imagination + follow-through + space.

Two comments I got yesterday from first-time or very occasional visitors yesterday at our church got me thinking:

“I don’t really do the church thing, but I like to come here.”

“Your church is like the Bible – blind people, sick people, poor people, hurting people – I didn’t think that was possible.”

I don’t post these comments to say how awesome we are – because, trust me, I could do a whole blog just on what we suck at – I’ll call it “Mark Hilbelink’s On the Path to Insanity”. The reason I share them is that it really got me to thinking about my own journey with the Church.

I’ve always felt there was something “off” about how we do church.

There have been many times in my ministry that I have felt a tinge of “guilt” (not like bloodguilt, but more like apologetic guilt) for what the church I worked for was doing. Not that I’ve worked for any bad churches – in fact, I mostly love all of them and would join all of them. But there was always just this weird feeling I had that we were creating program addicts, robbing people of the wonder that Jesus’ followers must have felt during most of the New Testament. Initially I didn’t know how to verbalize what it was, so I verbalized lots of other complaints and battled my preferences up against the preferences of others, both of us thinking we were fighting in the Lord’s army. But, then I realized there had to be more to my discontentedness then simple preferences or opinions. I began on a journey of trying to figure out exactly what it was that I was feeling – digging to find where the discontent was originating. I heard people arguing that today’s Church should more like the Acts 2 Church, and that was definitely nearer to the heart of what I was feeling, but it wasn’t it completely.

Then it struck me: I don’t think Jesus would want to go to almost any of the churches I’ve ever been to. And maybe that’s part of why I don’t want to, either.

Our churches are so far removed from the ministry of Jesus that the link seems to be in name and general direction only. About this time, I read an amazing book from someone I had recently really learned to respect as a fellow leader in this same journey: Hugh Halter. Despite what you may think of Hugh, I think he has some unbelievable insights into where the Church currently is and how radically it would need to shift to be more like a church Jesus would be a part of. Finally, I had a picture of what a Jesus-friendly church might look like, but I was also hit with the intensity of what it would take to get pretty much any church to that point. Sacrifice. Exhaustion. Divestment. Painful generosity. Radical hospitality. Unparalleled patience mixed with unequivocal boldness. Death?

Then that thing that creeps up in all of us who allow our brains to wander to this place creeps up again: “That’s crazy talk. It’s just not realistic in this day and age. Settle for as close as you can get.” I honestly think that one of the things that has always limited me, church-wise, has been imagination and an anchor for that imagination.

When my dad was a kindergartner, his class went on a field trip to the zoo. However, he was sick and missed the day. His first day back at school, each kid had to draw pictures of the animals they saw at the zoo. My dad, not having an anchor for his imagination, drew some of the strangest animals (and non-animals) you’ve ever seen – he just guessed. And when I try to imagine a Jesus-style church, a similar problem hits me – I don’t know that I have very good anchors for my imagination. Show me a church that hasn’t compromised principles for practicality. There are so many churches I love, but it wasn’t until the last few years that I finally met leaders and churches who gave me that anchor – gave me a spot to dock my imagination for what the church could be. Uncompromising churches who weren’t weighed down by scuttle – churches that had so much momentum that they had zero time for petty controversy.

But also these are churches with unbelievable follow-through and administration. Somewhere along the way, I bought the foolishness that says that creative movements have to be disorganized and unintentional. And that planning, that execution, that follow-through and that intentionality that allows these uncompromising movement churches to be places of holy consistency with what they say they believe – the essence of authenticity.

But still something was missing….

These churches I loved and respected were doing the right things, saying the right things, they were bringing back my generation that was disengaging everywhere else but. But.

I like to think of the Kingdom as a field – maybe it’s my Iowan upbringing or maybe it’s the fact that Jesus uses the same metaphor in John 4. Those churches I love – one in virtually every large city across the country – are like combines in the fields, taking out huge swatches of harvest for the Kingdom – efficient, forward-moving, shockingly effective. But combines usually struggle on the margins – rounded corners and edges – lesser-looking but still important fruit of the planting season. For the Church, its the poor, the addicted, the marginalized. And we can give them stuff, we can serve them on Saturdays, we can do lots of stuff that reaches out from where we are to where they are.

But what if we were them? What if our imaginations were awakened to the idea of the first being last. What if we let the marginalized be the decision-makers and prophets? What if we discipled the burned out? We’d pull our hair out from frustration, we’d drive the well-to-do people away, we’d be unattractive to everyone looking for the Church to serve them (the way we’ve trained them to). It would require everyone to make radical space for one another’s idiosyncrasies, smells, bad habits, sins. But if the Church isn’t a refuge for sinners, what’s the point?

So is it possible? Could there really be Jesus-style churches? Can you imagine it?