The Christian life often feels horrendously complicated. It feels like events you show up to: Sunday morning, Sunday night, Wednesday night, potlucks and “fellowships,” and fundraisers for the next camp. Between Sunday School, the ladies Bible study, the MOPS group, the small group and the preaching, you get Bible-studied to death. You start getting cross-eyed every time someone says, “But in the Greek it really means this …” and the Bible you thought you were reading sounds so far and inaccessible to little old you. It always seems like someone is asking you for something: serve in the nursery, teach this class, bring donuts at this time, give money to this or that cause. You feel like a human on tap, but the well is running dry.
The goal of this church is simply to get people in the doors, often by gimmicks. We serve lattes! Look at our McDonald’s play place for your kids! We have bouncy castles and a Bible study class for the whole family! Look at how God is blessing us and we are growing! (Nevermind that new members are most often Christians coming from nearby churches, rather than new believers.)
Add to the events calendar the emotional pressure of Plastic Church. Look how Jesus fixes everything so magically! I’m not struggling at all, I’m trusting him so hard! Bless your heart, I will pray for you! Church is far too often the last place broken people want to be.
Church becomes this juggling act, on top of your other commitments, slowly draining the life out of you. It’s often multiplied if you actually work for the church, because you are expected to start, carry out and finish all of these events.
Most of the churches I’ve been part of have followed this same broken pattern above. And they seem to have the same underlying idea about what church is for: getting people to become Christians who then go to Bible studies to “grow.” And the people who are most “mature” are those running ragged from ministry to ministry within the church.
This model is exhausting because it makes you spend a whole lot of time around church people rather than the rest of the world. And when church people are habitually closed off from the rest of the world, it becomes very easy to become obsessed with dissecting the Greek participles in the parable of the sower rather than searching for good soil. It’s easy to pour more and more theology into your head through Bible studies, while keeping a cool distance between you and the radical Jesus you’re studying.
Do we teach the Bible but fail to encounter the risen and living Jesus?
Because if we know Jesus well, suddenly his life—not just his death—becomes very important to us too, because we want to be like this Jesus. We see Jesus feeding the hungry with actual food, healing people of physical diseases, caring for the oppressed and the dishonored in society and raising up their heads. We see him stooping low with humility, washing dirty feet of those who would abandon him. We see Jesus, the image of the invisible God. We see him with all the wrong people, doling out grace. We hear him crying out, “This is what the Kingdom of God is like, and it’s breaking in! Turn to God, receive this life!”
So how is it that Jesus looks like this, but church so often looks like the model above?
A friend recently described our church as an embassy of God’s kingdom. When you go to the British embassy in the U.S., you are on British soil, you’ll hear British accents, you’ll see British flags and drink high tea. It looks, smells, tastes, feels like England.
When you meet with a group of believers, it’s the embassy of God’s kingdom, and Jesus showed us what it looks like to have the Kingdom break in. It looks like the broken coming for healing, the hungry coming for food, the oppressed finding compassion, the enemies becoming reconciled to God. It should look, smell, taste, feel like Jesus. And He filled us with the Holy Spirit so that we could imitate him for the sake of the world, for the glory of our merciful God. Church suddenly becomes not a building with many events to get people into, but a people who care for one another and the world in the power of God. It becomes an honest place to struggle because we all know the Kingdom is breaking in, but is not fully here, and how can we show you Jesus while we sit with you in the darkness?
When a church looks like this, it becomes life-giving because it is imitating Jesus and Jesus is life. When a church looks like this, the members aren’t perpetually exhausted from serving the saved; they are energized by the Holy Spirit, and by seeing God at work in the Lost. And sure, we still need people in the nursery and to pick up the trash after the service and clear the stage. But a church that looks like Jesus looks like servants, because nothing was too low or mundane or too little for Jesus, the foot washer. You find you can be generous with your time, your money, your energy, your love, because Jesus was the most generous and His riches supply our needs. We are no longer humans on tap, we are gloves on the hands of a living, moving God.
I’m not telling you Bible studies aren’t important. They are.
But I’m asking you to consider whether they are making you and your church like Jesus, who is the Word made flesh. I’m asking you whether church life is meant for you to grow in knowledge, or whether it is the Body of Jesus participating in the Mission of God.
The world has had enough of Christians who are right, who know the right answers. They’ve have very little of Jesus.
(And if you are in the DFW area and exhausted by church, I’d love for you to know about Providence Community Church, a small, beautiful, missional community of imperfect people that has helped us heal from complicated church life, and who have walked alongside us with Jesus.)