Turning obstacle into opportunity … Reclaiming the “verbness” of church

“So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering.”  This encouragement opens up the 12th chapter of Romans in Eugene Petersons translation known as “The Message”.  The New International Version identifies this as “your true and proper worship”.  Many of us were brought up to understand “worship” as what one did on a Sunday, seated in rows and led by people who stood before us.  Now of course we were also occasionally told that worship really took place all week long … but lets be honest, experience always wins out over abstract teaching.  We were (and still are) told one thing, yet our experience demonstrates something else and our experience over several centuries of Christendom is that worship (aka church) happens at an appointed time in an appointed place.

So what happens when something disrupts the cosmos and we are confronted with an uncomfortable reality.  This past weekend that something in my part of the world was a snowstorm.  Most of my life has been spent where this was nearly unthinkable as we prided ourselves on our snow savvy.  In my current context this is not the case.  Here the days leading up to a predicted 4-8 inches looked not unlike most post apocalyptic views featured in modern cinema and literature.  For the average church leadership, the unthinkable was upon us … we would have to consider cancelling “church” or “worship” or whatever spin we chose to place it under.  Ultimately, what I observed fell into one of three categories.  There were those who didn’t cancel.  There were some who transferred what normally happened in their buildings to an online version of themselves.  There were many who cancelled completely and called a spiritual “snow day”.

At the risk of seeming jaded, allow me to give you a glimpse, garnered from more than 2 dozen years of church leadership, behind the curtain. Practically speaking this was really a matter of safety and community cooperation … we were being advised to have no unnecessary travel.  But we in church leadership are conditioned to operate beyond the practical.  The practical was the use of the word unnecessary.  So it becomes a question of just what constitutes necessary … and that is where the dilemma lies.  Here are, again from a wealth of experience, some of the spoken and unspoken reasons for all of this angst over whether or not the scheduled gathering was necessary:

  • Spiritual … It is somehow a determiner of our faith … you just don’t close church
  • Financial … we can’t take an offering
  • Practical … we are in the middle of this brilliantly concocted and preordained sermon series
  • Theological … we come here to encounter God, to receive communion, etc

The harsh reality is that, regardless of the individual church decision, most people took a spiritual snow day anyway.  Although I’d love to address all of these one at a time, I know myself well enough to know that it would cause me to sink into a deep dark place from which I may never return.  So instead, let me do this … let me turn this whole thing on its head and apply it to how we make “church” a verb once more and take seriously Jesus’ prompting to “go” into all the world and to “love our neighbors”.  Let us look at in in the context of using obstacles as opportunities.  Maybe it would have been more helpful to see the obstacle (a potentially paralyzing storm) as an opportunity (exercise loving our neighbors, our community).

What if the people who are part of our spiritual communities knew instinctively that in the absence of gathering together, we could take this as an opportunity to lean into the teaching in Romans?  What if, rather than simply calling a “snow day” they tried to experiment what it means to love your neighbor in your “walking around life”?  What if they knew, instinctively, that this could simply manifest itself in:

  • taking a walk along the snowy sidewalks and streets of your neighborhood (we met more people in a an hour long walk than in the past 6 months worth of walks)
  • shoveling out a neighbor in need … help a local business clear their walks
  • a chance to build a snowman with people you may have never met
  • supporting and encouraging a local business (we made extra visits and stayed extra long at neighborhood coffee shops and restaurants
  • warm drinks at impromptu sledding parties
  • if you could get to your building, open it as a warming station, or offer warm drinks to passers-by

This wasn’t simply an obstacle, a need to cancel or alter how we “do church”  … it was a chance to unleash the church.  Of all the brilliantly inspired messages that we assumed we needed to preach this past Sunday, at all costs, I’m thinking that the most powerful could have been what it really means to live “out” … “your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life” in the context of a snowstorm.  No doubt that some did this.  I know an increasing number of leaders and their communities who have already wrestled with this passage extensively and react instinctively when the opportunity presents itself.  For the rest of us, I hope that we don’t just mindlessly plunge into the future, hoping to never have to wrestle with this dilemma again.

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