By Cathy Norman Peterson
When tatted-up, foul-mouthed Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz Weber talks about her church, House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, you can’t help but want what she’s having.
At the end of her new book, Bolz Weber includes a note that I can’t stop thinking about. She politely asks readers who are intrigued about House for All Sinners to visit them online in order to save their limited space for local residents who are searching for community. Then she says this: “If you want a community like the one you’ve just read about, I bet you are not the only one in your town who feels this way. So do what we did: Gather a small number of people once a month to simply share a meal and pray together. Talk about your lives…Be yourselves. Extend grace. Read the gospel. Repeat. (Since ancient times, saints and sinners have called this mysteriously transformative experience ‘church.’)”
Basically she says, if you’re starving for the real deal, then go create your own.
It’s a great suggestion. Quit whining about your worshiping community, and go do something…right?
Of course, I’m never going to start a church. Church planters are a special breed, and I am definitely not gifted in any of those ways.
But my next reaction is to wince at the implication that worshiping communities are only vibrant if they are shiny and new with a non-churchy name worshiping in a non-churchy space. Surely the gospel of Jesus doesn’t need a marketing team or a group of hipsters to make it relevant. Surely the hope of the gospel stands on its own without our efforts to jazz it up or make it sexy.
On the other hand, Bolz Weber strikes a chord with so many because our experience of church isn’t the gritty blend of raw authenticity and deep liturgy that she describes.
The other day I reconnected with an old friend and in the midst of our conversation, I asked if she still goes to church. She’s a thoughtful person of deep faith, but she said no.
“Sometimes I wish I did,” she explained. “I wish it was easy and felt like connection with God. Like I could sit in a pew and hear a priest and actually consider who God is. Or I could pray and actually feel present with God, and sing and feel like I could truly worship God. I want the liturgy to make me feel like I’m connected with all those who have gone before me, who have said the same words and had faith, people who can carry me when I don’t have faith. But. I don’t. It’s not easy. I don’t feel those things.”
I know the critiques. We’re not supposed to approach church like the buffet line, picking and choosing what we like and don’t. We’re not supposed to seek to satisfy our whims or preferences. Wanting to be entertained or placated in our worship experience is NOT THE POINT.
Rather, we’re called to participate in something bigger than ourselves. To prostrate ourselves before holy God, to receive Eucharist and forgiveness, and embrace the other broken people seeking God’s mercy on either side of us in the pew, and out in the world.
But it’s tricky. I never want to admit my consumerist tendencies, but I’ve gone to church plenty, looking for what I could get out of it. How would I be challenged/fed by the sermon? How could I draw near to God during worship? How could I find connections with the body of Christ, feel forgiven, be known and seen? How could I possibly find God there when so much of the time I struggle to see God at all?
My friend told me that instead of going to church she mostly just prays with friends. They pray the daily office, or get together in each other’s homes and pray when life feels so dark and overwhelming they think they can’t go on.
When I hear that, I think it sounds perfect. Just like when I hear about House for All Sinners and Saints, it sounds like just the community where I’d meet God every week and find my home.
But I know better. I know that I love the idea of vulnerability in prayer more than I love actually doing that. It’s scary and revealing, and I might be disappointed. Far easier not to take the risk at all. Easier to just curl up and watch Netflix.
I also know that once such an amazing community becomes familiar and routine, it loses its romantic glow. Someone intimidates me or gets on my nerves, the planners like music that I don’t, we have disparate views on politics or sexuality. Suddenly those differences loom larger than the grace we find together.
Of course the early church had all these exact same issues. The New Testament is replete with stories of personal conflicts and competitions, structural disorganization, debates about identity, arguments about leadership. But for some reason, God chose to entrust the message of hope and reconciliation for all of creation to a fallible institution made up of fallible people.
My local congregation has its share of these struggles. But every week I worship with a bunch of flawed people who struggle in their lives and faith and worship alongside me. We are broken together and we confess our sins and receive forgiveness and seek God together. We definitely don’t do it perfectly. But God is always present in our midst and today that is enough.