Chapter OneCHURCH LEAVES
"I don't know if I'm just in a dry spell or
if my church is beating a dead horse."
THE BEGINNING PLACE
It was in the mid-nineteenth century that the philosopher Soren
Kierkegaard drew this analogy in his Purity of Heart Is to Will One
Thing: A church typically considers its minister as the actor, God as the
prompter, and the congregation as the audience. To the contrary, wrote
the melancholy Dane: The congregation are the actors, the minister is
the prompter, and God is the audience.
If only, you think. If only you felt that a church service was actually
conducted for the benefit of God instead of to wow visitors and pacify
church members. If only you just once got the impression that the minister
was directing the pastoral prayer to God instead of dressing up a
minisermon to look like a prayer. If only you could reconcile the sense
of Us versus Them you always leave church with: Christians versus
Non-Christians, Moral People versus Immoral People, Biblicists versus
Liberals, and so on. If only you could reconcile your church experience
with your experience of living and working among unchurched people
who need the gospel, but who you know wouldn't last ten minutes in
a sermon that made them the bad guys.
Maybe you'd give anything for a good old first-century judgment
to fall on your church - a divine smiting a la Ananias and
Sapphira (see Acts 5). At least it would liven things up, get people's
attention - anything but the same old, same old that has characterized
that last five or ten years of your churchgoing experience. Or
maybe you yearn to go to a church where you're a stranger; where
you can slip into the back pew to be alone with your thoughts,
alone with your God, alone with yourself; where you don't have
to stand when told to stand; or where you can kneel for the entire
service if you want to or slip out during the final hymn.
Maybe you're content with church - with worship - and wouldn't
change much at all. What are your reasons for going to church?
What factor in your Sunday morning, if it went missing, would tempt
you to skip church? Friends? Sermons? Music? Ambiance? Child care?
Socializing over coffee before or after services? Are there better and
worse reasons to attend church? Or is any reason a good one that gets
Or what are your reasons for not going to church? People?
Sermons? Music? Ambiance? Child care? Weak coffee and no chocolate
Use the space below to summarize your beginning place for this
lesson. Describe what church and worship does and doesn't do for
you anymore and why you think that is. We'll start here and then go
READ A Proper Noun
From Wishful Thinking, by Frederick Buechner
CHURCH. The visible church is all the people who get together
from time to time in God's name. Anybody can find out who
they are by going to church to look.
The invisible church is all the people God uses for his hands
and feet in this world. Nobody can find out who they are except
Think of them as two circles. The optimist says they are concentric.
The cynic says they don't even touch. The realist says
they occasionally overlap.
In a fit of high inspiration, the author of the Book of
Revelation states that there is no temple in the New Jerusalem,
thus squelching once and for all the tedious quip that since
Heaven is an endless church service, anybody with two wits to
rub together would prefer Hell.
The reason for there being no temple in the New Jerusalem
is presumably the same as the reason for Noah's leaving the ark
behind when he finally makes it to Mount Ararat.
· Ponder Buechner's definition of "the invisible church." What do
you agree with about it? What do you disagree with about it?
· Right now in your experience with church, are the two circles
Buechner describes concentric, overlapping, or not even touching
· What circle or circles do you feel you've been in during the
past few months or years?
· Do you feel at home in this circle, or do you have a nagging
sense that you ought to be migrating in some direction or
another? Think about this.
God, challenge me .
READ She's Gonna Blow!
He pressed them, "And how about you? Who do you say I am?"
Simon Peter said, "You're the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of
the living God."
Jesus came back, "God bless you, Simon, son of Jonah! You
didn't get that answer out of books or from teachers. My Father
in heaven, God himself, let you in on this secret of who I really
am. And now I'm going to tell you who you are, really are. You
are Peter, a rock. This is the rock on which I will put together
my church, a church so expansive with energy that not even the
gates of hell will be able to keep it out."
· How does Jesus' description of his church compare with your
current church experience?
· What do you suppose Jesus meant when he said that the gates
of hell won't be able to keep his church out? In what sense
was he speaking? Ideally? Realistically? Metaphorically?
· Describe a season or experience when church really was for
you "expansive with energy."
· If church isn't this for you now, what one change would make
God, show me how .
READ Is It the Good Life or the Christ Life?
From Inside Out, by Larry Crabb
Many of us have elements of the good life plus a Christian package
of sincere commitment, moral integrity, and church involvement
that helps us avoid the feeling that something is missing.
Is that style of life what Christ promised when He spoke
of rivers of living water flowing through us? If we were honest,
I suspect most of us would like to believe that personal
comfort and spiritual commitment define the abundant life Jesus
provides But the question must be asked: is that what
springs of living water provide?
Many churches, particularly the ones that televise their services,
make a habit of inviting only those whose lives are going
well at the moment to share what Christ means to them. The
message is consistent: comfort and commitment, both are available.
Trust God to change whatever makes you uncomfortable
while you choose to follow Him.
I have often wondered how much crippling guilt and soulwracking
pain those testimonies provoke in those who have
committed themselves to Christ as best they can but whose lives
are filled with terrible discomfort. As the speakers tell their stories
of warm family reunions, children preparing for missionary
service, relational tensions that have been replaced by joyful
reconciliation, and financial losses that God has miraculously
turned around, how many hearts rejoice in God's goodness? .
Those folks whose struggles are more pressing - broken
marriages, rebellious kids, aching loneliness - well, we can only
pray that God will restore their personal comforts as they continue
to trust Him.
This kind of response turns church into a country club offering
its benefits to those who are fortunate enough and wellmannered
enough to qualify for membership. We sit Sunday after
Sunday enjoying the fellowship of others who are comfortable
and committed while the brokenhearted and poor press their
noses against the window, looking in at us with resentment,
envy, and despair.
· How comfortable are you and other church members with visitors
of an obviously different socioeconomic level? What makes
you feel the way you do?
· Respond to this generalization: "People in poor churches thank
God for the blessing of spiritual wealth; people in affluent
churches thank God for the blessing of affluence." How does
your church connect financial status with spirituality?
· When was the last time you heard a glowing testimony, such as
what Crabb describes, and felt absolutely miserable? Why the
· If you had anything to say about it, how would a church
rejoice with the joyful without making those who had nothing
to rejoice about feel guilty?
God, open the door .
READ Woohoo! Worship!
On your feet now - applaud God!
Bring a gift of laughter,
sing yourselves into his presence.
Know this: God is God, and God, God.
He made us; we didn't make him.
We're his people, his well-tended sheep.
Enter with the password: "Thank you!"
Make yourselves at home, talking praise.
Thank him. Worship him.
For God is sheer beauty,
all-generous in love,
loyal always and ever.
· Compare your churchgoing experience with that described in
this psalm. What are the similarities? Differences?
· In this brief but ecstatic psalm, list the commands (for example,
"Bring a gift of laughter"). How might these benefit your churchgoing
· According to this psalmist, what is the reward for our worship
· What would it take to make you feel like this psalmist about
Lord, help me to feel at home .
READ I Will Never Do That
From Annie Dillard (in The Sun)
He had vowed long ago, and renewed his vow frequently, that
if holding hands in a circle and singing hymns . was what it
took to make life endurable, he would rather die.
From Experiential Worship, by Bob Rognlien
If we are committed to helping people experience God today,
we will go far beyond the latest techniques to the core of what
worship is really about. We will learn whole new languages. Like
those brave cross-cultural missionaries who have gone before us,
we will become ongoing students of emerging cultures, continually
interpreting and explaining the context of our particular ministries.
We will rediscover the arts as a means of conveying the
infinite to the finite and unleash artists to share their gifts with
the community. We will seek to understand personality types and
learning styles and the impact of different modes of communication.
We will utilize the latest technology as the vernacular of
our time. We will learn from the whole spectrum of Christian
tradition in order to renew and invigorate our own stream of the
faith. We will break out of our comfort zones and explore all
God has for us on what Brian McLaren calls "the other side" of
this postmodern cultural revolution.
· List a few things that absolutely drive you crazy - or drive you
away - when you encounter them in church services.
· How does the charge to pastors in the Experiential Worship
excerpt match with your actual experience of church?
· How can churches accomplish the goal of helping to "make
life endurable" in the way they approach the worship service?
Where do you find this in your experience, if at all?
· When you recognize how much you dislike something about a
church service, do you tend to beat yourself up about it, or do
you blow it off? Is it a real problem in the church, or is it just your spiritual problem?
Lord, teach me to worship .
READ The Run of the House
Let the Word of Christ - the Message - have the run of the
house. Give it plenty of room in your lives. Instruct and direct
one another using good common sense. And sing, sing your
hearts out to God!
· On a scale of one to ten, how much do you feel your church
lets "the Word of Christ - the Message - have the run of the
· What would a higher score look like at your church?
· On a scale of one to ten, how much do you feel your church
uses "good common sense"? What would a higher score in this
category look like?
· In your experience, how well are churches doing today with
the singing exhortation that Paul gives first-century Christians?
· Do you feel music has become too important to modern
churchgoers, or do you feel that music is not given its rightful
place in most worship services?
God, lead me to find .
What I Want to Discuss
What have you discovered this week that you definitely want to
discuss with your small group? Write that here. Then begin your
small-group discussion with these thoughts.
Use the following space to summarize what you've discovered
about your disappointment with church and worship. Review your
"Beginning Place" if you need to remember where you began. How
does God's truth impact the "next step" in your journey?
What is one practical thing you can do to apply what you've discovered?
Describe how you would put this into practice. What steps
would you take? Remember to think realistically - an admirable but
unreachable goal is as good as no goal. Discuss your goal in your
small group to further define it.
Identify how you will be held accountable to the goal you described.
Who will be on your support team? What are their responsibilities? How
will you measure the success of your plan? Write the details here.