So today was actually my first day to go to a different church. The first week I played hookie, the second week I was at a conference, last week I was working and so today was my first visit to a new church as a visitor with no responsibility. We decided to go to Paragon Church. I had seen signs and explored their website and some of their philosophy, vision and approach appealed to me. We took two cars (a necessity for us as it’s impossible to find a car we can both afford and all fit in). I introduced myself to the greeter at the front (who was very friendly), Kelly, she said her name was. I introduce the three kids I had with me, which happened to be my three youngest. Jubilation (called Jay at new meetings to avoid long discussions), Lidya (one of our Ethiopian imports) and Josiah (our Ethiopian import who also happens to be autistic.)
It was fascinating that a part of my brain became very much an observer; I couldn’t help but dissect this somewhat normal interaction but one for which I had been on the other side for so long. I felt like I could so easily see, understand and grasp everything that this friendly greeter was thinking,doing, wanting me to take from our interaction and wanting to learn from me; at the same time I was watching my own actions and even decision making process with interest (choosing not to mention I was a pastor, or Josiah’s autism…) and trying to connect that to various visitors I’ve greeted over the years. This wasn’t as presumptive as it sounds, in fact, I found myself feeling an unusual degree of compassion and desire to help. This was a small, new church who was receiving an unexpected visit of a family of 9! We happened to be coming on Communion Sunday, which as I’ll explain later is a very unusual week for them. I heard three people assure me, “This is a little different Sunday” before we even sat down. I understand that nervous, questioning of whether we would prematurely make a negative judgment on such an unusual event. I felt a kinship with this small but growing band of followers and found myself wanting to use my unusual vantage point to their advantage. That’s when I decided not to follow normal “visitor” rules.
I started by adopting a demeanor of one who was part of the church rather than a visitor, by this I mean instead of waiting for them to be friendly to me, to comfort me I took the role I so often took as a pastor of trying to see how I could help them. This was not easy to do, because honestly, so many people were eager to help and love on us that it became very difficult to outdo them. Kelly walked us to the separate building where Sunday School took place and I chatted with her on the way as if I were the member. I even greeted a couple people who looked surprised like they should have known me (which they didn’t).
When I returned from dropping off my younger kids I discovered that the rest of my family had chosen to sit in the front row! The attendance at a few minutes before 10 was small (but this is after all New Mexico), so it was very noticeable. I chuckled at my family’s boldness, but this seemed to match my desire to break visitor rules, so I joined them gleefully.
When we were asked to say hello to someone new, I initiated before others had a chance, and then watched in amusement as people had to walk from the back to the front to greet us. Some seemed amused that we were in the front row and a few very comfortable people chatted with us about it. By the way, when I say front row I mean second row, because anyone who has been to church more than once knows that no one, absolutely no one sits in the front row. That’s the buffer row. Occasionally it’s used by the pastor or worship leader, but never by any congregational member. This, in fact, was the discussion we had with a friendly young woman. The Pastor, Matt, came and introduced himself to each of my family and admitted he would likely not remember all our names. I never would have remembered all our names as a pastor either, so I appreciated his authenticity.
I swear we lead the clapping during worship, we sang harmonies, loudly and lustily, I smiled at the worship leader, encouraging him whenever possible, and took notes right in front of the pastor. (I hope he didn’t think I was texting as I take notes on my iPad.
In fact, it was fun visiting a church and acting like we weren’t visiting. And for the most part it seemed to be encouraging and comfortable for others. Only one moment fell slightly flat and both surprised and amused me.
As the service ended people began to put up chairs and I noticed my kids immediately began to help. It was our habit after all, and so I jumped in to help as well. They rolled out chair carts and people would fold up the chairs and place them on the carts. It seemed familiar and simple enough after five years of doing the same, but twice as I hung up chairs, somebody removed the chair I hung up and placed it on a different cart or in one case the other side of the cart. I was unable to discern the system, confused and amused by this, but I didn’t want to cause any more work, so I stopped helping with tear down.
We had been told by a friend of ours that the pastor and his wife were very nice and that turned out to be our experience. They were both very genuine and nice. The sermon was on the gospel from Corinthians. It was solid and appropriate with the communion.
Oh, they did communion differently then I’ve seen and I enjoyed it. Instead of it being a separate event, it they ran a seamless service, much like Lifesong has been known to do. Music was interspersed between sermon chunks and the communion items were at the front for people to partake of as they felt lead during the worship. I appreciated the effort towards a holistic service (Is that word still a negative in evangelical worlds? I just mean all one piece, rather than segmented.)
One of my children, who was pretty devastated by the loss of Lifesong, said, he liked this service. When I pressed him he said, “well if we have to go somewhere other than Lifesong I could live with this.” which for him was a pretty rousing endorsement to be honest.
What does all this say about my pilgrimage? Well a couple things can be added to my list of lessons learned so far.
1) I can, in fact, worship in a different church without constantly picking at the way they do things. I can learn from a pastor who doesn’t teach like I do and with whom I have not discussed the “themes” of the day. I could be part of another church, in short.
2) I will be surprised if that is in fact what I end up doing.
I have only the vaguest of ideas and plans in my head, but as God seems to do in my life, threads from all sorts of different places in the last month have started to weave into the merest notion of a pattern. I don’t want to force or hurry the pattern and I”m ok letting God unfold it. But often as God does this, the first realization is, “I don’t know what the plan is, but I will be surprised, if x, y, or z, isn’t part of that plan.”
Believe it or not that was my first proposal to my wife, “Wouldn’t you be surprised if ten years from now we weren’t…you know.” She did know and she admitted she too would be surprised. Later that night I did a much better proposal which involved a waterfall, a ring and me on bended knee. Neither of us were surprised by her answer. 🙂
Anyway, that doesn’t mean the tapestry always looks exactly like I vaguely conceive at this point, but I will say, that I will be surprised if another year from now I am not leading some kind of new church.
In today’s message, Pastor Matt, pointed out that 125 million Americans are unchurched. My thoughts were, among other things, that Lifesong was just radical enough to appeal to some very non churchy people, but not radical enough to be seen as anything other than church by those who are not interested in church. I am still pretty convinced that in the 125 million there are at least a few million who are not interested in church but they are interested in love, service, God, truth, life, and community. People who are in need of Christ to fulfill those interests but just don’t know it because they always get stuck at the church door. It has occurred to me that Lifesong chose to be a church which serves for the sake of those it blesses, and encourages Active Learning–discussion instead of lecture, activity instead of passivity and exploration instead of safe platitudes. (Two of the big ideas I haven’t shared yet, by the way.) As I say, it occurred to me that we chose to be that kind of church and then chose a neighborhood where people did not want or feel a need to be served, and were not all that interested in active learning. It further has occurred to me that the University of New Mexico and surrounding area might be just such a neighborhood where service and active learning might appeal to some for whom “Church” would not appeal. So does God want me to try again? Do I have the spiritual, physical, time and financial resources to try again? I don’t know. Does it make sense to try to plant a church which is not seen by “church” people was a church at all? Does it make sense for someone with such a deep conviction for the value of local churches to create a plant which could not even be called a church? Can I do that without hypocrisy or insincerity? Let’s just say…I wouldn’t be surprised.
On the other hand, is it possible that this is not the tapestry’s final look? Definitely possible.
Pray with me, for me, and feel free to dialogue as well. Here or on my Facebook page, I am always interested in your input, your story and your thoughts.
By the way, You’re heard me mention recently the new book I’m working on. Well, faithful readers, let me assure you, I have a few other surprises planned for you all in the weeks to come. I may not always know where I”m going, but I know it’s always an adventure! Thanks for joining it with me.