Experiencing teaching as worship

(With special thanks to my pastor, John Boulet)

For much of my Christian life, I considered the more musical portion of the service to be when real worship would take place, but the sermon, the message—whatever it was called, the “talking” by the pastor was something else. Now I realize that this time can indeed be filled with worship, and we as the congregation can reverently focus on God, encounter Him experientially, and be transformed.

Perhaps my new frame of mind is due to wonderful teaching I’ve sat under, which focuses on Scripture, relates what God has done for us in Christ, and centers on the assumption that God, not ourselves, should be the center of our attention. Sunday morning is probably not the place for tips on becoming better parents, seven ways to be more successful in life, or other similar concerns. Perhaps Oprah or Dr. Phil can tell me such things. Or maybe a TV preacher. Or even my own pastor. But not on Sunday morning.

Fine biblical teaching from the likes of Tim Keller, John Piper, and a host of others can be found online, and your pastor is probably not as good as they are, but that’s not the point. Something special happens when we physically gather as the body of Christ that isn’t duplicated by listening to podcasts.

A company of people drawn together by God hears what cannot be heard by individuals in isolation. There have been many occasions when a good teacher has presented a piece of the Bible I’ve read, perhaps a hundred times, but only through the preaching of the Word has it truly resonated, provoked me to worship, and changed me.

It’s very likely that God simply won’t allow us to get everything we need through our own study, or podcasts, or other alternatives to the actual physical assembly of his people. As writer Marilyn Robinson has said, “I go to church because there are experiences I can have nowhere else.”



Thank God Christians are not all like me

As a Christian, I have gotten to know a wide variety of people that I wouldn’t have even met otherwise. Left to our own devices, we tend to make relationships based on rather superficial commonalties. Our reasons for gathering are sometimes downright petty. There are groups for people who like the same music, or who enjoy drinking beer and watching cars race around in circles, or who own the same brand of recreational vehicle, but when Jesus draws people together to worship and learn to live a new way, a wonderful chemistry occurs.

Opposites, when it comes to people, often really don’t attract; they fight or simply avoid one another, but this sometimes volatile mix is the only way the church has the potential for expressing the incomprehensible vastness of God’s character. Jesus’ original bunch of disciples was an odd mix who wouldn’t have naturally liked each other. Fishermen, tax collectors, egghead intellectuals, and common proletarian types all gathered around the One who called them in the first place.

If we put aside our differences and cling to Christ, we find plenty of common ground as well as a diversity that broadens our narrow lives. Some churches, perhaps by design, tend to attract the same types of people. There are churches favored by artists, intellectuals, punk rockers, professionals, old folks, and other non-spiritual preferences for being together, but I have always desired more variety in my churches.

For a while, I led a small group based on a college campus, which I found artificial and strange. I missed the babies, families, and old folks. Currently, a lot of my Christian friends are different from me, and I like it that way. Even though I’m a teacher and a bit of an intellectual goofball, my friends include engineers, contractors, carpenters, mechanics, and even an art dealer. Some of them have read very few books and watch movies that I consider lame entertainments, but I love them anyway.

Some of them are younger than I am, and they keep me energized. I especially love the older ones, though, who can look from the other side of careers and parenting and share their wisdom. I’m thankful for all the good Christian folks I have known over the years. Some have enriched my life for a season and moved on, and with others I have made it a priority to stay connected. Most of all, I thank God they were not all like me.

I can remember overhearing two guys talking about opera after a men’s meeting. Now, I admire the talent of such singers in a purely removed and academic way, but really don’t like opera in the least, and I’d almost rather be deaf than have to listen to that stuff all the time. But these two men, with whom I had shared good fellowship, they were going on and on like opera was the greatest experience in the world. It wasn’t until then that I realized how culturally different we were, and I almost wept because I knew I would never have even met them if Christ had not been so gracious in bringing us together.


Doing church

A pastor once told me that if you gave a man who had never seen a church a Bible, told him to go away, read it, and report back later, he would describe a church unlike what any of us have known. First of all, my pastor friend knows a purely biblical church is a concept open to some interpretation, and any interpretation will have its variations and flaws.

This pastor also understands that there is no ideal church. Some things they do in his particular congregation he might do differently if it were only up to him, but as he says, “It’s not all about me.” He continues to be a pastor in this denomination because he feels nothing they are doing is unbiblical per se, and there are many opportunities to serve God and others there. I must admit that I admire his selflessness, steadfastness, and contentment.

On the other hand, I am not such a good man and question why we need buildings with rooms that get used maybe once a week and cost a lot of money, and I have an aversion to committees, boards, many things labeled as “programs,” and  other trappings of institutional churches.

Regardless, even the churches I have committed myself to that were non-denominational and didn’t own buildings were institutions in the making. It seems we’re always trying to engineer some kind of organization out of an organism born of the Spirit and too often strip it of authentic vitality.

Some people may wonder why I even bother with church at all if I feel this way. I could disavow “church” and claim to embrace Christ, as some people do, but I am part of a congregation because it is utterly unbiblical to do otherwise.

The Body of Christ is the universal church, and He places the members in various places within local gatherings. My duty is not to sit in judgment, but to humbly allow the Spirit of Christ within to lead me to a congregation where I can worship, enjoy the company of good Christian folks, serve others, and be served myself.

I’ve given up on finding a perfect church, because all churches are made up of people, and being one myself, I know we tend to be fairly screwed-up creatures. When I was younger, I used to see the church as a city on the hill, a place radiant with the perfection and character of Christ. Yeah, it should be that way, I suppose, but now I see it more as the place where I learn to forgive others.

Paul exhorted the Ephesians, “Forgive each other as Christ has forgiven you” (4:32). If we all could wrap ourselves around that idea and start living it out, a whole lot of problems in churches would simply work themselves out. This is especially true if we could be like my pastor friend who says, “It’s not about me.”

He is an example to me in the way he lives out the truth of Philippians 2:4: “Do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.” Most of our church problems begin and end with our own individual arrogance and self-centeredness, which distorts our perceptions of our brothers and sisters in Christ and keeps us from truly loving and serving them and our Lord. It doesn’t have to be that way.