There’s the church you’ve got, but then there is the church you want.
It is sad that they are not always the same. (In fact rarely the same.) Out of all the churches I have been a part of throughout my life, two really jazzed me. They made me sense I was a part of the very Life of Jesus. And both times it was because, in addition to all the fervent worship of Jesus (guided by “sound doctrine” – though they were), these assemblies embraced the poor (in fact a mix of various groups) with open arms. The Sunday assemblies were a jammed up mishmash of unlikely people celebrating their faith together with great care and intimacy.
I want to tell you about the first one I ever experienced (and this, after a childhood full of church experiences where the “sound doctrine” reigned supreme). I was at college in Abilene, Texas in the 90’s. I made friends with a Sociology student who invited me to visit New Life Church. This humble church met in a community center on the poor side of town and was led by ACU students sent from the Southern Hills Church of Christ. My very first Sunday, I was hooked when I drove up and saw my young, white, college buddy in the doorway, shortly before the worship service, with three little black kids hanging off of him like he was human monkey-bars. They were playing with him and enjoying his affection. I had never seen such an image before in my life. You would have thought Santa Claus had come to town! That image burned in my brain.
Once a month different Bible classes at SHCofC would come to the community center to cook for and serve the people of New Life Church. The people of New Life Church tended to fall into one of three demographic groups. Rich, white college kids made up about one third of the assembly. Poor, black children – mostly under sixteen – made up about another third. Then there was a group of addicts from the One-Eighty House – men and women ranging from young adult to middle age mostly and from all ethnicities, but sharing a struggle with drug and alcohol addiction. Add to that the Southern Hills church monthly delegates serving this group of 70 – 90 people. We were all different parts of The Body, alright.
The regular feature of this group that stood out the most was the singing. Our young preacher was still growing as a speaker – and also as a community organizer. So it wasn’t really the sermons that were so hot. But the singing was particularly lively and tended to cater to youth with a strong influence of Old Negro Spirituals and even Blues. The love seemed to just flow so richly. Also, we ate together – a lot.
Eventually, New Life obtained a church building. (I was actually sad about that, but it seems the natural progression of things when churches start growing.) It was an old church building which had served a Spanish language congregation for years. At least it was on our side of town. And one of the first things leadership decided to do was to rip out the last four rows of pews. In their place, we set up dinner tables with chairs around them. When our church took communion, we took it as a meal together.
We were all a very young church. There is no doubt that we did not know much. We tried to hold to the essentials of church doctrine and all that. But there is no doubt we knew Jesus. Jesus came to New Life. And my brief experience there was one of the ecclesial highlights of my life – an ideal I hold to in my mind.
With all the criticisms I launch on “the church,” it seems I should share this image. I am not just some old crank. I have met Jesus. And all the sham-n-glam I encounter in his name at every turn, it seems, don’t hold a candle to the real thing.