Free Agent Approach to Church {Book Club}

Hi friends, before we jump into Chapter 9 of Liturgy of the Ordinary, I wanted to let you know that in December we have several treats in store! We will be discussing two wonderful short stories. One by Truman Capote—A Christmas Memory and the other by John Kendrick Bangs—The House of The Seven Santas (to read online go here, for free on Kindle go here). We are in for a treat as Rachel Kahindi leads the discussion.

Now, on to today’s chapter. Even though I tell myself not to say it, I can’t help it, this chapter is so good, so hard, so convicting, and so hope-filled. Calling a Friend: Congregation and Community.

This chapter touches on sensitive spots for us, doesn’t it? Friendship and Congregation.

After many years on the field, I have many dear friends (in part because often our paths only overlapped for a few years, but that time was deep and meaningful). But I have few dear friends who actually live in the city I live in. I don’t think this is going to radically change as it is unlikely that my friends are going to move to the city I live in.

And church. Do not even get me going. If I had known how much living overseas was going to ruin me for “normal church,” I’m not sure I would have gone. Kidding.

Mostly.

After a bit of a rough first year of “church” being only three of us every Sunday and the music being a “joyful sound unto the Lord” and a “pathetic sound” unto me, we learned of other believers. Slowly our group grew and became a time that turned out to be far richer than I ever anticipated.

When I first moved to Beijing, it took more than an hour one-way by bus to get to church. The whole process of going to church took so much time and was rich and exhausting. I loved being part of such a large international community, but had never had church require so much of me on top of all energy I spent the rest of the week just living.

I will spare you the blow-by-blow of how my church experience morphed over the years (and included a mentally ill man that was compelled to touch me and over the weeks it grew in creepiness). Suffice it to say, though “cross-cultural worker normal,” my years make participating in a congregation different than if I had never left my country. Different on the field. Different in my home country. Different in my soul.

I believe in the local body. I want to love the local body. But I don’t always like or feel like I fit in the local body. As Warren said, “Yet where else could I go? The church was where I heard the gospel in community, where I received nourishment in Word and sacrament, where I touched the body of Christ, where I was shaped and formed as one beloved by God.”

Reading this chapter brought back a memory. When I moved back to the US, church was the hardest part of the transition for me. Agony. I found ways that first year to make it work for me, which is an indirect way of saying that I didn’t exactly go to the same church every week. I met faithfully with my small group, so there was stability, but other than that, I was more of a church free agent.

And then my church got a new pastor. He asked me to lunch and we hit it off immediately. He read the books I liked to read, he had similar views on ministry as I do, he had good social skills and wasn’t weird (and was excited for me to meet his wife and kids). He actively looked for ways to orient the church around giftings and not gender. At the end of the lunch he told me that he needed me to be more regularly involved, would I come back?

It was agony to say yes.

But I sensed God saying, “Amy, it’s time.”

So I did. In classic Amy fashion, I jumped in with both feet. The pastor, youth pastor, and I were a dynamic team, reminding me of the dynamic teams I had had in China. I became friends with the pastor’s wife and would regularly babysit for them because they were new to the area and didn’t have much money. If I babysit for you, that is a sign of true love. I’m not the “babysit becasue I love kids!” kind of gal. But hey, it’s how I would have loved my teammates on the field, so that’s how I approach life.

And then guess what.

Turns out he was a full-blown sociopath and sexual predator.

Didn’t see that coming, did you? Neither did I. He and the youth pastor left the church at the same time and I felt like the sucker left holding the bag. Where was this “awesome ministry team?” I felt tricked back into the church, but I also felt great compassion for the people around me because we were all tricked. As a sociopath, he was incredibly charming and knew how to read each of us and say what we wanted to hear.

So, when I read this chapter and thought about how God used a sociopath to get me back to church, I figured you have your own story with friends and church and the field.

I’ll leave us with one more quote: “In the Christian faith it’s almost a philosophical principle that the universal is known through the particular and the abstract through the concrete. We love people universally by loving the particular people we know and can name. We love the world by loving a particular place in.” Amen.

See you in the comments,

Amy

~~~

Here’s the reading schedule for Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life:

November 6: Chapters 7-8, November 13: Chapter 9, November 20: Chapter 10, November 27: Chapter 11

December we will

17 Comments

  1. M'Lynn November 12, 2018

    I definitely didn’t see that coming. And, I’ve had my share of run-ins with creepy people! Kind of messes with your head for awhile…like “How did I not realize?!” Anyway…I do like the idea of orienting the church around giftings not gender.

  2. Maria Mullet November 12, 2018

    Wow, I didn’t see that coming, Amy! Completely bizarre in my thinking that God used a situation like that to get you back into the local body. And I’m certain that between the words that make up that sentence is an enormous amount of pain and frustration.
    This is such a topic for me right now – such a “wrestle point” (as John Crist says women like to say). But seriously it is. I worked in Christian Education before coming to the field and the local body became messier and more difficult and all of those things than I ever had known previously, but it also became exponentially more valuable and I saw my intense need for it and God’s great love for it.
    And then I moved to the field, to a team where we all have a bit of a different idea of how to pursue church – do we partner or do we work to birth new, organic movements? I war within me at what is best. And it’s all.so.complicated.to.me.
    And I think in reading this chapter, I’m beginning to see that this internal complication has kinda swept into the way I personally interact with the idea of fellowship in my head and my heart. I need a reorientation. I need to circle back to seeing my church family (and wow, how do I define who my church community actually is? sending church, team, local church, ….?) but I need to see them as the place where I work out my faith in..the “lackluster. . . . often messy, sometimes painful . . ”
    “The body of Christ – – ancient, global, catholic – – is only known, loved, and served through the gritty reality of our local context.”
    Another chapter that I could have highlighted the entire thing . . .

  3. Abigail November 12, 2018

    Wow, The House of Seven Santas, SO good! Thank you, Amy! 😘

  4. Abigail November 12, 2018

    And, yes, Amy, I totally didn’t see that coming. But can relate a little with a dear friend on the field turning out to not be healthy mentally/psychologically, when it had seemed from the outside that he was really intentional with his family. Shocking and overwhelming and so many questions.

  5. Rachel Kahindi November 13, 2018

    This chapter is such a struggle. Church is always messy and hard. But at “home,” I knew what to expect from a local church, and I was nourished and discipled among them. We are supported by many churches – 4 of them are “home” for me. When we visit, I am part of the community. They all have issues, they aren’t perfect, but that’s normal. I miss them when we’re gone.

    On the field…church sucks the life out of me. Because of my kids being sick, then one kid being sick, then the other being sick, etc, with short viruses that just happen to hit over the weekends, I haven’t been to church for 4 Sundays. But I was telling my husband that I don’t exactly *miss* it. There’s a part of me that would love to step away entirely, to make “a false gospel with individualized communion-on-the-go kits…But if Christianity is not only about my individual connection with God, but is instead about God calling, forming, saving, and redeeming a people, then the church can never be relegated to ‘elective’ status.”

    It’s complicated. I’ve been struggling with the concept of a local church – what it’s for, what my expectations are of it, and what my role is in it – for a while. It is far different here than in the US. Is it because of colonialism? The effect of having churches started by Ms decades ago, that are now left to local believers who were never discipled? Is it the cultural expectations of what a church is supposed to be? Are we invited to start teaching discipleship at dying churches, and thus are perpetually frustrated by them?

    I don’t know. I need much more than 1 chapter on this topic.

    1. Spring November 17, 2018

      Wow I really appreciated your forthrightness Rachel. It is interesting because we struggle, especially in leading a church as to what this should look like. I agree that it is hard to find one’s place. What does it look like in cultural context? I also agree that more than one chapter, perhaps a whole book might bring some clarity.

  6. Elizabeth November 13, 2018

    Church life is hard wherever we go. If I am honest I didn’t enjoy going to church in the US before the field and on the field church exhausted me. Having so few people to carry the load of operating a church and children’s ministry whilst living weekly in full-time ministry. It wasn’t until we returned after serving overseas that I began to realize the true beauty of the Church. Yes, it can be exhausting, even frustrating at times, but at least while living overseas we lived among a real Acts-like community–that’s what I miss the most still today. In the US we knew having it again would be hard. We gave ourselves a year of ‘no church.’ We were grieving, tired and knew if we immediately started looking for a church it would fail in us feeling obligated to get involved too soon. So, I don’t think it’s a bad idea to give the church a break every once in a while because honestly, the Church is so much bigger than the buildings we enter.

    But I do love and am challenged by Tish in this quote, “There is no merely private faith–everything we are and do as individuals affect the church community.” pg. 120

    We’ve landed in an Anglican church. Very new to us, but refreshing. The liturgy and teachings of the Anglican tradition are renewing my love for the Church because it is opening my eyes to see the Church as a larger community across all borders, times and spaces. We are connected with the Church in all our walks of life and it comes in many different shapes and with various cultural influences. Yet, we should take joy in being involved in the Church in whatever way because the Church is our gift, our treasure, part of our inheritance. This is our family in which to care for. I feel quite convicted over the church in America and confess I am still trying to figure out how to be light in a place that seems to be dimming. We need each other. If we are not together, we are not being the Church. If you have some good insights, I’d be happy to hear them.

    1. Phyllis November 15, 2018

      That’s at least the third time I’ve heard/read the story of went overseas, came back, became Anglican. Interesting. And isn’t our author Anglican?

      1. Elizabeth November 15, 2018

        She is. I read her book shortly after starting to go to an Anglican church. It helped me understand a great deal about liturgy and the practicalness of living it daily.

  7. Kim November 13, 2018

    I was moved by Amy’s post and your comments more than I was by the chapter in the book. Amy, unfortunately, I relate so hard to your story because the EXACT same thing happened to me when I came back to church in the US a decade ago. And I stayed at the church for 7 years after, only to be destroyed by new staff, when I left and came back to the field. Don’t get me wrong, I was thrilled to be able to come back overseas, but, once I got out of the toxic church situation, I realized the trauma I had attached to church. For my first year back in Asia, I wouldn’t let myself get involved in church. My local friends invited and invited me to small group, but I refused to go. Finally, I realized the anger, bitterness, and FEAR that held me back.
    I am happy to say that now I am involved, but it came after much prayer and many tears. I’m learning forgiveness and the necessity of corporate worship and life within a community of believers. I always have to remind myself that we are truly better together than apart, even when that togetherness comes with a lot of baggage.

  8. Felicity Congdon November 15, 2018

    argh, I wrote a long comment and then it got deleted.

    Thank you all for being honest about the sin and failure of the church as you all have experienced and are experiencing it. and the messiness of your local and home congregations. I can relate. I love seeing all of your hearts of commitment to the church even while it is so hard. Even though you need breaks at times. I love that the Lord has called many of you back into local community. Way to perserve Amy, Kim, Elizabeth, Rachel, Maria! I so am so proud of you sisters for pressing on in loving the Bride of Christ. You all are an encouragement to me.

    I love the way Tish talks about how the Body of Christ is made of all kinds of people, some of whom we find irritating. “God loves and delights in the people in the pews around me, and dares me to find beauty in them.” Why a dare that is when entering church in some of our circumstances, mine right now, is not what we would
    label as life-giving.

    Looking forward to the short stories in Dec! But also the rest of these chapters.

    1. Felicity November 15, 2018

      *way to persevere! 🙂

  9. Lindsey November 17, 2018

    Wow, thanks everyone for sharing. I have always loved the bride of Christ, i think it was because my dad always had such a love for the church… and it was such a priority in our family. Even when it was messy. Which it often is. I confess that in the states, i have had really positive experiences in the church ,growing up, through college and beyond. It wasn’t until coming overseas… where my love for the church began to falter. I think there were so many failed expectations. I thought it would be a place we would feel loved in, nurtured in, and embraced in the community because we had visited this church before on short visits before. Instead, the language barrier has been hard, for our little kids to sit through services they don’t understand, something I expected to be life giving, is really just totally exhausting. But actually, as we learn some language, get more comfortable in the cultural, and hang around a bit more, I am starting to feel some life again. But man, I was not expecting what a challenge it would be.! Maybe going to church cross culturally will change over time? I can already see glimpses of hope.
    On note about the friends, man, I love how she talked about a hand full of friends that are at your right hand and how these are essential and precious gifts for us… I want to continue to cultivate these types of relationships… they are so life giving and filling…

  10. Abigail November 17, 2018

    I don’t know if this falls neatly into this category, but the other night I was suddenly inspired to make an Advent wreath of what is already here. Though the candles are so wide, I found 3 light purple ones, 1 red tropical fruit scent one, and 1 long taper white Christ candle. With a homemade wreath from last year’s class I joined. And I got to research the Advent candles history and tradition too! 😀 I just thought I would share, as I’m looking forward to this tradition that is new to my husband and I.

    Does anyone have any Advent tradition that you find helpful for embodying His truths?

    (This won’t let me post the photo.)

  11. Spring November 17, 2018

    Thanks Amy for your poignant and honest look at the church. It amazes me when I get to talking to people how frequently they have had bad church experiences. I guess it just directs us to human fallacies vs the infallibility of Jesus and what the goals for church really are.

    I had a similar experience to yours Amy. The church broke up a few years after we left it. At the time it was more like a cult and I am thankful to have gotten “out” and still had my faith intact. I went from a exclusive we are the “best” church to working in a ministry in the inner city. We all came from different backgrounds, yet working together towards a common goal unified us(and our belif in His Saving grace to do it sealed the work). It was the opposite of what I had seen in the “church” I attending. In the end I believe it was God’s saving grace over me.

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