Serving in the Peace Corps has changed us in countless ways, and our views about God and the church are among the things that have been impacted the most. When folks ask us what was most difficult, we always seem to mention, in some way or another, the lack of an English-speaking spiritual community. Church was a huge part of our lives in Tonga, but the vast cultural differences (not to mention the language barrier) made it very, very different. We missed everything about church - worshipping corporately in our native language, enjoying fellowship and community with a group of people that share the most foundational part of our worldview, listening to a trained and dedicated preacher teach about the Bible and theology.
Needless to say, we returned to the U.S. with a hunger for church. And, over the past few months, we have gotten to attend a lot of church services - We've actually been to five different churches in four different states. We've also had so many great, life-giving moments of spiritual communion with friends and family spread across the States. Throughout all of these experiences, my reflections about church and community have been different than in the past.
My thoughts are summed up pretty well in a passage I re-read recently from C.S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters - his satiric, stylized correspondence between two tempter demons that brilliantly turns ideas on their heads to make readers think about things in a different way. In one letter on the subject of church, the mentor Screwtape advises his novice nephew in his temptation of a young Christian:
Surely you know that if a man can't be cured of churchgoing, the next best thing is to send him all over the neighborhood looking for the church that 'suits' him until he becomes a taster or connoisseur of churches. The reasons are obvious. In the first place the parochial organization should always be attacked, because, being a unity of place and not of likings, it brings people of different classes and psychology together in the kind of unity the Enemy (God) desires...In the second place, the search for a 'suitable' church makes the man a critic where the Enemy wants him to be a pupil.I (and much of my generation, I fear) have at times considered myself this kind of "church connoisseur." I shudder to think about the countless, prideful conversations I've had, somehow believing that I had figured everything out, that all who had gone before me had gotten it wrong.
As Lewis cleverly points out, it is so easy to miss the point of church, especially when you live in a place with a veritable buffet of different churches. He warns us that our focus should not be finding a church with a style that suits our preferences and people that are nearly identical to us. In the words of Screwtape, it is so important that we approach church as a pupil, not a critic, and that we embrace, not shy away from, the diversity and great differences of people within a congregation.
In my post-Peace Corps church hunger, I've found myself looking at church with baptized eyes. Regardless of music style, I have joyfully joined others in corporate song, remembering the times when we would save our IPad battery just to listen to a couple English worship songs on Sunday mornings in Tonga. I have been challenged by and learned from preachers of very different backgrounds and theological bents, remembering all the times I would zone out during a Tongan sermon because my brain could translate no longer. I have rejoiced at the opportunity to reconnect and talk with family and old friends, remembering the thousands of repeated, surface-level Tongan conversations when my vocabulary had been completely exhausted.
The most powerful and memorable moment that I felt these things most deeply was when we participated in the Eucharist at Hope, our old, wonderful church in Denver. As I prepared my heart for this, the most powerful and beautiful of all sacraments instituted by Christ himself, I was moved to tears as I gazed around the room. It was a brilliantly beautiful portrait in my mind as I reflected on the meaning of this ritual - people of a wide variety of age, background, and belief standing with Christians all over the world and throughout the centuries of history, eating bread and drinking wine, remembering our Savior's sacrifice and professing together that we belong to this global body of Christ followers. And as I took the bread and the wine, I thought of my brothers and sisters in Tonga, Wisconsin, Oklahoma, California, Thailand, and all over the world, doing the same thing and professing these same truths. Despite our differences and our preferences, we are a part of this beautifully broken thing that Christ himself instituted to be his chosen instrument of bringing redemption and his upside-down Kingdom to this world.
I hope and pray that when we inevitably join another church community, this time in Bangkok Thailand, we will remember these lessons, stay hungry, and guard ourselves from the ease and dangers of missing the point...