I read this story the other day** about a man and his grown son who were out looking at possible houses for the son to buy. When the owner came to the door, she immediately recognized the father as an old friend. “Larry?” she asked? The father responded with a blank look on his face. “Larry, it’s me, Elaine. We went to school together!” The father still did not recognize her. “How could you not recognize me?” she said jokingly. She invited them in; and while the son was looking around the house, she went to grab her old high school yearbook. She showed the father her senior picture, but still he had no recollection of who she was. “Let’s look at your picture,” she said and quickly flipped the pages until she came to his picture. Under his photo, he had written, “Elaine, I will never forget you.”
Real church, we will never forget you, with your singing and hugging and coffee and mask-free faces! But unfortunately, that was so long ago and there have been all these other church experiences, that figuring out what is real church these days and what is not, is confusing. Last Sunday, at outdoor church, I tried to explain all of this by comparing old church, virtual church and outdoor church (if you were there, you have my permission to skip today’s blog unless you have totally forgotten what I said four days ago – on second thought, just continue reading). Of course, many of you weren’t there; and so, I thought it would be good to share these ideas with you, too. Hence, this blog.
Now, I started this conversation at outdoor church, so let’s start there. Outdoor church looks like an intimate gathering of good friends having a brief worship service followed by the Lord’s Supper (prepackaged and untouched by human hands). It looks like a real church service. But it is not real church (but as imitation church goes, it is pretty good and far better than drive-in church or, worse, drive-by church!). And why is it not real church? Because many people can’t come; and until everyone can be there, it is not real church. The fact is, while a few masked men and women brave gathering together each week (while maintaining a six-foot, physical-distancing policy), not everyone feels comfortable doing so. For instance, I would think these people would not feel comfortable coming: parents with infants or young children, people with health concerns, people who are elderly, those who are not quite ready to go out in public yet, and those who still can’t find their real clothes. It is my contention that until everyone can come to church (and come safely), whatever we do will not be real church. Now, I love outdoor church. It is so good to see everyone; but although it is a really good imitation, it is not the real thing. It has many elements of real church; but until the whole body can gather together to worship, it is not real.
Virtual church (YouTube church) is also not real church, but I am so thankful we have had it. It has blessed us with so much that is good. It allows us to hear the word of God, be touched by music that reflects God’s character and creativity, pray together, engage our hearts in worship, and be challenged by the Scriptures. Honestly, if it wasn’t for virtual church and Slack Interact, I can’t imagine we would have survived these past months. But no matter how wonderful virtual church is, it is not real church. It is always going to be pajama church; and while we will keep doing it for a long, long time, it will always be a step down from real church because real church requires that we be physically gathered together in Jesus’ name. Now if all you have is outdoor church or virtual church, both of these are great substitutes; and I highly recommend both, but just realize they both fall just a little bit short of our goal.
Inside church (what all the cool kids are calling “old church”) is very close to real church, but sometimes I wonder how real it is. Ask Paul how to define real church, and he would most certainly want to include embodying (what we call) the “one-another passages.” Scattered throughout all of Paul’s letters are these commands for how we are to “do church.” They include such things as:
- Love one another (commanded at least 15 times but my favorite is 1 John 4:7)
- Be devoted to one another (Rom. 12:10)
- Accept one another (Rom. 15:7)
- Greet one another (Rom. 16:16)
- Serve one another (Gal. 5:13)
- Carry one another’s burdens (Gal. 6:2)
- Be kind and compassionate to one another (Eph. 4:32)
- Forgive one another (Eph. 4:32)
- Submit to one another (Eph. 5:21)
- Bear with one another (Col. 3:13)
- Admonish one another (Col. 3:16)
- Spur one another on to love and good deeds (Heb. 10:24)
- Encourage one another (Heb. 10:25)
- Pray for each other (James 5:16)
- Confess your sins to each other (James 5:16)
And we do all of this because we are members of one another (Eph. 4:25). Incredibly, this is just a sampling of the roughly 59 commands that make up the “One-Another Passages.” There are plenty more, but you get the point. For Paul, living out these commands is at the very heart of real church.
I’ll say it this way, for Paul real church only happens when we are one-anothering one another; and we can only do that truly when we are gathered together, when we are committed to one another and when we are moved by the Spirit to be real church to one another. And that’s the rub.
See, often times. when we are gathered together and portraying that we are doing real church, we are really not. Even us, when we had “real church,” (I think it was three years ago now), we seldom emphasized doing these things with the same vigor Paul would have. Yes, these things happened here and there, but they were not always our top priority. Interact came and it seemed like talking about how our week went was far more important to us than spurring one another on to love and good deeds or admonishing one another or bearing with one another. Yes, talking about how our week went is important, but it can’t be the only thing we do; and I fear that even though we had the opportunity, we would often spend our time in small talk, instead of speaking into each other’s lives with life-giving words. And if that is even remotely true, then it means that many Sundays while we gathered together and sang together and hugged afterwards, we didn’t have real church.
I am reminded of what Søren Kierkegaard once said. He quipped: “People demand freedom of speech as a compensation for the freedom of thought which they seldom use.” Here’s my version: “People demand the freedom of worship and the right to gather as a church as compensation for their calling to actually be the church to one another which they seldom use.” I think we all have had experiences of real church where we had these powerful conversations and walked away feeling encouraged and accepted and empowered to do great things, but now they seem so far away. At the time, we promised we would never forget real church; but over time, we realize we have. It is kind of embarrassing, but it is true. But that is not the way it has to be. We can have real church. All it takes is a commitment truly to love one another. And here’s the even better news. While outdoor church and virtual church and Slack Interact cannot be real church, they can be much better imitations of real church than we have right now if we start speaking into one another’s lives with words of grace and healing and encouragement. So, here’s my encouragement and challenge. When we gather as a church, let’s not do so in name only. Instead, let us use this time to spur one another on to love and good deeds and to carry each other’s burdens and never forget our duty to love one another.
*Next week, we will be back to 1 Corinthians 6 and our rights, but you can see Kierkegaard was concerned about the misuse of one’s rights, as well, arguing that people want their right to free speech without stopping to consider whether they have used right thinking before they opened their mouths! In short, he is asking if our freedom of speech benefits others (my point last week) or if it is just a platform for self-aggrandizement. Right on, Søren! Not only is that a great question, but he is absolutely right. But that is not surprising. Most of the time, Danes are right on the money!
**I read this story in a 2015 Reader’s Digest