Matthew 6: 5 “When you pray, don’t be like those show-offs who love to stand up and pray in the meeting places and on the street corners. They do this just to look good. I can assure you that they already have their reward” — Jesus, in the Contemporary of the Bible
I drove two hours to see my friend Charlie preach this morning and had an interesting experience — or maybe a couple of them. I had asked my iPod for directions to his church, but somehow got directions to another Baptist church nearby — in a local industrial park. It was the kind of New-Style church that I imagine is popping up all over America. Once I realized there really was a church behind what looks like an office door, I entered and met a very nice and helpful man. Though tall and muscular, he wasn’t particularly threatening as he tried to get directions on his Blackberry to Charlie’s church. As we walked to the back of the building, I saw that it was a huge place, and very modern. There were signs for the “Cafe” and the “Auditorium” and arrows to the Sunday School rooms. The auditorium was incredible — with lights and theater seating and a sound system and a stage. The people inside were tuning up their acoustic guitars and having a sound-check. As we walked down the hall, the Sunday School rooms all had cool names and Star Trek symbols, indicating that faith for children was an exciting journey into unbelievable worlds. As we got to the Cafe’ (Yes, it was like a coffee shop with stools, the kind you see in a modern movie theater), there was an old woman who looked out of place, but probably new her way around the city and a truckload of young, white kids with tousled, spiked hair looking cool and discussing things. What caught my eye was a giant poster of “Call of Duty” the video game — or maybe it was a summer camp, it was hard to tell. It was a giant poster of an army guy straight out of the game. But in the world of Cool Church there are posters of crosses made of drumsticks with Biblical quotes underneath it. Beyond this room, there was a youth room of some sort with kids laying on couches playing with their iPods or texting their girlfriends or whatever. On the wall was a giant, painted word “BARCODED” . For those of you out of the loop, there is a fundamentalist theory that in the End Times, people will branded with bar-codes (aka the mark of the devil). Beyond that, there was a room on the left. My guide knocked on the door and there was a board room or Bible Study of all adults. A woman offered directions to this place nearby … downtown, maybe, where there was a church on the corner. The men in the room didn’t really know, but there might have been one. They located it on their cell phones and away I went.
After a guided tour by a local policeman straight of a Ben Affleck movie, I found Charlie’s church. I didn’t get the full experience because Charlie wasn’t there. It was the summer and he was away for two weeks. It was hot, so the crowd might have been thin that day. It’s hard to know. But this church reminded me of The Church as I know it. Both Charlie and I grew up in old mill towns — poor and working class folks, so there was some familiarity with the kind of people who were there. But the church looked like it could have housed any mainline denomination — wooden pews, stained glass, an old organ and a piano. It had a small pulpit on one side and a lectern on the other. This building was what I was used to. Because denominations are supposedly dying off, I don’t expect that my children — or their children anyway, will ever see a place like this and think of it as church. The timeless message of the church is being brought to life in NEW, EXCITING ways with NEW and EXCITING buildings with hip, pastors who know how to speak the language of the new generation. Now, I’m all for pastors who can translate the timeless message into a timely one. People have done that throughout the ages and that got us here. There is a saying that “The Church is always 150 years behind and out of breath”. Generally, we move slowly, even with an educated clergy that understands quantum physics. We still like hymns of the 1930’s or 1850’s for the most part, in your mainline denominations. When Jerry Falwell said, “The mainlines are now the sidelines”, he wasn’t wrong. I just don’t think that’s good news.
But here’s the thing: It wasn’t the sermon or the building or the theology that struck me. It was the people. The people who sang, sang out of tune. The people in the pews were old, and blind, and wearing worn jeans, and some were African-Americans. They were a scraggly bunch. Some with eye patches. some with long hair in ponytails and polyester suits. They sang “Happy Birthday” a capella to an old lady in the congregation who was an old member. One of them gave me a gift for coming — nothing particularly cool, mind you but nice nonetheless. It was a coffee mug with the name of the church on it, wrapped in a net of some kind, filled with all kinds of things. As I left, there was a welcoming note about the church in the rack — a tri-fold piece of paper with a picture of Charlie on it, welcoming people. A balding man, in black and white and photocopied -not exactly cool either, but the words were welcoming, warm, and friendly.
It was while I was looking at the congregation that I realized what it was I liked about the place. No one here was a TRIUMPHANT Christian — young, and beautiful, and wealthy, without a zit anywhere on their face, Large and In Charge. And yet, the words of the their faith told them, and they believed, that they were triumphant in Christ. The fact of the matter is that most of life isn’t exciting and that life happens to people and makes them scraggly and old and pockmarked. We aren’t always new or exciting. And when we get that way, then we need a church for the rest of us.
People of The New Church are the type who EXPECT A MIRACLE! People of Charlie’s church hope for a miracle. If you can expect it, it’s not out of the ordinary and miracles are — kind of by definition — out of the ordinary. And if it’s a big miracle, people of The New Church do expect it, because — as Peter Gabriel sang — “I will worship in the Big Church/My heaven will be a big heaven/and I will enter through the front door!”. People of The New Church are WINNERS! and they make a STATEMENT by being in church. People of Charlie’s church would be told by the world that they are losers, but their faith tells them otherwise. There is an old piece of liturgy that says, “we come to communion, not because we must, but because we may, not to make a statement, but to seek a presence”. That’s what people of the old church, the quiet, humble kind of people attend. This is Christianity as I understand it. It’s not for the perfect. It’s for the trying. It’s not for the certain, who always know what’s right. It’s for the hopeful, who know they get it wrong sometimes, but follow Christ anyway, because they’re forgiven their faults. It’s not for those who expect that God will give to them. It’s for people who expect to give to God. It’s not for people who have it all now. It’s for people who hope they’ll be worthy of it all later, but trust Jesus’ words that they are and will. I like that kind of church, the old church, full of real humans. I worry that it’s passing away, but as I think about it, it’s been here this long — 150 years behind and out of breath. Maybe The New Church is a passing fad. I can only hope so.