When I was in Junior High, my small group leader drove us blindfolded to a mountaintop, threw open his van doors, and told us to find our way home. I swear, it wasn’t a kidnapping.
We charted our route to Silverdale on leftover cheeseburger wrappers, and bushwhacked our way down the mountainside. We raced past packs of uniformed boy scouts and laughed. We launched fireworks and screamed made-up songs at the top of our lungs.
I loved that small group. When I think of the kindness of Jesus, I think of their dirty faces bundled up in sleeping bags. I think of sharing a ripped up emergency blanket in the rain. I think of how naturally I knew when they grew tired, and how quickly they stopped to tape my blistered feet. They were decidedly mine –mine to protect, and mine to know. Everywhere I went I carried them. Everywhere I went they made me strong.
Sometimes, years later, I remember them during church services. I wonder how many people would trade a hundred cups of coffee and picnics on the lawn for a single trusted friend. I try to reconcile these three point sermons and football metaphors with the wild bonfires of my youth. I watch the frantic woman in the corner with her fussing baby. I want to cook her dinner. I want to laugh at her jokes. I want to comfort the panic rising in her chest.
Sometimes I hear people complaining about the music at church, or the lights, or the decorations, or the message, and a part of me just wonders if they’re lonely. How much of our struggle to worship at church is a struggle to feel loved by our churches? If I came to you with a movie Friday night, if I listened to you carefully, if I laughed with you and hugged you as I left - would you find that church this Sunday took a whole new color?
I’ve been thinking about what it means to be a reliable church. There’s a difference between a pleasant people and a loving one, and I’m convinced the difference is reliability. I am not interested in a moral community, or a community that’s warm, or a theologically correct one. I am interested in the degree that a church shares God’s priorities. Show me a man who I can chase the Lord with, and I will grab hold of them. Ask me to seek God with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength. Let me be loved by someone as much as they love their own self, and let me love them the same. Set the bar high. I will go. Just please, do not ask me to do it alone.
When I was a junior in college, I transferred schools. I remember wandering for weeks from church to church. I shook hands, I filled out cards, I searched through peoples’ eyes for anything. For months, I sat alone. I reintroduced myself. I stood behind people while they talked. In those churches the sermons, the worship, the rooms: all of it swirled in my loneliness like a fog. I criticized everything.
I found Pastor Pete well into the first semester. He was at an Info Fair, behind a badly decorated card table, looking awkward as ever. I was drawn to him immediately. In that surging crowd of students, how relieved I was to find just one man who I could talk to – actually talk to. He listened to every word I said. He laughed like a normal person. He was nerdy! When he invited me to his church, I didn’t hesitate. It was full of old people, but that didn’t matter. That quarter, Pete and I played worship music together. He brought me to his house for dinner and weird Japanese board games. His barefooted girls dragged me around the house to their toys, and their books, and their piano benches. On Thursdays, over coffee, Pete would talk about Jesus. He spoke softly. I found that I trusted him.
A man I know recently shared that church is about becoming a “one-another people”. He said that being a Christian requires others. I like that picture. I want my church family to depend on me, and I want to depend on them also. I think it’s fascinating, in Scripture, how much Paul relies on people. He calls other Christians his “joy and his crown”. He’s wounded when they abandon him, and he finds the strength to push through any suffering when he hears of their faithfulness to Christ. I think sometimes we are afraid to want too much from our church communities. But Paul boasts about them in his letters. He prays for them with thankfulness in his heart. He remembers them with tears in his eyes.
When I think of reliability, I think of Paul’s writing to the church of Rome:
“Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil and cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep up your spiritual passion, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in suffering, faithful in prayer. Share with God’s people who are in need. Care for each other.”
I wonder what it would look like for us to make those verses a prayer for each other. What if I approached my church with a heart that insisted on making its love sincere? What if we were to devote ourselves to one another? What if we looked in each other’s eyes and found, startlingly, that we deeply cared? I think we would find pastors who relied on their congregations to ask hard questions and apply what they learned. I think we would find congregations who relied on their pastors to shepherd them and give them godly advice. I think we would find friends who relied on each other to see when they were hurting, to encourage each other, to drive each other toward holiness. We would find adults who relied on the dedication of their youth. We would find youth who relied on the gentleness of adults.
I think we would find a family and a sweetness and a home. I think that’s the church Jesus intended.
This Sunday, to the stranger who has come quietly through our doors: if you are wandering, losing hope, feeling like there must be more – I beg you – insist on more. There is nothing more selfless than your want for love. Many have gone before you, and many will follow. They are looking for you. I am just beyond your vision, just around the corner. I am scanning the faces from man, to woman, to child. I am searching – even now – to know you, to love you, to care. Ask it of me: we will seek Jesus, and we will find Him. We will go to great heights. I will be your joy. You will be my crown.