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Thursday, December 18, 2014

In Celebration of the "Average" Church

You may have never attended an "average" church.

But you've certainly seen one.

Older buildings, often made of dark brick - with old-fashioned roofs that slope down from the center - possibly a bell tower and a steeple.

Maybe it's on the corner of that road you always drive down to get to work.

St. Stephen's. Redeemer. Hope. Resurrection. St. Thomas. St. Vincent. Beautiful Savior.

The names recall an age gone by, not just the 1950s, when neighborhoods walked together to Sunday morning worship, but also an age 2,000 years ago, when the world was changed by the witness of Stephen, the martyr, and Jesus' resurrection from death on a cross in Jerusalem brought freedom and life to a world hungry for God's love and redemption.

Their parking lots are small, if they have one - and in downtowns they often don't.

A hopeful banner hangs near the doors: "Join us for worship!" "Sunday School: 10 a.m."

If you've never been in an "average" church, or even if you have, long ago - you may wonder what it's still there for, after all. This Jesus who is coming again this Christmas, could he be housed in such a monument to the past -  a place often carried on by an ever-dwindling number of retirees who lament the lack of young people to serve on Altar Guild and tidy up the pews ...

The median American church has 75 regular participants in worship on Sunday morning. More than half of American congregations worship between 7-99 people each Sunday. They are strikingly homogeneous. In 2010, just 13.7 percent of congregations reported being "multiracial." Thirty percent of congregations still didn't have a website in 2010.

Reading these statistics, it may seem easy to despair - to drive by one church, and then another - to attend worship there on Christmas Eve - and wonder why you bothered.

Let me tell you why you - why I, a pastor of one of those "average" churches - still bother ...

A week ago I attended one of the most inspiring events of my life. I was surrounded by 43 of the brightest voices for American Christianity today: authors, founders of non-profits and non-traditional churches, activists, speakers, well-known bloggers and spokespeople.

Their communities of faith were anything but average: a hip-hop church in gritty Chicago, a Mennonite community in Raleigh, N.C., serving people experiencing homelessness; a woman and her family who were living amongst Somali refugees in Minneapolis; a 26-year-old dynamic founder of an organization working to combat sexual violence in sub-Saharan Africa; an author working to bridge the divide between the gay community and American Evangelicalism -- I could write chapters about the amazing folks I met there and the work they're doing to put Jesus' Gospel to action in America today, particularly when it comes to issues of justice.

While I heard their stories, I thought back to my seemingly average existence at my seemingly average church. My exclusively white family. Our weekly trips to Costco, Target, and Trader Joe's. Preppy sweaters and Christmas Dinners at church and a mundane American existence.

I wondered if an "average" American pastor at an "average" American church in the suburbs could make Jesus' words come to life, too: "he has anointed me to bring good news to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free ... "

In a year of Eric Garner and Ferguson and Peshawar and Boko Haram and Janay Rice - could the "average" American church speak Jesus' words of truth -- and would it make a difference?

In the midst of our time together last week a musician from the group came up to share a song, filling in the silence of our tears and shared prayers.

He told us about an evening he had once in Bosnia, in the aftermath of a war so terrible that they were burying corpses along the side of the highway; in the patch of grass next to the on-ramp - because all the graves were full and people continued to die.

He walked the streets that day filled with despair and longing for a taste of Gospel hope, of a reminder that death would not have the final say and Christmas - a Savior - might be born again, even in Sarajevo.

As the shovels broke the frozen ground to bury another body, he came upon a choir practice - perhaps in an "average" church building, on an average street in an average Bosnian neighborhood that had been torn apart by war, hatred, and death.

On this average night in this "average" neighborhood, they were having choir practice. And somehow voices from ethnic groups and religious backgrounds who had once wanted to slaughter one another were singing together verses of hymns about Jesus.

In the shadow of newly dug graves and unremitting death, when he heard their voices, he found he could hope again.

Choir Practice.

The words sent ice cubes down my spine.

See, at my "average" church, we have choir practice, too.

In fact on this very night our little "average" choir will gather together for choir practice. They'll listen to a conductor who immigrated from the Ukraine, where she was baptized in the middle of the night as to not alert the Soviet government. Men who had been bankers and advertisers and technicians would sing with women who'd been florists and administrative assistants and non-profit executives. A Russian immigrant would play the piano and a soloist from Israel would practice her verses in English, the language she was still struggling to learn.

Choir Practice. It seemed such a mundane, "average" part of being Church in America and yet in Bosnia Choir Practice became an instrument of justice and reconciliation. Choir Practice became a powerful witness to a new way of being in the world, where Power did not hold the final stakes and instead Love did and voices that weren't all that certain on their own could come together into beautiful harmony and tell the story of a Savior again and again and again and it never was quite average because He was never quite average and whenever He gets involved, peoples' lives are changed and justice rolls down like waters and righteousness flows like an overflowing stream, even in an "average" church.

Maybe this Christmas you're feeling like that "average" American church; on the corner of an "average" street in an "average" suburb with an "average" choir. Maybe you're thinking you can't make a difference for justice - for peace - unless you leave and do something grand in a grand place where things matter and people do grand things.

Maybe you'll go and do that.

But for now, remember that God chooses God's instruments with care. God chooses Choir Practice as an instrument of justice and reconciliation. God chooses the "average" American church as a place where an alternative way of living can still be lifted up - a way of giving and not only receiving; a way of hope, and faith, and love.

If you think you're average or your church is average and because of that you don't matter - you're wrong.

Don't forget the Christmas story. Jesus was born in Bethlehem - an "average" suburb of Jerusalem.

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