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Monday, November 8, 2010

What Makes the Church the Church?

As part of my Doctor of Ministry program, I travelled to Houston, TX with the nine other pastors in my cohort. This learning adventure was called “Church Immersion.” The goal of the trip was to explore as many diverse expressions of the local church in the Houston area as possible in only three days. Needless to say, by the end of the trip our heads were spinning with ideas and questions.

We visited a church focused on addiction recovery called Mercy Street, which was co-pastored by my friend Sean Gladding. During the service people stood up and shared how many days they were sober. People clapped and screamed in celebration. At times we couldn’t tell whether we were in an N/A (Narcotics Anonymous) meeting or a church service. The worship experience had a raw realness to it that moved me to tears then and now.

We visited the Lakewood Church, pastored by Joel Osteen. This was a very different kind of church that seemed to be reaching a very different group than Mercy Street was reaching. While Lakewood Church, for a variety of reasons, was not my “cup of tea,” the singing was as lively as I have ever experienced. Our cohort had a chance to visit for a few minutes with Joel and Victoria Osteen before heading off to another very different kind of church.

Our group arrived late to participate in the worship service of the Windsor Village United Methodist Church, led by Pastor Kirbyjon Caldwell. Windsor Village is the largest African American United Methodist Church in the country. As you may have guessed, members of my cohort were the only Caucasians in attendance that day, so we sort of stuck out a bit as we’re hunting for seats about half-way through their service. We were met with warm hospitality and an excellent sermon preached by Kirbyjon in the African American style I have come to appreciate. I can still remember the mantra he used throughout his sermon “stay in your lane!” My cohort spent an hour with Pastor Caldwell hearing him describe the church’s missional heartbeat for community development.

My head still spinning from the diversity of the churches we already visited, we met with Jim Herrington. Jim was the pastor of a mega-church who endured some inner angst over the question, “am I making disciples who are making disciples?” He left his large church, purchased a house in a rough section of Houston, and started a house church. We met with Jim in his living room for two hours as he described his new ecclesiological outlook. He leaves the lower level of his home unlocked so that prostitutes, runaways, transvestites, the homeless, and the addicted can have a warm place to sleep, food to eat, and a community to experience. He invites these “friends” to join them for worship in the upper level of the house.

We also toured Second Baptist Church, which sits on a very, very, very large campus with a full-service café and bookstore. The place was humongous. This church is led by Dr. Ed Young Sr., though you may be more familiar with his son by the same name who pastors Fellowship Church in Grapevine, TX. We met with one of the staff pastors, another of Dr. Young’s sons, in a meeting room almost big enough to fit a football field (preacher’s exaggeration). Despite the size of the church, the sanctuary had maintained a traditional look with stained glass, altar, and a large pulpit. It was, oxymoronically, a traditional mega-church.

I think it was that evening when we visited Ecclesia, a well-known emergent church led by Pastor Chris Seay. This gathering took place in what felt like a Starbucks café. The room was packed with several hundred people, most of them in the 16-35 age range. As the preacher sat on a stool and spoke for about 35 minutes, artists were spread out all over the room painting to their heart’s delight. The room was dark, candles were lit, and the music was melancholic but worshipful.

The six churches I described above are extremely diverse in their approach to worship and discipleship. They are each reaching different segments of people. Mercy Street is connecting predominantly with addicts, while Second Baptist is reaching many of the wealthy elite of Houston. Windsor Village is reaching hundreds of African American families, while Ecclesia is connecting mostly with single white young adults.

While I have my preferences and ecclesiological convictions about what constitutes “church,” I am realizing more and more that when it comes to church, “one size does not fit all.” It really does take all kinds of churches to reach all kinds of people. Case in point, the church in which I cut my teeth in ministry back when I first came to Christ at the age of 18 is not the church I would likely attend today. At different points in my spiritual journey different churches appealed to me, mostly based upon the spiritual formation needs I had at the time. I am not a supporter of “church-hopping,” but simply pointing out that as we change so do our ecclesiological needs and preferences. This tendency only becomes detrimental when we allow our needs and preferences to become a non-negotiable “gospel.”

The “church immersion” education opened me up to the substantial diversity that exists within the Church of Jesus Christ, and we visited churches within 50 miles of each other! Not only did I learn to appreciate the diverse expressions of the Church, I was forced to really grapple with some major questions. What constitutes church? Beyond worship styles, architecture, and demographics, what makes the church truly the church? What, if anything, binds all of these diverse churches together?

These are some of the questions we hope our students at Wesley Seminary will be able to answer as they make their educational journey. Students will be exposed to and explore all kinds of models and methods for “doing church.” More importantly, however, students will learn to do this exploration girded with the wisdom of biblical exegesis, church history, and systematic theology. Our aim at Wesley Seminary, then, is not merely to develop students to be pragmatic cherry-pickers, applying to their ministries whatever model or method is effective in some other context. Our goal is higher- to develop ministers whose practice is wedded to and guided by the biblical, historical, and theological foundations that make the church the church. This goal has led Wesley Seminary to join together what has been traditionally torn apart, namely practice, bible, history, and theology. We believe our students will be better-prepared for ministry because of this re-wedding of disciplines that have too often been separated into silos.

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