Saturday, April 21, 2007

Toward, against and away

It will surprise very few of you to hear that I struggle with my church. It's full of The Beautiful People, it is difficult to get the pastors' attention, worship is led by a man who has treated me hurtfully without reconciliation and the doctrine is staunchly evangelical.

And yet I stay.

Why? Four reasons come immediately to mind:

1. The vision for the church is unique and inspires me. This is a quote from the membership manual, which can be found on the website.
What we discovered was that the revolution that Jesus started 2,000 years ago – contrary to popular belief – was not about controlling people’s behaviors or spreading a religious system. Instead it was a movement of power and passion; a journey of discovering God’s grace and beauty as a community, and then spreading that incredible love to everyone we interacted with.

As anyone who has encountered organized religion knows, it is easy to lose this passion for grace, love and beauty in the vortex of rules, liturgy, and going-through-the-motions-faith. River City set out to become a community that avoided these pitfalls and instead set out to rediscover the beauty and power that comes from following Jesus passionately, with the Bible as our guide and the city as our place to express this faith in a relevant and meaningful way.

Although words often lose the power to express their original intent, we knew that we needed a guiding light to express these aforementioned desires. So we asked the question: What words adequately describe the passions of someone that is transformed by the presence of God and seeks to live out of that transformed place? We asked this question first, for we sensed that passion is the key to starting a movement. Behaviors come and go and can be motivated by guilt or pride, but passions – the convictions of your heart – are powerful sources of energy and motivation. We were convinced that it was far more important to have a person’s passions changed by God than even their beliefs, for you can believe many things without being passionate about them, but you cannot be passionate about something without believing it to your core.

That question is what led us to the three words that guide our steps at River City as well as our vision statement:

Vision : To become a multi-ethnic community of Jesus-followers that transforms the city of Chicago through worship, reconciliation, and neighborhood development.

Who couldn't love a church that uses the word "aforementioned" in its core document? Seriously, though, the church says that neighborhood development is as important as worship. If I have a passion, it is neighborhood development. Other parts of the membership manual specifically mention John Perkins, who created the philosophy of CCDA, a major source of my beliefs for how we are going to change the world. Also, it is a church that was created to be multi-ethnic, which has become crucial to me over the last several years when I've realized how much better my life is because I work in environments where I am in the ethnic minority. Pastor Daniel is a gifted preacher and his sermons very eloquently and effectively use scripture to illustrate for us how to live out this faith in Christ that is "not about controlling people’s behaviors or spreading a religious system."

I think there are other churches like this in other parts of the country. However, I don't think there are any others in Chicago. Which brings me to the second reason why I stay at River City.

#2. I can walk to Sunday service. Living in the suburbs, I grew to hate my commuter lifestyle and wanted an actual community. I found it on an island and know that the only way to have that again is to commit to a neighborhood and to spend most of my time there. I recently decided not to move to Hyde Park (an hour away by car) when I start school there but to commute from Humboldt Park on public transportation because I feel so strongly about this. 2 years here, 2 years there, 2 years somewhere else makes that kind of community impossible. One of the commenters on Erika's blog about the importance of local Sunday services wrote:
In a culture where the meaning of community and presence has been drastically altered because of our technological ability to avoid each other, the geo[graphical] expression of the local church has something strong to say about what it means to be truly human and in community. As I write from thousands of miles away, I realize how ubiquitous the structures of avoidance are…
There are other churches in the city that would appeal to my longing for a more liberal populace, my need for liturgy, my yearning for hymns and my wish for fewer evangelical assumptions about how a church should function. But I would have to drive to the south side or to Andersonville/Lake View to attend them. That would be a suburban lifestyle transplanted into an urban context. Pastor Daniel teaches that the only pure desire that humans have is the desire for community because it is the only desire we experienced before the fall from the Garden of Eden. I believe that and so creating community (which can only fully be realized in a geographic context) must be the priority for me in choosing a church.

3. I am a better person for having to venture outside of my comfort zone. We live in a consumer culture and I don't believe that consumerism is consistent with what God wants for us. This applies to shopping for churches. Another commenter on Erika's post (it's worth it to go read the post and all of the comments)writes:
I believe our generation is constantly seeking perfection… perfect church, perfect ballet class, perfect orthodontist, perfect birthday party, perfect school, perfect marriage and, of course, perfect children. We expect/ demand that these “services” satisfy us completely so we don’t have to work or get uncomfortable.
Another said, "We must muzzle our egos to sit in worship with those whom we dislike or fear. What I think has been happening is that we have systematically been domesticating the church so that we no longer confront our real selves in worship."

Any time I put God and other people above my own ego, I am getting closer to living out his plan for me. I can see my "real self" more clearly. If I commit to River City, even knowing that it is not perfect, I am more likely to live a life full of complex flavor and texture, rather than one that tastes like chicken broth with no salt.

That being said, I cannot actually become a member of River City. The membership manual requires one to agree to some clearly delineated beliefs by signing on the line. Since I cannot do that in good conscience, I cannot be a member. While listening to one of Rob Bell's recent sermons, I heard him talk about an upcoming season of Covenanting, in which anyone can sign a card that makes a simple statement of commitment to the community and vision of Mars Hill in order to become a member. I would gladly sign one of those cards for River City and that spirit of covenant is in my heart. As it is, though, the focus on agreement of particular doctrinal beliefs keeps me from allowing others to recognize my commitment the vision of the church.

4. Finally, I like many of the people. I've been amazed at how often when I've admitted, "I don't really like people," I'd see relief on the face of my conversational partner as he or she said, "Me neither!" Another time, a man was telling me about how he was dropping out of one of the two degree programs he was in and he hastened to add that he had been getting A's in all of those classes. I laughed companionably and said, "Of course you were. People like us don't quit while we're down." It's been interesting to realize that there are other people like me out there and that I'm slowly becoming friends with them. Who expected to find them at church?!? It's the "slowly" aspect that also surprises me and reinforces my decision to stick around. I forget that although some friendships are vibrant and immediate and intense, others are formed over time and common activities. Both are necessary for community and I want to spend some time being available to the latter.


I have come across a series of blog posts about shopping for churches and the detriment to our experiences when we do it because we are looking for comfort rather than allowing God to lead us into a new dynamic. In addition to those I've linked to, check out Ed Gilbreath. Allowing God to take us out of our comfort zone is always tumultuous and always beneficial. We become less self-centered and more empathetic as we are exposed to the different thought-processes. Shane Hipps said:
The way that I think about engaging it is…well, let’s look at how Jesus interacted with his culture. Jesus used three primary movements in every context. The first movement is towards. So he was incarnational. He entered. People like to use the word relevant for this. But Jesus also moved against the culture, he was resistant. He overturned tables in the temple and said “You brood of vipers.” So he was both relevant and resistant. And third, Jesus withdrew to quiet places. He was also distant, he moved away. So you have three rhythmic movements of toward, against, and away—relevance, resistance, and distance. And none of those can be static. They always have to be happening.
I'd like to use these three attitudes in my engagement with the church.

On Easter, I had a bit of a revelation as I sat in what I consider to be the ideal church, St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Glen Ellyn. The pastor was talking about doing the Lord's work and the archaic phrase made me pause and think. I wondered if writing this blog was Lord's work and the incense and time for meditation gave me space to come slowly to agreement that it was. This is how prayer works for me: a thought occurs to me; then I try to quiet my mind and start looking at that thought from several different angles to find flaws; in that quiet and in more meditation in which I stop examining and try to listen, ultimately I come to feel convicted that the thought is truth. I think that's how God speaks to me. I have to be quiet and then I can hear him. So, on Easter when I determined that writing this blog is part of the Lord's work for me, I then came to the conclusion that the blog wouldn't be very interesting if there weren't internal spiritual conflict to write about in addition to the adventures I have and observations I record. What provides more internal spiritual conflict than my church, right? When three blogs that I read also began to talk about the value of tension in the church, I had to sit down and write this out.

So, I have no doubt that River City will continue to be a struggle for me. However, I also have no doubt that the struggle will be worthwhile.

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