I remember wandering into a beautiful old church many years ago, wondering if I would be welcome. Should I pretend to know what I was doing or should I make it clear I hadn’t a clue? As I slipped into a back pew, the church people began saying things in unison but there were no words for me to follow. They stood and sat and knelt, processed to the front of the church, and then, to my surprise, they all went outside and waved branches around in the parking lot before coming back in. I wondered if I should just go home.
I had a hard time following the service that day because I was in Bogota and my Spanish was fairly elementary. In an environment I was used to calling home, I had suddenly become a stranger: I didn’t know the prayers, the hymns, the Creed, or the Gloria. And I didn’t particularly want to learn them. What I needed was a place to call home, a place to belong in a faraway country where I wouldn’t have to translate until my head hurt.
Strangers come to our churches in searching for meaning, for rootedness, for hope; but too often what they encounter instead is a foreign language they will never understand.
When Nadia Bolz-Weber spoke to us about cultural change at Faith Horizons in October, it occurred to me that too often the experiences of strangers in our churches are much like my experience in Bogota. They wander in searching for meaning, for rootedness, for hope; but too often what they encounter instead is a foreign language they will never understand. Perhaps there was a day when all that was required to bridge the gap between visitor and worship was a kind person to walk her through the service, but that is a time I do not remember. It seems that a deeper, more structural change is required for my peers to learn the tune of our worship.
I sat in the back of a crowded theatre pushing away tears as Nadia described the difference between the “gift” of the Gospel and the “wrapping.” She spoke of God’s call to be a pastor to her people and I thought of my people: young postmoderns who are suspicious of institutions, of advertising, of anything that might be “fake.” Early Sunday morning doesn’t work for them, they’re uncomfortable with presumed authority, and they’re more concerned with orthopraxy than with orthodoxy. I thought of the scores of my friends who have given up on God because the wrapping of the Gospel didn’t look like the gift they came hoping for.
God is calling us to be missionaries in our own land
Yet contrary to popular belief, I don’t believe “my people” are done with God, with prayer, or with the Church (at the very least, God is not done with them!) Our ancestors were brave missionaries gifted at enculturation — translating the Gospel from one culture to another — and I believe that today we are being called to nothing less. God is calling us to be missionaries in our own land, to take great risks and make great sacrifices like the people we call saints.
As the Israelites learned in exile, taking hold of the home they longed for required that they let go of the relative comforts of exile to wander through the wilderness. They had to learn to trust God, not only with their worship, but with their very lives. But along the way, our ancestors discovered a God who was not merely another god of the nations but the mighty Creator YHWH who loved them as his own children. They experienced the belonging I was looking for when I wandered into that church in Bogota. Even in the wilderness, they were home.
By Allison Chubb