Why I am in a Weird Church

Every now and then somebody asks me “So, what are you doing for church these days?”

Sometimes the question comes from people who know me and are just too tactful to ask if I’ve given up yet. Other times people genuinely don’t know. But as I begin our story I can see the unasked question forming in their mind.

“Why are you in a weird church?”

For the last three years I’ve been part of a church called Ekklesia Modesto my family started with friends.

We are currently meeting in homes but don’t have any conviction about being a house-church. For our first year we met in a wrong-side-of-the-tracks park or in a similarly situated downtown boxing gym.

We’re small – we currently have three families regularly participating.

We don’t have any official positions – nobody has “Pastor” before their name.

We are Brethren in background and Anabaptist in theology but don’t really fit with either the conservative or progressive wings of Brethren or Anabaptist groups.

I play guitar for worship services every Sunday – but we sing 99% traditional hymns.

I could go on with all the ways we don’t really fit the mainstream Christian cultural ideals of what a church should look like – but you get the idea! The church I’m attending might strike you as a little weird.

But this is my home church – where I’ve worshiped for the past 3 years, where I feel called to be, the place that’s best for me and my family.

I still haven’t answered the Why question.

Let me tackle the Why by way of another question I’ve been asked that I have an easier time explaining.

I’m a product of homeschooling. Thirty years ago my parents decided to educate me at home rather than send me to public school. This was a crazy decision at the time. Not too many people understood and supported homeschooling – least of all the truant officer!

Now days when I tell people the my eldest daughter is in 5th grade in a home-based co-op we helped start and my second daughter is a totally homeschooled 3rd grader they mostly just say “cool”!

People’s attitude towards homeschooling education has shifted. Homeschooling has gone from being considered “crazy” and “weird” to, dare I say it, almost mainstream?

This shift in opinion partly just reflects popularity – more people homeschool now than in the past – but also partly because the failures and harms of the traditional Public School system are more visible now.

Public education in its current incarnation is just broken and this is increasingly accepted. Critics like John Holt sounded crazy 30 years ago when they attacked not just the ability of the Public Schools to educate children but the very system and idea of mass standardized education.

Now everybody has an opinion on standardized testing and the flaws of Common Core standards. The fads and follies and zero-tolerance policies are widely disseminated. And when I tell people that I’m in a weird school because I don’t want to send my kids to public school – most people are sympathetic, and many want to talk about how alternative schooling works and might work for them.

Wired Magazine ran a feature recently on Silicon Valley nerds adopting homeschooling. Being Wired they got it wrong of course – their follow up editorial proclaims “Homeschooling Only Deepens Silicon Valley’s Rift With the Rest of Us”. But I found revealing that despite this opinion they couldn’t help express some sympathy with the point of view of one new homeschooling parent – the hacker ethos aimed towards education: “Heck, I could do this better myself out of my garage!”

I’m guessing you can see where I’m headed with this. All my life, for as long as I can remember thinking about such things, there have been obvious flaws in how we’ve done church in the congregations I’ve been part of. Some of those flaws seem to me to be structural problems.

I’ve been in churches with good people, fellow members of the Body of Christ. I’ve been in churches where the Gospel was preached, where the Word is respected and taught – where Jesus is proclaimed! And those churches still hurt their own people.

In fact it’s likely you agree with me about this – at least to some extent. Almost every adult I talk to about matters of faith has a story to tell about being hurt by their church. And it usually centers around conflict in their congregation and its aftermath.

I’ve seen first-hand two church failures – the congregation experienced conflict, did not resolve it, and the body split, and diminished. Relationships were sundered – people who were brothers in Christ don’t speak to each other any more. People who loved one another for years and have years of relationships simply stopped relating to one another.

My brothers, these things ought not be so.

The local church as constituted in most evangelical congregations operates as the world, operates by means of power and politics.

Members who care about the church have desires for how it should operate, who should be in charge, what it should be about. They want to be involved!

The way they pursue their desires is to seek power through the political means – building a consensus, consolidating a power base, removing obstacles, isolating enemies and promoting allies. These political means are natural, even necessary, given the institutions that we have created.

None of this the way of Jesus. None of this looks like preferring our brother before ourself. None of this demonstrates the genuine love for fellow believers that should be a primary mark of the Body of Christ. And I have rarely met anyone who is intimately involved in the affairs of a congregation who can say with honesty that they haven’t seen all this first hand.

The primary response to this sad state of affairs has been the increasing adoption of a celebrity driven model where the congregation is centered around a particular man and without that man the congregation cannot survive. The Mark Driscoll/Mars Hill story is an exemplar of the success and pitfalls of this model. I’m left with the sneaking suspicion that if the goal is to build a large, respected, and successful institution the goal may be attainable, but it won’t be the Church!

Just like the school system – the failures of the congregational models available to me has lead me to wonder whether I can do better in my garage!

So – Here I am in a weird church. I’m in a church startup that is deliberately far away from the successful institutional church – and I have to admit that sometimes I miss being part of a more conventional church.

I miss the people, the diversity that comes with a larger body. I sometimes miss just being one of a crowd and not having to call anyone if I can’t make a service. I miss having a built-in social group with friends for my kids. I miss potlucks with the random recipes of 100 other people. I miss church trips and outings and service opportunities. And sometimes I mourn for all the church experiences that I appreciated, growing up, that I don’t think my kids will get.

But I’m not missing Jesus because He is here – He is what we’re all about. Trying to be faithful, following after Jesus, is how we’ve ended up in this weird place.

I’m not missing the Scriptures because every Sunday we ponder God’s Word together – even if it is just a few of us together.

And sometimes when I’m missing the experience of Sunday worship with a large crowd instead of just a few of us gathered together I close my eyes and can see the church, God’s people through all the ages, and feel a part of that great throng all calling out “Holy, Holy, Holy” before the throne of God together.

I’m not writing this to recruit you. In fact I’d say at Ekklesia Modesto we’ve been a little ambivalent about recruiting the already-churched to join our little startup. And I can’t tell you that I have answers – I don’t even know the end of our story!

If you totally disagree with me – I hope I’ve conveyed my heart. I’m in a weird church because I seek to be faithful to Jesus.

But if you feel weird too I would like to encourage you. If you feel in your bones that faithfulness to Jesus demands that there must be a different way of being the church – you are not alone. I’d love to chat with you and swap ideas about what an alternative church culture might look like and how it can function.

Love Feast

table
Last night we had a Love-Feast service. I was thinking about how to describe the Brethren Love Feast I grew up with to someone who hadn’t participated and I remembered leaving a comment a long time ago over at www.rustyparts.com about the Brethren communion service. I’m just going to steal my old comment there:

I grew up in the Dunkard Brethren Church. Communion is a part of “Love feast” and is held only twice a year. Properly, it is a two day process with an “examination service” inviting the congregation to make right any rifts that exist within in the body on the day before the actual love feast. (Some modern innovators have done away with this). The service itself consists of a simple traditional meal, a foot washing service (the church sits at gender segregated at tables, each member taking a turn kneeling and washing the feet of the person beside them) and then communion is done by passing around a single cup to drink from and passing around wafers of communion bread and breaking them. Throughout the service the descriptive passages from Matthew and Luke are read, both of the events of the “Last Supper” and Jesus’ actual passion. All this will take a couple of hours…

I left the Dunkard Brethren a few years ago with some sadness over the power of “we’ve always done things this way” and the hopelessness of fighting the past. Still there is something so evocative about communion as they practice it. Writing this I have a lump in my throat that’s hard to explain… The witness to community portrayed when the Church unitedly engages in acts of humble service… The memories of the aged elder minister creakily kneeling to wash my feet at one of my first communion services as a teenager… The same hymns, every time. The comments by lay members as the service progresses; masculine, blue collar-type men moved to tears as they meditate upon Jesus’ suffering and the reality of his living Presence… The same statement and affirmation between each member as they exchange bread and cup…

The Brethren are, they say, non-creedal and non-liturgical. Ironically, their communion service is one of the most meaningful religious rituals I have participated in…

Well, it’s still a pretty good description. Last night we surrounded the tables, enjoyed a meal together, washed one-another’s feet, and shared in the communion of bread and cup. It is still a blessing, every time.

foot-washing

Wolfes in Africa

Prayer Request: Tracy Wolfe, Justin’s dad, is a long-time local pastor who has developed relationships with several groups in Africa primarily in Uganda and Rwanda. After sharing with us last Sunday Tracy and Mary are headed back to Africa for a month. Check out their africa travel blog for updates. They’ll have lots of opportunity for ministry in the next month! Please pray for them as they travel.

Sermons online

We would start recording our sermons the week it rained tremendously!

If you’d like to hear the weekly message at Ekklesia Modesto check out our sermon audio page at sermoncloud.com. Last Sunday was Advent Sunday and I spoke about Living in Expectation, sharing my experience with keeping Advent season. I also read Frederick Buechner’s meditation on missing Christmas titled The Inkeeper – it’s well worth your time.

It did pour down rain and our little metal building was loud and slightly leaky! But we were blessed by gathering despite the downpour. And if meeting in boxing gym on the wrong side of the tracks to worship God together sounds like your idea of a good time you should join us!

-peace
Simeon

We’ve Moved!

Ekklesia Modesto is now meeting indoors – and it’s about time as the weather turns colder and wet.

We will be meeting at Bad to the Bonz boxing gym located at 1226 7th Street here in Modesto – see the front page for a map.

I’ve known the owner of the gym for several years – I exercised there for a couple years and enjoyed the community: amateur and professional boxers, white and blue collar professionals working up a sweat, and disadvantaged kids thanks to various mentoring groups like the Police Athletic League. Thanks Tony for letting us use the place! We look forwards to seeing you there.

-Simeon

Finishing Philippians 1

Justin delivered an excellent message today – finishing off Philippians chapter 1 and moving into chapter 2. He pointed out that Philippi was a city initially populated by retired Roman veterans and modeled on the city of Rome. If you know anything about Roman military history the comments of the end of Philippians chapter 2 have special resonance:

  • stand fast in unified unity (v27)
  • don’t be afraid of the enemy – your confidence is a sign of your victory and their defeat (v28)
  • you have been granted the privileged of suffering for Christ (v29)

Justin suggested that to Roman military ears these words would have sounded familiar and fit right in with the Roman virtues that Philippi espoused. Legionaries were drilled already in the absolute necessity for discipline and teamwork in combat, fearlessness and discipline in the face of overwhelming odds and imposing foes, and desirous for glory through combat despite the inevitable risks and suffering that come with war.

Justin encouraged us to consider the militarily metaphor and think of ourselves as soldiers committed to a mission, willing to work together, enduring opposition and risk in order to seek victory. Legionaries would be familiar with the rewards of Roman victory: the triumphal march, the laurel, the acclaim. And yet Paul opens Chapter 2 with the humility and ethic of King Jesus: let us be unified in humility and seeking first the good of our brothers and sisters instead of our own glory. Jesus is our example in this as he
left glory to humble himself not just to humanity but to a degrading death for our sake. In so doing he became exalted beyond any exaltation a Roman triumph could imagine! God has given Him a name and allows us to participate in the mission:

Philippians 2
10 That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in
heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; 11 And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Sermon Series

Now that we’ve gotten past the shock-and-awe period of starting a Church Justin and I decided we should pick a book apiece to preach through. I’ve started the book of II Kings and Justin started the book of Philippians today. I’ll let Justin fill you in on Philippians but I’d like to share my reasons for choosing II Kings as a theme for a while.

  1. Location.  I haven’t ever preached through an Old Testament book and the studies I’ve lead in the OT tended to be books of Prophecy (Isaiah, etc). The Old Testament and Israel’s story is part of our Scripture as Christians and I don’t want to neglect this part of God’s word.
  2. Ellul. One of the first books I read by a favorite theologian of mine was The Politics of God, the Politics of Man. Ellul’s study of II Kings and the ways in which God’s purposes interact with man’s choices left an impression on me and I have always wanted to do a study of my own in II Kings.

Next Sunday we’ll be in II Kings chapter 2 – I’m looking for application from Israel’s story to the Church today and looking for depictions of Christ amid the history and politics of II Kings. Join us at 10AM at Mellis Park to search the Scriptures with us!