Tuesday, July 14, 2009

like a sore thumb: a personal journey of feeling out of place...

Ever felt out of place in church?  I feel that way everyAmishSpeedWagon Sunday these days.  I tell people who are unfamiliar with this feeling to go and visit a mosque or synagogue.  They speak a different language, know when to stand and sit, etc; and you are left there playing catch up.  I remember one visit to a synagogue distinctly.  I was taking a world religions class which was the pretext for the visit.  It turned out that there was a bar-mitzvah that night.  I was unaware what the proper protocol was concerning invitations and such.  It appeared to be an open event.  So, we went on in and sat in the back.  I had taken a few semesters of Hebrew and was trying to follow along as best I could.  In spite of my efforts, I was a line or two behind everything that was happening.  All of a sudden everyone stood up and turned and faced me and my wife.  I just knew that we were moments away from making the evening news.  I felt the heat rising to my head as I frantically read to see if I could make sense of what would certainly be a stoning.  For those who are not familiar, Jews move their body in various ways to illustrate what they are reading and saying.  Words that speak of contrition merit a forward bow of the audience.  My pulse slowed back down as I finally caught up to what everyone was doing.  They were singing something about turning to face the new morning light.  Their bodies followed their words.  We now see the humor in this event.

I have pondered, by the hour, why I feel out of place in church.  There are two churches that I felt at home in.  Both were churches I attended from childhood through college.  But even when I went back to these after having left them, I still felt oddly out of place.  The reasons I feel out of place have absolutely nothing to do with a language barrier or not knowing what is going on in the meeting.  I grew up in a Christian family and have been in church as long as I can remember.  I know that a small part of my feelings are due to the fact that I am headed overseas.  But this doesn't explain why from when I left for college till now I have felt foreign to church. That is to say, my feelings predate my involvement in overseas affairs.  I felt this way even when I served on staff with three different churches.  The feeling was even greater when I moved back to my home town and started looking for a "home" church again. 

I think I am beginning to figure it out.  The basic idea is this: the modern church is not situated in such a way that it is in the natural daily context of its constituents.  That is to say, the church, as we know it, geographically, socially, and even culturally exists in an artificial relationship both with the people who attend and the watching world.  Don't misunderstand me.  I am not equivocating artificial and fake, rather, I am juxtaposing artificial verses natural. 

If the church is truly artificial to its ethno-politico-religio-socio context, this explains why so much energy is spent trying to convince and attract the surrounding community to come and see and why so few people are in fact coming and seeing.  So if this fact is true, then why did I feel at home at those two childhood churches?  Also, why did I later feel out of place at the same churches I once considered home?  The truth is, those churches were always artificial.  They only felt like home initially because that was the only world I knew.  My whole context of growing up revolved around my parents.  When I left home, that changed.  Home itself-the house I grew up in-never felt like home again.  When I came back to those churches as an adult, and now an outsider, I experienced just how out of context these churches actually were.  They were like any other church I had visited in those years away.

I am using this post to start a short series on extraction methodology.  I will explain this more in those posts, but it should suffice to say that extraction methodology is doing church, ministry, evangelism, or missions in such a way that it is not in the context of the target people.  This is having devastating effects on the younger generations.  Ed Stetzer says:
70 percent of young adults (who attended regularly for at least one year in high school) ages 23-30 stopped attending church regularly for at least a year between ages 18-22.
It is not just me.  The question to all of this is, "why?"  What are the causes?  I am sure that part of the reason many kids never come back to church is because many of them are not in fact believers.  They grew up as cultural Christians and no one ever noticed till they never showed up again or until they did show up in some poll demonstrating how heretical the younger generation is.  I think the issue of conversion plays a larger part than anyone realizes, or, perhaps, is willing to admit.  But rather than asking the "why not?" question, "why don't kids come back to church?" or "why aren't the unchurched coming to our hip and trendy services?" it is better to ask "why would they think about coming in the first place?"  

That last question is one that hit me the other day as I was visiting a church.  I thought "why would I ever go here?"  Don't get me wrong, there was nothing intrinsically wrong with the church.  They didn't teach heresy.  There was an acceptable amount of love and fellowship.  I realized however, that it was completely outside any natural element of my daily life.  This was a piece of ground in my city where I never travel at any other point in my week.  It is a group of people I have no other interaction with at any other point in my week.  The teaching, while sound, was geared to a new believer audience, even though everyone in the audience has been believers longer than I have been living.  There is no natural context for this church whatsoever.  Granted, I could go there and make friends and take part in the fellowship.  But these relationships would be artificial in the sense that they were made purely on the basis that I was now making myself artificially part of some group.  Remember, artificial does not mean superficial or phony, rather, it is juxtaposed to natural. 

This series is not another "down with traditional church" rant.  Repairing the problem is not just a matter of getting rid of church buildings but goes much deeper into our understanding-or lack thereof-of culture and context.  

Some things to look forward to:
  • How ministry to Muslims and Independent Baptist types are the same
  • Evangelism comes across as mugging because we have left the world and now must invade it.  God doesn't invade the world; He is already at work.  He made it; it is already his.
  • The only reason we are having to find were God is working and get involved is because we have moved out to our safe enclaves.
  • Natural groupings and meetings-lessons we can learn from work overseas.
  • Jesus is Lord; Context is King: not just a hermeneutical quip. 
  • When the father revealed his Logos to us, he put a face on it so we could understand it.  God's strategy hasn't changed.
  • What contemporary church and traditional church have in common and why they their struggle to be relevant is useless.

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