Week 36: Church Encounter
Let me share a story.
Hearing a loud knock, a priest jumped out of his lounge chair and made his way to the door. Standing in front of him was a young woman, two ragged-looking kids in tow. “May I help you?” he asked. “Yes,” the mother answered. “I’m down on my luck. I need money for groceries.” The priest took a step back, closing the door just a smidge. “This isn’t how it’s done,” he said. “Aren’t you on welfare? Have you been to the soup kitchens? Maybe they can help you.” Her tired eyes locked on his. She stood mute for a long time. Finally, she said:
“Are you going to lecture me or help me?”
The priest who answered the door that day was Father Arnold Weber. During the years our kids were growing up, he was our beloved pastor at Holy Name of Jesus Church in Medina, MN. From the pulpit, he often spoke of that day– how it changed him– how it turned upside down his entire notion of “church”. In the fragile, fleeting space between that mother’s call for help and his own response, Fr. Weber discovered the real church. From that day on he pastored from a fresh perspective– one that was more love- and service-centered.
The real church is not a building. It’s not an organization, nor a business (though any individual church must deal with organizational and business issues). It’s not just doctrine– not just a set of rules. It’s not just a parish, nor even a denomination (such as Catholic or Lutheran or Pentecostal or Presbyterian). The real church is the body of Christ– continuously reaching out to church-goers and non-church-goers, the young and the old, Evangelical and Catholic, sinners and saints (we all tend to be one or the other on any given day), the confused and the alienated, the ashamed and the haughty, the caught-up, the just-getting-by and the utterly-disconnected– all in need of God; none beyond the reach of His love. The real church exists to bring people back to Him. To open our whole hearts to Him. To create an interconnected and joy-filled Christian community centered in Him . To lovingly serve in the world for Him. The real church appeals to that yearning in all of us for the divine, for authentic fellowship, for accountability, for purpose, for love. And the Holy Spirit lives within it.
In this time of change, Christianity needs leaders who will make our churches more real. This requires renewal in two domains:
- Its heart
- Its fringes
What is the heart of the Christian church?
Love. That’s the heart of the church. Jesus’ entire life was expressed in love. Father Arnold was such a good pastor because he lived, spoke about and guided us towards God’s love. As I have said many times in this Rising Leader Series, everything and everyone is connected– with God interwoven. God is love; he seeks for us to be love-immersed– to be with Him and in Him. And as much as He delights in our private prayers, He also calls us into community– to become members of a church. As Jesus said, “Where two are more are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst…” (Matthew 18: 19–20) Lay ministers, the clergy, you and me– we are all the church. Each of us, in our own way, is called to live and share the love of God.
Whenever we get too caught up in our hierarchy and dogma detail and rituals and purity tests, we begin to lose this essence. As we preach church doctrine, let us never forget that the heart of the church is love.
What is the mission of the church at its fringes?
At the fringes, the mission of the church is to serve and to welcome. This is the call of every Christian. An inward-facing, rigid, doctrine-obsessed church is of no help to God. He calls His church to step out and descend, as Jesus did, into the world– to find the lost, to heal the wounded, to support the widow and the orphan. “They Will Know We are Christians by our Love” is a beautiful song, and its title says it all.
The outward-reaching church, as it works on the fringes, is sure to encounter souls ready to receive a “come-join-me-at-church” invitation. There is sacred fragility in this moment; how we extend our invitation matters. If we lecture, her heart might close again. We might lose touch forever. But if we offer our invitation with a warm smile, she might take that first step. Once inside the church, if we sit together, if the message from the pulpit is welcoming, if brokenness and woundedness are acknowledged as part of our human condition, if she senses hospitality and love and support, then she might show up again the next Sunday– and the next. By such small steps a soul comes to know God.
Of course, our soul work is never done. Like free-range chickens, we humans tend to wander away from God’s love. Suddenly we look up and realize we are in danger. The job of the church is to continuously reach out and welcome us back from wherever we have wandered. The real church reminds us of our original goodness. It alerts us to our disconnectedness. It helps us encounter God in prayer and in each other. It leads us towards repentance and God’s grace. It helps us accept God’s forgiveness (so we can forgive ourselves). It draws us deeper into church community. It guides each of us towards our own unique call. And it challenges us to go into the world and follow it with love.
It may seem that the tide of Christian followership– especially in first world nations– is fast receding, with Gen Z and millennials most caught in the rip curl. It is true: church attendance is in decline. But beyond the frenzy of modern life, behind the false masks of our caught-up egos, the soul’s hunger remains. And God’s table of plenty awaits, just inside the doors of His church. God calls out for leaders capable of opening the doors and meeting this hunger with the truth of His love and call. As with all of humanity’s greatest problems, it comes down to a problem of leadership. Will you be the change our churches need?
Come, good Christian disciple. Your church needs you. Spark a fresh new movement of the faith: a movement grounded in compassion and guided by the Holy Spirit. A movement working at both the heart and the fringes of the church. Come lead with a smile; lead with authenticity and humility. A young woman stands before you: she struggles to feed her children, to find hope and to discover meaning in the midst of suffering. As she stands there, she poses one simple question to you, and to the entire Christian church– on behalf of billions like her all around the world who hover at the fringes of the faith:
“Will you lecture me or will you help me?”
“And He said to him, ‘You shall love your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Upon these two commandments hang the whole Law and the Prophets.’” — Matthew 22: 37–40
Next week, we will explore Christian discipleship. Our church needs disciples to lead it. Come to the table, you who are heavy laden, and find rest beside us. For together we are the body of Christ!
Yours in body and Spirit,
P.S.: An adult life of faith begins with an invitation. This poem is about that.
An irritating neighbor called out “Welcome!”
As I ran out my brand new home one day
Handed me a pie-well-dressed, called key lime
I tight-smile grabbed it, then went on my way
She knocked again on Saturday, that Laurie
So in the morning sun we sipped some tea
She opened up and shared some of her story
But she got precious-little out of me
Next week, arms-on-fence, she offered greeting
As I was digging in the garden by the birch
I felt a shock-of-warmth come up so fleeting
That lingered-warm when said, “come to my church”
Surprise! I found such smiling people there…
Don’t know why tears fled my eyes during prayer
Previous Week’s Letters: