I am a pastor without a church. It is on purpose right now and I feel pretty good about this. I get the chance to talk to people that church-workin’ pastors would not have the chance. Many times it starts with some negative feelings and experiences by a local church that turned them completely off of church and, in some cases, have led them to a total disbelief or questioning of God. They are usually surprised to find that I am ordained and tell them that I actually became ordained AFTER I left full-time local church ministry.
The first thing I generally tell them is that my personal jury is out on this so-called organized religion. I, too, have been jaded by committees, chairpersons, lay leaders, pastors, clergy, church ladies, choir sopranos and old saints. I prefer to be where people least expect me or where people are hungry for authentic worship moments like the nursing home, the hospital bed, the emergency room, and bedside. I prefer to be where I would want to meet Jesus – not at the altar, not during a hymn or a potluck dinner but walking down the street, or in the store, or in a moment of true crisis when the church doors are the last ones I would think of pushing open at the moment.
Now don’t get me wrong – I actually adore corporate worship and the local church setting. I have been witness to the moving of the Holy on countless occasions during many different church experiences. I have preached in churches with over 10,000 in attendance and as few as ten. I have seen, felt, heard and tasted the Holy in Sunday worship, Bible study, in-home prayer groups, communion, baptisms and yes, even a potluck dinner. There is authenticity to be found everywhere two or more are gathered in His name. The problem is that there is also a lot of non-authenticity to be found in those gatherings as well.
The definition of authentic is to conform to fact and therefore worthy of trust, reliance or belief. It is having a claimed and verifiable origin or authorship, not counterfeit or copied. The opposite of authentic includes supposed, false, fake, mock and synthetic.
A synthetic experience is one that is made up to solicit a pre-planned outcome. Many years ago I was an adult leader for a confirmation camp experience. The teachers had prepared a very dramatic presentation of the cross which called for an evening walk through the woods, up to a hill, where they would experience three living people on crosses about 15 feet in the air, completely reenacting the crucifixion. Their goal on the outside was to allow the young people the opportunity to experience this tragic moment in Christian history – the pivotal point of our faith. But what they wanted was to melt the kids emotions to the point where they were on the verge of tears and then to pop the salvation question on them and see how many would come to Christ. Not surprisingly most of them received Christ that night. But was the experience authentic or synthetic? I think it was synthetic for most. For some the experience hit home and it was the drama that touched their hearts but for a lot of them it was fear that motivated their decision. I’m not saying the experience was wrong – it just should have been a choice given to the young people as to whether or not they would like to share in a re-enactment of this particular event. They were given no choice – they were lead there to fulfill the synthetic worship goal.
One could argue that all worship is synthetic and it is this lack of authenticity that pushes people away. I, for one, have never found it to be a worship experience to pile as many kids in the front of the church every February and force them to sing, “My Jesus Valentine”. I found it fake – contrived – and somewhat pathetic. But in the same vain I have been moved to tears by a solo song performed only in sign language – a liturgical dance – and yes, even a sermon.
I’m getting to my point. I see corporate worship as BOTH authentic and synthetic. When I was a church organist there would be times that people would complain about the really loud postlude or the 20th century composition I chose to play in the middle of the service. Sometimes I would brave it and ask the question, “so of the 21 pieces of music I played today, the only one that spoke to you was the piece that you really disliked?” Of course not – and that’s my point. Corporate worship is designed to try and reach everyone – some through music, some through song, through dance, through scripture, through tradition and some through call and response. Yes, some people do still get moved by speaking the Lord’s Prayer or even the Apostle’s Creed during worship. Some people can sense the Holy and truly enter in to worship surrounded by 10,000 people while others find Christ in their midst in a crowd of 2 or three.
Authentic worship is that moment when YOU experience the Holy. It can happen through a synthetic, contrived and purpose-driven worship experience in your local church building. It can happen in a casual encounter with a small group of close friends.
I miss the local church but since I have been out I have had some unique and wonderful encounters with the Holy. It does not matter where you are. Sitting in a church building doesn’t make you a Christian any more than standing in your garage makes you a car. But you CAN find the holy in all creation and I encourage you to seek it out. Once your heart is in tune with your spirit you will encounter the Holy.
Remember the story of the woman at the well? A woman who at the time was seen as less than anyone else (she had had several husbands and was now living with another man who was not her husband). In the heat of the day when she knew no other people would be at the well fetching water, she went to the well. It just so happens that Christ was walking that way also, headed to the same well. It was there that she had an encounter with the Holy. Christ called her out for her sinful ways and encouraged her to confess her sins before God and to walk right. Christ spoke of the living water – the water of life – as it, too, refreshes just as the cool water from the well. The Samaritan woman was enlightened. She realized that through God comes the true refreshing of her soul. She actually went on to share her encounter and subsequently led many people to a similar experience.
This woman does not appear in scripture again. It is a story used as an illustration – a story or a truism, it fails to matter. The point is made clear. Even Augustine, almost 400 years later, would use this story to describe the spiritual thirst of humanity and the thirst that is never quenched until people are in the presence of the Holy.
When I am so blessed to enter in to conversation about faith there is a common river that runs between all of them and me. It is a thirst for more – a thirst for a true encounter with the mystical, the divine, the Holy. It’s a thirst – a need – for an authentic encounter with the Holy.