You will have a moment in church when you’re standing among the shouting singing people and suddenly the plastic fog machine and laser lights and high-def jumbo screens totally expose themselves: and the magic spell is broken.
Instead of your normal Sunday high, you kind of get a headache from that thrashing electric guitar. The drums pierce you. The lead singer turns back to yell a cue at the pianist; the bass guy checks his watch; the back-up singer turns to cough. You’re taken out of the illusion and you see everything exactly as it is: and how it’s not supposed to be.
The preacher walks up with his iPad and hipster glasses, and his cheeky greeting and well-timed delivery and the announcement for that potluck just ring hollow. None of it feels real anymore. You hear a pretty good message that’s precise on doctrine and speaks relevant truth: but somehow it feels shrinkwrapped, safe, and pulled from the assembly line.
None of this is wrong, really, but you feel something is missing.
Maybe the preacher even tells you what’s missing — but the church keeps doing what they’ve always done.
Back to your car, back to your phone and Facebook, back to the grind of everyday reality: you forget you ever felt that way.
But for some of you, it stays. It keeps you up at night, it burns like a hot needle, it bothers you. You wonder if there are other people just like you, who see something is just off and are not okay with it.
I can tell you, at least one person agreed and he did something about it. So they killed him on a cross. And then I realize why we’re all okay with complacency: because authenticity costs too much, and very few of us will deny ourselves to take up that same cross.
Some of you, by the grace of God, will follow: and you will not turn back.
There are hundreds of books and blogs that say something like: “This is not the church that Jesus had in mind. He didn’t want A, B, and C — what he really meant was X, Y, and Z.” In other words, we turn from one program to a slightly better one, and we ease our conscience just a little longer.
If you read the Bible as literally as possible, then the truth is obvious: almost none of the churches anywhere have got it right. We’re talking bleak, dismal, and woefully hopeless: picture an apocalyptic tumbleweed.
The early church had leaders who looked like servants, servants who looked like leaders, and a diversity of unlikely, unwieldy people serving each other. The church today would hesitate to allow in a Middle Eastern homeless single guy drinking wine while talking to women at the water fountain and flipping tables at the gift shop yelling at the staff — because Jesus is a bit too real.
It appears that a church in any given city ends up fighting for the same hundreds of people as every other church in the city, so that pastors are lining their pockets with an easily targeted demographic of suburban Christianites. When the rich and powerful don’t like the pastor’s new vision, they take their money elsewhere.
I’m reminded of John Chrysostom in the fourth century, the “Golden-Mouthed Preacher” who used charitable donations from the wealthy congregants to build hospitals for the sick instead of fixing the church building. He constantly preached to help the poor; the aristocrats hated him. At one point the Roman government invaded his city to retaliate against a riot, and while other pastors left the city, John Chrysostom stayed. The Emperor ended up pulling back the invasion, and word got out that St. John had remained with the people, so his church filled with disciples just like him. What a beast.
The most interesting part though is: John Chrysostom read the Bible literally. In a time when the “Alexandrian” method of interpreting the Bible was popular — it turned the Bible into metaphors and allegory — St. John did not go for that. When he read that Jesus commanded to serve the least of these, John served them. When he read to care for the poor, widows, orphans, and foreigners, St. John obeyed, even at the cost of his own reputation with those in power.
Nothing is wrong with money or megachurches, but these are not the standards of success or progress in the church of Jesus Christ. Real discipleship is not an eight week program written by some dude who has never reached out to desperate people who couldn’t pay him back; the real church does not cater for maximum comfort; the worship service is not a teaching hall to passively receive information.
Jesus saved our far-off broken souls to be a powerful force for good in the universe: and that was always his plan, and still is. Maybe you’ll be the one guy who blows up the status quo to live a life that doesn’t make sense to anyone else, but makes total sense in light of the Gospel. It’s a senseless kind of sense: and deep down you always knew it.
The thing is, I can write a post like this in my sleep. So could you. Any blogger can sound biblical. They can even have intense righteous feelings and good motives and a right heart with all sorts of eloquence. But the difference is actually stepping out to make a difference. It’s to have faith to step off the boat when no one else will: because no one else will.
Right now, there’s a weird kid in your school that everyone else neglects. In your workplace, there’s someone who’s rough around the edges and reminds you of yourself. In your church, there are people who feel like there is more. Around you are people hurting daily, struggling deeper in downward spirals, who feel like there’s no way out. Jesus said, “Go.” He works through imperfect people to serve imperfect people. You want to, and the only thing stopping you is you.
See: everyone loves the idea of compassion until it costs them. We love the idea of love until it comes to unlovable people. We think discipleship is a romantic programmatic workshop of willing people: but it’s actually messy, difficult, heartbreaking, and requires your whole life.
What they also don’t tell you is that it’s awesome. When you’re face to face, chair to chair, eye to eye with a real person, there’s nothing like seeing the lights go on, the lies disentangled, the burden lifted, the problems exposed, the trauma healed, the heart rejoicing — there is absolutely nothing that compares to the pinnacle of God’s glory in one human being discipling another. I mean really discipling them, to just love someone. That click you hear is the something-missing being filled. To love people is what you’re created to do. Once you get there, you can’t go back anymore.
You can attend your rockstar worship service, but man — I hope you don’t ignore that stirring in your gut. I hope the hot needle burns in you hot enough to step in the mess. The modern idea of church will always outgrow itself into stalemate. But dear Christian: there is an infinite depth of life in following the one who made you. It’s difficult and full of heartache, but it’s what your heart longs for: and in the lead is always Jesus, who says, “In my Father’s house are many rooms, and one for you and your friends too.”
“With ministry, I just started feeling like there’s that same few million people in America, and it’s like all the speakers, all the writers, all the pastors, all the podcasters — everyone’s competing to see who they can get of that crowd that will buy their books and listen to their podcast. It seems like they always get the best of everything, that same group of middle class believers here in the states. Meanwhile there’s people in the inner city who have never heard of a podcast, couldn’t afford a Christian book, and no one’s going after those people.”
— Francis Chan
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