In the midst of struggling to do church well spiritually and practically, we must remember the reason for the church: Christ himself. With this in mind, I'm writing a three-part series, Our Only Hope, focused on the good news that undergirds Pillar on the Rock.
In the first post in this series, I outlined how the gospel is foundational and central to the life of the church. In this second post, I'm discussing how the gospel is sufficient for the church's work.
Part II: The Gospel is Sufficient
To say the gospel is sufficient means that we believe that the gospel is up to whatever challenges we throw at it, in any stage of the Christian walk. While most churches understand the sufficiency of the gospel for salvation, I believe many do not understand its power for sanctification. There seems to be a discontinuity when churches transition from conversion to discipleship. I suspect that we stumble at this particular point because we're tempted to think, "We understand the gospel. That's foundational. Now let's start talking about [marriage/abortion/pride/anger/etc]."
As a typical example: Most guys I've met have struggled with lust, so it's a popular topic in the men's discipleship world. The typical answers I've heard—in Bible studies or popular books on the topic—tend to run like this: "Okay, look: this really dishonors God. And you're basically committing adultery—see? You have to stop!" Then he helpfully supplies practical tips for defeating lust.
And this is how we handle discipleship in general! Problems with your marriage? I dare you to rebuild your relationship! Having a hard time figuring out financial priorities? Just act your wage. Trouble with the kids? Remember that bringing up boys is hard work in our culture, and do it well.
Trying to tackle sanctification with nothing but practical advice is like trying to heal a broken bone by sticking a bandaid on it. The attempt is doomed—it would be laughable if it weren't so sad.
Don't get me wrong: I think practical advice goes a long way (Proverbs is full of it). Some people are ignorant of the principles laid out in Scripture, and we should help them live in step with the rhythms of God's world. In the end, though, we're back to that broken bone with a bandaid if we don't deal with the root issues—gospel issues—which cannot be fixed with mere pragmatism. The medicine for our wound is the work and person of Jesus Christ. Sanctification, like salvation, comes by grace alone.
In his discussion on overcoming sin, the apostle John wrote, "Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is" (1 John 3:2). Similarly, Paul reminded the Corinthians, "And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit" (2 Corinthians 3:18). As I see it, there are two points we must take away from these passages:
Holiness grows by seeing God as He is—not by our practical steps, no matter how good or how wise those efforts are.
Our sanctification is a product of the Spirit's work in our lives, and is not only a result of our own striving.
In my sophomore year of college I spent months trying, and failing, to overcome pride and anger by my own power. Neither being confronted with my sin nor wrestling with it in my own heart produced change, although those steps were important. Seeing Christ—angered by self-righteousness, yet tenderhearted and humble—transformed me. Being confronted by His grace changed me.
We must communicate that Christ's work wipes away more than just our record of sins. He cleanses us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9); He is our sanctification and our wisdom from God (1 Corinthians 1:30-31).
We at Pillar on the Rock would like to wish you a Happy Thanksgiving.
As you celebrate this holiday with family, friends and feasting, I encourage you to ponder these questions:
What am I thankful for?
To whom am I thankful?
During these days, I encourage you to remember whom you should thank for your many blessings. It is to the Father, the Creator, the Provider and the Giver of Life that our thanks should be directed. All good comes from Him.
Please also remember the work that Christ has done for you – that He has taken our punishment on himself and has made us righteous. For that, we should be eternally thankful.
Finally, we encourage you to thank God for the gift of His church, which He uses so mightily in our lives and the world.
Chris and I will be remembering our thankfulness through feasting with our families for the rest of the week. We look forward to seeing you again on Monday.
Outgoing Links is a series in which we share interesting articles about the church. Please follow the links in the title to see the original site. Be sure to leave comments below with your thoughts.
(This week's post is up a day early due to the American Thanksgiving holiday.)
Psalms of Ascent: Songs for the Sojourn
Christ the King Presbyterian Church in Raleigh, has taken on an interesting project: they've tried to integrate the Psalms into the life of their congregation. Devotional readings from the Psalms have a strong history. Since the Reformation, however, it's seen a steady decline, especially among non-liturgical traditions. Recently, the practice has started to pick back up again—a trend we think is fantastic. In general, we'd love to see more congregational reading of Scripture, and we love it when churches participate devotionally. Take a look at the resources below, and note the devotional materials they've assembled as well! [source:Justin Taylor]
The Psalms of Ascents (Psalms 120-134) were songs that God’s people sung as they sojourned to worship God in Jerusalem. As they sang them, they experienced a deep longing to worship God in Jerusalem.
The Psalms of Ascents are songs that we now sing as we sojourn to worship God in our eternal home. As we sing them, we experience a deep longing to be with God.
Their sojourn was a pilgrimage. Our sojourn is our life.
We invite you to join us as we engage with these songs for the sojourn, through sickness, sorrow, pain, and death. We invite you to engage with these songs for the sojourn through health, happiness, comfort, and life.
Don't Go To Church?
Jeff Purswell, of Sovereign Grace Ministries, tackles a common phrase in evangelical circles: "Don't go to church; be the church." He argues that, while well-intentioned, the statement really ends up missing the mark. He also graciously points out the source of statements like this, before gently confronting the idea with the latter half of Hebrews 12 (which happens to be one of my favorite passages in Scripture).
At Mount Sinai everything served to emphasize the chasm between God and these people. At Mount Zion everything encourages us to come boldly into God’s presence. There, at Mount Sinai, the scene itself is frightening—fire, darkness, gloom. Here, at Mount Zion, is a gleaming city, the New Jerusalem, the place where God dwells with his covenant people.
Now think about your church. Think about the people with whom you serve, live, and worship. Have you fully grasped just what your local church is and what it’s doing on a Sunday morning? Your local church is one authentic, visible manifestation of the entire people of God for all time. It is a part of the heavenly throng that even now is worshiping before the throne of God. And we get to be part of that!
Nothing is as important to the life of the church as knowing Jesus Christ. How we understand him, his work, and his relationship to the church determines everything we do.
In the midst of struggling to do church well spiritually and practically, we must remember the reason for the church: Christ himself. With that in mind, I'm starting a three-part series, Our Only Hope, focused on the good news that undergirds Pillar on the Rock.
The church exists because Jesus Christ became incarnate, was born, lived, died, and rose again. In his life, he trained men to take the good news to every nation. After ascending into heaven, he sent his Spirit, who from that day forward has empowered all believers to carry his name to every people. The church exists to glorify God by showing his saving work in Jesus to all the world.
Without a constant telling of this story, churches die. Some of them wither away until nothing but a husk remains. Others fill to the brim with hell-bound, unregenerate men and women. Whether they wither or fill depends only on the charisma of their personnel. Without Jesus' blood-bought atonement for sin and incarnation-brought life, a church is just another social club.
On the other end of the spectrum, assuming the gospel can be just as deadly as neglecting it. When church leaders assumes the congregation understands the gospel, they can be tempted to stop preaching it. Soon enough, the church is presenting seminars and self-help sessions with the Bible as their manual, and Jesus is mentioned as merely a good example—not the necessary savior of the world.
If you've ever been in a stagnant church, chances are good that the mission of the church—making Christ known—has been replaced by something less. If you make the mission of your church to save the poor, help the homeless, generate personal holiness, be relevant, or draw a crowd, the result will be the same: death.
The purpose of every project the church undertakes must be to make Christ known. Every sermon must declare the news that he lived, died, has risen, and is coming again—whether the topic is evangelism or child-rearing.
The gospel is necessary: without good news, there is no church. Every real church is planted with the gospel, composed of people who believe the gospel, and designed to further the spread of the gospel.
Nothing is as important to the life of the church as that its members know Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. How we understand him, his work, and his relationship to the church determines everything we do.
When we preach the gospel clearly and understand it to undergird all of the work that the church does, our churches will flourish. When we fail to understand the gospel and its implications for all of life, our churches may grow in numbers, but they will die spiritually. These posts outline how the gospel works in the life of the church, and highlight how deep our need for God is. If we don't get this right, every other post we write is pointless.
Fridays are a day we exult in community. We'll try to highlight blogs that we read, churches that we like, pastors that we respect, books that we enjoy, and then briefly explain why. You can expect Community Fridays to be short, snappy, and pointing to all the wonderful things God is doing in the church at large!
Ed's primary role is President of LifeWay Research and LifeWay's Missiologist in Residence.
Stetzer is also the author of a number of books. Recently, I (partly) read Breaking the Missional Code - a book he wrote with David Putnam. I definitely enjoyed reading it and would encourage you to do the same if you come across it.
If you follow us on twitter, you may have noticed that we often re-tweet Stetzer’s insights. Samples of his tweets:
"A missional church is not successful by its dynamic leaders but by its dynamic members."
“The church is not the center of God’s plan, Jesus is, but the church is central to God’s plan.”
A man and his wife are long-time members of a church. As the years wane, and the kids grow, the couple drifts apart. Other church members care, but they dare not say a word. More time passes, and the man has an obvious preoccupation with his work, spending more time with it than he should. Others notice, but they dare not say a word.
Soon enough, the man begins traveling "on business" at an ever-increasing pace. Others suspect, but they dare not say a word. In unsurprising fashion, the wife eventually discovers the man's adultery. Others are quick to console her and assure her that nothing could have been done.
The man apologizes and the wife takes him back conditionally. Others are suspicious, but no one dares to offer—much less insist on—accountability. The man and wife have difficulty in addressing their troubles. Others care, but they dare not say a word. The man, once again, secretly goes back to his mistress. No one knows at first, because no one is holding him accountable. The wife again catches her husband in his adultery. Others are quick to console her and assure her that nothing could have been done.
The wife then casts the man out of their house. Others continue to console her, but dare not say a word to him. The man decides that finding another church is too much of a hassle, and decides to stay at that very church. Others fume, but dare not say a word. He continues attending the church, but now brings his mistress with him. Others are aghast, but dare not say a word. Eventually, the man grows tired of the church and decides to leave on his own volition. Others are glad to see him go. The man decides to not remove his membership so that he stays on the good side of the "Big Man Upstairs". Others are disgusted, but leave his name on the list because, what else can they do?
We at Pillar on the Rock strongly believe in practicing church discipline. We also understand that not everyone has been introduced to this biblical church practice, and some may even oppose it, thinking it unloving. This all-too-common story illustrates the necessity of discipline within the church—and the consequences when it is not practiced. In the future, I plan to explain the biblical purposes and practices of church discipline.
In the mean time, consider these passages:
1 Corinthians 5
Matthew 18: 15-17
Titus 3: 1-11
Galatians 6: 1-10
1 Timothy 5: 19-20
What experiences have you had with church discipline? Leave a note in the comments below!
Greg Gilbert of 9 Marks (an organization we have endorsed previously), was recently a guest in a panel on multi-site churches. [Get the audio or video of that panel discussion]. Interestingly, Greg was the only participant in the discussion who was not a leader in a multi-site church. Two weeks after that panel, Greg has written this post to clarify some thoughts he had on the New Testament description of church meetings.
I realize that for some people, it won’t change much in their thinking even if it becomes really clear to them that the NT church met together. There’s a real debate going on, apparently—even among Baptists, of all people—about whether the example of the NT is prescriptive for us. I think it is prescriptive, and I think that’s an incredibly important point, but I’m not going to argue it here.
There is no example in Scripture, either in Acts or anywhere else, of a multi-site church as we think about that today. Whatever the size, whatever the circumstances, they seem to have met together, and you have to do quite a bit of speculation to get to any other conclusion
Jim Elliff, at the CCW Blog, has posted an interesting list describing some of the reasons why churches shrink and how shrinking churches can combat the loss.
A humorous sample:
In one of my first churches I removed the numbers board from the front of the auditorium. … That’s the board that tells you how many members you have and how many people are attending Sunday School, how many brought their Bibles, plus a few other facts. It rests beside the choir loft usually on the right side, producing either pride or dismay. I removed it. One woman almost fainted in consternation. She was also the one who insisted that all of us fill out the “Eight point record system.” That’s about checking off if you attended, were on time, brought your Bible, completed a “study course,” and did other things. I didn’t fill one out, nor did most of the people. But she was so committed to it that she filled mine out for me every Sunday. Though I was the pastor and she didn’t give me 100% many Sundays!
While his post is lengthy, the points he makes are important for any church to consider.
J.D. Greear of Southeastern Theological Seminary on exegesis and creativity and preaching (though the post has now mysteriously disappeared... the blog itself is here, but no post!):
I enjoy listening to the guy who is creative in how he packages and presents his messages. I also enjoy the guy who really knows how to do “exegesis,” i.e., can get into a passage, walk me through it, unpack it carefully, and make me feel, when he’s done, like I really understand that passage much better than I did before.
Unfortunately those two guys are rarely the same person.
I think the key is knowing what order to employ each of those elements in your sermon preparation. I think you must know how to discipline and harness your creativity so that it serves the text and not trumps the text.
Though both are essential, I think that exegesis must precede creativity.
When I let my creativity precede my exegetical work, then I end up cramming what I want to say into a text. The text serves as I kind of playground in which I find ways to use it to say what I already want to say. That kind of preaching is interesting but, at the end of the day, unfaithful to my calling and unsatisfying to those wanting to know God. The Summit Church does not need my word, it needs God’s word.
But when I force myself to do the exegesis FIRST, trying to strip my mind of all creative elements, I can let the Holy Spirit teach me what He was trying to say in a passage first. THEN, AFTER I’m done with that, I can look back at what I’ve gleaned and allow my creativity to go to work, packaging that content in a way that captures people’s attention.
If you stop with the exegesis, you will be right in what you preach, but unfortunately a lot of people will miss what you are saying. Our message is too urgent to be satisfied that we have simply presented the material accurately. No true fisherman consoles himself for catching no fish by pointing out the excellency of his bait.
So what do you think? I know I personally find exegesis exciting as can be, and I don't think I've ever heard a well-executed exegesis that I found boring. Of course, I'm not necessarily representative of the larger population! Greear's advice seems solid, in any case: let Scripture drive you, then apply your God-given gifts of creativity to deliver it in as compelling a package as you can. Of course, we must always remember that in the end our creativity cannot accomplish what the Holy Spirit can... but He can use it!
Paul writes that with every trial we face, God supplies a way of escape. For Jaimie and me, God supplied a church.
These first four months of marriage have been both spectacular and spectacularly trying. God has seen fit to test us and put us in the refining fire almost since the first day of our marriage. Without godly friends supporting us, we would be in serious trouble.
Authentic. Transparent. Real. Community.
They're buzzwords for a reason. Every one of these words represents deep longing for meaningful relationships. Add to that longing a sense that the church is often severely lacking in deep relationships—that it is actually filled with a lot of smiling faces hiding weeping hearts—and you have the perfect recipe for a lot of conversation on how to build community.
This discussion is both natural and good. Jesus told his disciples that the world would know them by their love for each other. In the hours before his arrest, he prayed:
"I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me." John 17:20-23
In a way, it's a good thing that "community" is a buzzword: at least we recognize its importance. The downside to this is the ease with which we tune out such familiar topics. It is especially sad when, as in the case of community, the topic ignored is vitally important for the health of a church.
Community, for Jaimie and me, has been surprisingly simple: no grand productions, no over-the-top flourishes. In fact, outside of the phrase "community group," I'm not sure I've ever heard the word used in an official way at our church. Given how well the church encourages community-building, that absence is striking.
The pattern I've seen at Wildwood is both practical and Scriptural. Church elders are involved in every adult fellowship group ("Sunday School" classes), and they make a point to know each member of their groups. Our community group has an ongoing mentoring relationship with one of the elders and his wife. Our church's leadership both models and participates in relationships, and the congregation follows their lead.
Our friends and mentors have increasingly supported us as circumstances have grown harder. They have also been amazing examples of hospitality, service, and self-sacrifice. Consequently, Jaimie and I have grown in our desire to make our home an open and welcoming place, to set ourselves aside when others need us, and to find ways to help others when they struggle.
Authentic community cannot be conjured; it can only be built. Relational churches are the result of relational leadership, of hours spent in prayer and in pursuit of God-oriented friendships. Meaningful fellowship happens when people understand the need to serve each other and feel safe enough to be vulnerable with each other. Christlikeness grows and thrives in the context of godly relationships.
When I was in college, some friends of mine invited me to what they affectionately called "Frisbee Friday." For two hours on Friday afternoons, we'd go out and play Ultimate, running ourselves into the ground and having a great time doing it. One of the things that came out of that was a very deep sense of community. The guy who started the tradition did a better job building community across campus ministries and churches by just getting together and playing a game every week than most of those ministries ever did. (No insult meant to them, but I sure learned a lot from watching Brad.)
In honor of that, Fridays are a day to exult in community. We'll try to highlight blogs that we read, churches that we like, pastors that we respect, books that we enjoy, and then briefly explain why. You can expect Community Fridays to be short, snappy, and pointing to all the wonderful things God is doing in the church at large!
This week: 9 Marks The ministry started by Mark Dever, pastor at Capitol Hill Baptist Church, is devoted to returning the church to biblical, historical patterns of behavior. It's named after nine marks (shockingly enough!) that Dever argues characterize healthy, Biblical churches. We thoroughly agree with him.
You can read the whole list here. My personal favorites?
4: A Biblical understanding of conversion
6: A Biblical understanding of membership
8: Promotion of Christian discipleship and growth
Of course, PJ's are probably different, and there is more than an off chance yours might be as well. Takeaway: the Bible gives us normative patterns for the church; we'd be fools to ignore those patterns. 9 Marks is doing a fantastic job pointing back to Scripture as the basis for how we do church.
They also have a fantastic blog we both enjoy reading (Church Matters - great name!), with regular contributions from a pastor named Thabiti Anyabwile. Really, who can resist a name like that?
The word has such depth and meaning, so many uses and connotations. It seems to always bring either love or hatred with it - and always strong conviction.
There are two standard responses to dead traditionalism. The first response is perhaps the one with which you are most familiar - the rejection of all tradition. I see this attitude from Baptists who often proclaim, "We have no creed but the Bible.1" I don’t believe this sort of rejection is actually possible, though. Ponder with me the definition of tradition: it is the handing down of information, beliefs, and customs. In its basest sense, tradition means teaching. To reject all tradition would require the rejection of all kinds of teaching. This would also include the exclusion of the Bible which we have, in part, due to tradition.
Rejecting all tradition is also arrogant. To think that you (or your peers) know and understand all things better than the whole collection of Christian history is foolish. In any case, the total rejection of tradition is both impossible and wrong.
The second response - embracing dead traditions - I find equally as bad as the first. When I visit a church filled with tradition, I find myself pondering the meaning of the traditional aspects of the service. When I ask congregants the purpose of some of the elements observed, I often receive these typical responses:
“I don't know.”
“That's just what we do.”
“Doesn’t everyone do that?”
Presumably, the leaders of the church would be able to answer my questions, but dead traditions are dead when the practicing congregation does not understand the intended teaching. If the purpose of the practice had been passed down as prudently as the procedure, then the tradition wouldn’t be dead in the first place.
The problem with both responses is that they consider all tradition to be equal, instead of distinguishing between the useful and the useless. Rather than rejecting all tradition, or practicing dead tradition, we should practice "living traditions," where churchgoers understand both the historical and modern reasons for the practice. Communion is an excellent example of a living tradition: Christians (should) understand what Christ did at the last supper and how that affects us today. Living traditions are glorious!
I propose that the proper response to dead traditionalism is to bring the traditions back to life. Once a tradition's meaning is understood, it can either be rejected as teaching something false, or embraced as true and worthy of observation. If the teaching behind a tradition cannot be defined, then it should be ignored and no longer practiced.
If you are part of a church that uses traditions you do not understand, then it is your duty to seek out the meaning to the motions. Church leaders, also, should be careful to teach (and re-teach) the purpose of your practices.
1 If the BF&M isn’t a creed, I don’t know what it is.
What is your experience with dead traditionalism, or traditions in general? Leave a comment below.
Russell Moore reflects on Sesame Street’s 40th anniversary by applying some of its lessons to the church:
… Sesame Street did contextualize. The writers and producers picked up on familiar themes such as advertising commercials (”This broadcast is brought to you by the letter ‘C.’”). They built their segments around a typical child’s attention span. They featured songs that were easy-to-sing and memorable (pop quiz: can you hum the tune of Ernie’s “Rubber Ducky” song? Of course you can).
And, yes, of course, churches should contextualize the gospel, addressing people in a language that can be heard and understood. But contextualization itself is not enough. Some of the most self-consciously contextualized churches are faddish and hyper-consumerist. They’re more like the mass-marketed latter years of Sesame Street, and less like the early, innovative, culture-shaping times. And we’ve got all the “Tickle Me Elmo” kinds of Christian ministries we can stand …
Ed Stetzer writes an interesting comparison of church plants and the children’s game Red Rover:
…It has occurred to me that we often to adopt a kind of Red Rover Strategy in church planting and pastoring. Like Paul in Acts 16, we hear the call, "Come over and help us!" and we react with a violent attempt to just break through the line. We have a dream in our heart to plant or pastor a church and we become so consumed with this vision that we barrel right into a new town looking for the weakest link in the chain before ever getting an honest and clear picture of the people that live there…
…Do not go plant or pastor a church if all you have is a vision for a particular kind of church, or because you think a particular city is "cool." You can only plant or pastor a church when you have a vision for the people. Part of being missional is to recognize that we are to go into a culture, engage the people of that culture, and plant a Biblically faithful church for those people, all the while acknowledging that culture matters in the way we do ministry…
Greg Gilbert of IX Marks posts here in response to an article Ed Stetzer (who heads up the Southern Baptist Convention's Lifeway Research group, among other things) wrote on his own blog about a month ago.
...look how Stetzer sums it up: "It appears to me that many missional churches are missing the Great Commission in the name of being missional. . . . It is a huge (but historically common) mistake." Stetzer's right. We've seen this before, several times, and it's never ended well.
Now is that a reason to despise the poor? No.
Is it a reason to make sure serving the poor is clearly in service to the preaching (by which I mean speaking) of the gospel? Yes.
Is it a reason to be careful in how we think theologically? Yes.
Have people emphasizing social engagement messed all that up before and lost the gospel? Yes.
Will a new generation of social engagers be able to avoid the problems previous generations fell into? Eh, don't know yet.
Are there signs one way or the other? Stetzer certainly seems to think so.
Those who ignore history, as they say....
Gilbert makes a great point here, following up on the comments Stetzer himself made in the original article (which I highly recommend). The church, thanks in part to a push from the Emergent movement, has recognized that it should care about poverty and injustice. I'm glad. Christians have spent too many years caring more about winning points in political games than about injustice they can help fix directly.
That's not a slam on political engagement, by the way: I think it's just as important as directly helping the poor or afflicted. It's not more important, though.
The thing to watch out for, interestingly, is the same problem we've run into with politics. We can lose the gospel along the way.
This isn't the first time it's happened with either social outreach or politics, of course. I'd even say that getting involved in one or the other to the point of missing the gospel has been the main downfall of many a generation of believers. (Some of the rest realized that and retreated into a shell to prevent it happening to them. Lovely.)
The answer, as ever, is to keep Christ firmly focused in our affections. The church must remember that it's message is Christ born and living, crucified and buried, and resurrected and glorified. Social outreach and political engagement are part and parcel with that task, but they are not the task. Winning men and women to Christ through the proclamation of good news is.
Welcome to Pillar on the Rock! Rather than bore you with lots of details about why we're here and what we're doing, or even who we are, we thought we'd just jump right in. (If you misplace those links, don't worry; you can navigate to them using the tabs just above the posts.) We hope Pillar on the Rock encourages and challenges you!
The Flesh: An Interview with John Doe The following is a transcript of an interview from November 2, 2009. The subject declined to be identified except as "human nature."
How would you describe your relationship with the church?
Sheesh, man, you make it sound like I'm dating the church, or something. That's a little weird, but okay. [Pauses.] I guess I kind of have a love-hate relationship, if you want to use those terms.
Okay. Can you explain the hate side?
Hmm. Well, I mean, it's pretty hard to say, because it really depends on the church. There are a lot of good places for me out there, but some churches just... well, they just make me uncomfortable. I really don't like places that make me feel like that.
So, for example, places where people are unwelcoming and you can't connect?
Well, I suppose you could say that, yeah. That does bug me. But it's not really the problem, not the way I see it. I've been happy in a lot of churches that are as friendly as your southern grandmother on Christmas, if you know what I mean.
Hmm. I'm not sure I do.
Well, lots of places are friendly. They'll chat with you, and learn your name in the thirty-second greeting time. Maybe, if they're extra outgoing, they'll remember your name the next week. All of that's fine with me. It's the ones who invite you over for lunch that start to bother me, though.
Really? How do you mean that?
I'd really rather not get into it. I’ve had lots of bad experiences.
Okay, fair enough. Now, what about the love side of this love-hate relationship?
[Pauses.] I haven't really thought about it that much. A good preacher definitely helps, and good music. Bad music, and I'm out the door.
So what makes a good preacher, in your eyes?
Well, I know what he isn't. He's not pushy or in-your-face. Good ones show me how to handle some of the problems in my life. The best ones make me laugh a lot while they're doing it. When they get too serious, it rubs me the wrong way. I don't like hellfire and brimstone, and I don't need the Bible shoved down my throat. I'm a good and decent person, and it ticks me off when preachers just assume I'm a jerk.
What about the music?
I'm not so picky about styles. I do get annoyed at old hymns the most, I guess, but I don't think it's how they're written. I like songs that make me feel good, that I can just sing or hum and go with the flow. When I have to think about the words at all, I want to throw something at the worship leader. Either because they are hard to follow, or because of how they make me feel. There are quite a few songs that make me feel like a dirtbag, and I like those about as much as the hellfire preachers.
Is that what makes hymns so distasteful to you?
Yeah, probably. I mean, the old style is pretty boring, too, but it doesn't really matter whether they put electric guitars to it or not. It's the words that annoy me.
Now, I noticed you haven’t said much about the Bible, yet. How does the Bible fit into a good church service to you?
Not much, I suppose. It's okay if the preacher quotes it to help support his point . Sermons with a lot of Bible in them get boring pretty quickly, though, and they don't really seem to help me with my problems right now. My life is hard, and I just want something to help me get through the week. If the preacher is all worried about theology, what does that do for me? I want him to teach me stuff that gets results. Otherwise, I’m gonna go somewhere else.
So, is it fair to say that sticking with one church is not a high priority for you?
Definitely. I go where I like. Sometimes it changes week to week.
How loyal would you say you are to your current church?
Not. I mean, I like it okay, most of the time. But I don't see a huge need to stay there. If I find a better place, I’ll definitely change. I'm not even a member, not that it matters. I think I'm still a member of at least two churches back home. It really doesn't mean anything
A lot of people look for close friendships in church. How about you?
Not really, no. Like I said earlier, I've been burned before. But I also don't really like to be open with people all that much. Some of the churches that really bug me are pushy. They have a huge focus on "plugging in," and it seems like they're saying "community" every other time they open their mouths. The pastors at places like that are usually the worst. They ask your name, act all friendly, and then they try to find you a place to "get involved." Not what I'm there for. I come to hear an uplifting message and good songs and get a boost for my week. I don't come so they can pry at my life and try to make me even busier than I am. I've got a life, and God's just one part of it.
What do you mean when you talk about people prying?
Well, people are just... I don't know. Look, I've had people straight up tell me how I should live. I don't talk to those people anymore. It's not really any of their business whether I read my Bible, go out partying on Friday nights, or anything else. It's my life. I really liked some of those people, but they would not leave me alone, and frankly I got sick of it. I like my life, and I really don't want to change it up. The last thing I need right now is more “helpful” people. So I avoid churches that seem like that.
Is that what you were getting at earlier?
Absolutely. Churches where people are really interested in getting to know you, where they think membership actually means something—what a joke, man. I saw one church actually tell a guy he had to leave. Why? Because he got a divorce. His wife was a jerk, and he'd had enough. If I had a wife like that, I'd get out, too—and they kicked him out of the church! That's ridiculous, even though it didn’t matter. I mean, he just went to another church where they didn't do that stuff. I've never seen such a judgmental bunch of people in my life. I liked some of them, too, but after that, well... Plenty of things they might kick me out for, and I figured I might as well get a move on before they could do it. Anyways, I try to avoid places like that, now.
Why do you think they acted that way?
Oh, I'm sure they'd claim it was loving. They're stupid, though. If you love me, take me as I am, and don't ask me to change to fit your religion.
So, to sum up, it seems like the things you dislike the most are a strong emphasis on the Bible, people that try to really engage you, and songs that make you really think. Is that a fair assessment?
Pretty much. I mean, I like people, and all, so I don't want to act like I'm just a total recluse. I just don't like people prying. And I like good songs and preachers fine. I just don't like it when they get, I don't know... preachy. Funny, huh? [Looks at his watch.] Gotta go, man. I've got tons of stuff to do this afternoon.