What Makes Church Great (or Not) - Reservoir Church
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Salt of the Earth: Faith in a Post-Christian World

What Makes Church Great (or Not)

Steve Watson

Nov 15, 2020

For this week’s Events and Happenings, click “Download PDF.”


November is the month of the year when we remind ourselves of what this church is about and what it means to belong here, and if you’ve never joined as a member, to consider doing so. If you’re newer here or have been around a while but haven’t become a member, you can join Ivy and me and a couple of our leaders right at 11:00 today, right when the live service ends, to hear a bit more about the church, including what membership means. We’d love to have you.


And today, as part of our November Salt of the Earth series, I’m going to talk about church in particular. What makes church healthy and useful in the times and place where we live? 


Because, let’s be real, I’m very much aware that church has often not felt healthy and useful for many reasons.


As a pastor, sometimes I meet with people who are taking a chance on church. One time I met up for coffee with someone who was considering visiting Reservoir. Based on this person’s profession and some other things they told me over email, I was expecting to meet a pretty confident, charismatic individual. But that day, in the coffee shop, they were kind of skittish. They were so nervous they had brought notes to remember what they wanted to talk about it. 


Because of their sexual identity, they had experienced exclusion from churches in the past and wanted to make sure our church would be fully accepting, which we were and are, but that wasn’t even top of the list, to be honest. 


It was really important to them that they went to a church that was really engaged in their community, because they’re like I really believe in contributing to a better world, and I can’t go to a church that has its head in the sand. So we talked about how we try. 


And then they got to their big one. They asked me: has this church had any scandals? And I was like, uh, depends what you mean, I guess. I mean we’ve had arguments happen here, and people that didn’t like the church, stuff like that. And they were like no: big scandals. And they told be about their reaction to the clergy sex abuse scandals in the history of the church in Boston, and some of what that meant to them and their partner, and why they needed a church that did better. So we talked about our church’s good history on that front, thank God, and also the many things we put in place to commit to being a safe church as well. 


I’ve had many conversations where this kind of stuff comes up, and it’s sobering every time because it reminds me that church – the space that is supposed to be home base, a community of acceptance and belonging and inspiration and empowerment for the follower of Jesus; the institution that is supposed to engage in the world as salt and light, that which is healthy and useful – that church has very often not been any of these things.


In fact, bad church experiences, where churches are places of conformity, where there’s a right way to believe and act on just about everything and you better toe the line, this has been a major factor in driving people away from church. Churches’ judgmentalism, their being dogmatic and inflexible about all kinds of things, even hypocritical and downright abusive in managing the authority of a church in people’s lives – these have driven people away from the faith, or at least from church, as well. All this has accelerated our journey toward being a post-Christian society, a time and place where more people are leaving churches than coming, more people have moved on from faith in Jesus, rather than moving in. 


So it’s an important part of my life calling, and an important part of Resevoir’s identity as a church, to offer a healthy and useful experience of church, that helps make Jesus-centered faith viable and exciting in the time and place where we live. 


Let me read you a little section of the New Testament, from a letter called Hebrews, that is one of the places in the Bible that most directly encourages churchgoing. It goes like this:


Hebrews 10:19-25 (NRSV)

19 Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, 20 by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.


Hebrews was written to first century followers of Jesus who were struggling in life. Being a Jew in the Roman Empire had its challenges, and at this time being both a Jew and a follower of Jesus made your challenges larger. You faced misunderstanding and all kinds of trouble – from what we’d call microaggressions all the way up to violence. And Hebrews is telling these folks, God is with you. It uses the ancient temple imagery to say this, how there was a time that behind a large curtain, a priest would connect with God on your behalf. But now Jesus is that priest, and Jesus is also the curtain that has been opened up for you to know God without fear, and to be forgiven any faults so that before God you are free and clean and accepted. 


And Hebrews says in general, in this hard life, given God is with you, don’t give up. It’s worth staying engaged. And it’s worth staying engaged in faith in Jesus in particular. But, the writer says, you’re all going to need help. So don’t give up meeting with each other and don’t give up encouraging each other to show up as your best, most loving self in the world. And remind each other of the help and promise of Jesus in all that. Be there for each other.

And as Hebrews goes on, it’s clear that the writer is hoping this meeting together, this staying grounded in this faith that centers the love of God in Christ, and this inspiring one another to love and good deeds, it’s clear that Hebrews hopes this will accomplish beautiful things in the world. Hebrews ends in chapter 13 encouraging radical hospitality, encouraging these folks to show up on behalf of prisoners and those who are tortured, encouraging them to not just hang out inside the church but to go outside the camp, as the writer puts it, and be salt of the earth people in the world, people of powerhouse love and encouragement. And the writer seems to think these Jesus followers can be this way not because they’re any better than anyone else, but because they know that God, who looks like Jesus, is always with them, and is always their help, and because they keep encouraging one another to know that love and to show up with that love. 


Alright, this is just one little picture of what church is supposed to be, but it’s not a bad one. And my question as I encourage you to help make Reservoir this kind of church through your active presence in this community, my question is why aren’t all churches like this? What goes wrong?


We used to teach a members class here a few times a year. These days we’re doing this month of November for the whole church instead, although we do have the welcome conversation just after our live service today. You obviously don’t have to join the church as you come, but it’ll help inform you some more. 


Anyway, I taught these members’ classes for our church many times, and they were fun. We always had free food, and I’d tell stories about the church and what we’re about, as we’ll do in the welcome gathering after service today, and people would ask all kinds of interesting questions.


One question that would come up a lot, though, is that people – particularly if they had churchgoing experiences other places – would ask us about our church position on this or that behavior. Do we approve of this? Do we have a stance on that? And I’d almost always say: no. We aren’t a church with a whole lot of positions at all. And sometimes they’d persevere in this line of questioning and say, well what I mean, is when do you tell people about their sin? And I’d ask them, would you like to talk about your sins, because I’m always happy to do that. In fact, as we teach scripture and follow Jesus together, I hope we’ll all discover ways our lives are short of what we and God want them to be and we’ll confess our sins to God in assurance of God’s great love and mercy for us all, and we’ll move forward as free as we can be. So sure, if I can help, which of your sins would you like to talk about? 


And they’d kind of awkwardly be like, no, no, no, I don’t mean my sins. I mean… and fill in the blank, they’d name something they thought was other people’s sin. Something other people do they consider to be wrong, and they’re wondering if the church will agree with them in their position. 


And I’d think, oh, you might be at the wrong church for you. Because we don’t try to use church to feel better than anyone else. We don’t use church to develop a really tight, look alike us that we can belong to so we won’t be like the them we judge or fear or look down upon. 


And sometimes at this point, I’d draw a circle and a dot on the wall. And say some churches are like a circle, a bounded set. They tell you really clearly what it means to be in the good favor of the church and what it means to not be. And that often is synonymous with what it means to be in good favor with God, or not, what it means to be a good Christian or a good person, or not. And the job of that kind of church is to tell you to get inside the circle and stay there. 


And I’d say other communities are more like people clustered around this dot. They have a center of their interest, which in our case is the God who looks like Jesus, the God Jesus taught about and embodied and revealed. And to be in that community is simply to share an interest in that God. There isn’t so much of an in or an out. I mean you be a member or not, but that’s not about having approved beliefs and lifestyle, it’s just saying I belong here and I’m going to contribute to this place being the best place it can be. 


And I tell them we’re trying to be that kind of church. Which means you’re going to meet people here who read the Bible differently than you, or who don’t read it at all. And you’re going to meet people here who believe differently than you do, and live differently than you do in many ways. And we’re going to teach people here, and we’re going to encourage each other to love and good deeds, but we are not going to police people or judge people over our differences. 


A little side note here, but I’ve heard stories in old churches where a longtime member of a church hears their pastor teach something they don’t believe, and they tell their pastor: I think you’re wrong, but don’t worry, I’m not going anywhere. I’m going to be here longer than you will. 


I kind of wish people said that to me more often, not the old, crotchety attitude in that, but the ease of recognizing that a church where everyone believed all the same things would be a failure, not a success. It would mean difference had been eliminated, total conformity accomplished. I wouldn’t trust a church where everyone believed all the same things I do, because I’m sure I’m wrong about plenty of things, I just don’t always know which ones. It’s OK to disagree with your pastor. It’s OK to not believe the exact same way other people in your church believe. That is not grounds for crisis, or leaving or anything. 


Anyway, I want to give you one other way of thinking about these two different ways of being church that I find really helpful.


Just over a week ago, we lost a great light in thinking about faith and religion in public life. One of the most prominent rabbis of our lifetime, Jonathan Sacks, passed away eight days ago. Jonathan Sacks being Jewish did not write about churches per se at all, but he did advocate for a way of practicing faith together in a pluralistic society that I find really helpful along the lines we’re talking about today. And others called it the Jermiah option. It was in contrast to some popular Christian talk in America about a Benedict option. 


Hang with me for a second while I tell you what each of these are. 


Benedict was a sixth century monk who founded a dozen monasteries, where holy people could live separate from a less holy world. And these monasteries developed rules of life that they lived by, in retreat from an impure surrounding society. Some Christians have suggested in recent years that as America becomes more and secular and pluralistic, diverse in faith or lack thereof, and in all kinds of ways of thinking and being, that the best thing for Christians to do is to withdraw from the world in decline, and to live holy and separate lives in community with one another. Live by your faith as separately as possible, so that you can save yourselves and your faith and stay pure from the corrupting influence of the times we live in.


The Benedict option.


Now Rabbi Sacks heard about this kind of approach, and he’d argue, oh, this is one of three ways that religious people have lived that haven’t worked so well. Religious people often assimilate entirely to their surroundings and so lose their faith, or they fight their neighbors and try to make them just like them and so lose their battles or lose their souls if they win them. Or religious people retreat away from a dangerous world. This is the Benedict option. But in that retreat, you lose any influence on the world around you and you also become insular, and so sometimes pretty unhealthy without outside influences upon you. 


Sacks said there’s a fourth option, to embrace being a creative minority in the wider world. Others labelled this the Jeremiah option because Sacks based it upon the ministry of the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah, who called people to maintain their faith, even while in exile, but also to engage in the broader world where they found themselves, and to seek the common good of the city at large too.

If he were a Christian, he might have used the language of Hebrews. Don’t give up meeting with one another. Listen to invitations from Jesus, follow Jesus, encourage one another to love and good deeds and to know God is with you. Sing your songs. Take communion. Listen to teaching. Pray for one another. Be church. But be church for the common good as well. Live lives of love that salt the earth, that are healthy and useful for us all. 


Don’t hide out together. Don’t try to be exactly like one another. Get out in this big, beautiful, hard world of ours and be love there. And on the way, encourage each other. Encourage each other.


One last thing from the Hebrews text that I skipped over until now. The text says: don’t neglect to meet together, but encourage one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching. 


What is this big Day that is approaching, and why do we need to encourage each other now?


Well, there’s some evidence that in the first century context, a lot of the believers thought a big day in history was just around the corner, a day of the Lord, they called it sometimes, a Day of judgement other times, sometimes just the Day. A day when Jesus would return, and complete God’s work of making all things new. Parts of the New Testament think God’s big culminating day in history was right around the corner.


And it seems they were wrong on that. We’re still waiting. But I want to take this in another direction, because big Days come in our lives and in our world all the time. And we need each other, and we need encouragement to greet those days as best as we can. 


I look around the people of this community that I know and I love and I know some of you have big days coming of your first children being born. Others have the big day of your graduation coming, the big day of your marriage, the big day when your visa expires, the big day when your savings run out. 


A friend reached out for prayer the other day with a big day of their child’s surgery. Others face the big day of a divorce or a crisis of faith. We have big days we share, like election days and holidays, and the long, long days of this public health crisis. We have the day when we come out of the closet or our child does. Or the day when racial violence hits too close to home. We all face the big day of our own mortality, whether it be bad news from a doctor or the day of our deaths that will someday come for us all. 


Big days of one kind or another are always approaching. Sometimes we see them coming, sometimes not. A boring, head in the sand, fearful church will never prepare us to face all our big days in the world. But no church, or a church where we stay around the edges and don’t really know others and aren’t really known, that won’t prepare us for our big days either. 


We need a community that helps us know in our bones God is with us. And we need one another’s encouragement to face our big days together. 


I of course don’t know what big days are ahead in each of your lives, but I want this community to be there for them. And I want you to be there for someone else’s big day too. This whole being church without seeing each other very much face to face – this isn’t going to last forever. It’s just for a time. So hang on, friends. Hang in there. Let’s keep showing up for each other. We need our God who is with us. And we need each other’s support and encouragement.