Wendy and I have some big (maybe surprising) life changes coming up. The best way to explain to you where we are going is to tell you where we have been.
I honestly believe at Streetlite we had one of the best attractional games in the city.
- Our worship was kicking. I would have put our music team up against any megachurch. They were exceptional musicians. Kenny was (and still is) a gifted worship leader skilled in engaging the crowd emotionally and mentally. Most of all, they were honestly seeking God in worship. No one in the room doubted that Kenny and the crew were engaging God in conversation through their music.
- Brian’s sermons were relevant and heart-felt. He was (and still is) great at preaching on topics fresh on the congregation’s heart in a language they understand. Listening to Brian felt like listening to a friend, not a pretentious pastor. Above all Brian was authentic. No one ever accused him of faking it, just throwing something out there, or making it up as he went along. Every sermon, whether it was on marriage or tithing, was honest, delivered in love, and from his heart.
- Our children’s workers were friendly and kids had a great time in Sunday school. Every week was an adventure.
- Our facility left a lot to be desired; but we were in the inner city. To have a space of our own was unique, much less a functional one with enough classrooms for all the kids; and I believed we used it well. It wasn’t as pretty or sparkling clean as a suburban church, but it worked.
- Our small groups were good. They were visible, accessible, and well defined. Several times during the year they lined up with the sermon series (like Osbourne recommends in Sticky Church) thus helping to close the back door. They had been in a steady growth pattern for two years and counting, encompassing (on average) over 70% of the congregation.
- And best of all…we were a force in the community. We were strongly tied to the local elementary school. We were the goto place for addicts and homeless people seeking help. We were constantly giving to the impoverished of the neighborhood. We had built a reputation as a church that takes care of those in need, as a church that cares.
My intention is not to gild the lily. We weren’t perfect. Our vision was A.D.D. and we struggled with follow through; but seriously, in todays “next best thing” culture what young ambitious church isn’t A.D.D., and who doesn’t struggle with follow through. At least we had the humility to know we didn’t have it all right. We were constantly seeking to improve what we were doing and we were willing to throw almost everything away and start from scratch. I’m not sure a young second chair guy could realistically expect a better environment to create in.
So, with everything going so well, why was I still frustrated and dissatisfied?
Why did I leave every Sunday morning thinking there should be something more?
Why did I have this nagging voice in the back of my head telling me something was off?
One week an outsider put words to my pain.
It was Love Your Baltimore.
Twice a year Streetlite put together a huge community service day. We partnered with all kinds of groups around town (from the city Parks and Recs departments, to homeless shelters, to day cares), gathered as many volunteers as we could, and spent five hours making a difference in the community. That particular Spring we had joined forces with a church plant opening up a few blocks from us. A little over a hundred volunteers came to work and we broke them into different teams. One team went to Tent City (a lot next to a Catholic church where a ton of homeless people sleep) to pick up trash, repaint the benches, and administer a hundred and fifty free flue shots. Another team went to our local elementary school to put down new playground mulch, plant bushes in the reading garden, and reseed the grass. Other teams repainted a community center gym, cleaned up a playground at a day care that serviced the kids of single moms, organized a food pantry for women and children’s shelter, and planted flowers at a local park park. It was a great day.
The Monday after that Love Your Baltimore, I was standing in Jackson’s classroom taking in the chaos of the kindergardeners. It was my day off, so Wendy and I had come in to volunteer for a few hours. A neighborhood mom came up to me. I was surprised she would speak to me since we had only exchanged a few words in the past. Things like, “Wow, nice day today huh?,” or, “Have a good afternoon.” Nothing of substance.
“You’re the pastor at Streetlite right?” she said.
“Yeah, one of them,” I replied.
“You know, I’ve always thought of the church as…um…well…irrelevant. I never really understood the point; but I’ve been watching what you guys do and I heard about this weekend and I just wanted to take a moment to say thank you. You’re really making a difference. You guys are doing the church thing differently.”
That moment was very cool. It felt good to be complimented for what we had accomplished. I liked that we were shaping her opinion about church; but her word hung in the air. “Irrelevant.” For days it played over and over in my mind. “Irrelevant. Irrelevant. Irrelevant.” It was like a song I had heard on the radio that I couldn’t stop repeating.
Here was my problem. The stuff that was changing her opinion about “church,” the stuff that was getting her attention, the stuff that moved her to come up to me was the stuff we (the church) focused less than 25% of our energy and resources on (and that is being generous). The vast majority of our time, conversation, thought, money, equipment, and focus went to the Sunday morning service and ministries that supported it.
Streetlite was not unusual in this regard. In fact, most of the churches I have worked in and with put 90% of their stuff into the Sunday morning service and surrounding ministries. Streetlite was unusual in that it put so much more into the community…which only compounded the nagging in my heart.
What frustrated me wasn’t a Streetlite problem. It was a systematic problem.
Wendy and I began talking to more unchurched friends in the community. Whenever we had the opportunity we asked them how they felt about church. It was expressed in a ton of different ways, but the answer was always the same. “We loved what you do in the community. We are down with the love, justice, healing stuff. And the people are great. But the building, money, professional staff, membership requirements, Sunday morning service, rituals stuff…the institution…we don’t want anything to do with that. That seems totally irrelevant.”
Irrelevant. We heard that word a lot. It seemed to slide off of everyone’s tongue. As if some community association meeting had been held concerning how to answer Jeff and Wendy when they ask about church. “Use the word irrelevant,” the moderator must have said. And the whole room practiced in unison, “Irrelevant.”
One morning I went to breakfast with an atheist/agnostic friend who (after doing a Love Your Baltimore) had been coming to Streetlite. I don’t remember exactly what we were talking about (I think I asked him what he thought of Sunday morning), but I will never forget what he said. “You know Jeff. I hear you talk about Jesus, and I’ve been checking out the Gosples, but I don’t see how all the church stuff lines up. I mean, it is cool and all. I like the music and Brian is great, but I don’t get how what we do on Sunday has to do with following Jesus. How did one lead to the other?”
That was a shot in the gut that sent me spinning for weeks. Then it all became clear in Seattle.