The Kind Of Church I Want
Occasionally in magazines or newspapers you will find a list of towns in our country which have strange, humorous, or unusual names. Like Sweetlips, Tennessee…or Sandy Mush, North Carolina…or Monkey’s Eyebrow, Kentucky…or Hell, Michigan! Of course, What’s true of towns is also true of churches. We have traditional names for churches like “First” or “Trinity” or “Calvary”. We have churches named for streets like Boston Avenue Methodist or Park Street Baptist. Nothing unusual about that, I suppose, except in one city I know of the Jackson Avenue Baptist Church is on Broad Street! Then we have churches named for people—some famous, some not so famous. Recently, however, I came across a list of church names not quite so traditional or ordinary. Did you know that there is a Halfway Christian Church in Halfway, Missouri…a Nonesuch Presbyterian Church in Versailles, Kentucky…a Gunpowder Friends Church in of all places, Sparks, Mary land…a Lovers’ Lane United Methodist Church in Dallas…and an Economy Lutheran Church in Economy, Indiana? But I suppose my favorite one of all is the Peculiar Methodist Church in Peculiar, Missouri. I wonder if those folks live up to their name?
It goes without saying that names are not the only difference between churches. Churches in our country come in all shapes, sizes and colors, with varying designations, doctrines, and practices. Therefore, because there are such differences in churches, we are left to choose the one church we prefer from among the many. I know that from time to time, when you are filling out some application form, you encounter the question “What is your church preference?” It reminds me of the story a friend told me. It seems that back in his college days during registration at LSU, he was seated next to a huge freshman who had been recruited to play tackle on the LSU football team. These two were busily engaged in filling out all the necessary forms, and my friend noticed that in answer to the question “What is your church preference?”, this big freshman football player had written: “Red brick.”
Well, most of us I am sure, are not quite so superficial. Usually our response to that question, “What is your church preference?”, is to write down the name of our denomination: Baptist, Methodist, Roman Catholic, Presbyterian or whatever. But I think it is important for us to respond to that question on a much deeper level than simply denominational loyalty. I think we need to ask: What do I prefer in a church? What am I looking for in a church? What do I expect from a church? What kind of church do I want?
Now to set the stage for answering that question, focus your attention on the last chapter of the Book of Acts. Luke, the genius who wrote the Book of Acts, shows us here the spontaneous joy and drawing power of the church even in the midst of opposition and oppression. Paul was under arrest in Rome. He had been sentenced to die. He was confined and guarded round-the-clock by Roman soldiers. Yet he continued to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And this is what we read about it all in Acts: large numbers of people came to where he was lodging; he preached morning and evening (bound to have been some who were not Presbyterians if they came to church in the evening!); he welcomed them all and taught them all they needed to know about the Kingdom of God and the teachings of Jesus; and as the Bible puts it, “no one tried to stop him.”
The Book of Acts ends on that rather abrupt note. “No one tried to stop him.” But it was not the end of anything—it was the beginning of something thrilling. Lloyd Ogilvie is right when he said that the Book of Acts: “ends like an unfinished symphony.” If the Book of Acts is the story of how the church became the church, then it is left unfinished intentionally so that we can add our own chapters to the story.
Now when I think about the things I prefer in a church, the things I want and look for in a church, I take the great truths in the Book of Acts and draw from them three ideas expressed in the form of a paradox. Now what is a paradox? I once asked a group of young people that question and one of the kids answered: “Two doctors!” Of course that was not the answer I was seeking. A paradox is a statement combining two ideas which at first seem to contradict each other but when taken together express a great truth. Here are some paradoxes. That bulldog is so ugly, he’s cute…that man is both tough and tender…if you want to be great, be a servant.” Those are paradoxes. Now I want to share with you three things that I look for and prefer in a church and they are expressed in paradoxical language.
First, I want a church that binds my heart and stretches my mind.
Sadly, sometimes in the church we act as if those two things are contradictory. Some churches emphasize the heart—the will, the feelings, the emotions—but they do it to the neglect of the head. Other churches emphasize the head—the intellect, the doctrines, the knowledge—but they do it to the neglect of the heart. But I believe that the church must bring the head and the heart together. We must have a faith that is big enough to inspire our hearts, yet at the same time, big enough to stretch our minds. Like Paul at the end of the Book of Acts, we must both inspire and instruct—we must touch people’s hearts with the inspiration of the Gospel and we must stretch people’s minds with the knowledge of the Gospel. Only then can the church be the instrument for God’s change in the world.
Put the book on your reading list. It’s called Against All Hope. It’s the story of a man who spent 22 years locked away in Cuba’s hideous and notorious Isla de Pinos prison simply because he believed in Jesus Christ. His name is Armando Valladares. Someday soon the communist monolith in Cuba will crumble, and we shall learn all the details of how that dreadful prison became a hotbed of Christian transformation. Until then, we gain a hint from the story of Armando Valladares. In the midst of horrors too demonic to describe, a little band of Christians in that prison began to preach and to teach the Gospel and they began to win other prisoners to their faith. They inspired the hearts and stretched the minds of those prisoners in such a way that their lives were transformed by the Spirit of Christ and they took on great power. Fidel Castro and his henchmen were so unnerved by them, that they began to systematically execute the Christians, one by one. But every Christian who was executed went to his death crying out “Viva Cristo Rey!”—“Long live Christ the King!” Consequently the executions had an effect opposite to that desired by Castro. The other prisoners embraced the Christ of these dying men and poured themselves into a study of the Scriptures. Valladares himself wrote: “It was at that point that Christianity became, not just a religious faith, but a way of life for me.” As a result, that monstrous prison, that scene of acts of inhumanity sufficient to stun even the most callous of souls, became a place of phenomenal Christian revival, a place where Christian knowledge grew deeper and Christian love grew more sublime.
And what happened in that prison is what I want to happen in my church. I want a church that inspires and binds my heart and also instructs and stretches my mind.
Next I want a church that gathers and scatters—that gathers to worship and scatters to serve.
When you read the concluding verses of the Book of Acts, it is quite clear that Paul called the people to come together for worship, but then he sent them out into the world to serve. The Gospel of Jesus Christ spreads only when the church both gathers and scatters.
We see that truth in the story of the Transfiguration. Do you remember that story from the Gospels? Jesus took three of His disciples and went up to the top of a mountain. There they had the ultimate “mountain-top experience.” It was a time of such spiritual pleasure and power that Peter said to Jesus: “Lord, let’s stay here in the glow of this experience forever. Let’s not ever leave this mountain-top.” Meanwhile, the other disciples were down in the valley trying to heal an epileptic boy, but they couldn’t do it. They had no power because they had not gone up on the mountain. You see, you have on the one hand, the pietists who say: “Let’s get to the spiritual mountain-top and stay there.” On the other hand, you have the social activists who are down in the valley trying to heal, but they have no power because they haven’t been to the mountain to worship. But Jesus put the two together. He went up on the mountain to pray, to worship, to draw very close to God, and then empowered by that experience, He came down into the valley to serve, to help, and to heal.
Up in South Carolina, a man leaped up in a Presbyterian Church one Sunday and cried out “Hallelujah, I’ve got religion!” One of the elders sitting nearby said: “Sit down and shut up! You didn’t get it in this church!” Well, my friends, I want a church where you can “get religion”—a church where worship is an experience of such intensity and pleasure that we literally glow with the fire of God’s Spirit burning within us. But I also want a church which sends me out into the world to spread that fire. Christ invites us to “get religion”, yes, but then He wants us to get busy in the community around us and in the world beyond us.
That’s the kind of church I want. I want a church that gathers us to worship in the powerful spiritual presence of God, and then empowered by that Spirit, we scatter to go and to be the church in the world.
Then I want a church that accepts me as I am and challenges me to become more than I dreamed I could be.
Those last verses of Acts declare that Paul “welcomed all who came to him.” No matter who they were, no matter what they might have been or done or said or thought in life, he accepted them as they were. Then he set before them a vision of who they could yet become in Jesus Christ. I want a church like that—a church that accepts people as they are—all people—and then challenges all of us to be better.
Periodically, in my walk with Christ, I draw inspiration from recalling the story of John Knox, our great Scottish Presbyterian ancestor. In his early years he was afflicted with low self-esteem, debilitating fear, and a crushing sense of inadequacy and unworthiness. But a little band of God’s people in the church at St. Andrews in Scotland accepted him just as he was and embraced him with Christian love. They then began to see in Knox things he could not see in himself. They believed he might make an effective minister, but that was the farthest thing from Knox’s mind. One Sunday in church, the minister there—his name was John Ruff—supported and encouraged by his people, suddenly stopped his sermon right in the middle of it, turned, addressed John Knox directly and said: “Take upon you the public office of preaching. You must, or you will be unable to avoid God’s heavy displeasure.” John Knox broke into tears of shame and humiliation and literally ran from the church. However, later on, as the vision those people had for them took hold, John Knox returned to the church, took up the office of preaching, and became one of the greatest leaders the Church of Jesus Christ has ever known.
And I think of how in the delightful biography of the great preacher Phillips Brooks, there is a beautiful story about a “street walker” who came one night to hear Phillips Brooks preach. She was converted. Her life was changed and she explained it by saying: “You can’t hear Phillips Brooks preach and still live in the cellar!” That’s the kind of church I want—a church that won’t let me live in the cellar—a church that accepts me as I am, but challenges me to be better.
I think it all comes down to this.
I have a dream for our church that I will never give up. That dream is best captured by the words of St. John of the Cross when he said: “Finally, judgment will ask only one question of you. Did you love?” I want us to be known as a church, not by the size of our budget or the quantity of our numbers, or even the beauty of our buildings, though all are ingredients for a powerful witness for Jesus Christ. No, I want us to be known by the manner in which we love. In the midst of one of the fierce land battles in the Second World War, a Roman Catholic chaplain crawled out to assist a wounded soldier. Risking his own life, he edged up to the soldier’s side and reached out to him. The wounded soldier looked at him and said: “Chaplain, I don’t belong to your church!” The chaplain’s reply is worth remembering. He said: “No, son, but you belong to my Christ.”
That’s what I want my church to be—a church that sets no limits to its love, no boundaries to its concern, no restrictions to its caring. That’s the kind of church I want. And I think that’s the kind of church Christ wants as well…