Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Cure for the Common Church

I don’t really like church. I never have. Ironically, I’m a pastor. Interesting combo. I love people, which makes it work, but I’ve always viewed the institution of church as slightly more helpful than Jiffy Lube. A place that keeps you on the road and moving forward. Maybe the Church Experience just brings out the weird in people…

Why am I not a fan of the typical Sunday Morning Church experience?
Mostly because I feel a bit on the outside.

You see, in many of the church settings I’ve explored in my lifetime, I’ve not been in on the “I’ve Arrived” Conclusion, the “happy-happy-joy-joy” that seems to pervade. In many settings, Pastor and a good percentage of the congregation seem plastered with Perma-Grin, walking on emotional Astro-Turf, like they were stuck at a family reunion picture moment and good old Aunty was fumbling with the timer on the camera, everyone glued in place, smiling like cardboard, and forced to say “Cheese” again and again, over and over, world without end, Amen.

I’m not condemning anyone in this statement…it’s just what I’ve FELT as I’ve ducked into multiple spiritual settings over the years. And the funny thing is, I know exactly why they do it, and I’m guilty of doing the same. Here is why:

The Bible refers to a relationship with God through His Son, Jesus. It refers to this relationship as the key to life, both abundant and eternal (see John 3:16, John 10:10). [Side note: I believe what the Bible says here, I really do. With all my heart. End Side note.] The Bible also indicates that with this relationship, a whole new identity emerges, a new you is born. The Apostle Paul writes that if anyone is in Jesus, they are a new creation, “the old is gone, the new has come.” [Side note #2: I believe this too! Seriously. My issue is not with what the Bible says. Truly. End Side note.] Here’s the problem with the human entity, with church institutions filled with same entity, and with me as well: Many people who believe in the Bible and who have a relationship with God through His Son have not yet accessed that new life.

At least, not totally.
I’m throwing myself in here too. Bits and pieces, maybe. I think the reality is that in glimpses, maybe, we’ve seen it, like a massive Where’s Waldo in which we find Him, only to lose Him again as we turn the page, where we find Life in an instant, or true Joy in an hour, but the page turns and we’re searching again, and we turn pages everytime we breathe.

So instead of honestly talking about the real journey that we’re on, the real struggles that we face, the real hope we can have in God’s presence; the church that I really struggle with has settled for a mediocre brand of bland, for a Perma-Grin existence in which the greeting, “How’s it going?” is met with the eternal and angelic, “Fine, thanks. [Smile] Everything’s Fine.”

Not YOUR church, of course, if you go to church. And not mine, actually. I love the church I attend…I love the church we’re becoming. I’m talking capital “C” church. I’m speaking in generalities. But the First Perma-Grin Church of the Arrived Ones is alive and well on planet earth.

Is it any wonder that the Christian Community can be satirized like we are by the non-believing world? So much of what passes as Christian Church Experience is just plain nutty. Jesus was ostracized too, but not for being plain nutty. He was villain-ized for turning world’s upside down.

Please know…this is only how I FEEL, and I’m bringing it up only because I feel and have always felt that the Church Experience ought to be so much MORE. This is why I’m in ministry…because it’s JESUS we’re talking about and learning about and walking with…my belief is that the Church Experience ought to be the most powerful, passionate, personal hour of the week.

Jesus told Peter that He would build His church upon the Rock of Peter’s proclamation, that Jesus is indeed the Christ, the Son of the Living God, and against His Church the gates of Hell shall not prevail. The Church Universal, Jesus’ Church, the actual body of believers spanning geography and history is a precious thing to Jesus, as well as a dangerous thing that is charging the gates of Hell. Fierce AND beautiful, like my daughter at Tae Kwon Do Sparring competition.

It’s THIS family I want to be a part of, following my Savior as He charges the front lines. It’s THIS CHURCH that I’m ready to go Braveheart for.

So how in the world do I reconcile?
I’m a pastor who loves God and who loves people, but who doesn’t really like church as an institution.

Maybe God wants honest men and women who are aware that they are on a spiritual journey, gathering weekly for encouragement, for praise, for repentance, and for humble petition for God’s help to live the life He calls us to.
Maybe God wants His people to put together an authentic church experience that seeks connects people with Him, with one another, and with a call to make a difference.
Maybe Jesus really does desire church to be a sort of fueling station, a spiritual Jiffy Lube…keeping us on the Road and Moving Forward…but serving better coffee.

And by “us,” I mean, each one of us.
Pastors included.
Normal people included.
Everyday strugglers included.

Maybe this is the rich soil of soul that God has been cultivating. Maybe He planted the dream of “church for people who don’t like church” here. By necessity we are an experiment in spiritual relevance. This last weekend we celebrated the peace, purpose, and passion of the Revolution Jesus started when He refused to stay dead. Among the thousands who experimented with us, we had homemakers and heroin addicts, Professional Football Players and porn voyeurs, deacons and decadents. Thank God.

A church expression that Jesus Himself would be welcomed into. The cure for the common church? Only Jesus knows. But I’d love to invite you in…

Illuminate the dark in me with the LIGHT of your presence, a FIRE for your glory, and a LOVE of your Bride. May this experiment be guided by your Holy wisdom, our steps lit with the Lamp of your Word. May Your work in our lives so transform us, that we might indeed become the Light of the World, Illuminating the darkness with a clear message of your grace.



Lisa said...

... you are wondering and so are your thoughts.

thanks for sharing.


Jodie Howerton said...

I love you.

----your wife :)gqvk

The Reverend's Lover said...

my husband would like you
and I think your wife is great!

...you guys wanna come over for coffee?...the kids could play...Canada isn't that far :)

Sarah Hager said...

I like how you think and write, Mike Howerton!

Jen White said...

I think my husband would like you too...but not more than Jodie...at least I hope not.
Good stuff......
btw- I am friend of your sister's and an admirer of your wife's blog.....

Lisa said...

ha ha ... i just re-read my comment.

allow me to say what i meant to say the first time:

"... you are WONDERFUL [not 'wondering'] and so are your thoughts."

I was tired. :) 1st day of school and all! ;)

Anonymous said...

Mike, I really appreciate your thoughts here on the cure for the common church. I have had some similar experiences and hope that we can all work together to create such an authentic community. One frustration I have encountered with communities where some are seeking this authentic experience and others are not, you never really know how to answer the "how are you" question. Do they really want to know of are they secretly members of the "First Perma-Grin Church of the Arrived Ones"? Sometimes it's hard to tell and when you respond authentically only to get avoided in the future, it makes it a little harder to take the risk the next time.

But, you know me, I'm not afraid to take risks, so I'll keep hoping and praying for a community of "honest men and women who are aware that they are on a spiritual journey, gathering weekly for encouragement, for praise, for repentance, and for humble petition for God’s help to live the life He calls us to."

Now, back to my studies...

Ken Loewen said...

Have you ever noticed how, through some miracle, everybody in church is "fine"? Don't trust me, ask the next person you meet in church "how are you?". They'll tell you "fine"; perhaps "fine, thanks". That's got to be some kind of miracle.

If not a miracle, then it's truly depressing. How would you like to go through eternity in the presence of the Lord being just "fine" (if we should hope to move from The Lord's House on this earth to his heavenly presence after our life here ends). Just once, I'd like somebody to tell me "I'm absolutely blissful" or even an honest "I'm content".

Have a day that's something other than "fine".

Ton frere en Christ,