“That’s what old people do,” was my Swedish friend’s response when I asked if she or any of our other friends in France wanted to go to church with me. I had been living in southern France for a month or so and had finally found a church that I liked. But I was always going alone. Only two of the five Americans in my program were “raised” in the church, one was Catholic, one was Greek Orthodox, but neither of them attended church now, so I decided to ask some of the other people in my program if they’d be interested. “Young people don’t go to church,” she told me, and everyone around her agreed, nodding their heads. “In Europe, only old people do that.”
Needless to say, that hadn’t been my experience in America. Even in my sorority in college there were some girls who would stop studying or talking to their boyfriends on the phone to come down to the common room to sit on the floor in their sweats and delta zeta tee-shirts to listen quietly or sometimes full of questions to a 10 minute bible study. They may not have gone to church, but there was at least a vague interest in spirituality. They sought something outside of academic excellence, affirmation from men, and popularity by how much you can drink. They sensed there was more.
And there is even more interest when it comes to serving others. “Your church did that?” was the response my roommate gave last year when I told her how we raised $10,000 and a whole 4th floor full of clothes and furniture for hurricane evacuees. She is a social worker who doesn’t go to church but considers herself “spiritual.” She was shocked that we would take an interest in social justice. “The man who helped de-segregate Austin schools went to your church?” Yep. Yep.
What a variety of responses you’ll find when you begin to talk about church with the world around you.
“I thought women couldn’t be ministers” said one un-churched co-worker at Buzzard Billy’s in Waco where we waited tables together. You see how Christianity has been portrayed in the media and what the pervasive understanding of church is in the South? “You’re going to preach on Sunday though huh?” Yep, I replied, and then his real question, much more confusing than the fact that I was a female preacher came forth. “Are you still gonna have a beer with me after work?”
According to these understandings of the church, people who go to church are old men and who are disconnected from the world around them and who don’t drink.
Is that what church means to you?
“Are we going to church tonight?” two year old Allison Vanderslice said to her dad on the swing-set as she swung back and forth. “Actually we are the church Allison,” her father said rather comically reciting his theology to her, knowing she wasn’t listening. “The church isn’t a building; it’s a people being church for one another together.” “To the moon,” Alison yelled, and I laughed and pushed her higher on the swing.
My uncle sat down next to me one day when I was 11 years old. I had just started babysitting and had opened my first back account with my accumulated wealth of $21.50. “You know, you’re a Christian now and part of the church” (he had been at my baptism two years earlier), and the Bible teaches us to give back to God what he gives to us. Do you tithe?” he asked me. “No,” I said, rather ashamed that no one had taught me about this earlier. “Tithing is giving 10% of what you make back to the church to use for God’s work,” he told me, and then left me to mull over this while he went to have another piece of grandma’s rhubarb pie. From babysitting to Buzzard Billy’s to First Baptist, I’ve been tithing 10% of my income to the church ever since.
We never talked much about what church meant when I was growing up in the youth group. We talked a lot about memorizing Bible verses and sex and Jesus washing us white as snow, but never explicitly about church. There were three things that I could always count on from the church youth group though: a trip to camp in the summer like Centrifuge or Student Life, a mission trip during the year, and the ski trip in the winter. Those three things were like clockwork, a part of my schedule, something that I looked forward to doing, set aside money to ensure I would get to go, always got my parents to register me in time for. And although we didn’t ever talk about what it meant to be church, I was subconsciously taught that church was three things: learning about God, serving others and having fun together.
What have you learned that the church is? Or is supposed to be? Is it a building? Is it “old people”? Is it spirituality? Is it volunteering on behalf of others? Is it having fun?
What is church?
Theology teaches us that Church is being God’s people. Our call to worship was taken from Stanley Grenz’s book Theology for the Community of God. The Bible never describes church as a building or an organization or an event, but rather people in community: lives connected and woven together with the common thread of Christ.
Christians are followers of Christ, but the church is Christians invested in the lives of each other, trying to do God’s work in the world.
And that’s the hard part. Not only the loving people part. Most of us know how hard that can be at times: forgiving those who hurt us, loving people who are different, we know that’s hard. The hard part for me goes beyond that. The hard part is learning how to exist as the church. Learning how to BE the church. Learning how to make my identity (as a follower of Christ committed to community) infiltrate my very being, affecting the way I live my life. That’s the hard part, isn’t it: a change in worldview?
It was hard putting one dollar of the ten I had made babysitting a screaming child the night before into the offering plate, but satisfactory too, knowing that I was giving back to God and back to a people committed to do God’s work. It was hard hammering a nail on top of a hot, black roof when I’d have rather been at the swimming pool playing Marco Polo with my sisters and friends, but satisfactory too knowing that I was helping someone have a home who couldn’t otherwise afford one.
Because gradually God is changing my attitude about life and molding me as a Christian to re-adjust the way I view community, the way I view the church, recreating the way I think, changing my worldview.
I want to be church to you. Please be church for me and each other as well.
That takes courage though. It takes courage to sign your child up for children’s camp when they’ve never been away from home and there’s a good possibility you’ll miss them more than they’ll miss you. It takes courage to ask how the church is doing financially and to commit to do your part to help us continue. It takes courage to hear the staggering statistics about poverty and commit one night a month to distribute food to the hungry. Fred Craddock said last month at the Friends of Truett Luncheon at the CBF convention that he’d just as soon not know. “I’d just as soon not know how many children don’t have healthcare in America,” he said. “I’d just as soon not know how many women are in abusive relationships or how many people have died in Uganda, because it means if I’m a friend of God, I have to respond to these things.”
I’d just as soon not know either, truth be told. I don’t want to know that only 1% of our water is actually okay to drink and that we’re polluting it faster than we can waste it. But I do. I don’t want to know how many Austinites can’t provide for their families because churches and governments aren’t helping them get back on their feet. But I do: 23% of Texas children live in poverty. I don’t want to know the illiteracy rate in America, but I do. 90 million adults in America are illiterate – that’s one in two. I don’t want to know how many people have died in Iraq, but I do: over 40,000. The statistics are depressing! Why know when you could sit on your back porch in the shade and drink an RC Cola? I don’t want to know how far behind we are in the church budget because people aren’t tithing. But I do. I don’t want to know how many FBC members never actually come to church, let alone get involved. But I do.
And I need to.
I need to know. I need to ask. I need to get involved. Because I am the church and so are you.
Be strong and very courageous the LORD told Joshua three times in the first nine verses of chapter 1 of Joshua. Be strong and very courageous.
Do not wait to be called on to make a difference in the world.
“This is your church,” I always tell the Awakening young adults Sunday school. “Get involved.”
“This is your world,” I tell the college students, “Change it.”
The church is not old people. It is all people, committed to be church for each other.
Listen to your heart, sense your calling, take your passion for injustice and do something about it. Sign up for Habitat or Mobile Loaves and Fishes. Start an action team, join an action team.
Listen to your spirit, sense the pull, take your passion for education and do something about it. Volunteer to teach a Sunday school class, sign up for SALT, spend time with FBC’s youth, volunteer to tutor students.
Listen to your head, sense your sympathies, take your passion for children and sign up to mentor at Oak Springs, work in the nursery, brainstorm with the team for next year’s VBS.
Do not wait to be called on to make a difference in the world. Be aware. Be involved. Be church. Be strong and very courageous.
Did you know that we had to turn away children for VBS and Creative Arts Camp because we didn’t have the workers or supplies or have any idea that many children would want in? Did you know that half of the kids we did have at VBS were visitors and are continuing to come to the church?
Did you know that we are starting to recycle paper in the church office, but that we still are using Styrofoam cups on Wednesday nights?
Did you know that a potentially three hundred year old oak tree has been donated to our church and will arrive to thrive in our green area sometime next year?
Did you know that we are way behind in our budget and that staff is being told that important programs may be cut because we don’t have the money to do them?
Did you know that the flowers in the bouquet on Sunday mornings are put into vases and delivered to members of our congregation who are unable to come to church?
Did you know that our church building welcomes multiple groups during the week who use our rooms including Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Gathering of the Men, Teen CBS, Mosaic, the Brazilian congregation and Mozart Fest? All programs outside of FBC who use our building because we have made ourselves available to them.
Did you know that we did the play JB because one member of the congregation stepped forward and said “I want to do this”?
Did you know that Awakening Sunday School started because two or three single people said “we want a bible study with people our own age”?
Did you know that an Environmental Action Team has just started because one Sunday school class recognized our responsibility as Christians to the earth and took steps to become more educated on environmental issues?
Did you know that Beresheth utilizes over 15 different musicians who otherwise are not using their musical gifts in worship?
Do you even know what Beresheth is?
Did you know that the girl who sang the solo “Stars” last week is also our Clarion editor?
Did you know that next year we will celebrate the 20th year anniversary of a church we helped start in Juarez?
These things are so exciting and so scary in a variety of ways! But all these things relate to who you are because you are the church. This is you. Beresheth is you, Sunday school is you, Habitat is you, Youth trips are you, Children’s programs are you, budget meetings are you, the Clarion editor is you, this building is you.
You are the church. Find your passion, get involved, be active, love each other, hate each other, forgive each other and love each other again. Find a way to serve so that your soul is satisfied. Educate yourself on what is happening in our church so that the eye doesn’t say to the hand, “I don’t even recognize you. You’re a part of this church?”
You are the church. You are young, you are old, you are business people, you are artists, you are female, you are male, you are so different and yet called to be committed to one another, to be church to one another.
It is yours. The church is yours. Get involved, take initiative, tithe, volunteer, trust others, be trusted by others, be church to one another.
I learned this song about church before I knew what the church was.
Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so. Little ones to Him belong. They are weak but he is strong.
You are Christ’s daughters and sons. Love each other as Christ has first loved you. You may feel weak, but be strong and very courageous for you are the church.