Part four of an occasional series. I'd suggest first reading parts one, two and three. As always, I welcome your feedback and insights.
Hope and disillusionment are key characters in the drama of church, and so they will be key characters in this drama of church as it unfolds. I set out, with my wife, in the wake of our leaving our church of six years, not immediately to find a place to land. We know too much, I’m afraid, for that to serve any purpose. We weren’t really on a search for a church anyway but rather something more elusive, more elemental to life lived to the full. We were disillusioned; we needed to be reminded of hope.
So we set out to be reminded of hope, without losing sight of the reality of disillusionment. We set out to find not one or the other but the right mix of both—that sweet concoction of hope + disillusionment that could generate more than the sum of its parts.
This was going to take time, we suspected. And so we set out not to shop for a church home but to see what God was doing in the churches in our area—in all their diversity, in all their varied interpretations of the meaning of life and the mission of God’s people. We also wanted to see what churches in our area were doing to God—where these collections of people were falling short, as humans inevitably do, and how God was working through those shortcomings and failings to nevertheless accomplish his purposes. We wanted to cement in our own minds, at least, the reality that there aren’t actually multiple churches but rather one church, whose one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord, before landing on a location in which we could join our efforts to something beyond us.
It’s worth mentioning that we had occasionally been told by friends that they could see us starting a church of our own. In particular, one new friend and one old friend were quite explicit about this, although I couldn’t really tell whether my old friend was joking or not. I thought it was funny, in any event, but it’s an idea that continued to populate a corner of my brain, one that invariably influenced how we interacted with the existing churches we visited. Full disclosure: I’m writing this introduction at the front end of this experiment, so it’s entirely possible that when it's all over I’ll be my own pastor. But I doubt it: I like autonomy too much--and I don’t like people enough--to be a pastor. As my old friend once said, “Being a leader means not getting to do what you want.” And that doesn’t sound fun to me.
But then again, who knows? This cocktail of hope and disillusionment I’m currently nursing hasn’t gotten me to that question yet. Before we look seriously at that, we’ve got some churches to visit. I'll be organizing these visits according to what’s considered “conventional” and what’s thought to be “alternative.”
“Conventional” churches include churches that can’t yet be considered “traditional”; there’s been no shortage of experimentation in church forms over the past fifty years, but you’d sound awfully funny, for example, saying “Remember the old days when our church had four hundred people, equally representing the Latino, Arab, African American and Caucasian communities?” Nevertheless, in the context of discussing churches, there are some words that evoke a particular imagination—“mega,” “traditional,” “multiethnic”—and so some observations about a particular church can be extrapolated to describe a particular movement.
There are some expressions of church, however, that are best described as “alternative,” mainly because they as yet have not gained a significant foothold in the ecclesial imagination. Even their practitioners identify them as different. I plan to include the “Christian concert” in this group not because anyone seriously considers such a gathering as church but because it functions as much like a church as like a concert. Sometimes they even take offerings. In any case, my wife once left a Christian concert by the great Sarah Groves and told a friend of ours, “This is like worship for me.” She’s not alone in that sentiment, by any stretch of the imagination. That needs to be taken seriously, and so I’ll take it seriously here.
This is a real experiment. I visited these churches for real, out of a real desire for myself to find a local Christian community to call home. I’m writing because I’m convinced that my experiment, for all its particularities, has some resonance for people like me whose hope-disillusionment continuum has gone askew. These churches are, by and large, in the Chicago area, although my travels often bring me into contact with other churches elsewhere as well. I don’t see any need to identify most of the churches I visit by name, although I see no real harm in doing so where appropriate. You may take offense at how I characterize some of these churches and their practices, but be assured that I consider all these churches to be acting in good faith, embracing the audacious calling to be the people of God in local witness to the goodness of God, conducting the mission of God in the place God has placed them. These are finite people with an infinite agenda. These are congregations of the disillusioned hopeful, and I count them as brothers and sisters in Christ.