Yesterday was a great day for my family. My brother invited us to an Atlanta Braves baseball game as part of my nephew’s birthday celebration (happy 6th birthday, Joey!), and the game started at 1:30. But before that, we were to meet at the world famous Varsity Drive-In for lunch at eleven. As it’s summer and we love my brother and his family, we agreed to both; plus, we were excited to take Ella and Jon to their first baseball game. However, it presented us with a dilemma.
What about church?
Even though I’m no longer working at a church, it doesn’t mean that the church isn’t important to me. It is, and vitally so. Not to sound all judgy on you, but I think that physical community with fellow Christ-followers is one of the key components of spiritual formation. Which means my family must seek it out intentionally now that I’m no longer employed by a church. It has become much more of a priority for us, instead of an assumed thing.
(I realize that sounds bad, but when you’re on staff at a church, you take for granted that you are part of a community. You get too focused on the responsibilities of leading it.)
Anyway, all this to say that Rachel and I sat down and discussed what to do.
“Well, we could go to an early service somewhere,” she said. “I mean, I suppose we don’t have to…”
“No,” I said. “I’m with you. Let’s go somewhere with a nine o’clock service. We can just head straight downtown after that.”
So we sat down and considered the different churches in our area that offered an early service. Actually, we both knew exactly which church we wanted to attend; it took all of nine seconds for us to simultaneously declare it. I won’t tell you the name, but it’s a local church with a reputation for excellence, and one we’ve both wanted to visit for a while.
Now that we can, we were excited for the possibility.
It didn’t disappoint. I won’t go into a church review, in part because it’d be boring to read, but also because I actively worked to NOT see things that way yesterday. When you spend time working behind the scenes in a church, the tendency when you go to another church is to peek behind the curtain; to get an idea of how the other guy does things, and see if there is any inspiration for your congregation. This tendency gets in the way of you actually worshipping, and so it is that some pastors forget what it means to sit back, relax, and focus on God from the pew (or in this case, theater chair). So I went into yesterday morning with my analyzing mode set to Off.
It was amazing. I didn’t stress about a single thing. We got the kids checked into the church’s registration system, sent Ella off the elementary age kids area and took Jon to the preschool area. I was worried about this part because Jon has attachment issues to me, and those issues flared up every Sunday just before he went to his Sunday school class and I went to mine. So I expected tears. I expected screaming. Instead, I watched my son stroll into a completely foreign environment, pick up a truck, and immediately start playing.
He never even looked back.
I figured if he could do it, then so could I. I walked back out to the lobby area, grabbed a free cup of coffee, found Rachel, and together we strolled into an entirely different world. And for an hour, I forgot I was a pastor. I forgot what it felt like to worry over the service.
I remembered what it was like to simply let go of myself, and enter into the presence of the holy, righteous, and awesome God of All.
Now I’m not saying you don’t worship as a pastor. You do. It’s just different. You’re so involved with the mechanics of the service that you’re a bit more aware of what’s going on than most people. You know what needs to go on in the Audio/Visual booth; you know when the men need to take up the offering; you’re subconsciously listening to the ticking of the clock in your head; reading the body language of the people; judging the ambient temperature in the room, watching the faces during singing, worrying about the lighting, revisiting your sermons notes in your head, thinking about how you might want to change an illustration or the close. In many modern churches, you’re the one responsible for making sure that the people have done their part to make the service worshipful.
And I worried about that more than I should have. I did theater in high school and happent to be a bit of a nerd, so the ins and outs of production not only fascinate me, they present an area for excellence to be achieved. Which means that I spent more time worrying about that stuff than necessary, which meant that I allowed my worship to sometimes be more of a battle than it needed to be.
Which made sitting in the passenger seat yesterday all the more restful.
It was also instructive for my spiritual life. I cannot always be in control. I cannot always be worried about making sure that every I is dotted and every T is crossed. To be that consumed with attaining perfection is to deny what Christ’s death and resurrection proclaims as true: that I am broken, and cannot fix myself, even after He’s put me back together again. I must rest in Him and let Him transform me.
To be sure, we can’t, as Dallas Willard famously wrote, be Vampire Christians – “I’ll just take your blood, Jesus, and go on with my life, thank you very much.” But neither can we go to the opposite extreme, where we don’t even need the blood of Jesus because we’ve figured out the magic formula. There’s a reason Jesus spent so much time chiding the Pharisees; when we feel like we have God mastered, then we’ve missed the point because we’ve missed the Person.
Writing all of this is taboo in some people’s minds because I’m admitting to something that some Christians want to deny: that I’m still being conformed to Christ. As a pastor, I often felt the sadness in people when they would ask me for an answer and the only one I could give them was “I don’t know.” Others were liberated by my honesty, but there were some who seemed defeated by the truth. Looking back on it, I think it was because they felt if I didn’t have all my stuff together, how could they possibly hope to?
Here’s how: by surrendering to Christ. Reading His word, not as a rule book, but as a conversation. Considering His Spirit in us not as a power to be mastered, but as a gift to be enjoyed. Putting ourselves into His hands and trusting that He will shape and grow us in the ways that matter, the ways we need, and that He’ll do the same for others.
Yesterday, I was reminded of that. It was powerful. It was awesome. And it awakened a hunger for more.
It was a good day.