Our little church plant is almost a year old. And being the sentimental, nostalgic fool I am, this seems like as good a time as any to look back and take stock of where we've been, and where we're going.
I love my church. There, I said it. I really do. I wouldn't have necessarily expected this, and I don't know that I've ever truly experienced it in quite this way before, but it feels like home. Which is odd, considering that Kate and I are a generation older than most of the folks there, and we're surrounded by piercings, shaved heads, and tattoos -- wounded artists everywhere we look. Kate at least has her own piercings to blend in with this studded crowd. I have, what? My hearing aid? Very cutting edge.
For those of you who may not know, our church is in the city. And it's focused on the people who live in the neighborhood. It's not ghetto, but it's definitely not the BMW parking lot of the Big Vineyard. It's in the indeterminate zone between the OSU campus and a nice older neighborhood in Columbus known as Clintonville, which is kind of a little liberal enclave in a sea of conservatism, perhaps because of its proximity to Ohio State, and the fact that many people who live there are affiliated in one form or another with the university. The north campus area is fairly seedy, and has its share of drug dealers and homeless folks. Clintonville is Kerry Central, and has a bunch of interesting book and music stores and cafes, along with Wiccans R Us (where you can relax for a spell, or cast a spell, or just look for the perfect gift for that special warlock in your life), the local Planned Parenthood office, a couple abortion clinics, some longstanding hippie food co-ops, and tattoo parlors. Throw in the artsy element, which is unnaturally skewed in our church, and you have a fair cross-section of what our church is like.
It's also about the way people see the world. Although Columbus isn't exactly a hotbed of cultural activity, there is a large university here, and several smaller colleges, and there's sufficient critical mass to speak of an "arts community." A number of those folks have found their way to our church, where the arts are valued very highly. Lots and lots of people buy music, and go to concerts, and read books, and go to films. We have several professional-quality musicians in our midst, and a sizable contingent of folks who play in local bands on the weekends after working their day jobs during the week. We have some amazingly talented visual and graphics artists. We have poets who attend poetry slams at local bars. We have a pastor who attends more rock 'n roll shows than I do. And, I would venture to say that outside of possibly Decatur, Georgia, we may have the highest percentage of Paste subscribers of any church in the world.
All of which might qualify as "cool" or "hip" (two charges that are frequently leveled at our church, at least until people see the hearing aid), but somewhat unrelated to the advancement of the Kingdom of God. And that's where it truly gets interesting, because I do indeed see the Kingdom of God advancing. What I've seen is that art has enabled us to build a bridge to connect with non-Christians. I really like the fact that there are those who attend our church who would not identify themselves as Christians. They're listening. They're dialoguing. Some of them are just looking for ways to find fault with the hypocritical Christians. And given the broken people we are, they probably won't have to look too hard. But I hope, and I believe, that they're also finding Christians who are appreciative of what they do; who want to support creativity and artistic excellence in whatever ideological package in which it is presented, who show up at their concerts and their gallery openings, and who simply want to love and serve other people.
A couple weeks ago I attended the music night at the Columbus Music Hall. There was Kyle, who owns the local record store, doing his Bob Dylan impression. And there was Jovan from the neighborhood coffee shop, cranking the amps up to 11 and blasting some of the best punk stuff I've heard in ages. And there was Matt from our church, playing his lovely, introspective folk tunes. It wasn't a "Christian" event. It wasn't a "non-Christian" event. It was just people who love and appreciate music getting together. It was a good thing, and it's the kind of thing I see happening in our church all the time.
I also see a huge amount of brokenness and dysfunction -- addictions, eating disorders, cutting, mental illness, barely concealed rage -- oftentimes accompanied by the romantic, self-destructive notion that to be an artist one must suffer. It's incredibly messy, and it's overwhelming at times. I see plenty of people who have experienced major hurt inflicted by well-meaning believers. I see people who have experienced major hurt because of neglect, or abuse, or just plain stupid choices. Including me. Our church is a hospital, and every week I see incoming wounded. But there is an atmosphere where people can be and are open about such things, where they admit their hurts and failures, where they pray together and engage in the painful work of forgiveness and reconciliation and healing, moving beyond the all-consuming Kingdom of Me. There are discouraging days when people choose to head back onto the street rather than stick around and allow God to change them. But there are many good days, too. In sometimes small but significant ways, Humpty Dumpty is being put back together again. I'm excited to be a part of it.
I see both wonderful fruit and rotten fruit. There are a number of non-Christians hanging around, and I think that's exciting. That's largely due to my pastor Jeff, a scarily intelligent, wonderfully idiosyncratic guy who has the amazing gift of making people feel welcome and loved, regardless of the baggage they tote into the proceedings. He's the guy who bought pizza for the entire Crestview Middle School voting precinct when everybody was dripping wet, standing in line for hours waiting to vote on election day last November. And he pulls off random acts 0f kindness like that all the time. He goes into the neighborhood tattoo parlor and hangs out with the owners, buys them lunch, and expresses genuine admiration for their artistry. He's not faking it, or using it as the pretext for evangelism. He's just relating, and he genuinely admires their work. And he invites us, as the church, to come along and play, too. He's one radical dude, and I mean that in the best sense. He truly does live out what he preaches, and what he preaches, again and again, is that as Christians we need to let go of our prejudices and our comfort zones, get dirty, interact with "sinners," and love them into the Kingdom of God, because that's what Jesus did. And it's happening.
But it's a mess. As Christians, I truly believe that there should be evidence of God at work in our lives. And I do see that in so many ways, in so many lives. But some of the folks in our church have not yet made the commitment to follow Jesus. Others have made the commitment, but they may have made the commitment a month ago, and they haven't yet made the connection between following Jesus and obeying him in sexual matters, particularly when they've been sleeping with their girlfriends/boyfriends every night for years. And on and on it goes. It's messy, and the lines of demarcation have been smudged. Usually I think that's a good thing. We're focused on building community, building relationships. And it's only in that context that words of correction or admonishment can be heard; I say this to you not because I want to judge you, but because I want to be your friend.
I don't want to leave the impression that it's Sin Central, either, and that anything goes. There are many people in my church who struggle with addiction issues, including me, but nobody is saying that it's okay. They're saying that it's not okay, that it damages our relationship with God, and those closest to us, and leads to bondage. And they're right.
But here's the deal: everybody has a story to tell. That, to me, has been the biggest revelation I've encountered while being a part of this church. Most of the stories are sad ones, some of them heartbreaking, pound-your-fist-into-the-pillow ones. People have had to put up with such shit, and have done such shit to themselves. And who knows where one leaves off and the other begins? Not me. I am truly glad that there is a place where people can come and tell their stories, where others will listen and pray, and not judge. I'm glad for that myself. And I'm glad for the other people who have found that to be true as well. The comment that I've heard most frequently from non-Christians or new Christians is that people are amazed that they can be themselves. The deep, dark, hidden sins come to light and the healing can begin, and nobody freaks out, because you can't outsin the love of God. Except, of course, in most churches in America, and most people, Christians and non-Christians alike, have encountered that, and now they're encountering something different. God knows it's a mess. But I'm fairly convinced it's a holy mess. I'm so thankful.