A Church Without Walls

                                                                                                                                                          (This is first in a series of 10 posts on reaching city kids.)Jesus University Dancers

Lots of city churches are dying. I know, I travel with a Christian theater company, and over the years I’ve seen many mainline churches in city neighborhoods getting smaller and smaller, older and older. These churches are full of loving, devout Christians, who puzzle over how to welcome young people.

I’m no expert on church growth or evangelism or youth ministry, but there are some things we’re doing at our church that have given children and adolescents some wonderful experiences of God’s love and power. So, in the next ten posts I’ll share some things we’re doing at College Hill Presbyterian Church in Cincinnati.

Go Where the Need Is

At the risk of stating the obvious, going to church is no longer mainstream. “Beyond our Walls” is a phrase that’s worked itself into many of our church’s documents, and into many of our hearts. We know that most people are only going to come to our church, after they have gotten to know us and trust us in some other place. So we go to the local school and tutor kids, we have a big party for the neighborhood in our parking lot with free music and food, we get into partnerships with food banks and homeless shelters and global missions. Several families have taken in foster kids.

Welcome People in Different Ways

Then we make sure there are different events at the church that make us a welcoming community. Not everyone feels safe or interested in a worship service, so we have meals together, we have game nights, we have youth groups and kids groups that do Bible study in fun and challenging ways, we provide homeless people with temporary shelter. We have a writer’s group, as well as a dance group and choir for children in a school district that struggles to fund the arts. We have a cooperative pre-school in our building. Our pastor, Drew Smith, runs a discussion group where people talk about race problems in a safe, respectful setting. We try to be accessible and very welcoming to the people who do walk through our doors.

During every worship service, we welcome visitors and invite them to a welcome table to talk after the service. After every service we offer to pray with people who need it. We have a good digital check-in system so people know their kids are safe, and greeters at each of our doors. We provide free snacks and drinks on Sunday morning, which draws people from group homes near the church, and some neignborhood kids who come without their parents. We’ve had to set some rules for the kids, (requiring them to attend Sunday School or services rather than just rattling around the building,) but always with love.

At one of our prayer meetings, we often pray that people will feel the love, peace and power of God as soon as they walk in. But we know that a lot of people are not going to walk in, until we go where they are, demonstrating God’s love, peace and power in how we relate to them.

We Raised our Kids in Church (10 Things I’m Glad we did for our Kids, Part IV)

chpc exteriorWhen our first baby was three months old, we moved around the corner from our church. That big stone building with its bell tower crowning the hilltop has been our rock, our main institution.

School involvement comes and goes. Jobs end. Kids age out of sports leagues and bands. All those relationships connected to those things fade, but church goes on, because no one outgrows their deep need for God.

I can’t begin to describe how our church has enriched the lives of our family.

As a person who grew up without the church, it was a constant surprise to me to discover people ready to pour out their time, talent and love on my kids. It began as soon as they were born. We had three babies in 20 months – mathematically impossible unless you have premature twins before your toddler turns two!  In the crazy days following the twins’ homecoming, people from the church whom we barely knew were cleaning the house, bringing us meals, even doing our laundry.

That was just the beginning. There was a nursery where we could leave them all safe in the arms of one-on-one caregivers while we sank exhausted into a pew and enjoyed the stillness of undisturbed worship.

As our babies grew, church became their comfortable second home. That was where they had big rooms to run around, cool toys to play with, crowds to charm.  They were introduced to good music.  I recall taking my one-year-old to his first concert.  We wondered if he was old enough to behave, and were delighted when he sat attentive through song after song.  Then, during the first break in the music, he pulled his thumb out of his mouth and shouted, “More songs!”

For children as young as three, there were age-appropriate worship experiences in their Sunday School classes. They used to love when their teacher rang a triangle, one on each side, three times while they all said, “Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” There was also a cooperative preschool which stressed the development of the whole child and required parents to help in the classroom. I learned volumes about patience and the value of structure from those gentle teachers.

During the grade school years, every season offered something to look forward to at church, from the joys of summer camps to the wonder of candle-lit Christmas services.  On Palm Sunday they danced down the aisles with palm branches, and in August there was a block party where the whole neighborhood showed up for free food, music and face painting.

The milestones of their growth were marked with careful ceremonies – baptism, the presentation of Bibles at the beginning of fourth grade, the transition from children’s ministry to youth group after grade six, with its whole new world of wild games and pool parties and mission trips.

In the demanding high school years, church was a refuge for our boys, where they knew they were loved apart from their performance. Small discipleship groups grounded them in truth and gave them structure for practicing their faith after leaving home.

No one but God knows how many dozens of people have loved our kids, how many beautiful images connected with God are wired into the structure of their brains, how much truth has taken root in their hearts.

I have not always felt like getting my kids up and ready for church, but every time, I’ve been glad I did. It took the whole village to get them where they are, and as adults, I know they will need it just as much.

The Best Way to Save the World (Why Even Go To Church Part X)

This is the last post in the “Why Even Go to Church” series. In a culture where church attendance has fallen below 20% in any given week, it seemed to me that it could be helpful to review why going to church is central to following Christ. If we’re Christian, it’s a list of reasons we can tell  children, or recite to ourselves on Sunday mornings when we did something dumb till three in the morning. If we’re not Christian, this series has addressed why checking out a church could still be a good idea.

Before a review, I’ll cover the tenth reason : Going to church is the best way to save the world. If you go see “Deadpool”, or ”Batman v. Superman,” it would be easy to think that the best way to save the world is to beat the crap out of your enemies while wearing a stretchy costume. If you listened to campaigning presidential hopefuls you would believe that getting behind one really arrogant candidate is our only hope.

Clearly, people suck at saving the world. Here’s how God saves the world: he comes down to our level, lives with us, dies for us, comes back to life (really, not like video games) and breathes his Spirit into everyone who believes in Him. Then, filled with the Spirit of Jesus, we get together and do what he did.

The New Testament makes it really clear that the church on earth is the body of Christ – God’s means of getting it done. We commit to life together in communities called churches and we worship, preach, heal, baptize, serve, teach, and disciple more people into the life of Jesus. We function in his power, not ours. We work for God’s good kingdom, not our own. We’re all in it together with different giftings. We all matter but there is no room for show ponies. Arrogance and stetchy costumes are not necessary.

So, here’s our review of why we go to church (even when it’s snowing, even when we’re sick of people, even when we feel like binging on Netflix):

  1. We only know what we know together – we can’t live out our beliefs without social reinforcement.
  2. You can’t love people you never see – showing up is the first step to being part of a community of love.
  3. We desperately need a weekly dose of beauty to soothe, heal and renew us.
  4. Church is a giant baromenter for sins; nothing brings clarity and conviction faster than attending a worship service.
  5. Church attendance is good for our mental and physical health; many studies bear this out.
  6. Church is a place for unbelievers to check out Christians and ask questions; we should be there for that.
  7. Church is where we sing together and singing together is empowering and healing.
  8. Church is where we have communion, the ritual that centers us in Jesus.
  9. Church is the centerpiece of the Sabbath, that essential day of rest that lets us reboot.
  10. Church is God’s primary institution for saving the world.

Thank God there are all kinds of churches, from Gothic Cathedrals to bars rented on Sunday nights.  All kinds for all kinds of people. If you don’t go to one, it would be good to ask God to show you where you fit. I did that when I was sixteen and found a sweet group of people meeting in a rented hall a half mile from my house.

So, see you in church!

 

 

The Sabbath Reboot (Why Even Go To Church Part IX)

I used to feel utterly trapped by life until I got the hang of Sabbath. It’s not just a day off; it’s a different zone.

Shabbat Shalom by Lavott

Pastor and Author, Lynne Baab, learned the rythms of the Sabbath in the middle east, and brought them back to our crazed, work-idolizing culture. In “Sabbath Keeping,” she writes, “We need to refocus. Our rapid pace of life bears too much resemblance to a treadmill: constant activity that goes nowhere. We need to explore our motivations and goals. A day each week with built in reflection time goes a long way toward reclaiming our sense of direction…the more we practice it, the greater a privilege it becomes, the more essential it feels…”

Going to church is part of this rhythm; doing something that is all about God and nothing about our advancement is the first step in a weekly reboot that renews us. “Reboot” is defined as the process of shutting down and restarting a computer, for the purpose of discovering errors and reinitializing drivers and devices. Whenever I get into tech trouble and ask my husband, the IT guy, for help, he asks me if I’ve tried rebooting the computer. I would argue that humans need a reboot every week to prevent and fix our many malfunctions. It is, after all, built into the creation process, and included in the first set of instructions God gave people.

So why go to church on the Sabbath? Why not just stay in bed and eat cold pop tarts? Apparently the Sabbath only does its magic when we keep it ‘holy’, that is, separate in order to draw near to God. Church is enormously helpful with this. It does at least three things to help us with the reboot we so desperately need.

First, it gives us rest. I was never more aware of the restorative powers of a church service than when I had three little kids. I would check them into the church nursery, and stride, arms free, into church. I would sit in one place, uninterrupted, for over an hour, reveling in the quiet relief of not being needed. Years later, it is still good to sit down for a rest, if only from my own self-focus.

Second, it helps to ground us in gratitude. Whole books have been written on the power of gratitude. The practice of singing praise and worship songs gets us off ourselves and into a posture of thankfulness to God for all things good and true. So, all week long I’m thinking about what needs to be cleaned and organized in my house and yard, but on Sunday, I sit in a comfy chair and thank God that I have a house with furniture and a yard with flowers. I just enjoy them, and realize what a huge gift they are.

Third, a church service helps us to take in energy. Many of us spend most of our lives pouring out energy, in jobs, in caregiving, in maintaining our stuff. In a church service, we’re on the receiving end of truth and beauty and inspiration. (If not, find another church.) We need that so much. It renews us to a point where we can spend the rest of the Sabbath well. It gives us a beginning for reflection, for prayer, for further study.

Ironically, I think I’m more productive in these years since I’ve kept a Sabbath. Every week there is new insight, new energy, new faith and new love. And I always know that in six days or less, I can reboot again!

So We Don’t Forget (Why Even Go to Church Part VIII)

At a last meal with his followers, before Jesus let himself get killed, he gave some final instructions: Love each other, serve each other, pray together, abide in Him, and eat and drink together in remembrance of him. You could argue that the first four instructions don’t need any organized religion, but the last one kind of does. We need to be organized enough, at least, to do this eating and drinking ritual.

File:Sandro Botticelli - The Last Communion of St Jerome (detail) - WGA2834.jpgSo, the eighth reason to go to church in this series of ten, is that we need to get together to eat bread and drink wine (or something close) to remember Jesus.

Rituals drive truth deep into our beings, so Jesus gave us a ritual to repeat till his return, to ground us in the transforming truth that he died for us. He said the bread was his body, the wine his blood (Matthew 26:26-28.) He was taking all our brokenness and evil upon himself and dying to show that God not only hates what is wrong, he also takes the rap for it. (1 Peter 2:24.)

When we take in that truth (eat it and drink it) we let God save us.

That’s why we have those little chunks of bread (or wafers) in church. We’re buying in to the death and resurrection of Jesus. We’re staking our lives on the reality that these things really happened.

It must be something God takes pretty seriously because Paul pointed out in 1 Corinthians that the reason they were experiencing illness and early death was that they were abusing the ritual. They were using the time to pig out and be socially exclusive. Our culture doesn’t do that with communion, but some of us do gut the power of it by just going through the motions. Maybe we’re looking at what people are wearing as they file past us, or planning our pizza toppings for lunch. I’ve done that.

1 Corinthians 11:27-30 makes it clear that this doesn’t fly.  So people who don’t yet believe in Jesus should not feel any pressure to eat or drink during communion. Just relax and observe. Those of us who do believe – let’s show up, focus and really enter in to what those little bits of bread and juice stand for. It’s the last thing he asked us to do before he died.

 

Why Singing in Church is so Cool (Why Even Go to Church Part VII)

 

downloadI’ve noticed for a long time now that I feel a lot better after the first ten or fifteen minutes in church, when we sing several songs in a row. Sometimes they are new praise songs I really like or hymns with solid lyrics, musically updated by our band. Other times they are songs I don’t like, (too saccharin or simple for my taste, say.) But even then, as long as I commit to singing them, I feel better. I feel a little happier, more clear headed, more in touch with God, more focused on what is true and less inclined to have my mind wander in dumb selfish directions.

I used to wonder why the Bible actually commands us to sing. It does so over thirty times, such as in Colossians 3:16, where it says to “…sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God,”  or in Ephesians 5:19, which adds, “Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord.”

Now I get it. When we sing, there’s a head-heart connection. Something about the physical  commitment of breathing deeply and employing the vocal chords, plus the pleasure of making melody and harmony, drives the true words we’re singing down into our hearts, and we believe them more deeply.

Author of “Imperfect Harmony – Finding Happiness in Singing with Others,” Stacy Horn, wrote, “When you sing, musical vibrations move through you, altering your physical and emotional landscape. Group singing, for those who have done it, is the most exhilarating and transformative of all. It takes something incredibly intimate, a sound that begins inside you, shares it with a roomful of people and it comes back as something even more thrilling: harmony.”

There’s actually a rise in the popularity of group singing in the last few years, and a growing body of research that it is super good for us. The findings include:

  • Singing causes the release of endorphins in the brain, which results in increased positive feelings and increased pain tolerance. ( National Center for Biotechnology Information.)
  • Another study from the same source found that oxytocin is also released when we sing, a hormone that reduces anxiety, promoting a sense of relaxation and security, plus increased energy.
  • Singing in groups lessens loneliness and depression by contributing to social bonds, according  to an analysis of a group of studies, published by the American Psychological Association.
  • A Harvard/Yale study demonstrated that group singing increased life expectancy in the population of New Haven, Connecticut.
  • Singing over time produced lowering levels of cortisol (which indicates stress reduction and improved mood) in another NCBI study of an amateur singing group.

Add to all these benefits the reality that when we sing scriptural songs that praise God or otherwise proclaim truth, we’re doing everything for each other that good preaching or poetry does – admonishing, affirming, convincing, convicting, directing, delighting, instructing, informing, reminding, recentering – we do all those things for each other when we sing together.

Lots of people, even the ones who do come to church, don’t sing. I notice this especially with young guys. Maybe this performance-oriented culture makes us more self-conscious. Maybe all those gushy lyrics and swelling tunes are too emotional for the stoic. Many churches do not have enough music chosen by young people.

Nevertheless, we’re commanded to sing, and wonderful things happen in and between us when we sing. So really, let’s all just suck it up and sing together in church.

Why Doubters and Atheists Should Come to Church (Why Even Go to Church Part VI)

I knew a woman who spent years in the New Age movement, getting deeper and deeper into occult practices. It had started as a spiritual adventure and ended as a nightmare, leaving her desperate to find the truth about God. She told me once that as soon as she walked into our church’s service, she could feel God there and knew that she would keep coming. Through some spiritual process that was hard to explain, she knew she was home.

The most intelligent of my classmates in high school, an eloquent and convincing atheist, arrived at school one Monday morning with an uncharacteristic smile on her face. She announced to me that she had become a Christian.  I asked her what brought it about. She said she had attended a performance of Handel’s “Messiah.” At the beginning of the song she was an atheist, by the end, she was a Christian. All my labored apologetics had yielded no apparent change, but something about people singing worship music had reached her.

I remember the first few times I was among people in a worship service (dragged along to camp by a friend in school.) As I watched this roomful of kids singing and praying, I sensed that something real and profound was going on. I didn’t get it, but I wanted to. I sensed that I was missing out on something really important. Seeing worship was not enough to make a believer out of me, but it was the beginning of a very close watch on the Christian community, and the asking of a lot of questions.

Because of experiences like these, I think anyone seeking truth or longing for a connection with God should come to good church services. Obviously, people are not going to worship until after they believe, but often in the process of listening to songs, prayers and sermons, powerful things happen in our souls. Obviously I have blatantly evangelistic motives, but before dismissing Christianity, it only makes sense to be sure you’re not just going along with the culture. (Christianity, as most of us know, is just not a thing right now in the U.S.)

Ed Stetzer, a writer in missiology and church growth, tweeted this last year: “One of the most effective evangelistic methods a church can use is exposing the unchurched to the authentic worship of God.”

I would argue that people who aren’t Christians should try out some good worship services to be thorough in their exploration of what life has to offer, and people who are Christians should show up weekly, if only to be on the lookout for some people  who might have questions. That is, after all, our commission.

 

Exercise, Eat Your Veggies and Go to Church (Why Even Go to Church Part V)

Think of it as free health care. Who would guess that church attendance is good for both mental and physical health? Not running around the perimeter of a church, not climbing its tower – just regularly going to worship services, has shown itself in a whole body of research, to be really good for us.

New York Times writImage result for running to churcher T. H. Luhrmann, an anthropologist, describes studies connecting church attendance with increased immune response and decreased blood pressure. Peter Haas, author of Pharisectomy, cites studies tying church attendance to lowered risk of depression, higher goal achievement, higher grades and completion of degrees, and longer life expectancy.

In one depression study, psychologists Rita Law and David Sbarra, studied the relationship between church attendance and mood disorders in older people, and found that church attendance protected this population from the development of depression. The study even corrected statistically for physical health and social support, since these are known to impact depression, and they still found significantly lower rates among the church attenders.

Going to church also correlated to lowered smoking and drinking rates, more physical exercise and more stable marriages, in a 30year study of 2,600 people. The study also demonstrated that religious groups did not just attract people who already behaved in healthy ways; they helped create these behaviors.

I didn’t need to know about any of these studies to know that attending my church, has been good for my own health and that of others. College Hill Presbyterian in Cincinnati has had a powerful healing ministry for decades, and prayer is offered both during and after services. We have seen partial blindness disappear (the lady could read again), cancer tumors disappear, and an eating disorder loosen its grip, just to name a few.

In longer sessions with volunteer counselors, I have been substantially (not completely, alas) healed of depression. Less dramatic but just as important, I have observed that spending year after year in a community where people love and respect me has empowered me to make steady improvements in everything from diet and exercise to the capacity to forgive.  (I guess you could argue that I’d figure stuff out as I got older anyway, but you would be underestimating my former enslavement to self-destructive people, negative thinking, and chocolate.)

Many behavior studies are correlative; we observe that church attendance leads to better health but we don’t necessarily find out why. Social scientists theorize that it is the social support in churches that improves health, or the peer encouragement away from addictive behaviors and towards responsible, faithful action that does the trick. That only makes sense, but I would also point to the promise in James 5:16  that if we pray for each other we will be healed, and in 1 John 1:9 that if we confess our sins, we will be forgiven, and in Isaiah 40:31 that those who wait upon the Lord will renew their strength.

Good church services give us the space and help we need to pray for one another’s healing, to confess our sins, to wait on God. I have observed over and over that during the week after I have had to skip church, I am more tired and emotionally discouraged by Thursday night than during weeks when I go. It’s not that God abandons me if I bag church, but I have missed out on the joy and centering and renewal that come from gathering with people who are seeking God. Going to church literally gives me strength for the week ahead. Apparently, it’s good for my health in many other ways too.

A Giant Barometer of Sin (Why Even Go to Church Part IV)

Here’s why I don’t always want to go to church: There is no experience that will more accurately diagnose the spiritual illness I would rather deny, than living through a worship service.

Church is a giant barometer of sin. A friend of mine who sang in a church choir told me that during the time in his life when he was spending Saturday nights in gay bars, the only way he could walk into church was to pretend to be a completely different person. He couldn’t reconcile what he’d done the night before with what he was singing in the morning, so he tried to keep his life carefully split. This tension was not something he could keep living with; eventually he gave his whole life to God and stopped the promiscuous behavior. He could no longer hack the craziness of not being integrated.

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Going to church is one of the ways I stay integrated and a lot less crazy than I would otherwise be
. The weekly discipline of gathering with a big group of believers and focusing on God invariably shows me how I need to repent. A few personal examples:

  • After a week when I have over-committed and overworked, I walk into church and see a needy person who usually wants to talk longer than I want to listen. I have a powerful impulse to hide. As I duck into the ladies’ room, it’s pretty clear to me that I am running on empty and no good to anyone until I take time to be alone with God.
  • During the time of confession, the worship leader asks God for forgiveness for “all that we have done and left undone.” Immediately I remember something I promised to do for one of my kids over two weeks ago. I realize I remembered to do what was important to me, but forgot what was important to him.
  • During the sermon, the pastor reads from Matthew 7 about removing the log from your own eye before taking a speck out of your brother’s. I become aware that I am actually thinking resentful, judgmental thoughts about the person sitting next to me as the sermon is being preached. Oh the irony.
  • As I listen to a song during the offering, I find myself rating its production values, and am forced to admit that I am choosing criticism over worship.

By the time I leave the service, it is more than clear to me where I need forgiveness and change. If I’d stayed home and made French toast instead of going to church, it would have been easier to believe myself a pretty good person.

When I’m at church I especially need  to ask myself the following:

  • Do I feel superior to someone? (That’s the sin of pride.)
  •  Am I easily irritated? (That’s intolerance.)
  • Am I anxious among this crowd? (I’m probably over-focused on my own performance and what people think of me.)
  • Am I overwhelmed by people’s needs? (This points to a weakness of faith.)

Everyone will have their own custom list of sins to watch out for, generally in the areas of pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath or sloth. Digging up our sins is no fun, but it shows us our need for God, and when we go to God he heals us and sets us free.

There is nothing like gathering with a bunch of people whose company we haven’t chosen, to worship a God who sees right through us – to clarify our sins for us. We can’t grow without it.

A Weekly Dose of Beauty (Why Even Go to Church Part III)

So far, I’ve made a case for showing up at church to be grounded in truth and involved in a community of love. Now I want to plug our desperate need for a weekly dose of beauty.7190209497_49c2cdc6d3_o

Clearly God values beauty, what with the creation of sunsets, flowers, waterfalls, people from LA. The first thing God told his people to do after he rescued them from slavery was to build a place for worship,  to use their most precious stuff for it and employ their best artists to make it. All its architecture and objects were their visual reminders of the law and character of God, skillfully made with gold, silver, precious stones and fine fabric. The tabernacle was beautiful.

Just as clearly, it is in us to seek beauty. In “Beauty Pays, ” economist D.S. Hamermesh demonstrates that beautiful people are more likely to be employed and are better paid. Even against logic, we gravitate to beauty. It soothes us, delights us, renews us, gives us hope.

Christian communities have always valued beauty, making their buildings and worship events as lovely as they could manage. Gothic architecture points us to heaven. Stained glass hints at a glory beyond the glowing panes. Modern churches may be stark in design, but they shoot for beauty with their music production and their screen work.

Some churches are ugly, but not many, and never intentionally. Traveling with a Christian theater company takes me to a lot of churches, and even in the simple ones, people bring flowers, hang pictures and practice their music to make it flow. In preparing something beautiful for God, we do Him honor, but then, as so often happens with God, our giving ends up blessing us and we find ourselves nourished  by the beauty we soak in as we worship.

It may be a song’s haunting chord progression, a few seconds of riveting movement in a dance, a few eloquent sentences, or an awesome movie clip – but sometimes, one sublime moment in worship can stir us to a new level of faith, or hope, or love.

Life can be so harsh. Some of us work in tough, ugly places all week. Most of us are bombarded with the media’s disturbing sounds and images. One of the important ways we can care for ourselves is to soak in the music, art, poetry, drama and crafted speech that we experience in church.

Beauty is the physical demonstration of God’s goodness. Where evil prevails, places get ugly. Part of the horror of concentration camps, battlefields and crack houses is that all beauty has been destroyed. Where God rules, beauty takes hold.

We need to get together to celebrate the beauty of our God, and be renewed by it.

(Next in this series, “A Giant Barometer of Sins.”)