Church sucks, as a building. It’s way more effective as a people.
I am a part of a church softball league in Tupelo each year. I play because nothing is better than a bunch of grown men with real jobs, families and responsibilities reverting to name-calling in order to decide on which side of a white line a yellow ball has fallen.
At the end of each of our games we all shake hands, talk about how fun the game was, how funny our arguments were and pray for each other’s teams and churches. A few weeks ago we were in the second round of the playoffs in which we would play a game, if we won play a second, if we won play a third. We won more games in the playoffs than we did the entire season.
At the end of one of the first two games we all gathered in the middle of the infield dirt and kneeled in a circle while a pastor from the other team began to pray. I don’t remember which church or denomination he hailed from but he seemed like a really nice guy. I enjoyed playing against him, especially because he swings a powerful bat. He said a similar prayer to what most pastors say after a softball game, along the lines of:
Dear Lord, we want to thank you for letting us pretend we’re young and run around on this softball field with other men. Thank you for keeping us safe and pray that you will help us to remember that while we are out here having fun tonight we have a higher calling…
I heard two ends to the prayer many people probably didn’t think about, but they were vastly different to me:
- The pastor I mentioned above asked God to prepare us for our calling Sunday, when we would be sharing the gospel in our churches. He asked that we be prepared to share the message of salvation for the people coming through our church doors who are hell-bound.
- Another pastor, at a later game (yes, one of my totally cool pastors whom I love and am probably clearly biased towards but that’s not what this is about) prayed a similar prayer but ended instead by asking for strength and courage, as we return to our jobs, families, cities and neighborhoods, to share the love Jesus has shared with us.
I think the first prayer is something we hear a lot, especially in my experience growing up in big institutionalized southern churches. To me, the prayer shows two things we’re getting wrong as a whole in the American church. The first being the expectation that people who need love, redemption and compassion will come to us (because we have super nice buildings, polite white people, and doughnuts) and the second being that when we tell people they are going to hell they will look to us for rescue (as if a get-out-of-hell-free card is the sole, or even best, purpose for following the teachings of Christ).
There is truth to both of those things in a good church. We do believe that there is salvation through Jesus’ saving grace and those who don’t experience that redemption are missing out and ultimately hurting. We also have these buildings to house communities that are supposed to be shining lights in a world of loneliness, hate and suffering.
I’m writing my thoughts to this incident in two parts, talking about the our execution of the ideas of the church and of salvation. First up: the church.
The Church isn’t supposed to be a building.
Growing up I attended a huge church with tons of programming. We had defensive driving classes, board game nights for elderly, youth group, Wednesday night prayer meeting, choir, orchestra, basketball, dodgeball, pool tables, a workout room, summer camps, weight-loss classes, small group devotionals, marriage counseling, divorce recovery groups, and many more I can’t recall. But, the only time we left the actual building was to do prison ministry, only because they couldn’t come to us.
I can’t help but think people who don’t like church, those who don’t know about the message of love preached by Jesus or people who’ve been burned by the church, probably have no desire or motivation to breach the doors of the church building and take advantage of our programs.
Don’t get me wrong, the programs are great for the Christians already involved in church or for recruiting Christians from other churches (I know I wanted to move from my church to one down the road because they had a bowling alley). My childhood church also had a huge international missions program and sent groups all over the world every year. They did a great job loving people unconditionally, supporting them with food, labor, and love.
On the other hand, we did a terrible job, as an institution, of loving the local people unconditionally, supporting them with food, labor and love. Plenty of people within the church worked in the community but most of us would go to three or four events at the church each week and feel as if we’d fulfilled our Christian duties.
When I moved to Tupelo in 2012, I joined a church called Origins, which is a under the larger umbrella of The Orchard. After I had been attending Sunday evening services (which were held in a dance studio at the time because we didn’t have a building) some of the guys took me aside and told me they were glad I was coming, they liked me and hoped the service was recharging my spirit but that it was time to start serving in some way or another.
The idea is that our church is a pitcher of ice cold water where we all come to be refreshed. But Origins is a small church so it’s not like a water fountain at a restaurant where we never see where the water is coming from so we drink as much as we want. Someone has to fill the pitcher back up. And since there isn’t a huge staff (really just the pastor, a few part timers and a congregation of volunteers) we’re all expected to fill the pitcher or go into our city and find people who are thirsty, give them the water and then show them how to fill it back up.
The bigger the church, the easier it is to get lost, but we try to have an accountability system, expecting everyone to pour into the community. One way we do that is by having fewer meetings inside the walls of our church. We meet in our city, with people who aren’t members of our church – people who we disagree with, people we think haven’t experienced redemption, and those who just aren’t sure.
I left the institution of the church for a while in college. I wanted so badly not to believe in anything bigger. I wanted badly to be free to do whatever I desired. That didn’t work out well for me. I wasn’t all that free. I was consumed with some really misguided ideas of love and community and I hurt more people than I helped. When I realized I needed a community I did not, however, turn to the church. Why? Because church has a tendency to suck. I had been burned. I had been judged. I had been told people like me were going to be cast into the lake of fire. I had been told the people I love weren’t forgivable. I had been told if I wanted to be saved I had to go to the church, the very one that told me all of those other things. I actually took a girl I was dating to a church, trying to find community, and people pushed their coats and purses into the seats next to them so we couldn’t sit by them. We sat on the leftover stack of chairs in the very back that weren’t set out. We literally sat on a stack of like three chairs while the pastor talked about showing Christ’s love to others.
I didn’t go back to the church until a community of believers came to me and made me feel comfortable, loved, supported and safe first.
So there is the first take away–Church sucks as a building. It’s way more effective as a people. Let’s go find the people who need redemption and love them until they feel safe enough to follow us into our bad-ass, steeple laden buildings. We’re always trying to increase attendance with cool gimmicks – light shows, rock bands, basketball gyms. My church consists of three couches and hand-me-down chairs in a big room in the old abandoned mall. We get people to come by going to them first – not to say we’re perfect, but that’s the goal.
In Acts we’re told to go to the ends of the Earth and in Matthew we’re told to go make disciples of nations. I don’t have a seminary degree, so I could be wrong, but I can’t think of a place in scripture where we’re told to hold tight and fortify ourselves in a super nice building.
What do you think? Have you been hurt by the church? Have you gone to a church building only to have backs turned on you? Could we accomplish more by loving people as a church people and not in a church building?