Are we allowing God to transform us through our brokenness? Or are we just addicted to church?
Can we imagine our communities getting along without us, the church?
Those and other hard questions, as posed by the Irish speaker and writer Peter Rollins and Henry Drummond, a 19th-century pastor and theologian, are among the issues clergy and lay leaders in the Presbtery of East Iowa (PEIA) wrestled with recently during the first of three sessions with Rev. Nikki Collins MacMillan.
MacMillan, who leads Bare Bulb Coffee in Georgia, one of the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s 1001 New Worshiping Communities, has created the program “Following God into the World: Learning to Share Faith through Prayer and Practice” specifically for the presbytery. The first installment began with a conference call followed by face-to-face workshops at Echo Hill Presbyterian Church in Marion, Iowa, and First Presbyterian Church in Mount Pleasant, Iowa.
Rollins got things off to a provocative start: “For me, the church is like a very civil version of getting drunk on a Saturday night,” he says on his video, Crack House Church. “It’s the place you go, you sing songs, you feel great, everything is wonderful, God is there, and then you leave.”
Many Christians are addicted to church, he says. Why? “They’re in pain and suffering and once a week you get to escape that,” he said.
Drummond based his essay “City without a Church” on Revelation 22. Drummond wants those of us in churches to make our cities better. “Heaven lies within, in kindness, in humbleness, in unselfishness, in faith, in love, in service,” he wrote. “Teach all in the house about Christ ― what he did, and what he said, and how he lived and how he died, how he dwells in them and how he makes all one. Teach it not as a doctrine, but as a discovery, as your own discovery. Live your own discovery.”
Sometimes churches discover truths that make their members and their pastors uncomfortable. MacMillan said her presbytery once studied how many of its 52 churches had experienced transformative worship during the year. Only three said it had happened in the sanctuary, “and when it did, it was Christmas Eve, and it involved candles,” she said. The more common transformative experiences for worshipers took place at the beach, a camp or retreat center.
“It’s like pillow talk with our spouse ― it’s too hard to name all that stuff in the light,” MacMillan said. “But we need those (transformative) moments as communities of faith, because they move us and shape us.
“Think about those who are not in our churches. They are longing for that moment. If we say church is about changed lives and we are not changed, we perpetuate lies and there is nothing for people to come to.”
That’s one reason MacMillan wants workshop participants to work on their spiritual formation in the coming weeks, “allowing ourselves to become a little more vulnerable.”
Pastors and elders from the same churches were encouraged to attend the workshops together. “You elders have something powerful to teach your pastors,” she told a workshop designed mainly for elders. “You are in touch with the world in a way your pastors are not. You have an important voice in the conversation to help your pastor learn what it means to live as a follower.”
“There is the sense that you feel like you need to protect the pastor from the grit and grime, and the sense that the pastor feels like you (elders) don’t know what it is like to minister to people,” she added. “Help your pastor to get into the world.”
She cautioned leaders against the tossing of either baby or bathwater.
“You don’t need another program or project,” she said. “What you and your church are about is getting your church people more out and engaged in your community in the name of Jesus Christ.”
In the Book of Order, the church is “called to risk her own life for the proclamation of the gospel,” she said. “What will the new community look like? What we’re called to do for our churches is the same thing Jesus did for Jerusalem – to pray for it, even to die for it. What will it mean to weep – even to die for – our community?"
Participants have formed a Facebook community and have been exchanging reading, videos and comments among each other. They’ll have another conference call with MacMillan on April 9 and will meet for the second face-to-face opportunity June 27-28.