Out.

It’s a long one today, folks. Originally written in October 2007, I was trying to engage the Youth Pastor in a conversation (which he invited) pertaining to what I was experiencing with regard to community within a congregation that was struggling.

Some want to know why my family and I left that community. At the point of this correspondence, it would be almost a year later until we actually left for good. I don’t mean simply for good as in forever, but for good in that it really was a good thing we left.

Background
I have struggled with depression probably most of my life, most prevalently after I graduated High School – statistically, men deal with more depression at an average age higher than when women/girls deal with it. And even more so through later periods in my life. When we moved from Texas, I was on medication. Total time on meds was over 2 years. I believe that most of the headway against this depression was made during my trip to Wild at Heart Boot Camp out in the Rockies. God really spoke to me about what He thinks of my. My calling. My priorities. How He’s training me for the calling He’s prepared for me.

Right now, I struggle with finding relevance in a lot of what goes on. I actually feel like a part of my heart is removed whenever I “do church”. I don’t want to feel this way, but it’s what’s really going on in me. I had a period earlier this year when I actually told someone, “If putting up with this crap is what it means to be a Christian, I don’t want it any more.” Of course, that was only a few weeks before Boot Camp and I’ve learned that is was warfare going in… It’s not a “crisis of faith” or a doubt that’s entered in. Pure unadulterated warfare. Stupid snake.

I see a lot of programs designed to reach out and gather more into a relationship with Christ. But I see very little in the way of discipling. As I mentioned Sunday, my observations are limited, but they are my observations and all I have to go by. I don’t mean discipling as in: learning more about Jesus, accountability, the list of do’s and don’t’s (prayer and Bible Reading and going to church). I mean as in helping one another to be deeply feeling loved by God. Believing that others, by virtue of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, have a good heart and that sin is a battle inside them too, and we should believe the best of them (thus… the need for accountability is not so much for the “thought” police) i.e. “what’s the intention behind their words and actions?”. Ezekiel tells us that He will give us a heart of flesh, replacing the one of stone. Jesus tells us that good seed represents a good and noble heart, producing a crop. That said, I believe accountability should first come from a loving and trusting relationship with another believer. I’ve not actually heard accountability preached like this. (anywhere) To really teach folks about the larger story and how the enemy isn’t flesh and blood. When we tell folks that the enemy isn’t even flesh and blood, we fail to include THEIR OWN FLESH AND BLOOD into that…

In a nutshell… I feel like the “poser” that Eldredge presents in Wild at Heart. I think the reason for that is because I don’t see that people WANT the real me, that they don’t LIKE the real me, and that they WANT the poser. For example. When someone comes up to me on Sunday and asks how I’m doing, they WANT the “I’m doing fine. You?” If they think they’ll get something else, they won’t even ask. At this point, I’m working out the fear of being REAL. But that’s me.

Great Examples
I think that what you have with the rest of the Youth leadership and the Youth is phenomenal. A great rapport. I don’t know what the denomination promotes for how the Sr. Pastor is to see the flock, but I get the impression that the current senior pastor and his wife aren’t really close to folks. His wife has a confidant and the senior pastor may have you, but that seems to be about it. While I don’t have this type of concern with regard to the pastor, I can’t help but think of the distance that Ted Haggard had with his flock and even his elders. We (Christianity) tend to put our pastors in an unfair expectation I’ve heard referred to as the “fish bowl”. You all are human, too, right? (I know the answer to that, but I tend to believe that you and the senior pastor face a huge challenge of appearing to keep it all together. Your families face these fishbowl moments, too. For that, you all are regularly in my prayers)

I also struggle with “churchisms” and legalism from folks who don’t seem to understand the freedom and the life we have in Christ. Just like you don’t send kids home if they wear clingy shirts (for the girls), or have tats or take their smoke breaks, I think that’s awesome, BTW. I’m concerned about the possible legal issues, but the fact is that the kids are showing up. Very cool.

Is the focus on the outside of the cup or the inside of the cup?
So, I put my keys on the altar one day and someone came down on me for it. My thought is, “Does God really care?” I’m also probably more likely to talk to my wife and kids the same way I do at the house. No, I’m not perfect. WYSIWYG with me. I believe that Jesus got and expected the same from his apostles, too. Why should I change that just because I’m in a building? I’ve gotten judgment from folks. Worked through it with some. Let it go with others. I don’t see the point of putting on our Sunday best (cleaning the outside of the cup) when the inside is nasty and growing things.

Maybe I’m selling folks short, but I get the feeling that folks are “appear happy and look good” – especially on Sunday – and don’t want the real me. The real me? Gets angry. (note, anger is not a sin, but can CAUSE sin, believe me, I’ve studied this) Cusses (words are just words and sometimes, a word that society has made foul is still the best one for a given application. I’m still working through why certain words are deemed foul and yet not explicitly called out in Scripture, but that’s another discussion for another day). Wonders why people can’t see others (not just me) as “works in progress” and accepts people as wherever they happen to be in the journey. Has a bitter distaste for the thought and actions police. Yes, I’m also studying a great deal of Matthew 23 when Jesus delivers the Seven Woes.

Side note: “if the pastor wants to wear shorts or jeans and a nice golf shirt, let him,” I say. Clothes do not make us more spiritual. But you know that. Of course, I think that anything done simply because folks in the congregation want or expect it is done for the wrong reason, but that’s me. I actually heard of a guy (even bolder than me) who led praise time at his church and this woman came up to him when the service was done and told him that the team did a great job and she’d just as soon had had them play for the entire service and forego the sermon. He thanked her and smiled, “But, Sister, it’s not about you. It’s about Jesus.”

I also mentioned to the elder who had a problem with me wearing jeans and serving communion (when we mentioned that 10 years ago, I’d not have been “allowed” in with jeans on), that I’d have happily found another place to worship God. I don’t need the applause of men. I’m learning that more and more (because I don’t get it – but I’m not whining). Also, we seem to NOT applaud the works of folks. Why not? I thanked one of the youth musicians on Sunday night and he said, “Oh, that wasn’t me.” SOMEONE had to learn to sing or play the instrument, right? God didn’t make his voice or hands move. We should applaud folks for offertory. Or after a prayer. Or whatever. Oh… and the youth worship team was up on the dais. Why do we fear doing that on Sunday morning? God did not give us a spirit of fear, nor of condemnation. That’s all Satan. Put the band up front. (and Sandi and I aren’t in the band any more, so it’s not personal). 20% of the people will gripe no matter WHAT you do.

Natural Church Development and Church Health Team
I’m very disappointed at how we’ve used or not used the NCD (note: it’s a process geared to improve church family life together) process. I feel like we missed the boat. The whole “celebration” thing that the district office suggested? We missed it. Mission statement… should be HOW we DO the Great Commission. We copied the basic command of EVERY Christian in the world. What makes our community THE place to come to meet Jesus?

“We strive to love others as best as we can and pray that their relationship with Jesus Christ be strengthened by our words and actions.” (that includes coming to faith, too!).

Loving relationships. I’m aware of someone who had sought out membership information and was given a packet. We never followed up. I cannot stress the importance of follow-up on this kind of stuff. I bet we follow up well with folks looking to make the step of coming to faith. Why do we let church members and congregants be as lost sheep that we don’t go after? I mentioned at a few elders’ meetings that we didn’t have the packets all back… The person in question has decided that membership isn’t that big of a deal. He loves Jesus and wants to serve and be fed within the context of this community.

It’s interesting… one of the things that the NCD surveys have shown is that we score high on “loving relationships”. Value seems to be placed on people based on what someone does or doesn’t do. Love isn’t about that. Love isn’t about, “I don’t like the fact that you cuss or yell or scratch yourself or whatever, so I’m not going to play kickball with you any more”. That’s what I feel is going on.

Frankly, I don’t feel unconditional love from folks. Sure, they’ll tell me when I’ve broken “the rules”, but no love. Interestingly, Jesus wasn’t concerned with “the rules”. Well, not at the expense of loving relationships. In fact, he WENT to those who broke the rules, offering them relationships. Not shunning them.

On the vein of communication (think Church Health team), perhaps a listing of the small groups, even those not “through” the church umbrella, that demonstrate the loving relationships…? And I’m not talking about those that leadership does just to bond, as the pastor’s wife had suggested that the ladies do. I’m talking about Joe Christian doing some loving of other believers in his own home.

What is our focus? How does this exemplify our mission statement? I think our focus should be on the relationships.
I’m concerned about our focus on numbers. Sure, they’re the only way we can measure success. Dollars in giving. Number of folks coming to Christ. Attendance numbers (okay… that’s important cuz it says, “HELP!”). Attending this program or that one. A program is important if it gets one or 2 people coming. Fact is, even with the Young Singles, they’re starting to do some stuff on their own. That’s the goal. To launch them.

While it was disappointing NOT to have had some sort of party at the church for the folks who were baptised (we don’t celebrate enough!), we were able to join another family for some fun at Friendly’s anyway. Intimate settings are better for me. (I’d like to see more of the YG Band – not just on Youth Sunday – but that’s just me, again. Real contemporary stuff.)

Last Christmas, remember when we passed out all the Wild at Heart books? Still got some, BTW. The point was to get them distributed, get folks familiar with the material so they’d be in a better position to commit (or not) to the DVD study in the spring. 20 guys signed up and attended at least one week. We ended up with 6 of us the last night. The question was posed that final night, “What study are we doing next? I’ve got a few ideas.” I told the guys to take the summer off. GET OUTSIDE. HANG OUT WITH ONE ANOTHER. The point was missed. We (people in general) seem to look to relationships on what we can get out of them. Not just, “for the sake of gathering and enjoying one another”. “What’s the agenda?” Since getting more familiar with the point of Jesus’s ministry, I’ve learned it’s not about the numbers. Reference the Lost Sheep and Lost Coin parables. I should have been praying for men hungry for freedom from their bondages.

When the pastor’s wife said Sunday that there had to be a purpose, I disagreed with it. I shouldn’t have. But the purpose is much simpler than we expect it to be. The purpose is to love one another. Jesus’s mission was not MERELY to save sinners. He came to heal the brokenhearted and set the captives free (Isaiah 61 – again in Luke 4, the first words of His ministry after coming out of the desert). The apostles knew that Jesus was a Rabbi. In fact, one of 2 in the entire history of the world to that time who called his disciples. All the other Rabbis were approached by their students first and tested themto see if they were worthy of their tutelage. So, yes, they wanted to be with him. He called them.

But… even when He wasn’t around, they enjoyed hanging out with each other. “Just cuz”. I imagine John (believed to be the youngest) was the brunt of many ribbings like “pull my finger” and wedgies and stuff. (I hope you laugh – others might see this as blasphemous!) Heck, Jesus might have been the first to tell John, “Your sandal’s unstrapped! – Made ya look!” (ooh… a red letter email… must be Jesus’s words!) I think that SOME of the Sunday School tables are developing into small communities. As they are? They are only small groups.

I’m lacing humor because, well, we’re so serious. Life with Jesus should be light and fun!

I’m a member of a community group (small group sounds “churchy”…) that meet regularly in whatever location we pick for the week or so. We see each other throughout the week and check in via email, phone, whatever. Prayer requests, sure. Sometimes, during gatherings (and yes, the kids are all there, playing, but coming through the room and interrupting and stuff, but it’s actually quite cool to include them), we eat, pray, maybe share a verse or two that God’s speaking to us through, but there’s no agenda, really. Just loving each other. As I explained to the other folks we have with us, “If I die before the girls get married, I want our families to be so bound together in love and humility that they could ask any of you men (and my memory would be so honored) to walk them down the aisle”. If my wife and I ran into marital troubles, I want these folks to be my and her “go to” folks. And us for them. If their boys lost their father at a young age, I’d want them to be honored if their wives asked the other men to step in. You get the idea. I feel that this is more what is meant by “fellowship” than the 10 or 15 minutes or so we get in the hallway outside the sanctuary. Real raw shoulder-rubbing.

Conclusion
You asked me, in particular, what I’d like to see… Life and freedom. Hanging out with no agendas or schedules in mind. Satan is taking over the world with busyness. (look at the church calendar. Not that that’s Satan’s doing, but folks are involved in that stuff AND their own outside-of-church stuff, too). Busyness keeps us from hearing from God. The still small voice is smaller and harder to hear. One reason why I’m not leading the men’s group and why we’re not singing with the team any more. We’re also missing out on our kids and THEY are our first ministry.

Several well-meaning folks have said that it’s not the type of music that we sing that brings us closer to God. He loves all of it. But… let me ask you. Which makes you come alive more? Watching the Sabres? Or watching the Yankees? (I’m just GUESSING it’s the Sabres, BTW). Well, there are things that we enjoy doing that God has given to us TO enjoy. Fishing and hunting don’t do it for me. Organized sports? Not so much. Give me a little white dimpled ball and I’ll commune with God as we pound the heck out of it together. Not in the “golf is my church” kind of way. But the beauty of the grasses. The smell of the flowers. The sun in my face. Experiencing God. For someone else, that might not be how they experience God. Parallel to worship styles, really.

I’ve given you a LOT to read, think, and pray on. Forgive me. I’m sure it feels as if I just unloaded a few clips. You were probably the first who welcomed us into your home and I get the impression that this stuff is legitimately important to you. I’m happy to field email questions or meet with you on these once you have some time to get your thoughts collected on this. I don’t expect an immediate response because there is a lot here. Take your time. Please, again, keep my confidence with this for now.

Blessings,
Hokie

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