Embracing the Breadth of the Church: What We Can Learn From Each Other

“Are we doing ourselves a disservice when we raise our kids in a “church bubble?,” asks Traci Rhoades in her new book All Who Wander (spiritually) are Not Lost. She throws out an interesting question. Certainly, we don’t want our children to become “church consumers” where multiple congregations repeatedly become one stop shops to meet spiritual cravings. On the other hand, what do our children miss when they do not experience the diverse traditions that make up the the Church (with a big C)?

Learning About the Church

As I read her book, I realized the ways my own encounters with multiple churches have shaped me. As a child, my family found roots in a Methodist church about 20 minutes from my home. Mostly our rhythms consisted of Sunday trips for Sunday School and worship but occasionally we attended other events. Initially, this building and it’s members were the only images I had of the Church. To me, church involved developing relationships with people who had a common goal in a confined setting.

Expanding my Narrative

The location of our church extended beyond our neighborhood. I saw no one from school there or anyone in my periphery. Several of my friends got out of school early once a week for catechism class at the local Catholic church. I felt a bit jealous that a) they got to leave school early and b) they got to be together at school and church. For me, church was a once a week destination.

But then my eyes opened up to a bigger picture. Friends invited me to a vacation bible school program at a local congregation. The language was familiar and I learned that walls do not define a church. They too spoke of God’s love and shared the same Bible stories I knew.

The Importance of Organic Connections

This new church building became a familiar place not only to attend VBS but also the location of my girl scout meetings. Though these encounters never resulted in my family changing congregations, they shaped my faith journey in ways I didn’t realize at the time.

Despite the brief “back door” interactions with this church, I experienced repetitive interactions with Pastor Andy. He was friendly, funny, and seemed well liked. I even remember him preaching one time (probably at a VBS centered Sunday service) and he talked about Bozo the clown. My understanding of God, the body of Christ, and its mission expanded through these seemingly small interactions. In addition, I felt comfortable engaging in more church settings outside my own. Church represented a safe space where I felt welcomed and where I could explore the vast and diverse Kingdom of God.

Identifying the End Goal

Often, congregations lurch toward the big gains of inviting people into their midst. How many people will be added to our number? What will be the financial benefits? When programs and building usage do not result in seeing the participants return for regular involvement, the church is discouraged. Shouldn’t fruit appear from the investment?

It depends on what kind of fruit is being sought. My experience as a child, disciple, parent and pastor informs me that any interaction with the church acts as an introduction/touch point through which Jesus is made known. Even opportunities to use space for community events. Those who cross the path may or may not result in settling at “our” church but that’s not the end goal. We as the Church are in this together.

Traci Rhoades’ question points to the need to be mindful of a bigger narrative of Christ’s church than one with which we are familiar. Her own journey through multiple traditions witnesses to the beautiful ways we can connect with God and others when we step outside of comfort zones. When I do pulpit supply, I find blessing in experiencing the breadth of the church. My children come along as well because my husband and I want to expose them to this beauty.

As we learn to embrace these differences rather than responding with fear, labels and avoidance, others will see God’s love tangibly. “Let’s see how inventive we can be in encouraging love and helping out, not avoiding worshiping together as some do but spurring each other on, especially as we see the big Day approaching.” Hebrews 10:24-25.

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