“Nobody is going to church,” my daughter told me recently. She was talking about people her age who had all grown up in intensely doctrined and governed churches and schools. “I ask them—do you pray? Do you have your quiet times? They all say, no.”
It opened my eyes to something I hadn’t realized. Others her age tell me how uncomfortable church feels, how inauthentic, how the pressure for evangelism was no longer to be tolerated, how the exaltation of a single man’s sermon feels like an abuse of power. Friends and involvements outside of church seem more real. The one kind of church experience that seems genuine, it seems, is liturgical.
To be honest, I too have been feeling that way. Having undergone some difficult situations engendered by church leadership, now well along into my 50s I find myself wary. I am more sensitized about power and gender and dignity in such settings. Apparently putting a premium on spiritual victory, church hasn’t always seemed to encourage my voicing my brokenness. As for the liturgical: even my epistemology has gravitated to the Eucharistic (Loving to Know: An Introduction to Covenant Epistemology (Cascade, forthcoming). I hyphenate my week-end church going to take in communion somewhere.
I do not mean to discredit the experience of my young friends. But my sense of the presence of my groom—Christ—and my longing for more, has only grown. The hardships of life that left me with no resource other than God (duh—I know!) are what have given me entrée to his presence in pain. Growing up a good little Christian girl (too), until the pain caught me undeniably, I had no personal sense of his presence, and little existential grasp of his grace. Now I feel I need him every second. I luxuriate in his unmerited favor every second. I am the prodigal son ever seeing how my Father beams, as he casts dignity to the winds to run and hold me. I cannot live without the gospel. I am a cracked and reglued trophy of his grace, gracing his mantel.
Abstract artist Makoto Fujimura justifies his often costly gold paint because his art, as worship, is response to the extravagant overture of Christ. He cites the woman with the jar of perfume, whose gift the religious people neither condoned nor understood, but which Jesus welcomed, subversively affirmed, and wore to the cross. What justifies the extravagance is who you are responding to—the one who loves you extravagantly.
Students in a humanities class I team-teach, generally well brought-up Christians, read Fujimura’s essay. I take the opportunity to ask, “Have you ever thought of worship as response to God’s initiative?” Driven, weary, perfectionistic, students balk at the thought of 100% grace. “But there is a fine line between gratitude and presumptuous indifference,” they object. I respond: “There is only a fine line if you have not understood the freeing joy of abandonment to the gospel.” Recently a stellar student followed me from class and into my office. Tears in his eyes, he faltered: “What if you’ve never experienced God coming?”
I ache: well-intended Christian upbringings have often bound zealous children in legalistic chains. Propositions and performance.
Parents aren’t entirely to blame. Satan’s single truth perversion need only be to whisper that the gospel is not enough. It takes being legalistic about only one small thing (prayer lists, quiet times, not smoking…) to castrate the gospel. I needed no help from my parents to pervert the gospel to a performance mode.
And then there is the epistemic problem that has infected the Protestant Western culture: knowledge is propositional information, theory; application and ethical behavior is performance. This skews our hearing away from the Word known only transformatively as He comes in our need. There is good reason to see church as a transaction rather than a classroom.
And third, it’s not as if good parents are going to orchestrate pain for the sake of teaching about the grace of God.
But as any fifty-plus year-old knows, you don’t need to manufacture experiences of pain. They find you. They find you in a way they might not have found you when you were 24. Maybe it’s that they find you listening—after the decades of life you have survived. Into the void, God comes.
I go to church because I love Jesus. Please do not hear this as a platitude or a holier-than-thou-ism. I confess it the way a parched desert wanderer might say he loves an oasis. His extravagant love for me compels me to go. It is to experience afresh meeting him running toward me. I have to go! Scripture indicates that God summons his people to assembly and comes among them. I can’t administer the Eucharist to myself. Though I know his presence in solitude, Jesus comes in a distinct way only among his people.
The sociology or even the teaching of a particular church isn’t always comfortable. The sermon can be dreadful, the people too suburban, too inbred, too full of pat answers. But this is what I can’t get around: Jesus loves the church. He who loves me so extravagantly I may dance into his arms, pig-sty stench and all—he loves the church I feel uncomfortable at, just the same. She is his bride.
Jesus loves the church in its myriad manifestations; he loves its variety. He welcomes the nations to his feast; he seems not to be able to do without anybody. Cross-cultural boundary-crossing, we all see more and more, is the subversive signature of the Holy Spirit at work. It’s true that this means that a church congregation should be mosaic. But it is also true that I may embrace the one that isn’t yet, just as I would any cross-cultural experience. It’s only another cross-cultural experience.
And even in the uncomfortable church, I may enter in, covenant to be formed and nourished, and meet Christ among the group that, like me, for some inexplicable reason, he loves.
 Makato Fujimura, “The Extravagance of God.” http://www.conversantlife.com/art/the-extravagance-of-god.
 Esther L. Meek “The Void.” Commongroundsonline, June 11, 2007. http://commongroundsonline.typepad.com/common_grounds_online/2007/06/esther_l_meek_t.html