I was just a boy of three. It was Sunday, and time to go to church.
We lived near Clinton, New Jersey, but because there was no Nazarene church nearby, my parents loaded me and my two older brothers into our ’63 Chevy Impala. We drove 45 minutes down the highway to the Edison Church of the Nazarene.
When I would see the turn-off ramp, I would know that we were close to church. Excitedly, I’d say to my father: “Church, Dad!” I’d keep repeating the phrase until Dad would give-in and respond: “Yes, church, Greg.” I’d then make the rounds: “Church, Mom!” Finally, I’d insist on the same “Yes, church, Greg” response from my older brothers, David and Mark. It was a fun game…at least the first thirteen times.
My brothers grew tired of it. As we climbed into the Chevy the next Sunday morning, they made their case. “Dad,” they pleaded, “Tell Greg he can’t say that anymore. It’s annoying.” One parental lecture later, I’d learned my lesson. As we got to the turn-off this time, I solemnly intoned: “I’m not going to say ‘church, Dad.” When there was no response, I repeated: “I’m not going to say ‘church, Dad.”
What was true for me as a young boy is still true today: Being excited about going to church depends upon understanding what church is all about.
Even as a three year old, I understood that church was where I’d hear about Jesus, sing songs to worship God, and be loved by others. Yet since living in Africa, I’ve discovered that my idea of what a church structure had to be – a building with a sanctuary, pews, hymn books, and a steeple on top – is hardly required. I’ve worshiped with churches that were just 10 people sitting on low benches in a sweltering schoolroom. On occasion, the church has gathered under a mango tree. Other times, it has been in a simple concrete building with wooden trusses and a tin roof.
Wherever in the world the church is and whatever the meeting place looks like, those three elements -receiving solid teaching about God, joining together in meaningful worship, and sensing the love of Christians – should not change. And to them, a fourth should be added. The church must serve “the least of these.” When these four are present, then we can truly say that we are “doing church God’s way.”
1) solid teaching – What is God like? As those in the Wesleyan tradition, we believe that God’s nature is holy love. Because God is holy – altogether good and pure – God sets us an example. Yet sin – the wrong things we have done and our tendency to rebel – has separated us from God, making it impossible for us to please God. Because God is also by nature love, God sent Jesus as a sacrifice for our sins. Thanks to what Jesus has done for us, we can be forgiven and restored to right relationship with God. Likewise, God can heal our traitor’s heart. The church extends its arms and pleads: “Be reconciled to God!” (2 Cor. 5:20b, NIV). God takes us as we are, but never leaves us that way. Through forgiveness of sins and cleansing, God can give us a fresh start and make us like Jesus.
2) meaningful worship – We all worship something. Spend 24 hours with a person and you will understand the object of his or her worship. Jesus said: “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Luke 12:34, NIV). If people come to church half-heartedly and only want to talk about everything except God, chances are that God is not their treasure. Yet watch them become animated as they talk about work, education, sports or money. These have their place, but when they crowd out God, they have become an idol, a rival god. Christian worship is the act by which together as the people of God we say through music, liturgy, preaching and sacraments: “God, you are worth more than all these other things!” To absent ourselves lightly from Sunday worship is to teach our children that all these other things are worth more than God.
3) Christian love – Jason Upton wrote the memorable chorus, “They’ll know we are Christians by our love.” (Read all the lyrics here.) The second verse challenges us:
We will walk with each other,
We will walk hand in hand.
We will walk with each other,
we will walk hand in hand.
And together we’ll spread the news
That God is in our land.
What will it mean for the church to walk “hand in hand” with the alcoholic? With the single father? With the released prisoner who can’t find employment? With the young gay teenager turned out from home by his parents? What kind of reception would each of these individuals receive from your church? On a cold Sunday morning, would your church have enough love to keep them warm?
4) serving the least of these – Mother Teresa of Calcutta (1910-97) was known for taking care of those others had forgotten. She once said:
Being unwanted, unloved, uncared for, forgotten by everybody, I think that is a much greater hunger than the person who has nothing to eat.
Jesus said: “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40, NIV). It’s tough to sustain ministry over the long-haul to individuals who require more than they are capable of giving. Yet whether a church serves those from whom she stands to gain little is the litmus test of whether she has understood her mission.
My excitement as a little boy about going to church has never waned. Church for me is family, a family that always has room for one more. Through teaching, worshiping, loving, and serving, let’s keep doing church God’s way!
Chevy Impala: Wikimedia
Cup of water: Living Waters