Monday, February 20, 2023

Messy Churches are Growing Churches

When I first started going to church, I did not know the church culture or church etiquette. My lack of knowledge caused me to be extremely self-conscious and hyper-vigilant. I tried to dress like everyone dressed and tried to act the way I saw others act at church. I remember sitting in the little church near my house on one of the first hot days of the year. I was in night grade, and I remember getting so hot that my face felt flushed, but I was afraid it would be wrong if I got up and opened a window. I sat there until someone in the choir motioned for me to open the window. I opened the window because an adult said to, but I felt awkward and embarrassed, thinking I was being a disruption. 

Many years later, I read Mike Yaconelli's Messy Spirituality: God's Annoying Love for Imperfect People, which quickly became one of my favorite books. In it and some of his other writings he talks about the little church he pastored. He had a young gal in the church, who like me was not familiar with church culture, but she handled it way different than I did. If she had a question, she would not wait until the sermon was over, she would just blurt out her question. Mike said the first time she blurted out a question, he was taken back because we simply don't do that in church. But he grew to love her impulsivity, because it revealed her thirst for knowledge of God and he chose to give up his preconceived ideas of what his church "should look like." I admire her and wish I would have been more like her. I wanted to learn like she did, but as a youth I simply sat on my questions, afraid to even open a window to make the building more comfortable. 

My husband and I have been a part of a large church for over twenty years. Even though I am a small-town-girl at heart, I've grown comfortable in the church and know when to stand, when to sit, when to bow, when to sing, and when to listen. Because of its size and location, our church tends to have people that are a lot like me in it. I am short in stature, easily distracted, and a relational person so I have convinced my husband to sit on the second row so I can see the pastor and worship leaders up close, which helps me stay more engaged and to feel connected to what is going on. Over the last couple of years, several different people our age who claimed the chairs directly in front of us have come and gone.

When our church opened up after covid, we quickly reclaimed our usual spot, and soon a young man named Travis started coming and sitting right in front of us. Travis is an exuberant person who has a learning disability and because of that he is not like the others who have owned the seat before him. He sings loud and he dancers big during worship, sometimes requiring my husband and I us to take a step back to avoid his moving arms. He blurts out things to lets the pastors know when he loves what they are teaching about Jesus. And he has made some connections with a person he feels safe with and sometimes turns around when he hears something in the sermon that he likes and loudly state his excitement to his safe friend.  

I confess I was overwhelmed by Travis at first and have felt compelled to check my heart for the expectations I have of what I think church should look like. Thankfully, I have slowly developed an appreciation for our seat mate who sits so faithfully on the front row. I have grown to love his passion for the Word, His exuberant worship, his loud verbalizations where maybe Amen might be shouted from the congregation in a church more charismatic ours. I even appreciate his sweet desire to connect with his safe friend around the Truth because that is an eternal connection that will never die. 

A couple of weeks ago, Travis was there and participating as big as ever in worship, but after worship he got up and left. When he left, I realized I was sad that he left. I was also quietly proud of myself for having adjusted and being able to appreciate him. The thought that maybe I had learned the lesson God wanted me to learn from Travis crossed my mind, but just as Travis exited down one aisle another man entered and walked all the way to the front and sat down in Travis' seat. He was an older gentleman, wearing tattered clothes that a homeless man might wear. He had a baseball cap with what I had thought was a handkerchief underneath the cap to cover his neck like farm workers often wear to protect their skin. I was okay until I turned my focus to the pastor who was starting to preach and noticed the scarf on his neck wasn't a scarf. It had a waist band and was fully visible on the side of his head. Realizing the scarf was boxer shorts, made me uncomfortable like I was seeing someone in their underwear. I didn't know where to look, because if I looked at the pastor, the underwear on his head that were in my line of sight. So, I tried to keep my vision on the large screens so I could focus on hearing the sermon, not the neck covering. When the sermon ended, much to my delight, the man sang the closing songs much like our Travis would. Loud, passionately, with lots of hand motions that accented the words of the song perfectly, and his voice cracking as he sang about Jesus calling him friend caused my eyes to leak a bit. 

As I think about these two men James 2:1-6 comes to mind, "My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, "You sit here in a good place," while you say to the poor man, "You stand over there," or "Sit down at my feet," have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and Heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love Him?" If Travis's and the gentleman's passionate worship and exuberant responses to the sermons is any indication of their faith, then they are both men who are way richer in faith than me! 

I am hoping God will continue to bring more people like Travis and the stranger who took his sit for that one mourning. They will challenge us in good ways to love those who don't look, or sound like us. It will teach us to appreciate passion that causes some to listen loud, sing passionately, and dance big, and vocalize amens in a lot of different forms. This will free us to give the gospel to people who don't look like our churches look. I believe God is moving in our big church and I want to be someone who grows as a result of His movement. I hope our church becomes more and more messy as a result of God's movement because it is the messy churches that are growing churches. 

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Several years ago I realized that I often sped through my Scripture reading and gave it little thought. Yet, when I had meaningful conversations with friends or family members I replayed them over and over in my head. One day it occurred to me, that if I thought more about what God says in his word that I would not only know more about Him, but I would come to know Him in a personal way. I would know more about His thoughts, His character, His intentions, His passions, and His actions. So, I began to take one verse at a time and think on it and then journal about it. At the time I was served as a volunteer in youth ministry and shared my “Thoughts on God” with those girls. For a while I have been rewriting and posting them on this blog. I have realized when I am in the Word or move through my day focusing on God's presence that I have wonderful opportunities to Meet God in the Everyday. The Everyday can include storms, blessings, hard things, scary things, exciting things...just any where, anyplace, any time. I hope that you will be able to engage with what I write with both your head and your heart. I also hope you will be challenged to love, trust, and know the God of the Scriptures. It is my prayer that as you read you will experience Him at a deeper level and share pieces of your journey in the comments. It is my desire that we form a safe community of believers who pursue the God who loves us radically, eternally, and without reserve. As a precious pastor once told me, "Don't forget, Wendy, God is Good!" I find myself compelled by His Goodness and His Love to share so others can know Him through all the ups and downs of life. Please feel free to dialogue back and to share how each passage impacts you. If if there is a passage you would like me to write on or if you would like to be a guest blogger, please let me know. I am just learning to navigate this blog and appreciate the kind comments you have made in the past...I promise I will even try to respond if you leave a note. If you are blessed please share the blog with friends!