk through what he’d seen. Jamie was a researcher at a university in town. His work was focused on the effects of addiction. It was his first time reading the Gospel. The combination of his insight into human behavior and his fresh eyes on the ancient text, made for some radical conversations. He’d just finished blowing my mind with his thoughts on Luke 18. He’d drawn comparisons between the Pharisee, the tax collector, and addicts in recovery that had left my head spinning.
“No, seriously. This is real,” Jamie said. “I need you to explain something to me.” He leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms across his chest.
“Alright,” I replied, swallowing hard. I couldn’t help but feel like a featherweight about to take on the heavyweight champion of the world. A frustrating feeling to have, since I was a seminary trained, full-time pastor, and Jamie had only been saved for six weeks.
“So, I’m into Jesus,” he started.
“Yes,” I affirmed.
“And I’m being challenged. Like we talked about last week, I’m totally the fig tree with no fruit. I get that.”
“That was great insight by the way. I really liked how you-”
“Yeah, yeah,” he said, interrupting. “Self-examination. Confession. Repentance. Working on it. But what I’m really loving is the focus on loving my neighbor.”
“Awesome,” I affirmed. “I wanted to talk to you about maybe joining the Upward Basketball team. I think you’d really-”
“Nope,” he said, cutting me off again. “Not now. Hold that thought. Like I was saying, really focusing my day on others, the Good Samaritan ‘go and do the same’ deal we talked about. That’s rocking my world.”
“Fantastic,” I said. “I’m really excited for you. I think you’ve-”
“Stop it,” he snapped. “I’m going somewhere, and you keep messing with my momentum.”
“Alright. Alright,” I said, holding my hands up defensively.
“I didn’t apologize.”
“But you should have,” he quipped with a grin. “Like I was saying. Repentance. Going great. All in with that. Focusing on loving others. Absolutely. Best thing ever. And our small group. Love it. If you told me two months ago that I’d look forward to sitting in a circle with a bunch of dudes and praying, I’d check you into our psych ward. But it’s the best. I look forward to it all week, and I think about the guys all the time.”
I smiled, nodded, and sipped my coffee.
“But then there’s Sunday.” He let the words hang in the air.
I leaned back in my chair and folded my arms across my chest. “Okay,” I said.
“I don’t understand Sunday,” he said. Again, he let the words sit between us.
“What do you mean?” I probed.
“I don’t see it. In here,” he said, pointing to his Bible on the table. “I mean, Jesus is out there loving others. He’s got his boys around him. And he’s calling people to repentance left and right. But they aren’t doing anything that looks like Sunday morning.”
I didn’t fully understand why at the time, but my feelings were hurt. Rebuttals flew through my mind. “What abouts…” and “Yeah buts…” and “What you don’t understands…” lined up before me like Revolutionary War soldiers awaiting the order to ready muskets and fire at Jamie’s face. I looked down into my lap and took a deep breath. “Break that down for me,” I said. “What specifically are you talking about? There’s a lot that happens on Sunday.”
“Well, let’s take the music first. I mean, don’t get me wrong, the band’s great. They work really hard. They’re really tight. But why do we do that? Why do we all stand there and sing songs like that?”
Jamie listened patiently I as explained the reasons behind worshiping through song, as I detailed the emotional intensity of music and its benefits over other forms of expression, as I talked about all the places in the Scripture were it told us to make a joyful noise, as I rambled on about tradition and the evolution of the worship service to what we know it to be now, and as I made the case for music as a pathway to intimacy with God.
“I get that’s how it works for some people,” he allowed. “Maybe even most people. But I hate singing. I’ve never liked singing. I hated choir in high school. I don’t like Christmas carols. I don’t even sing in the shower.”
“What kind of freak doesn’t sing in the shower?” I asked in a poor attempt at easing the tension.
“This kind of freak,” he said. “And what about the sermon? I mean, you and Pastor Ryan are good teachers and all, but that’s not how I learn.”
“Okay,” I said hesitantly.
“Don’t take it personally. It’s not about you.”
“I’m not taking it personally,” I said, reflexively furrowing my brow. The pit in my stomach was growing into a gorge.
“You are SO taking it personally,” he insisted. “It’s all over your face. Listen, I’m sorry. If you don’t want to talk about this, we can save it for some other time.”
I sighed and sat forward. “Nope,” I said. “I’m sorry. Keep going. You don’t learn that way.”
“Yeah,” he said. “People have different learning styles. Some people are auditory. They can listen to a lecture and wham! Their lives are changed. Me? I’m a reader who needs practice. Give me a book and I’ll devour it. Then I’ll go into the lab and test all my theories. That’s how I learn.”
“Sermons aren’t lectures. They’re different than that. And it’s not about learning information. It’s about the Body coming together around a shared vision.”
“But it’s not a ‘shared’ vision. It’s your vision. You didn’t ask me to participate in its formation. I mean, it’s ‘shared’ in that you are ‘sharing’ it with me.” The quotation marks he made with his fingers around the word “share” added to my frustration.
“I’m not comfortable calling it MY vision. It’s not MY vision. I mean, yes, I’m the one speaking. But everything is prayerfully considered. And it’s really the Holy Spirit moving in everyone that gives the sermon any value at all.”
“Instead of sitting there, forcing myself to stay awake, can I just get the transcript from you after? You can ‘share’ it with me in print. I’ll read it in half the time it takes you to ‘share’ it.”
“It’s not the same. There’s an experience going on in the room you’d miss out on.”
“Can the Holy Spirit not move me through the transcript? Is he limited to that room? Or is it that time of week? Is he like Santa? The magic only happens on a specific day at a specific time?”
“Don’t be an ass,” I said.
“Sorry,” he said. I could tell from his downcast eyes that he meant it.
“What are you driving at? I feel like you’re trying to make a case for something. Let’s just skip to the end.”
He sighed. “It’s just. I don’t’ want to come on Sunday anymore. It feels like wasted time. I’d rather spend that time focusing on someone else, or reading, or… Anything really.”
“I get it,” I said. “But you can’t lone wolf it. You have to be in community.”
“I get community from the small group.”
“But being a part of the larger group is important. You’ve got to stay in tune with the Body.”
“Do you hear how far we’ve come? In just a few minutes? ‘I have to.’ ‘I need to.’ I mean, I know I’ve only read one Gospel, but I don’t see Jesus telling anyone they ‘have to’ be a part of any program. Love the Lord your God. Love your neighbor. Pray. Be a team player. That’s pretty much it, right?”
I rubbed my forehead and sighed. I was developing a head ache. Suddenly the café felt small. I wanted to leave. I looked my friend in the eye. “I’ll make you a deal,” I said. “Stay in small group. Join an organized ministry, like Upward, which could use your help coaching, and show up on Sunday every once in a while to humor me. And don’t tell your wife I made this deal with you, or my wife will never let me hear the end of it.”
“Deal,” he said with a smile. We shook on it, and then spent time talking about less troubling things.
My conversation with Jamie happened over years ago, but its ring still reverberates in my ears. It was the seed that grew into a mighty oak of questions. Should the church be so dependent on money? Do we really need a building? Do we need staff? Are the programs we ask people to participate in pulling Christ’s ambassadors out of their communities? If Paul were around right now, is this really how he’d do it? Along the way, I’ve met an uncomfortable amount of people asking the same things.
I love the church. I grew up in the church. I am who I am because the church looks and functions like it does. And I don’t want it to change.
I like it how it is.
I want everyone to have the same experiences I’ve had: to sing the songs I grew up singing, to sit in the congregation Sunday after Sunday and take notes in the margins of their Bibles like I did, to attend small group bibles studies during the week that invigorate them like groups invigorated me. These things, these rituals are second nature to me. I grew up in the church. Being there is as natural as breathing.
At the same time, I see the world changing around me. It’s not the same place I grew up in. And I fear that my city, my neighborhood, my kids need a different type of church than the one that raised me.
I wish things could remain the same, and I mourn the realization that they cannot.
People still listen to music, but only nostalgic hipsters use record players. Is that who I want to be? The nostalgic church hipster yelling at the world that life is better when you sit in a pew? “No, no. You don’t understand, bro. That’s how it was intended to be experienced. It’s more real like that, with all the scratches and everything.”
I wish I could tell you now that I’ve found the answers to all of my questions. I wish I could say I’ve got a shiny new system for you to try that will let you keep the pews AND relate to the changing world around you. I wish I could say that all you need to do is buy my new book, and all your fears will be relieved.
But I don’t. I don’t have a book with answers, or a one-size-fits-all system. All I have is a growing pile of questions.
What I can do is encourage you. If you’re like me, and it feels like your questions are multiplying like rabbits, don’t just sit on your growing pile and pout.
Examine yourself. Confess. And repent.
Find a neighbor and love them wildly, with reckless abandon.
Live in a community. Don’t’ just attend. Don’t just participate in the stuff. Give the members an absurd amount of attention, like a waitress with one table and nothing else to do but keep the customers’ coffee mugs full.
And pray. Pray like a helpless widow demanding justice of an apathetic king. Pray like you mean it, in a corner, when no one’s watching, beating your breast and crying out for mercy.
I think, if we all do these four things and keep asking questions, God will work everything out.