Since moving here, I’ve been looking for “a church home.” I think the phrase “spoiled for choice” could very easily apply to the American church situation, and I want to find the balance between looking for one that matches what I would like and holding out for an ideal that does not exist. I also want to listen to the Spirit’s promptings in this!
In the title of this post, I’m reflecting on C. S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, a fictional set of letters from one demon to another, offering advice on how to keep a new believer from growing into an effective Christian – and thus showing the reader by contrast exactly what DOES help a believer avoid temptation and grow in the Lord. The second letter focuses on the church. Screwtape the demon writes to his nephew, “One of our great allies at present is the Church itself. Do not misunderstand me. I do not mean the Church as we see her spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners. That, I confess, is a spectacle which makes our boldest tempters uneasy. But fortunately it is quite invisible to these humans. …When he gets to his pew,… make his mind flit to and fro between an expression like ‘the body of Christ’ and the actual faces in the next pew. … Provided that any of those neighbors sing out of tune, or have boots that squeak, or double chins, or odd clothes, the patient will quite easily believe that their religion must therefore be somehow ridiculous. … I have been writing hitherto on the assumption that the people in the next pew afford no rational ground for disappointment. Of course, if they do – if the patient knows that the woman with the absurd hat is a fanatical bridge player or the man with the squeaky boots is a mister and an extortioner – then your task is so much the easier. All you have to do is to keep out of his mind the question, ‘If I, being what I am, can consider that I am in some sense a Christian, why should the different vices of those people in the next pew prove that their religion is mere hypocrisy and convention?'” (pages 22-24)
All that is in the back of my mind as I type and proofread what I’ve written.
So far, I’ve visited 5 different churches in my 6 Sundays here (wow, have I only been here five+ weeks?!). I keep thinking, “If only I could check out Sunday services every day of the week, how much faster this would be!” But that is not so, of course. There have been various things I enjoyed about each church, and various others I found off-putting in some way.
Among the good: The Mennonite churches both had lovely harmonized hymn singing, some live musical instruments, and one was quite welcoming and with a Sunday School class I’d like to keep going back to attend if the scheduling works out! (That’s the one I visited twice.) The Presbyterian church was going through Job, which struck me as a good Bible-centered way to focus a sermon series, and they were attempting to reach out to the local college students. The two more non-denominational sort of churches I’ve been to so far had some nice modern contemporary songs and were also very welcoming.
At one place I visited, the sermon on forgiveness combined the Word of God with the speaker’s own testimony in such a powerful way that “the blood of the Lamb and the word of their testimony” came to mind! The people of that small church showed such love and support for the speaker as well. Having listened to so much John Piper in the past few years, that one came the closest to what I’m most searching for in preaching: a place where the pastor opens up the Word of God in a way that leads us to love God more and apply it to our lives. I get turned off when the message is thematic and just uses scripture to prove the speaker’s point – shouldn’t it be the other way around? And yet I’ve heard two such sermons so far (along with one quite nice “Missions Sunday” that didn’t give me anything to judge by). Even worse than the scripture-as-proof-of-my-wisdom approach: if the message’s theme is focused on people who have young children (ie “family” in the mainstream sense) to the exclusion of others in the Body, or if the pastor asserts something I don’t believe is scriptural without making any attempt to show it from the scripture – such as the idea that physical families are the basic building block of the New Testament church (um, no, I believe you’re thinking of the Old Covenant; unlike the nation of Israel, under Christ, we are adopted rather than born into God’s family). Not that I’ve heard a sermon like that or anything… *ahem*
I’m also really hoping for a place that uses music to worship God in a way similar to those that are easiest for me to enter into. This is where it gets a little tricky for a couple reasons: tricky because I love BOTH traditional hymns and modern worship music, and tricky because I know that worship is not supposed to be about ME. Still, I’d rather find a place where I can focus my effort on God and not on ignoring how much I dislike the music. Interestingly on the topic of music, one church was so small that it used videos for the music portion (words on animated backgrounds accompanying the MP3), which got me both ways – it reminded me a lot of our home fellowship in Zhengzhou (yay), while also distracting me with those blasted backgrounds and the quality of drum-and-electric-guitar-heavy MP3’s over a poor speaker system (sigh)… Anyway, a part of me has the idea that I can’t hold out for a perfect place this side of heaven, despite the “ideal” I found in college (a church with a traditional service, a good Sunday School, and a contemporary service – I’d come for the first service and stay through the worship of the second), but with so many possibilities around here I feel like I can’t “settle” without trying a good-sized sampling of them.
And then there’s the body, the ACTUAL church – are there a mix of people at different stages of life? Or is it mostly families? Are the kids taken care of in some way that doesn’t distract everyone else during the sermon? Are there ways to interact with people outside of age-and-status pigeonholes? Are the people welcoming or clique-ish? Do I perhaps already have a friend there, or a co-worker or a friend of a friend, to help with my slow introverted attempts at getting to know others, which really don’t combine well with once-a-week sitting-in-pews-together to build relationships at any sort of livable pace?
And then there’s a theological issue, beyond the sermon issues mentioned above: My understanding of the New Testament’s teaching on pastors being men. It’s not something I’m a huge fan of in my own wisdom, but I accept it as God’s prescribed path for the church. *pause for effect* So far two of the four sermons I’ve heard were given by women. *blink blink* Where am I again? Cue more of that culture shock of returning to (Christian organizations in) the US after almost a decade abroad. I’ve heard women teach, but this is the first time I’ve attended a church with a female lead pastor. (The other incident involved “just” an associate pastor filling in while the lead pastor was unexpectedly out of town.) And yet, do I deny their calling, say they and their congregations heard God wrong? I don’t know. I know it’s not the only bit of theology that Christendom doesn’t have consensus on. Am I comfortable being part of a church in which the leaders believe differently than me on an issue like that? Again, I don’t know. I’m not a big fan of “denominations” in general, so this would be a good time to live out the idea that we should function as one body rather than get picky about things less central than the actual Gospel message. Going with this tangent, I do realize it’s important for local churches to belong to a larger body of some sort that can help make sure their theology isn’t getting too far off, and denominational bodies are helpful for that, but that’s about all the good I’ve seen in them till now. Are they also good at helping us find “a place that fits”? Too bad then that the places I’ve fit best didn’t fit any denominations (except that college one, but there aren’t any United Brethren churches in this state… *Google*… SNAP, there are! Even in this city! Hm, with an average attendance of 14 rather than 400 or even 40. Well, it’s still worth a try!)
I don’t know if I have a good conclusion to this post yet. I suppose it’s just one of those stressors that go with moving to a new position in life that take awhile to settle into any sense of “normal.” And it’s also just one of those areas that I can respond to God with thanksgiving – for the fellowship he’s provided for me in the past, for his presence and comfort and guidance, and for the answer when it arrives in his timing.