By Gordon Vanderwoude
I am not sure why, but conversation on Sunday nights at LIFT sometimes feels stilted, as though being at church makes me feel less free to talk honestly than I normally would. Whether that feeling originates from within or without I will set-aside for now. But whatever the cause may be, I think it is not unfair to say that Christians by and large are very good at playing emotional poker. Although seemingly archaic, the idea of wearing our “Sunday Best” is alive and well, not so much in our clothes but in our attitudes. Maybe it is a little ironic, but I do not think that church is the place to show our best selves. I doubt there is anything more discouraging to a frustrated Believer, or more intimidating to a searching Non-Believer, than for the church around them to look like a museum of happy perfect people: people who look “dangerously cleaned up”, in the words of Dr. Rosaria Butterfield. That last thing we should resemble, even unintentionally, is the Pharisee in Luke 18:11 who prayed, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men”. How much better for ourselves, and for those around us, to resemble the tax collector who prayed, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner”. I think the desire to appear fixed up, however well meaning, is not a useful impulse. Nor does it reflect well on us. Opponents of Christianity would call it hypocrisy. Those on the defensive would call it fortitude. It’s probably somewhere in between.
The other week, a guest at Helping Hands made an astute observation. A recent immigrant from Russia, he said that the thing that first surprised him about Canadians is that they are always ‘fine’:
Every time I say ‘How are you?’ people say ‘fine’. Why do we even ask that question if the only answer is ‘fine’? If you asked that in Russia, you’d get a real answer!
It was a humourous observation of a stereotypically Canadian behaviour, but there was also something disarming about it. It gave me cause to think about what we really mean when we ask, “How are you”. This can mean so many different things, I realized. It can be an expression of genuine interest; it can even be a euphemistic expression of knowing concern; yet most often it is a rote and meaningless greeting, equally often met with a rote and meaningless ‘fine’. While it may be that this is somewhat disingenuous, is it necessarily a bad thing? After all, imagine the chaos that would ensue if every passing acquaintance’s inquiry of “how are you” was met with an unrestricted outpouring of all the grief and joy that happened to be on our hearts at that moment. This is the purpose of decorum. Therefore I must ask, when is the time to let our guard down? I would say with family, with friends, and especially with the church.
After all, what is the purpose of the Sunday service? That’s a bit tricky to answer but I can say with certainty that the purpose of the Sunday service is not the service itself. The music, the lights, and the hotdogs, even the sermon: these are all means but they are not ends. The purpose of the Sunday service, as succinctly as I can put it, is to reach the lost and to edify the saved (so that they may reach the lost). All the effort undertaken by the 50+ people who put together the service each week is towards that ultimate end. If meeting on Sunday night doesn’t help us accomplish these objectives, then we shouldn’t call it church.
To say that the purpose of the service is to introduce or bring people closer to Jesus is not exactly earth-shattering. Yet despite it being so obvious, I often find myself forgetting this. I imagine that I am not alone on that. Maybe I sulk because there was something I didn’t like in the sermon (that’s called the anger of the justly accused). Perhaps I grumble because I liked last week’s song choices better. Maybe I arrive late and leave the second the sermon is over. Maybe I seem present and engaged, but spend the whole evening in my usual circle of friends; never speaking to anyone I haven’t already met. What do these distractions have in common? It is that in each case, I am acting as a mere partaker of the service: a consumer, a discriminating customer, not a stakeholder assuming risk and responsibility for the outcome of the evening. When I act this way, I am not being mindful that church is a serious thing, that is eternity at stake. I said previously that the purpose of the service is to draw people closer to Jesus. We must ask then, whose job is it to accomplish this? The pastor? The Worship Team? The Prayer Team? Absolutely. This role is shared by the official leadership teams as well as with each and every person at LIFT. Over the past few weeks, I’ve heard this point made by a number of different people. At the leadership brunch, Robin called it “leading from the middle”. By this, he was referring to the fact that within any church community, the tone and the culture of the group is not dictated and forced by the visible leadership (which would be more akin to a cult), but is an emergent property of the collected actions and attitudes of each member. The challenging part of this idea is that you have influence, whether you want to or not.
If we all have a role to play at LIFT, what is it? The Epistle to the Hebrews lays out the core of our duty towards each other in chapter 10: Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching. This commandment to build up and encourage was not given just to the pastors, or to the elders, but to the entirety of the church. When we gather, this is the job that has been given us. First, it must be acknowledged that merely being present at a gathering means that you contribute to the culture of the room. This is true whether we like it or not. An immediate corollary is that that your lack of presence also contributes to the culture of the room. Having a sporadic investment of your time in the church community immediately dampens your usefulness for God’s purposes. What good does it do to start a serious conversation with someone who is struggling with his faith if you won’t be there to continue it the next week? How can you help make LIFT a welcoming place for new people if you aren’t around enough to know if people are new or not? As is often said during pre-service prayer, “we are ALL on the Welcome Team”.
If our physical presence (or lack thereof) is the first way in which we contribute, our attitude is second way. I am sure we can all think of people at LIFT who pour themselves into the service so wholeheartedly that their absence would be felt. I do not know about you, but I find that to be an intimidating standard against which to hold myself. But seeing that example being set, I am forced to ask myself: am I invested like that or am I content to go through the motions? Do I spend the whole evening in my usual circle of friends who I will probably see later in the week, or am I willing to put myself out there and talk to people I don’t know, people who look a little lost? More often than not, I do not like the answer to the question when I ask myself this.
If we have a duty to fight against LIFT (or any church) being a collection of inner circles, by being open to all social interaction, we also have a duty to be open within all social interaction. As I alluded to in the beginning, this is the difficulty of living out a proper attitude of honesty and openness at church. This I think is the real key. In pre-service prayer, we often pray that God will help up let go of whatever we are dealing with that day or that week so that our actions throughout the evening will be entirely centred on Jesus (a very good prayer). However, there is a wrong way to take that good impulse, a way in which I am often guilty. There is a big difference between praying to set our focus entirely on Jesus, and praying that we will have the stamina to through the service while pretending that our problems don’t exist. The former is to say, “yes I’ve got problems, but God is bigger than my problems”. It is essentially an act of trust and humility. The latter is to say, “yes I’ve got problems, but church is not the time and place, so I’ll deal with it later”. This is pride.
James 5:14-16 explicitly exhorts us to live with an attitude of openness towards each other: Is any sick among you? Let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord: And the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he has committed sins, they shall be forgiven him. Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that you may be healed. The effectual, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.
Despite being such obviously good advice, it is so difficult to take this instruction seriously. At church, how often do we ask people to pray for us, face to face? How often have we offered to pray for others? I could probably list all the times I’ve prayed or been prayed for on one hand. Yet at the same time, I remember all those moments distinctly because they have been so impactful on me. As I write this and see such a starvation diet of prayer in my time at LIFT over the past year and a half, I’m convicted. I think to myself, “what a waste I’ve made of my time”. Certainly I can try and convince myself that I am invested. I can bring to mind how “busy” I am. But, that would be mistaking busyness for productivity, and what is more productive than prayer? John Bunyan, the author of Pilgrim’s Progress once said, “After you pray, you can do more than pray. But until you pray, you cannot do more than pray”. The great preacher John Wesley once quipped, “I am too busy to pray less than three hours a day”. For those of us who “lead from the middle”, I think that there is no better use of our time Sunday night than to fill it with prayer. And by prayer, I mean real prayer, dangerous prayer, prayer that comes with risk. But in order for such a thing to be real, we need to come into TwelvEighty with both anticipation and intention, aware of our role and taking it seriously. Do we have conversations that can lead to fruit or is it just frivolous chatting? Do we spend the evening pretending that the difficulties of life don’t exist or do we come to church with the express purpose of confronting them? Are we prepared to be honest before each other and honest before God? Have we come to do our job, or are we mere audience members? The thought of living obediently to James 5:14 is scary to me. It is scary because I don’t know where it would lead. Yet it is those acts of faith that are coupled with real risk, stepping out when you don’t know where you are going, following Him to places that perhaps you can’t come back from, that God truly honours. Being lukewarm will accomplish nothing, nor will a life of safe Christianity see God’s purposes accomplished in our lives and the lives around us.