I grew up in a pretty non-traditional church experience: We met in someone’s garage two counties over. There were maybe 50 people in there, all crammed in, sitting on folding chairs. The little kids just sat on the floor. There were a lot of closed eyes and raised hands and shaking heads and voices shouting “Praise Jesus!”. (Sounds cult-ish, I know. But it wasn’t.)
We didn’t recite any creeds. We didn’t have hymnals. In fact, most of the songs we sang were written by the pastor.
The Bible was our only book. There was no “How-To” guide stashed in the back of the pew that explained when to sit, when to stand, and what to say.
I always felt a little weird about this growing up. When you live in a small town, you’re defined by the groups you belong to, and I didn’t get to be Catholic or Lutheran or Methodist or “non-religious” like virtually everyone else in my class. And I always thought that maybe my church experiences were less-than because of this. They weren’t “official.” There was no Pope or Diocese to oversee our practices. We had no book to follow along with and guide our participation in the service.
Like I said, the Bible was our only book.
Whenever I visited other churches, this bothered me. It was rare to see an actual Bible in those churches. Usually, the passages were just printed in the bulletin. So I felt like we were doing it wrong in our garage. Everyone brought their own Bibles in our “church.” And people shared with the “congregation” what they were reading and what learning from it.
So there was (and still is) this disconnect for me: the words “Pope” and “Diocese” don’t appear in any Bible I’ve read. There aren’t a lot of instructions in there about conducting an actual church service. The Biblical church, to me, just seemed to be a group of people who loved and supported each other and who weren’t afraid to act out their faith to better the world. (Becauase faith without action is dead.)
So I feel like I serve God better in caring for foster children than I do sitting in a pew.
(The Bible tells us to care for the fatherless and the widow, but I don’t think it says anything about sitting in a pew.)
Likewise, I hate feeling guilty for not volunteering my “time and talents” to pass out bulletins or join church council. I hate feeling guilty for not buying soap for kids in Africa.
And I’m not saying that those aren’t worthy causes. I’m just saying that I see a lot of things that churches ignore, either because they’re way too into themselves (“involving” members of the congregation by having them pass the offering tray or hand out wafers) or way too outside themselves (giving money to foreign missionaries). They miss the needs that are right here, right now. Churches are missing the needs of their own communities because so many of their programs stay within their church walls.
They want people to come to them. They don’t go out to meet those needs.
They are fine sending a single family to North Korea or Borneo or Fiji and supporting them with money and prayers and school supplies and stuff that was bound for the Salvation Army anyway. But it is rare to see people step out within their own communities to make a difference, especially if those who need help don’t “belong” to to the “right” religion. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen -- our community just saw a beautiful example of people coming together to support a family in need that crossed boundaries of denomination.
But it is rare.
I didn’t realize how much need there was until we started doing foster care, until we jumped into that trench and started to interact with people who needed real help with real things: Basic education. Life skills, like cooking. Money, time, and resource management. Hygiene. Sobriety.
I live outside a town of 2,500 people, and there is plenty of need right here. And I don’t know if I’ll ever feel comfortable going to church where they expend more effort in finding someone to read scripture next Sunday than they do in meeting the needs that are just outside their walls.