Years ago I hung out at a bar called the Veritable Quandary. I only went there with the guys I hung out with, and it was never with good intentions. The name always haunted me. One part of me wanted to be a normal, fun, outgoing, party animal. The other part of my knew this life I was choosing wasn't working and would not be sustainable. That was the quandary.
I face a similar quandary today. It’s on the opposite end of the spectrum. I walked away from the partying lifestyle several decades ago and now I seek to walk a mindful path of spiritual growth and enlightenment as a follower of Jesus. However, I feel held back in this endeavor by my community of faith.
Now this could easily be taken as an excuse, and of course I don’t mean it that way. It’s just that I’m a broken and wounded warrior who isn’t finding community in The Church, and I don’t have the energy to start something on my own.
I long for a church community that is real, experiential, authentic, truly loving, dynamic, and growing. Instead, it seems, I keep finding milquetoast mediocrity. I don’t need, or want, small talk, feel-good preaching, or do-nothing activities. When I attend weekly church services, I leave feeling discouraged and alone.
I believe in the theology and stated doctrines of my church. It’s the social dynamic I believe is broken. When our denomination formed, 170 years ago, there was talk of Present Truth. This truth which they spoke, was centered on prophecy, Jesus’ soon return, and new doctrine — namely the seventh-day Sabbath. I don’t believe those truths have lost their relevance, but maybe there is more to discover. Is it possible we have new truths to uncover and explore? What is Present Truth for our current culture?
A few years ago if you'd asked me this question, I would have said it was authentic worship. And when I talk about worship, I don’t believe it is a stylistic thing. Authenticity comes from the overflow of a life lived with God. And while I believe there is still a great need for this, and it is one thing my heart longs for, I’m not sure this is the greater truth our churches lack.
While there are several needs lacking in today’s Church, and one could wax eloquently about all of them, I really don’t want to chase all those rabbits. Of course we need to be more focused on Jesus, spend more time in prayer, service, and Bible study — those have always been sorely needed within our faith communities. The spiritual disciplines — doing what Jesus (and other great people of faith) did, is truly our path to being like Jesus.
But the one area I now see truly missing from our churches is community. And this is word I fail at explaining to those with a traditional mindset. Community can mean so many different things. It can refer to the geographic region where we live and even the neighbors we see on a regular basis. Community can refer to our city, county, or general metro region — in other words, the government entity in which we reside — which could also include our neighborhood and general neighbors.
We refer to our churches and clubs as communities. In this usage, the definition is similar to how we refer to our neighbors. Often, our church community is an association of like-minded people with whom we have a friendly and safe friendship. Maybe we've known these folks for years, decades, or generations. It’s possible we grew up with them, know their parents and grandparents, and we share a lot of common acquaintances. There is safety in this sort of community. There is a certain accountability and we know these folks would support us if tragedy struck.
However, the type of community I’m craving goes deeper than this and it is difficult to explain unless you've experienced it. Often when churches and clubs and neighbors have a long and shared history, they can also have a deeper, more intimate friendship which cannot be manufactured. It is a real and authentic intimacy that goes to the heart of all things experiential. Unfortunately we often pretend we have this when we don’t.
True intimacy and true community are hard to find. Mere association doesn’t do it. Shared experiences help. But it has to involve transparency, vulnerability, humility, and an unflinching love. Mostly what we find in our churches is a kind of familiarity that is safe from depth or controversy. This kind of safe acquaintance, keeps us from offending others, or being offended. But frankly, I find this offensive. It’s unreal, lacks depth, and is simply too distant for any meaningful relationship to flourish.
At one church I pastored, the people referred to themselves as a friendly church. The core of the church was made up of three families who had co-existed for at least two generations. In addition, there were a few other families who had been attending for a few years. As long as everyone “obeyed” the head elder, everything went well. He was the alpha-male patriarch who set the tone and standard for the community. But if someone didn't measure up, or they had new ideas, there would be discord. Within the three immediate families, there was a friendliness that one will often see in extended family gatherings. However, those of us outside of that circle — including visitors and newbies — didn't always feel the love and acceptance.
It wasn't until several years later, while pastoring a slightly larger, but still traditional church, that I discovered the hidden dynamics behind this lack of acceptance. The church I mentioned above is known as a single-cell church. My last church was a medium, or multi-cell church. In other words, several social circles co-existed within the larger community. They too self-referenced as a “friendly” church, but they didn't have the vantage of being the newbies, like us. In fact, one family told us they'd been attending there for eight years and they were still treated like new people. After eight years, they were still not integrated into one of the cells, or even the larger community.
Looking around that church, I saw many families in the same context. Many easily fit into their own social cell, some passed between the cells, and still others integrated well enough because they had been attending for decades. But newcomers, visitors, and even relatively new families were still only accorded kindness and casual friendliness. True love, acceptance, and intimacy remained elusive for them.
A church leader friend and mentor helped me understand this even better. She talked about how most people don’t have room in their lives for more friends. She said, “their Lego is full.” In other words, each of us only have so many pegs where we can plug in other friendships. Some of us are four pegged Legos, some eight, and some more; but when our Lego is full, it’s full. Most of us seek to fill the holes in our life with friendships, stuff, and activities. Once those holes are filled, we see our lives as complete. If we have enough friendships, stuff, and activities, we won't be lonely, poor, or bored.
Interestingly, Jesus never asked us to do those things. He asked us to be broken for the sake of others. To make room for the least of these, to not acquire stuff, and to fill our time with service for others. This is very counterintuitive and counter-cultural.
There was a time when I’ve asked people to voluntarily make room in their lives for newcomers and visitors. We’d instruct our greeters to not congregate with each other, but to be available to everyone that walks in the door. We also asked people to be ready to include new people into their lives. As one could imagine, this was an uphill challenge and very difficult for people to do. I can now see that asking people to voluntarily create holes in their lives is like asking them to revert back to an uncompleted part of their lives. Basically, I was asking them to create loneliness, emptiness, and boredom. Who would want to do that?
We spend most of our lives trying to fill the loneliness, acquire material possessions and comfort, and to satiate the boredom. Why would we voluntarily revert back to a time when these holes were unfilled? It would take great inner security for anyone to attempt this, let alone have any desire to do so. People don’t walk away from careers, comfort, or friendships. It’s just not done.
Unless, we are willing to be broken for the sake of others…
We, as followers of Christ, are asked to love the Lord with all our heart, mind, and soul. In addition, we are asked to love others like we love ourselves. I do not believe these are mutually exclusive requests. For I do not believe we can truly love the Lord unless we love His children, and we can’t really love His children unless we have the security of His love.
If someone tells me they love me, but they don’t treat my children with respect, tenderness, and attention, I’m likely to doubt their love for me. On the same vein, if someone says they love the Lord, but they don’t show love, compassion, and unselfish attention to the least of His children, I’m going to doubt their words.
This cannot be accomplished on our own, it has to come from a deep seated desire, a real brokenness, and a full surrender to leading of Christ. And then, I come back to the mirror and wonder, and I there? Have I surrendered?
This is the quandary. How do we get there? How can I get there?