Since announcing our intentions to plant a Vineyard Church in the Covington / Mandeville area (which we are calling North Shore Vineyard) a couple of months ago I have been asked two questions just about every day and some times more frequently than that.
The first question—“Is ‘north-shore’ one word or two?” On this particular question I have sided with the Microsoft Word version of spell-check and have kept is as two words (I know deciding anything based on a Microsoft program is heresy to a Mac user but at least I used the version of Word for Mac.)
The second question that I am asked, even more often than the first, seems easy enough on the surface but is really packed with certain assumptions—“Where is the North Shore Vineyard going to be located?” I realize what folks mean when they ask this question and it has something to do with the location of the building in which a Sunday service will be held. However, the implications of this question have really got me thinking. The very question implies that the church building is perhaps the central defining element of what constitutes a church. And while most folks ask this question innocently, I can't help but think that it is indicative of the way church is increasingly perceived in this day and age where the most meaningful part of the Christian faith is linked with the attending of a service in a building. Now, before I go on any further I want to make it clear that I am not against church services or having buildings to meet in. It just seems to me that this type of thinking is evidence of a deeper problem with church in our culture, no doubt tied to the highly consumerist society in which we live, where church is looked at more as a product or service rather than a vibrant community of faith and mission.
I have heard the question posed, “If your church were to disappear tomorrow would your community notice, or for that matter, even care?” While this is a very good question to wrestle with concerning mission and outreach and connection to the community, another helpful question might be, “If your church building and Sunday service were to disappear would your church still exist?” This may sound like a very odd question to ask in a country with so much religious freedom and so little persecution of Christians but I believe it is a very constructive question to ask because it gets to the heart of some of our false assumptions about church and can maybe help us to a better understanding of what church could be.
This August will mark four years since the church of which I am a part experienced the very scenario posed by this question. When Hurricane Katrina devastated the New Orleans area, most members of our congregation evacuated to various locations around the country, only to find that many would end up being in those places for more than a few days (some for weeks, months, and some never to return). Our old building was a mess from roof damage and flooding and our new building, which we had just been moving into over the previous weeks, was without power and had sustained some minor damage itself. So for several weeks we had no central location for weekend services and when we finally did start using our new building it was under a paradigm that had been completely altered in the wake of the hurricane.
What happened with our church in the months following Katrina was interesting to say the least. Looking back I can see that there was in fact more to the church than the building. In fact Christ-followers from our church who had evacuated all over the country began finding each other in the cities they fled to—Baton Rouge, Lafayette, Houston (I was a part of some gatherings with folks from our church in the Houston area). And wherever folks from our church ended up, they did what Christians naturally do—they gathered together, worshipped, prayed, shared meals together, and did a lot of grieving and processing loss together. But what is even more interesting is the type of church experience folks began returning to back here in Kenner. In the aftermath of Katrina the Kenner Vineyard lacked the resources and volunteers to offer the previous schedule of multiple weekend services, and the lineup of classes, programs, and Bible studies that had typically occurred on a weekly basis before the storm. But amazingly even without being able to offer folks much in the way of services and programs the Kenner Vineyard began to thrive. How could it be?
What began to happen was that folks began to gather around mission—cooking and serving hot meals to people, ripping out sheet rock and carpet in flooded homes, staging job fairs, praying with people, or just sitting with folks in front of their ruined homes and listening to their stories. It’s as if the New Orleans metro area had suddenly become a mission field (really it always was, we just needed the veil pulled back a bit to reveal it again) and instead of folks just showing up to be attendees of a weekend service they were actually beginning to be the church in the community—being the touch of God to a hurting and broken world.
Was it messy? You bet!
Chaotic? At times very!
And, by the way, it wasn’t all good.
The truth is that the shaking up of everything caused some pretty ugly stuff to come up in the hearts of many a sincere believer, certainly including myself (I will no doubt address this aspect in another blog).
Yet in the wreckage of Katrina, when all rhythms of life were broken, when infrastructure was crumbling all around, when the very fabric of the culture and the government seemed to be coming undone, Christ-followers almost instinctively began to move from passivity to active mission.
The church in a very real sense had left the building!
The largely untold and unreported story of relief and reconstruction in the New Orleans area after Katrina is just how much of it was done without fanfare or hype or news conferences—by Christians. But in spite of the lack of publicity, people in the New Orleans area know the role the church played in it all. They know that when the government was bickering over how to respond, when FEMA couldn’t seem to get their act together, when even reliable non-profits like the Red Cross were stretched thin it was the church who just did what Christians have done through the ages—helping hurting people.
So back to the question—“Where is your church going to be?”
Well hopefully wherever there are broken, hurting people who desperately need to experience the love of God through compassionate humanity. It will be with at-risk children in the public schools and single moms who are just trying to make ends meet. It will be with those struggling to find their way out of addictions and those who are empty after being filled with everything this world has to offer. With down-and-outers and up-and-outers. It will be with those who are fumbling towards faith and those who are wrestling with doubts. It will be with those who gather in homes, coffee shops, the local bar and those who gather on a weekend to celebrate who Jesus is and what he has done. The actual location may be hard to pin down from one moment to the next, but hopefully the church will be recognizable not just by a building where it meets weekly but by its mission, and by a community of people who have been absolutely ruined by the love of God.