My seminary professor meant well. However, when he invited me to join him and a group of outreach-minded middle aged men for a series of meetings, he didn’t realize he was about to give me an advanced course in church culture.
The stated goal of the meetings was how to reach our small town with the Gospel. Everyone was prepared to make sacrifices.
We met at a local business once a week in the evening and strategized.
The plan quickly turned into something like this: Young people like coffee and hanging out. Let’s put together a coffeehouse ministry with live music! Christians can then use the space to have conversations about their faith. We looked at the Starbucks with hordes of teens flocking to it and thought:
IT’S GOING TO BE AMAZING!
I had a lot of experience with coffeehouse ministry. Well, at least I had attended one put on by a church near my college. It was the place where all of the Christian teens hung out.
I didn’t quite process all of that at the time.
As the plan developed, we dug into the particulars. Where would we host this? All of the venues in town would be expensive.
Shoot. Not so amazing.
How would we encourage people to talk about their faith in the café setting?
Shoot. Not so simple.
I started to get cold feet.
For a while I’d gone along with the plan and just chimed in with an idea here or there. Things were progressing just fine without my input. However, I kept wondering if we were going down the wrong path.
One day I remembered that a college friend had participated in a coffeehouse ministry. When I called him about our idea, he wasn’t encouraging.
“You need such a critical mass of people to pull this off. It’s really hard to do it well, and I don’t think it’s going to provide the kinds of results you’re after.”
Armed with this input, I nervously spoke up at the next meeting. I outlined my friends concerns and then, not wanting to be Mr. Negative, I suggested an alternative.
“What if we organized a day of community service and invited everyone to join in? Schools are big on community service these days, right?”
They didn’t go for it. I’m sure they said something in response, but to me, it sounded like they went right back to lining up bands and trying to find a free venue in the middle of town. Mind you, my idea may not have been the right one, but it at least had a better shot at actually happening.
My seminary professor tried to bring up my points again, but no one was interested enough to stop the momentum of the café.
I can’t remember what happened first: did they give up on the outreach venture or did I give up on them? Either way, I stopped going to the meetings and I never heard a peep about the evangelism café.
When I think about those men and what their generation values, I can’t help thinking of a booming Baby Boomer church like Calvary Chapel. They really valued contemporary music in church. In a sense, they were trying to bridge the generational gap by adding a coffee shop to something that worked for them.
The more I thought about the young people I knew, the more I thought of them seeing through the scheme.
IT’S A TRAP!
No Bible Candy Gimmicks
A few years later, I was in an even more awkward situation. I was working at a church doing administrative stuff, but I wasn’t able to attend. I just couldn’t. Some of it was needing time to process my own church baggage, and some of it was not seeing eye to eye on the stuff the church valued and tried to make me do.
However, one day we had a breakthrough of sorts. We finally agreed on something.
The pastor had been taking notice of the church’s community and its unique needs. To a certain degree, there was a small, relatively poor and overlooked town that had been overtaken by suburban developments. There was nothing much “in town” for people. He decided his church could change that.
I finally felt like we could agree on this: a no strings attached community festival. I volunteered for it and worked overtime to help make it happen.
He tried to rope in other churches in the community to join us, but they didn’t get it.
“When are you going to preach the gospel?”
“Are you going to hand out candy with scripture verses attached to it?”
I thought to myself: “It’s a trap!”
To his credit, the pastor was firm.
No preaching. No scripture candy. Just community.
I felt like someone on the inside at an evangelical church finally saw the games and gimmicks of church that had turned me off. Reaching out to our community like this was life giving. In fact, the church soon added a food pantry that served a number of families in the area. I even began dropping off food to families on my way home from work.
For all of things at this church that annoyed or alienated me, I finally found places where I could begin to belong.
Here’s Where the Hope Comes In
There are churches and ministries who do things that won’t make sense to you and they will not listen to anyone who questions them, especially young people. They have made up their minds. I’ve learned it’s best to wish them well and to avoid conflict with them.
If you do speak up, they inevitably blame any resulting conflict and fall out on you.
There are other churches and ministries who will worship God and serve in ways that will make sense to you.
And still there are other churches, perhaps the majority, who will do some things you love and some things you don’t.
You have your own way of interacting with God and with others. Don’t be ashamed of that. If something at your church doesn’t speak life to you, there’s a good chance you need to seek out a different place to find life.
Diversity in church experience doesn’t mean there are those who do it right and those who do it wrong.
Look for the life of God.
It may require something extremely counter-cultural like the quiet of a liturgical church.
It may look like something very much in line with the culture of service you found in high school and college as you partner with a church or ministry dedicated to helping those in need.
Sometimes our desires and opinions will lead us astray, prompting us to try to remake the church in our own image. I’ve done that and seen that first hand.
However, in seeking a church community, pay attention to the things that resonate with you. How is God speaking to you? What burdens are on your heart?
God doesn’t give us burdens and desires in order to frustrate us—at least, to frustrate us for the rest of our lives.
I’ve spent so many years inside and outside of the church stewing over the things I didn’t like. When I finally realized that there are churches that either completely or partially resonate with the things God is speaking to me, I found immense freedom in saying “Yes!” to those things and ignoring the things that I found condemning or restricting.
Mind you, this is not an easy, anything goes approach to church. God will most likely start nudging you to do things you won’t want to do! This is the path of sacrifice and costly discipleship.
Here’s the key: Church shouldn’t force us to sacrifice our freedom and convictions.
Church should both nurture and provide an outlet for the life that God is building up in us.
This isn’t all that different from Paul’s body metaphor for Christians. We all have different functions and roles to play.
The challenge is that we can spend a lot of time despairing over the things that bring us down rather than pursuing the things that God’s Spirit is bringing to life in our midst.