As a preacher’s kid and as a person who works for a denomination, a lot of people would probably assume that I’d be all about finding, joining, and attending a local church body. People who know me a little better know that I’ve been hurt, time and time again, by churches and church people in my life and have spent a lot of time trying to heal and forgive. For long periods of time, I’ve walked away from what people would think of as “regular” churches. But what I’ve really found is that church doesn’t always look like what we expect it to.
Let me tell a couple of stories to illustrate.
When I was a kid, there were a couple of people that God sent to speak into my life. One was an evangelist by the name of John Hobbs. And the other was a painter-musician-evangelist, named Ken Helser. They traveled together regularly, doing ministry.
One Sunday afternoon, as John and Ken were driving home after a long, exhausting weekend of ministry, they decided they needed to stretch their legs and find a cold Pepsi and maybe a moon pie. The problem was that in this little coastal town, the only place that appeared to be open was a bar. They noticed that the parking lot was practically empty and pulled in, hoping for a restroom at the very least.
Walking into the bar, the two road-weary preachers noticed right away that there were only two others in the place. Behind the bar was a tired-looking barmaid and slumped over the bar was a man who was steadily nursing a beer.
Noticing a couple of pool tables in the back, John and Ken decided to take their Pepsis back to the felt to have a game. They enjoyed their game and Ken, as he is apt to do, began to sing. The fellow at the bar ignored them, but the barmaid came closer to hear and as Ken finished his song, the barmaid stepped up to introduce herself. And then, she made a request.
Would you sing me a love song?
He set down his Pepsi and his pool cue and smiled.
I’ll not only sing you a love song. I’ll tell you about the lover.
She looked at him quizzically, but sat down to listen as he began to sing.
Love can go down to the lowest places
Love does not hide from sad, lonely faces
Love has no fear
Love has no shame
Love just goes down, down, down
Love can go down
But most of my life
I’ve always put myself down
I’ve been so afraid to live
That all my life, I wore a frown…
Some don’t care if they live
Others don’t even care if they die
That’s why God’s love came down…
Ken finished the song with the waitress weeping in the background. He sat across from her and introduced her to the Jesus whose love goes everywhere and anywhere—including down into the gutters.
As Ken spoke with the waitress, the beer-drinkin’ dude decided to come see who was making the lady cry and if he needed to beat someone up for it. John intercepted him, sat down with him, and introduced him to Jesus.
And that Sunday afternoon, in a small, empty bar, they had church.
Several years later, I found church in an odd place, too.
I was really struggling to find my place in the church I was in. I tried a lot of different ministries, but could never quite find where I belonged. I had really decided that there was no place for me when a young man named Jason invited me to a Bible study at his house. He was a recovering Cocaine addict and most of the others at the study were also recovering addicts, but he felt strongly that the Holy Spirit was telling him that I belonged there, too.
On Sunday afternoon when Jason had extended the invitation, I had impulsively said yes, but on Thursday evening when I was driving over, my fears began to press on me and several times, I almost turned the car around. Once I got there, Jason’s friend, Abby, took my purse and tossed it into a pile of coats and purses and then led me into the small living room that held almost forty people. That many strangers in that small of a space was beyond terrifying to me and though I bravely held myself together during singing and the Bible study, when people began to stand up in front of the group and pray for each other, I freaked out. What if one of them prayed for me? I couldn’t stand to be that vulnerable in front of a group of strangers!
I turned around, frantically looking for my purse and my keys. I had to get out of there. But then a hand grabbed mine. I turned around and found myself in Jason’s long, tattooed arms. He saw the fear in me and began to weep. And when he began to weep, I began to weep. And then the group encircled us, weeping. And for that moment, there was no fear at all. I was loved and accepted—fears and insecurities and tears and all.
And that Thursday night, in a small living room filled with addicts and “losers” and hopeless people, we had church.
Church isn’t about where you are. It’s not even about who you are. It’s about Who You Worship.
For those of you who are visiting, this post is part of a weekly book discussion that my Okie-Laskan pastor-friend, Jason Stasyszen and I have been co-hosting. We’ve been discussing the book “The Christian Atheist” by Craig Groeschel and this week’s chapter was titled, “When You Believe in God, But Not in His Church.” For more discussion on this topic, please visit Jason’s site. I have read his post for today and found it to be one of the most beautiful and healing posts of his that I’ve ever read. Also, about a year ago, I wrote another post on this topic called, “Why Don’t We Just Quit?” I almost reposted it today and so if you’d like to read (or re-read) it, I invite you to click here.