There really aren’t very many terrible churches. I’ve travelled around the nation and visited probably hundreds of them. The closest I ever came to going to a church that I considered to be ideal was Forks-of-Cheat Baptist Church in the West Virginia hills outside of Morgantown.
It was a tiny church made up primarily of white rural congregants. Our pastor was also the Dean of Students at West Virginia University. He was a former Navy chaplain. He smoked a pipe and loved a good joke. Rev. Joe Gluck was fond of mailing me cartoons cut out from the newspaper and adding a little hand-written note. I loved him. We all did.
Despite what modern standards of inclusiveness would have made of our all-white faces, our congregation was very diverse with regard to personalities, temperament, education and politics. But our church was a place where it was safe to be ourselves. Our pastor set a tone of tolerance, acceptance, and love. He faithfully preached the Bible and its truths. He did this in a way that gave us standards to which we could aspire without beating ourselves up for being mired in our humanity. So, in a way, I think Joe and his country church forever shaped my idea of the kind of church to which I would ideally belong.
Christians all deny that they define church success by budgets, attendance numbers, or conversions, but I’ve never bought that. Denominations don’t invite church leaders from small towns, small churches, or struggling missions to be keynote speakers. We want to hear from “winners”. Unless the shepherd of a rescue mission has written a money-making book, she’ll never be called upon to address our delegates. And if one is not an actual bona fide pastor? Forget about it.
If you run a restaurant that hires ex-cons and offers free meals to people who can’t pay for them, don’t expect to have your voice respected unless you somehow become famous in the secular world first. The sister who stays home to care for her disabled brother so her parents can go to work and still finds time to volunteer as church Treasurer? of course, we can’t learn anything about being a Christian from her (sarcasm).
We Christians can lie to ourselves about what we value but we don’t really have to look that hard to see that we measure success more like the church was a corporation than like Christ’s body on earth.
As I sit in my pew, holding my candle and singing Silent Night, I look around and see some people who are whiter, some who are browner or of another color. Some are in suits and others are wearing the uniforms they work in. Maybe a few don’t even have a decent pair of shoes or smell very clean.
Or perhaps, instead of always sitting in a pew, we listen to the homily while making sandwiches for Meals-on-Wheels, packing a care box for a foreign missionary, wrapping Christmas presents for the children of prisoners, or folding clothing donations for the homeless shelter. If there also happens to be drinks and Christmas cookies, so much the better.
If I’m honest, I wish that some were of different faiths who come just to be loved because that’s the way Jesus people are. I wish my Islamic neighbors would come because this is a safe place where you can be hugged instead of harassed.
This Christmas I don’t want to go to a pageant with live camels. I don’t want to hear a choir of a thousand trained voices. I want to go to a little neighborhood church where people respect each other and love each other with all of our differences and all of our warts. The light of hope that we can become better and do better will be offered without making us feel like we are failures because we have not yet become all that Christ made us to become. We’re more like a basketball team where we all seek to help one another have better lives because we succeed only when our team succeeds. We are less like a talent contest where every week a new loser is kicked out the door and we’re all wondering who is going to be the next to go.
Putting on a Las Vegas-style Christianized show is expensive and hard. It might be argued that it is also expensive and hard to take up His cross and follow Jesus in service and love. My heart aches for a church that makes its investment choices based more on the will of Christ than the way of the world.
The capital T Truth is preached. The capital G Grace is demonstrated. The capital S Service is a lifestyle. Maybe this little church I can walk to doesn’t exist on earth. But if it doesn’t, the world is worse for it.