How do people experience churches? Is it place where the lost can be found, where the wanderer can be welcomed in, where we can throw 3:30am parties?
Churches can come across as police departments handing out tickets and enforcing the rules. Some churches serve as political action committees solving issues and problems, handing out voting guides and drawing lines in the sand. It’s a growing phenomenon for churches to become more like theaters with stages, stars, spectacles, lights, videos and fog machines. On the other hand, churches sure can seem like mortuaries, somber, serious and important. Especially in our circles, we might more appreciate a church that styles itself as a seminary, the keepers of the facts who transfer knowledge as they stress learning, Bible knowledge and theological acumen. Our list should also include churches that function as museums like a cultural preservation society reminding people of days gone by, preserving traditions, memories and relics.
What if people experienced City Pres like a gathering of good friends, celebrating a party? What if we were a welcoming community, inviting others to join us? What if we were generous, all sharing our gifts, talents, and our poverty with each other? What if we expected God’s grace to transform our lives? What if we grieved and lamented together, and then turned to joy and gladness? What if captives were set free, the lost were found, the wounded bound up, the naked clothed, the hungry fed, the orphan adopted and the widows brought into true families?
This is a holistic vision. We’re going to have to pursue this as holistic people. That’s not a New Age term. I mean it that we’re whole people: hearts, minds, bodies, feelings, expressions, and so much more.
Our crowd tends to value, and some might say overvalue, thinking, theology and doctrine. Presbyterians love to take notes and get their outlines straight. We’re all about catechisms and the trivium (grammar, logic and rhetoric). We nod our heads, and then like to think about it.
All of that is good. We need to learn these facts and how they relate to each other. It’s important for us to see how the Scriptures relates to itself, to us and our world, and most of all to Jesus. I love systematic theology, biblical theology, and historic theology. I think we should be able to quote catechism answers, memorize verses and give an overview of books of the Bible. We might end up rocking it on trivia night when the Bible comes up.
In Romans 12:2, Paul writes, “Do not be conformed to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”
What we think is so important. We need to fill our thoughts with God’s thoughts. Johann Kepler, a mathematician and astronomer from 1571–1630, said, “We must think God’s thoughts after him.”
Our world tells us we should think positive. Just this week I had a woman suggest a book about dianetics, the relationship between metaphysics and health, which is really about the power of our thoughts. Presbyterians love Rene Descartes when he said, “I think, therefore I am.” We’re all about some Cartesian Christianity.
But the Bible—not so much. Not everything is thinking.
There’s also doing. We can’t think through everything. Our bodies are connected to our thoughts. We need to walk in God’s ways, conforming our actions to his too. Sometimes our thoughts follow our actions. As we walk in God’s paths, we understand and know better what they are and why we’re there. We’re called to righteousness, holiness, and godliness. We’re called to practice justice and mercy, to walk humbly with our God. The Bible is filled with calls to obey, and God doesn’t always fill in the thinking man’s reasoning to his satisfaction. One of those calls is in James 1:22–25: “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.”
I’m not saying go through the motions. But I am saying there is something about doing it that might unlock the knowing it. When I don’t want to work out or I don’t feel like it, one of the things I do is head toward the direction of the gym. I tell myself I don’t have to go in or work out, but I’ve committed to showing up. So then when I’m in the parking lot, I go inside. Then I put my clothes and shoes on. Then I stand there. Then I start, figuring I can always bow out. Then I start the warm up. And pretty soon, I’ve done the work out. Is that going through motions, or was that working out? I’d say it was the motions of working out.
As Bob Goff’s book says, Love Does! We want to get out there and show up. We want to practice love, forgiveness, repentance, sacrifice, justice and mercy. We don’t want to only think about it—we want to do it!
There are a ton of churches who only operate along this thinking and doing axis. They would tell you to get your rear in line and get with the program. They’d tell you that your thinking and your doing are connected and you need to think and do better, more like what God wants. If you have sin in your life, then think about it or stop doing it. Do repentance. Do the right thing, and good things will happen.
I want to propose that there’s another axis involved, and that this other axis really matters. It informs and invigorates the church to not devolve into only thinking and doing, which can cave in on itself. This goes along with what we see in the Bible’s communications to us as people. It’s also what Jesus was talking about when he quotes the Old Testament and says, “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” (Mark 12:30)
We’re saying engaging both hearts and minds. We’re doing pretty well with the minds part. We can always do more, but let’s also remember that increasing our own knowledge is not the only goal. We learn when we help others learn. We learn when we see other’s learn. That involves our hearts. Our hearts are made bigger when we give away what we know so others can join us in the knowing journey. There’s something beautiful—for both people—when a PhD sits down to read with a kindergartener.
I like to say that there are stories and symbols, both of which also make meaning for us. We learn how to think and how to act as we enter into stories and symbols. Stories hold a certain power over us. We learn how to think and act about heroism, courage, hurt, and sacrifice from stories, from books, movies, jokes, news, magazines, and sharing our personal lives. We’re learning about how men and women relate to each other. We’re learning how to be rich or poor, to live selfishly or generously, to be on this or that side of town, what values we have as a person, culture and society. These stories shape us.
And we have symbols. Symbols act as a sort of short hand to a longer story. We have rings, flags, ceremonies, memorials, and certain clothing that mean things to us, even if we don’t know what they mean all the time. My wedding ring isn’t my marriage. I have not always been a good husband, and yet I slipped it on my finger on March 5, 1994, and it’s still there, reminding me that I’m taken, that I’m committed, and that I promised Julie I would be.
The Bible is filled with stories and symbols because these are operative in faith. People are created in the image of God—that’s a symbol. Moses held up a snake on a pole in Numbers. God uses art and imagery to describe himself. He doesn’t ever settle on one, but he ranges around to communicate the many different aspects of his attributes. Over and over again Jesus said things like, “I am the vine and you are the branches,” “I am the good shepherd,” and of course, “This bread is my body,” and “This wine is my blood.” The Bible is overwhelmingly a book of stories and songs, much more than letters and doctrine.
The Bible is filled to with thinking and doing. All of these go together in a rich life of faith.
Some churches love stories and symbols. They are filled with stained glass, vestments and the church calendar’s beauty. However, they do not pursue either thinking or doing. They’re not places with either a historic orthodox, Biblical, theological thinking or a committed, repentant, prayerful godly, holy doing.
Likewise, many of the churches in our nation are filled with committed doers who love to think and learn, but they’ve stripped their churches with signs, symbols and stories. They function more like logic factories and righteousness promoters.
Engaging hearts and minds means we put books out on the book table for you to pick up, read and interact with. We preach and teach the Bible every week, so we can know it better. We learn. We do a Summer Learning Series. We have retreats and conferences. We love learning with our minds.
We also weep and lament together. We feel deeply. We can (gasp!) raise our hands in joy and praise. We can shout amen! We can laugh and hurt and be sad and angry. We’re not stoics. We’re not in graduate school seminars. We’re people who have souls that ache and soar.
We want to worship in a building that isn’t only practical and functional. We believe that architecture helps form us to look our eyes up at God’s majesty. We want to fill our building with art that inspires us, baffles us, calls us, informs us, comforts us, propels us. We need artists to call us to something deeper that we truly know in our hearts but can’t express in words as well. We tell stories of rescue, and we tell them in the Bible, in our lives and in our culture. We tell a story each week in worship as we gather in resistance, as we go through the drama of the liturgy: God calls us, and we respond. We greet one another as a community of strugglers, aliens and strangers, but friends. We sing to our great God. We hear his Word for us. We repent, ask for forgiveness and receive his grace. We taste and see that the Lord is good. We give him our lives as an offering. He sends us out. That’s a formative story. During the year we work through the story of God coming to earth in Christ, of his life and ministry to us, of his death and resurrection and of the Holy Spirit empowering the church at Pentecost.
We recognize that each of us is a masterpiece, and we need to honor and respect what God has made in his image. We have symbols all over. Robes. Candles. Art. Baptism. The bread and the wine. The dove. Alpha and Omega. An extended hand. A hug. A cup of coffee.
These can give comfort and inspire imagination. You can research and wrestle with them. You can rest in their historicity, but also consider creating something new for today.
What would our church be like if we did this? If we pursued prodigals and engaged whole person in our hearts and minds?
We’d learn and study for sure. We’d worship both corporately, but also privately. We’d read and study and memorize and discuss our Bibles. We’d pick up books. We’d show up when we had the chance to learn more. We’d appreciate teaching. We’d follow spiritual formation practices. We’d seek to know God, not just know about him. We might sign up to get some counseling so we can know and understand our own lives better. We’d appreciate our senses, the music and art of the church. We’d seek to develop those in a broader range than we currently do. We’d ask the Holy Spirit to form us into what he wants us to be. We’d put to death the things of the flesh and bring alive the things of the Spirit. We’d confess and repent of the evils of our hearts and run after the forgiveness and freedom Christ brings.
We’d value experiential learning alongside academic learning. We’d invite others into all of this instead of hoarding it for ourselves. We’d seek wholeness for people. We’d resist arrogance and pride, but be humble learners, seeking what is right, true, good and beautiful. We’d try to become good at telling and listening to stories. We’d appreciate and use the signs and symbols of the church as beautiful mysteries calling us to deeper commitment and faith.
We’d throw parties at 3am. We’d kill the fattened calf. We’d party well together. We’d sing boisterously. We’d paint and sculpt and write and act and dance and run and design and build and cook and organize—all for Jesus.
This is a radical hospitality. It’s fearless conversations. It’s genuine humility. It’s a real anticipation that God is at work building his kingdom in the church.
If that existed, I’d go there. God’s not irrelevant when he’s working like that in the midst of a broken world, and a broken people. This is the ministry of Jesus for us, to us.