Church of the Red Pill

red pill and blue pill from the matrix

“This is your last chance. After this, there is no going back. You take the blue pill and the story ends. You wake in your bed and you believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill and you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.” — Morpheus

“I know what you’re thinking, ’cause right now I’m thinking the same thing. Actually, I’ve been thinking it ever since I got here: Why oh why didn’t I take the BLUE pill?” — Cypher

I was having coffee this morning with my discipleship partner, Dave, and we were talking about church. He told me about a church plant that he was involved in when it started almost 20 years ago.

It was, he said, for the time, radically different. In an era when people still wore their Sunday church clothes to Sunday church, people went to this church dressed in their everyday clothes. At the beginning of the service, you could tell the visitors because they didn’t believe it when they were told they didn’t have to wear a tie to church. When hymns were still de rigueur, the church focused on worship music that was more accessible to the congregation. Everything about the church was designed to be more user-friendly. Today, a lot of those things are pretty common, but, again, at the time, they were very much the exception.

The church was different in one other major way, too — a big part of its focus was on breaking people out of a spectator mentality when it came to church. Rather than church being something you got up on Sunday morning and watched for an hour or two, it was something you were involved in, and not necessarily just inside the confines of the church building. It was about making church a lifestyle.

And that’s where some people ran into problems. They enjoyed the different atmosphere of the church, were more comfortable in the different atmosphere. But they just couldn’t break free of the spectator mindset. They didn’t want to. They could go so far in embracing the church, but no further. And because of that, many of them gradually became uncomfortable and left.

The problem was, they also didn’t want to go back. They couldn’t go forward to fully embrace the new church, but after experiencing the atmosphere there, they also couldn’t be happy at their old churches. Dave said the pastor once commented to him that it would have been better for a lot of people if they’d never come to his church. Rather than moving them forward in their spiritual walk, it essentially broke them. After a taste of that, anything else becomes unappealing.

In a lot of ways, Dave and I are broken also. We didn’t reach a point where we personally couldn’t go forward; in our cases, what we had been doing fell apart from underneath us. A major change at the last church he was at changed the entire atmosphere and flavor of it. The house church I was involved in stopped meeting. Neither of us could stay where we were, and we’re beginning to find that it’s hard to go back.

When you’re part of a community that is open to exploring God without agenda, it’s harder to be in conversations where you’re expected to not deviate from the “proper answers.” To me, it’s like a child walking past the most incredible playground he’s ever seen, but not being allowed to leave the sidewalk. God’s too big and too awesome to let somebody else decide what you can think about Him. And He’s more than good enough to withstand the scrutiny, ya know?

When you’re part of a community that rejoices in sharing each other’s walk, in being there for each other spiritually and emotionally, in supporting each other, in learning from each other, it’s harder to go back to having the people in your church just be the people you set next to you while you’re instructed. Church shouldn’t feel like a second-grade classroom, but without the fun.

When you’re part of a group that realizes that God is awesomely huge and mind-blowingly complex, it’s harder to go back to being part of a church that wants to boil him down to right answers. Is God divinely sovereign or lovingly allowing of freedom? Is He a God to whom no sin is too big to overlook, or for whom no sin is too small to condemn? Is He defined by His own glory of His love for His creations? To all of those things, yes.

When you’re part of a group that samples and explores the diversity of conflicting viewpoints on God and evaluates each for its merits, it harder to go back to being part of a church that only drinks one flavor of Kool-Aid.

The problem becomes that the latter types of churches are the most common. The flavor of Kool-Aid may be different, the small view of God may be different, the decorations in the second-grade classroom may be different, but the result is the same. Too often an invitation to “rethink church” is really an offer to replace one church’s thoughts about church with another’s. Actual rethinking is OK, as long as it’s what the church thinks. You don’t get to be free of an agenda, you only get to pick the agenda you want, and how serious the church is about it.

And for most people, that’s fine. Because they’ve never taken the red pill. They don’t even know that it exists. They don’t understand that there’s an alternative. They don’t know what it is to go to church and not be told what they should think. They don’t know what it is to go to a church without an agenda. And so they’re content.

And, yes, sometimes I envy them. But I’m not sure how I can go back.

“You have to understand, most of these people are not ready to be unplugged. And many of them are so inured, so hopelessly dependent on the system, that they will fight to protect it.” — Morpheus

“I don’t know the future. I didn’t come here to tell you how this is going to end. I came here to tell you how it’s going to begin. I’m going to hang up this phone, and then I’m going to show these people what you don’t want them to see. I’m going to show them a world … without you. A world without rules and controls, without borders or boundaries; a world where anything is possible. Where we go from there is a choice I leave to you.” — Neo

Another Sunday — Building Church I

This entry is part of my series on my on-going “church journey” that I’ll be documenting as it takes place. You can read about other visits with the “journey” tag.

worship team area at Building Church in Huntsville

I don’t remember what movie it was I was skipping church to go see.

This was back pretty early on in this whole process; I was still attending Whitesburg Baptist Church regularly, but had also started attending a house-based congregation in addition. This was back in the “what’s a real church” era, and was part of the transition to the idea that something other than what I was used to could still be real church. I had met with the house-based congregation the night before, and was skipping church to see the movie partially as a way of communicating to myself, “Hey, it’s OK, that last night really was church, and you’ve already been to church this weekend.” What can I say, I was young and naive and legalistic back then.

Point being, it was interesting to me that when I went to the movie theater that morning, there was a church meeting there. My thought process was probably something like, “Huh, interesting.” Given what was going on with me, I probably took it as evidence that church could be more diverse than I had thought, but that it wasn’t anything I was interested in doing personally.

It’s been a long road since then before I finally visited that church this past weekend, and this post is probably going to be unfair to the Building Church as a result, for which I’m sorry.

In fact, I’ll start by saying, they were awesome. That’ll make up a bit for what’s to come.

The church has been meeting at the Rave Theater in Jones Valley in Huntsville for years, though my timing was rather fortuitous; they’re going to be moving to the Monaco Theater at Bridge Street the first weekend in December, so I almost missed visiting where I had first seen them.

It was almost certainly the most friendly and welcoming church I’ve been to; I was met at the front door, and escorted directly to the “sanctuary” theater, being introduced to several people along the way. They were very much set up to make sure that guests felt very welcome, and welcomed, at the service. Plus, there was free coffee and hot chocolate, though I didn’t partake, so can’t speak to quality.

The music was lively and energetic, the set-up was nice, the guest sermon was interesting and accessible.

All in all, I was very impressed.

OK, there’s my nutshell review. Here’s the personal part, since this series is really more about my journey than about the churches I visit.

They’re all the same.

The first year of my journey was about learning about how very different churches can be, how much diversity there is. Now, however, it seems to be about how they’re all the same, how little diversity there is.

Once you get past the myriad superficial differences, it’s all the same. The format or volume of the music is a little different. There are differences in theology and doctrine, but not so that you would necessarily notice on a week-to-week basis. The people sitting around you are different, but if you barely interact with them, you don’t notice so much. Go to any given church long enough, and maybe the music will be a little different one week, or a guest preacher will talk about something a little different, or you’ll sit by different people. Ignore the decorations, and that’s what it’s like visiting different churches at some point.

When I visited Southside the second time, I noted that I wondered what the take-away was from the fact that my second visit was so different from the first, if it was a lesson in the fact that I should be more careful not to judge a church just based on one visit. Looking back, those two visits to that one church were as different as a lot of weeks going to entirely different churches.

It’s all the same.

I want something different. I want something more like the house church I was involved in.

I desperately want community, and that made me realize that it’s been over two years since I’ve really been to some sort of Sunday School equivalent.

I like my Wednesday night group, but I don’t necessarily believe everything they do, and at times it’s frustrating. I want people whom I can explore things with, not who want to make sure everyone understands proper doctrine. When we read and discuss scripture, or when we focus on sharing our journeys through life, I love the group. When we’re supposed to be learning about John Piper or Food Inc., not so much.

I’m tired, I’m frustrated, and I’m disheartened.

I read Revolutionby George Barna, and it really didn’t help. It’s a little more open to the idea of just walking from organized church completely than I want to be. But there are times like last week when it sounds freeing.

I want my church to be freeing, too.

Another Sunday — Southside I

This entry is part of my series on my on-going “church journey” that I’ll be documenting as it takes place. You can read about other visits with the “journey” tag.

Southside Baptist Church

“We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started… and know the place for the first time.” — T.S. Eliot

I first became involved with Southside Baptist Church as a high school student when I went on a mission trip to Cherokee, North Carolina. I began attending the church with my family after that, continuing into the time I spent home from college. When I moved back to Huntsville eight years ago, one of my brothers was still attending Southside, and extended an invitation to attend with him. He left the church not long thereafter, but not before I had settled back in. I attended Southside for another five years after that.

After my divorce, however, I felt like it was time to leave. My sense of my place in the church was very much rooted in my ex-wife, and it was uncomfortable going without her. I wanted to go somewhere that I could start fresh, that people would know me for who I am, not who I’d been. And, at that point in time, Southside was having such major problems at the church that I felt like the church was too hurt itself to be able to really minister to my hurts.

I have a vague memory of going back to Southside for something not too long after the divorce, and it feeling really weird going by myself. The memory is vague enough that it may even have just been during the time before I left to find another church.

The long-time preacher who had been at the center of the divide in the church left around the same time I did, and I’d been curious what had happened in Southside after that division had been resolved, and a new pastor had been hired. But I’d just never made it back. After my journey led me to a Baptist church last month for the first time in over a year, I decided that maybe it was time I revisited Southside.

What I learned is that I’m going to need to go again to figure out what I’d learned. Southside currently has two Sunday morning services; this past week I went to the 8 a.m. service. What I found was not encouraging, and led me to wonder how well the church had survived the divide. Attendance was sparse, and the congregation skewed older than when I had been there before. But I didn’t know if that reflected the church as a whole, or if the two services felt radically different from each other.

Supporting the former thesis were the announcements that the church would be consolidating into one Sunday morning service in two weeks. Also, the preacher was out of town Sunday, but the associate pastor who brought the message talked a lot about the number of people in the church who had talked to him recently expressing fear. Being at the service felt like being an intruder at a private family discussion.

But I’m not leaping to conclusions, so I guess the main purpose of this post is to serve as backstory for the posts I’m going to be writing when I visit again to see what the later — or consolidate — service looks like.

To be continued …