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The Church is Actually a Beautiful Thing

It’s 11 PM ET and I’m sitting in a hotel lobby in Harrisburg, PA reflecting on the week thus far at the 2015 Mennonite World Conference. It’s been another full day and I should probably be more tired than I feel, but I’ve been sleeping poorly all week so I’m not even going to bother trying until after midnight. I think my body is still on Mountain Time. What better time, then, to try to scramble a few thoughts together on the MWC experience so far?

  1. It’s been a gift to be here with my family. So often, I travel to conferences and events by myself and then try (and mostly fail) to convey to them what it was like, how it affected me, etc. It’s been so rewarding to watch my kids encounter other kids their own age from other countries of the world, to recognize that they are part of a big and beautiful church that is deep and wide and loud and proud and multi-ethnic and boldly courageous. I am so grateful to my home church for making this possible. It’s been wonderful to share this experience with the people that I love most in the world.
  1. It’s been a gift to be here and not have any leadership responsibilities. I’m not sure what it’s like for other pastors, but I suspect I’m not alone when I say that I rarely have the opportunity to simply enjoy a worship service. Ordinarily, I am almost always looking ahead to the next item in the service, making last-minute adjustments to the sermon, trying to adapt on the fly to any surprises, desperately hoping I didn’t forget something, thinking ahead to the potentially awkward conversation in the foyer after the service, etc. It’s been wonderful to just be in the services each day—to be one voice among thousands singing praise to our God, to pray along with the words of others, to process sermons that I have no responsibility for, to even mentally drift off now and then. It’s great to be more or less anonymous sometimes.
  1. It’s been a gift to be reminded that it’s ok to celebrate. It’s so easy to be cynical about the church, or to get into the habit of constantly apologizing for its sins (real or imagined), or to constantly be lamenting the present state of the church with all of the things that it is failing to do and to be. At least it is for me. And my thinking and writing seems naturally to drift to the shadow side of faith, to the dark corners of sin and death, pain and suffering, doubt and unfulfilled longing. But being with sisters and brothers from around the world has reminded me of a very simple and basic truth:

God is actually very good. And God has given birth to a very beautiful church.

Yes, the church stumbles and falls all the time, yes there are theological controversies that damage our witness to a watching world, yes there are things that could have been said at MWC but haven’t, things that shouldn’t have been said at MWC that have, yes there is a long way to go to achieve the unity that we sing about in our songs and speak about from our pulpits. Yes, yes, to all of this and more.

But there is a beauty here that can be breathtaking. To look around during worship and see black faces and brown faces and white faces and young faces and old faces, to see flags from Zimbabwe and Cuba and Colombia and Taiwan and Honduras and Spain and Brazil and the Philippines and countless others, to share meals with people you can’t communicate with but with whom you nonetheless feel a deep connection, to attend workshops and hear the stories of faith and struggle and victory and suffering from people whose experience in life is significantly different from your own, to reconnect with people you haven’t seen in years, to meet people that you hope you will have a chance to meet again, to look around and to realize that even this international gathering represents but a tiny slice of the global body of Christ.

It’s pretty incredible, when you stop to think about it.

Which I have, on a number of occasions. Stopped and thought about it, that is. This movement that began with a handful of mostly confused peasants following this dusty Jewish rabbi around the Palestinian countryside as he uttered his baffling and liberating words, as he healed the sick and cast out demons, as he announced this strange and unexpected kingdom, as he died like a criminal and emerged out the other side of the grave. This tiny band of poorly esteemed followers has somehow become a staggeringly diverse community that spans the globe, all proclaiming in their own way, that this Jesus has meant for them hope and healing, forgiveness and salvation, redemption, a pattern for living, and unutterable joy. Incredible.

There have been times during worship this week when I just stop singing and look around at the people around me. Periodically, I have felt these weird wet things trickling out of the corner of my eye. How embarrassing, I instinctively think. I should be thinking deep thoughts or something. I should be analyzing the theological content of the service or criticizing something or other or lamenting the colonial attitudes that contributed all of this diversity or rehearsing what I will “take away” from this event for those who will ask. I should be doing something smart and controlled, something that doesn’t involve tearing up during a song.

But evidently I can’t really help myself. Because God is actually very good. And the church is actually a very beautiful thing.

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. Howard #

    Have slept poorly and tears do well

    July 25, 2015
  2. Tanya #

    What an encouraging post. Thank you Ryan.

    July 27, 2015
  3. mike #

    I last had a similar experience a few years ago at a Mega church here in Lexington. The mood was engineered by utilizing a large band playing soft music, special sophisticated lighting, and a really a neat fog machine up in the rafters, it was surreal :/
    Seriously though, these memorable moments are not restricted to a religious setting, just go to a University of Kentucky basketball game and you’ll see what I mean. Heck, even a U2 concert can have a similar effect. 🙂

    NOW I’ll be serious. It’s so interesting to me the phenomena of how a group of people, even like-minded strangers for that matter, can gather together and unite with a common purpose, and then actually become of “one mind” spiritually speaking. I’ll never forget once back in the late 70’s being in a gathering of Charismatic believers during worship. We were repetitively singing a short scripture verse song when suddenly the crowd lapsed into an angelic sounding mixed chorus that’s hard even today to describe. I say “mixed” because everyone was singing a different word or phrase(Hallelujah-Praise God, etc etc ). I know this sounds like mass confusion but it wasn’t, it was absolutely Beautiful sounding. I learned afterwards that this phenomena is called “Singing in the Spirit” and is a rare occurrence even in Charismatic circles.

    July 29, 2015
    • Yes, large group dynamics are very interesting… A cynic could quite easily write all experiences like yours and mine off as an enormous exercise in manipulative groupthink. Or, perhaps there might just be something of the Spirit of the Living God in it all… I prefer the latter interpretation, even as I acknowledge that the shadow of the former is always lurking.

      July 31, 2015
      • mike #

        Yes,…cautiously optimistic 🙂

        July 31, 2015
  4. A beautiful reflection, thanks: “God is actually very good. And God has given birth to a very beautiful church.”…now I just have to go share that on Twitter 🙂

    August 3, 2015
    • Thank you kindly, April.

      August 3, 2015

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