“The church that came to me”

I read with interest Dan Kimball’s recent post on Christianity Today’s Out of Ur blog where he posed some questions about whether or not “missional” churches are churches that bear fruit in terms of effectively making disciples. He points to larger “attractional” churches (Willow Creek, for example) whose buildings and impressive gatherings seem to, in his estimation, hold great appeal for many and therefore be more effective in the fruit-bearing department.

A few things came to mind as I read this. I remember taking a van-load of neighborhood kids to attend a worship service at Willow Creek when I was living and ministering in Chicago. They were totally awed by the buildings, the food court, the size, the scope, the big screens that descended from the ceiling, the way the blinds automatically lowered during the service to block out the setting sun. They were engaged, on every level, with the singing, the video clips, and the music. And I can remember so well their reaction when they saw the budget update printed in the bulletin: “Just the amount that they are over budget this week could pay for our program for ten years!”

My kids wanted to go back every week. They loved it. Yes, it ministered to them; it appealed to them. It was impressive and exciting and cool. But would driving there for an hour each-way every week really translate into transformation for them and for their community? As their schools crumbled; as parents abandoned and abused; as gangs walked up to parked cars and opened fire, what difference would video screens and food courts really make? I don’t say that to disparage Willow. I have dear friends involved there, and have no judgment to make about their effectiveness in what they do. But for my kids, an “attractional” church divorced from their community made no sense.

Fast forward to Los Angeles, ten years later. A homeless couple, living in a city park, comes into the park’s rec center one Sunday morning. The hot coffee tasted good after a cold night on the ground, and the people were warm and friendly. Free coffee soon turned into relationships which led to some financial help with first and last month’s rent to get into an apartment. This eventually led to work and sobriety and counseling. And casual Sunday friendships turned into family.

I wrote this about one of these dear friends two years ago, and to this day this memory makes me cry:

I think I can say that, in general, the collection of the offering is rarely the high point for people in weekly Sunday worship gatherings….This past Sunday was an exception.

When it came time for the ushers to come forward to collect the offering, a nicely dressed woman from our congregation walked to the front with the other usher, each carrying large baskets. She began to pass the basket to those sitting on her side of the congregation, soberly collecting it when it reached the end and offering it the next row. Ushers can sometimes look either bored or distracted; like they don’t know what to do with their hands and eyes while the baskets are moving through the congregation. She was not like this: she was focused, intent on her task, participating fully with those she served.

I watched from the back where I stood with Aaron in my arms. I watched her closely: her very straight posture, her face solemn with responsibility, her entire body attentive to this sacred act. I looked to the other side of the congregation where I knew her husband was sitting. His eyes followed her every step, his body moving continuously to keep her in his constant view. He could hardly stay in his chair and his face was unable to contain the enormous smile that overcame him. As the music ended and the ushers walked to the front carrying the baskets of gifts, I saw this woman walk quietly to our pastor and reach for the microphone. As the last note faded, she looked out at her fellow worshippers and asked us to pray.

Her simple prayer thanked God for his many gifts to us. She thanked God for waking us up that day and allowing us to come to this place to worship. And she thanked God for our pastor. Our “Amen” had scarcely joined with hers when the sound of clapping filled the room. Her husband loudly applauded for her: for her offering of herself, in service and in public prayer, for the sake of the body. Though she has worshiped with us since our beginnings in Loren Miller Park, this was her first Sunday serving in any formal capacity. Our pastor acknowledged that this was her first time participating in our worship this way, and we joined her husband with our applause.

I am sure that the visitors among us probably thought this all a bit strange. What they could not have known is that this poised and polished woman and her husband came to our church two years ago because we offered food and coffee and a warm place to sit indoors for the many homeless who slept in the park on Saturday nights. What they could not have known is that her story is filled with decades of the unspeakable and unimaginable. What they could not have known is that when we first met her, she was a woman consumed with fear and shame. And what started as our weekly gift of a warm drink became a very different kind of gift from Another: the gift of living water that becomes “a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

As she later told her estranged mother who had custody over her children: “this is the church that came to me.”

As I watched her serve with reverence on Sunday, I was struck by a memory from a year ago. I was very pregnant and extremely tired, and I needed to get my house clean in preparation for celebrating Mercy’s birthday with our friends and neighbors. This woman offered to come over and do some work around the house for me, and I accepted. Doug and I were very committed to helping her and her husband out in different ways, and I was eager to be able to bless them with some money for her time spent cleaning. I was also very eager for someone else to bend and lift and scrub and to give my back and belly a rest.

I had just put Mercy down for her nap when she arrived. I set out all of my supplies, told her what my cleaning priorities were, and then promptly went to my bed and collapsed, sound asleep. I woke two hours later to the sound of Mercy chattering through the monitor. I went into Mercy’s room and got her up, and we came out together to see a sparkly clean house and our good friend with a smile on her face. When she saw me her eyes teared up, and as she spoke she started to cry. She told me that she could not believe that I had let her into my home, with full access to all of our things, and then closed my door and gone to sleep. She said that she had never felt so trusted by someone; she had never felt so much pride and dignity and worth as someone who did not have to be doubted and feared.

I don’t think many of us have a reference for that kind of redemption. I don’t think that many of us come close to grasping the kind of tangible, radical social restoration that Zacchaeus or Mary Magdalene or the bleeding woman knew at the hands of Jesus.

My friend does. A year ago she could hardly fathom being trusted to clean someone’s home. How much more did she experience dignity and wholeness on Sunday as she collected our offerings and brought them before her Lord? I am grateful to my friend for leading us in what was most definitely a time of worship.

I don’t believe Willow should close their doors, nor do I think Church of the Redeemer’s slower growth is any strike against us through kingdom eyes. A widow’s penny was deemed a vast treasure by Jesus, so I am certain that we just can’t look at branches and fruit and harvest the way we do the stock market. The balance sheet can be very confusing…

18 thoughts on ““The church that came to me””

  1. Thank you, Erika, for stepping up and offering a very sweet piece of missional fruit for those who wonder what it might look like. The “taste” brought tears to my eyes many times and on many different levels.

  2. Thanks so much for sharing this, Erika. Real stories are so needed amidst the batting back and forth of numbers. Those numbers represent lives, and we need to know the stories behind them more often than we do. Again, thanks.

  3. Hi Erika,

    Your post made me think of a book I just read, “Qu(e)erying Evangelism; Growing a Community from the Outside In,” by Cheri DiNovo.

    You mention how your friend told her mom that this was the church that came to her. It seems to me that it was she who “came.” DiNovo speaks about the people from the “outside/the margin” who are willing to come to the church as the real gifts from God to the church – those, like your friend, are the true evangelist; they come to the church (and trust it – not an easy thing to do), and through them, comes Christ’s call to faithfulness.

    I would affirm that she was the gift. She came to the church and gave the church the opportunity to be who the church is called to be, the embodied witness of the good news.

    Just made me think of that :)

  4. This reminds me very much of some of the stories shared by Stan Hauerwas and Jean Vanier in their new book “Living Gently in a Violent World.” But more.. it reminds me of a story we are living in now. A few months ago we helped a middle aged gal with her rent. She had unwisely used some of her income to buy lottery tickets, hoping she coudl avoid asking for help. With her marginal income cleaning homes and as a helper/server at a bake shop, she is just getting by. A couple months later she was evicted for questionable reasons. We helped her put her things in storage and moved her to a transition house. Last month some friends helped her move into a new, more affordable place. She called us the next day so excited, and reminded us of her promise to help us with a big cleaning project in the spring. She works so hard, we don’t really want her to help. But family works that way.. we have to let her give back in the way she chooses to maintain her own sense of dignity and to know herself as one who gives and not only receives. And she does give all the time.. with warm smiles and hugs, she always shines with the love of Jesus.

  5. i commented something similar somewhere else but it just made so much more sense.

    Organic fruit just tastes better, and we all know it when we bite.

  6. Liked Xochi’s comment a lot.

    Spending some time right now trying to figure out why ‘prophetic’ churches and organizations sometimes do so little good for poor or otherwise marginalized people.

    The attractional thing is obviously a gated cul de sac from the point of view of folks seeking new kinds of economic or social justice and a different kind of church.

    Still, lots to be said for those who think that privileged prophetic communities are often much longer on rhetoric than real service to the people on the margins.

    Wonder if Xochi has her finger on something.

    Whose courage and faithfulness and risk taking do we write about and speak about and celebrate most often?

  7. Thank you for this.

    I thought of the woman with the alabaster flask. The way sometimes we just need somebody to point out the wonderful acts of worship in what may initially seem absurd.

  8. This is a lovely story…..thanks for sharing this. This as well brought tears to my own eyes today; and a bit of a chuckle as well …I drive a whole whopppping 2 hours each way-a total of (4 hours) to get to this Blessed Palace–excuse me, fun!!! And gosh…its well worth every bit of it! A small twist of discerning capabilities; as well as Gods hedge of mighty protection….following along foot a mighty brilliant scholar friend as well..a blessed teacher in smallness of words! This man teaches with a humbleness of gesture; and calm and collective posture…one that contains a transparent figure with a mighty stance for a corperate awareness called peace…..peace to the fullest! And , well worth the effort and drive trouncing through the SNOW!!! Hi – Ho -hi-Ho Hi -Ho!!! It’s Off to Sir’ Hybles Church we Go!!!!Hi-Ho, Hi-Ho….hi-ho!! Rahab

  9. This is a powerful post, full of truth and insight. It makes me wish I had gotten to spend more time with both Doug and you at Fuller.

  10. All I can say as I sit here crying is bless you all. It reminds me of similar ministry times in the past and a lot of precious people and sadly church members who could not see what my wife and I were about – “putting the rectory at risk….”

  11. Who knows what our actions translate to in the supernatural. It is not for me to judge but I’m betting that our normal tendency to assign value based on visible impact is WAY off base. I can’t wait to have eyes that see and ears that hear the kingdom of heaven in eternity. You gave life by taking a nap. How ironic is that?

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