Every week I attend church with:
Long time church goers
First time attenders
Adults without high school diplomas
People in recovery
People recently released from prison
People who come to church to be warm
People who come to church and insist on being cold
And everyone in between…
Our church averages 60 people on a Sunday.
We meet in a church that looks like 3 others in town. No really, the architectural plans are all identical to three other churches in town. We lease our parking lot because we come up short a few thousand dollars each month. We’re trying to rent our gym and office space, we’ve even offered the exterior of our building to be used for advertisements. We’ll try almost anything to keep the lights on.
Why? Because I worship local.
I could drive a little further and go to my local Walmart, I mean mega church, or to churches designed to target my age group. I could go to whatever church is doing the latest thing, or has the best technology. I could go to churches where I will feel like my time and energy will be part of everything that my friends will think is cool.
But I worship local.
I have reached a place recently where I wonder if I’m identifying with the wrong characters in the story. I’m wondering if the gospel is even for me.
There are beautiful scenes in the Bible about everyone from every tribe and tongue worshipping God. I used to assume that this would be awesome! One day everyone will be like me. Everyone will be white and English speaking.
But then I began to wonder, what if the worship in those scenes was set in Africa? What if we were singing in Romanian? What if the liturgy was in Chinese? What if the socially accepted worship attire was a loin cloth? What if the pastor spoke Korean? What if the deacons and elders were each divorced several times? What if the treasurer was homeless? What if the kingdom of God looks nothing like me?
What if instead of trying to form my community in my image I started to form myself in the image of my community?
What if I was able to lay down my theological and aesthetic pretenses just long enough to learn something from someone different?
What if the church’s proximity to my community was a bigger determining factor in my decision to worship there, than it’s choice in music?
What if I could put up with awkward people, and funny smells, and ratty furniture?
This is why I worship local.
If you’ve ever been to a local farmer’s market or organic food store, you will notice one thing very quickly…it costs more.
It costs more because there is not mega machine behind it. There isn’t a board of cigar smoking directors behind the scene counting the pennies and trying to eek out as much profit as possible by outsourcing and wasting. The reason it costs more is because you are no longer paying for an ear of corn or a bushel of apples. You are paying for the corn and apples and the livelihood of the person that grew them. You realize that not only is healthy food important, but supporting the person/family/community that produces it is equally as important as feeding yourself.
I believe this is true of worshipping local. It costs more.
I give up convenience. I give up taste (in art, music, whatever my hang up is that week), I give up a product tailored for me. I give up fog machines and light shows, and the greatest sermons since Moses came down the mountain. I talk to people that make me uncomfortable. I talk to sex offenders and unwed mothers.
At the same time that it costs my comfort, I also open up to a whole new world.
I open up the potential that Jesus really believes I have.
I open up to the belief that I can really make a difference right where I am. Without millions of dollars, and the latest and greatest whatever, I believe that God has a role for me to play right here, and right now. I don’t have to wait for a giant mega-insertwhateverthebigmoneypeopleproduceris, because I can help my community and my community can help me.
I worship local.
I open up to the idea that maybe I help serve homeless folks from time to time, but in reality about 100 homeless folks speak prophetically and compassionately to me ever single day. In the socio-economic paradigm that Reagan so nicely laid out for us, it’s the rich that drive an economy. Their goods and money will trickle down and make everyone better. So it would appear that I, with my resources, am serving the so-called poor, BUT
This is the polar opposite of the economy that God has been showing me.
In this economy the flow is bottom up. It’s an economy where the wealthy push around shopping carts containing all their possessions and mark their spot under the bridge with signs like, “some people are so poor all they have is money.” It’s an economy where character counts more than bank accounts. It’s an economy whose currency is generosity. It’s an economy where every meal is a gift, and every moment of warmth in the winter is precious, and every moment of cool in the summer is a gift from God.
I have learned more about generosity and compassion from people who appear to have nothing, than I have from anyone else.
I have learned this because I worship local.
I am learning to let go of any sense of entitlement that I have to the stuff in my life. I have began to ask existential questions like, “what is it about me that deserves an education, or money, or any of the friends I have?” or “Why me, and not them?” Why?
I do not know.
I’ve recently been wondering about one of Jesus’ parables. In the parable Jesus describes a person that goes out to get workers for their vineyard (Matthew 20: 1-16).
Workers are collected at the beginning of the day, nine in the morning, the middle of the day, and at the end of the day.
When wages are dispersed they are all paid the same amount. Almost everyone is pissed about this decision.
This seems like a foolish way to run a business. Some might even say, “see that’s what’s wrong with left wing politics, they just want to give everyone a hand out.”
I trust that Jesus is brilliant, and his stories are compelling.
Perhaps what this parable is trying to point out is that the workers all received the same wage, as they were promised, but they were all actually paid unequally. The only way to understand this parable is to shift one’s view of rewards.
What if the reward is not the pay that one receives at the end of the day? What if instead the work itself is its own reward?
If this is the case, then the workers who began working early in the day were actually paid more. They got to do more work and thus received a bigger reward.
The work itself is the reward.
I wonder if this plays out in today’s American church climate. The theology that has shaped much of the ‘old-time religion,’ fundamentalism and later evangelicalism says that one day we will all get out of here, if we have a relationship with Jesus. Therefore, my individual salvation is the chief goal. Since my individual salvation is the chief goal, then I should pursue the so-called worship experiences that make me feel closest to Jesus.
(What follows is judgmental)
These worship experiences can take on the form of pursuing the best show, or the biggest emotional highs that seek to affirm that the individuals involved in them are in fact “saved” and will one day depart.
I think that this view is akin to the workers who are pissed at the end of the day that they got the same wage as those hired at the end of the day, “wait, I sang all the songs, went on the mission trips, voted for x,y, and z and you let a homosexual in here?!”
For them the grace of God seems to be an injustice.
If, however, the work itself was its own reward this would be a foolish observation…If working for the master is itself a reward, then one’s attitude would have to be excitement that more and more people could get in on it. They would be excited about doing the most good for other people, with disregard for their own sense of entitlement to a so-called fair wage. They would feel that it is the work here and now that matters, not any far off future reward.
I wonder what would happen if churches began to root their eschatology* so firmly in the ground they were standing on, that they couldn’t imagine anything more than trying to develop community relationships that would change their community for the better, even if it meant that the church would have to sacrifice the appearance of ‘orthodoxy’*. I wonder what would happen if a Southern Baptist Pastor would approach a Catholic priest and agree to work together on a community project. I wonder what would happen if a Pentecostal small group leader would approach an Immam at a local mosque and ask if there’s anyway she could help? I wonder…
The point is that the preservation of so-called ‘orthodoxy’ and personal holiness for the sake of bolstering one’s own eternal security is nonsense. The only reason to maintain such things is to see that you get what’s coming to you at the end. It is instead the work of the Kingdom. The only goal is to share it with as many people as possible.
This is why I worship local. I don’t want to be the kind of person that feels that I’m entitled or should pursue the best worship. I don’t want to be the kind of person that thinks only on what’s coming to me at the end of a life of perceived holiness.
I want to be the kind of person that helps change the world. I want to be the kind of person who loves people.
More than that, I want to be the kind of person that couldn’t imagine living any other life, because I’m so captivated by the work God has given me to do right here and right now wherever I am that I can’t imagine doing things any differently.
So I say, sell the fog machines, save the lights, unplug the speakers, quit absorbing local churches by promoting the first church of Walmart, and…
If you want to join the worship local movement, set this picture as your profile pic!
*Eschatology is the theological term that describes the study of what will happen at the end of “time.” The historic Christian view has been that Jesus will return, set everything right, and restore, renew, and reconcile everything! (That’s Good News!)
*Orthodoxy is a term that means right thinking i.e. having all of one’s theological ducks in a row.