Tuesday, March 18, 2014

the beauty—and problem—of the church: part 1

When I was a little boy in Augusta, Kentucky, one summer my mom sent me to a church on Fourth Street to something called “Vacation Bible School.” No one in my family was a Christian, but we didn’t know that. We thought we were Christians because we were Americans, and sometimes we went to church, and we weren’t Catholic. Catholics were, well, Catholics. If you’re Roman Catholic, please don’t misunderstand me: you were probably taught that people like me weren’t going to heaven because we weren’t Catholic. Yep, we were all pretty dysfunctional.

Today if you walked up graveyard hill in Augusta, you’d find a Protestant cemetery and a Catholic cemetery divided by a single-lane blacktop road. We didn’t talk about religion when we were alive and we certainly didn’t mix things up when we weren’t.

Anyway, I didn’t like the sound of “Vacation Bible School.” That’s an oxymoron if ever there was one. I knew “vacation” didn’t have anything to do with “school”. And then you throw the “Bible”-word in the middle of it and you have all the excitement of watching Mr. Rogers drone about dental hygiene.

But I went. Once. We outlined little pictures of stained glass and then colored them with Crayolas. And that was the last time I went. So each day mom sent me to Vacation Bible School, I would leave the house to walk to the church and then promptly head down a side street to find my buddies and play army instead.

Church held zero interest for me. By the sixth grade, they no longer made me go. I guess it wasn’t worth the hassle for my parents…and I was set free. Church, to my little brain, had nothing to offer but monotone talks, nothing that had any relevance to me, and a waste of good free time on a weekend. That’s how I felt through high school and my early college (and dropout) experience as well. Thanks, but no thanks.

But a funny thing happened on my way to hell: I met Jesus. Everything changed. I found myself being transformed and challenged and empowered and suddenly the Bible came alive. And the Jesus I read about there was nothing like how I remembered him in those boring sermons: He was radically different and made the religious people mad and challenged the status quo and even ticked off His own disciples at times. What’s more, He talked with an authority like no one else I’d ever heard. And He somehow mixed power and authority with servanthood in a way that was eye-opening. And that whole “getting-crucified-and-coming-back-to-life-again”-thing. Whoa. He became real to me in ways I couldn’t understand. And I began to change in subtle and radical ways as well. My friends were puzzled and didn’t know what to say to me.

I liked Jesus. But I still had some problems with His people…this thing called The Church. At times it seemed so small, so focused on trivialities, inward and self-righteous. Sometimes it seemed that Christians could be incredibly charitable and then turn around and say something ridiculously racist or insensitive. And why were they so strange on TV with really big hair and several pounds of makeup and exchanged plastic glow-in-dark crosses for “your love gift of $25”? Sometimes I wondered why there were churches on every corner…and why they argued over things that seemed inconsequential and petty.

Then one day I had an epiphany. An actual revelation from God Himself: I was one of them. The Church. I was no longer an outsider and could take potshots at what I thought were those hypocritical, judgmental, small-thinking Christians: now I was one of them and attending a local expression. I didn’t see that one coming.

As my literary-spiritual mentor once wrote, “When I first became a Christian, about fourteen years ago, I thought that I could do it on my own, by retiring to my rooms and reading theology, and I wouldn’t go to the churches and Gospel Halls; . . . I disliked very much their hymns, which I considered to be fifth-rate poems set to sixth-rate music. But as I went on I saw the great merit of it. I came up against different people of quite different outlooks and different education, and then gradually my conceit just began peeling off. I realized that the hymns (which were just sixth-rate music) were, nevertheless, being sung with devotion and benefit by an old saint in elastic-side boots in the opposite pew, and then you realize that you aren’t fit to clean those boots. It gets you out of your solitary conceit.”  ~C. S. Lewis; God in the Dock

Truth was: my understanding of the “Capital ‘C’ Church was very, very small.

Let’s take a bigger look in part 2…


  1. I tried to quit church a few times but found so empty inside and less and less love the longer I stayed away. I been a Christian for some time now and like the idea a place where people learn to love Jesus and you end up being able to love. I went to those vacation bible schools, see what you mean and kind of laugh about it too.

  2. Hello, Dave! Mike Morrell asked me to contact you because he really appreciates your blog and thinks you'd be an excellent candidate for his Speakeasy Blogger Network. Do you like to review off-the-beaten path faith, spirituality, and culture books? Speakeasy puts interesting books in your hands at no charge to you. You only get books when you request them, and it's free to join. Sign up here, if you'd like: http://thespeakeasy.info