Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Work from within a Non-Evangelical Church

I was brought into Christian faith by evangelical Christians 30 years ago. I grow my faith largely in Chinese evangelical churches. Until I attended a Chinese Evangelical seminary, I firmly embraced the fundamentalism brand of Christianity.

Things began to change after my seminary training. Theologically, 3 years of M. Div program equipped me with wider perspectives. Biblically I picked up a few tools so I can dig into the scriptures, find meanings of passages, and properly evaluate different Bible commentaries. I also obtained important history knowledge foundations, from where I could further my studies should I find a subject interesting.

As I keep learning over years, I have to abandon fundamentalism, as I increasingly consider its tenets and practices as not quite defensible. Only one of the four Evangelical tenets – the imperative to share the gospel – I still value. Yes my understanding of “gospel” changed, but the stories of God’s power redeeming and changing lives, is still very much worth sharing! For me the gospel is not so much about saving people from a literal “hell” any more, but to embrace and follow Christ to live a Christ-like live, and to bring God’s Kingdom to people.

I switched to a church near my home, which turns out to be a non-evangelical church, as I realized later. The small Presbyterian Church is predominantly in white culture. I feel like a visitor for quite some time, because it didn’t have any small groups, for Bible studies or for prayers. For several years no one knows my family, my passions, or my talents. I missed all the testimonies, fellowships, and spiritual connections like I had in Chinese churches. Another friend come along with me to this church and feels the same.

In this church, to serve God is to join a committee, and attend committee meetings once a month. These meetings, sometimes has a “devotional time” in the beginning, basically are all about running church business and activity planning—who is changing church colors according to seasons, who will do a potluck sign-up, someone makes a suggestion to gift older children with a personal Bible, so people arrange and schedule to implement it, and so on... I served two committees for two years, never quite feel home.

On my third year of attending this church, there is a group of women started a biweekly lunch time Bible studies. I joined it and found it very enjoyable. A Bible study guide is selected, and people taking turns to lead, we share our thoughts and opinions freely. However as soon as I got a part-time job, I found it difficult to attend. Nevertheless, people overcome every kind of physical difficulties in order to join it. We need more of this kind of opportunities to learn together.

This year we have new pastors, and I was nominated as a ruling elder. Although I still don’t know much about many church practices, I guess I can learn. Our new pastors did a "training" to all elders and deacons, got church structure reviewed, eventually we all agreed to set up a new vision of "being a light/salt" to the world for our church.

When asked what committee I would choose to serve, I decided to serve in Fellowship Committee. Of course my idea of “fellowship” is quite different from their existing one. I really want to get this committee out of the activity planning mode. I want to promote sharing within our congregation, to change the church culture to be more inviting to our visitors. See, the people of this church are kind and non-judgmental, I found them to be very open minded people. It is just they are not sharing their spiritual lives with one another. I’d like to bring some changes.

I decided to open my home. Every other Friday through the summer, I invited everybody, whoever is interested and available, come to my house, for a simple supper then a sharing. I gave sharing topics every time by emails. At sharing time I used powerpoint slides for visual and sound effects. We sometimes sang together, and I made comments about the song we sang. My plan was to see reactions. If the Spirit is at work, there might be a thirsty to move people into more fellowship actions.

By end of summer, about half of the church visited my home for this fellowship, about two third of them returned for at least one more time. There seems no lack of good words, even from people who had not come, they encouraged me, told me this was very inspiring. New pastors are very supportive of the idea. They pray that we will have more small groups like this one. When I raised the possibility of doing another small group after summer, there are a few people indicated that they would join. Therefore if I choose to continue, it would be doable.

However I sense some resistance. First of all, culturally many people never feel they are lack of spiritual sharing in church. They grew up in this church, very familiar and comfortable with each other, they feel home and have been elders and church leaders. I realized that only the newer people who join the church that need more connection.

Secondly, people do not used to share personal stories and testimonies. Even leaders feel uncomfortable to lead a spiritual discussion or prayer. Fellowship committee members suddenly realized that they face different tasks. One person resigned, a couple persons indicated that they are not good at “this”. I am left uncertain, -- should I persuade them to stay, or should I leave them alone? I have never been good at this committee thing!

Thirdly, there is a group of people in church whom I never know well enough to successfully invite. They might have different education or income level or race. I have to admit that I don’t know much about their needs. Maybe they will respond better if somebody else invites them to their homes. I come to realization that each small group can only serve certain people. No group can serve everybody.

This then somewhat like our deacons work, whose job in this church is to take care of different people, send them greeting cards and so on. I wonder if there is any way Fellowship can work with deacons. But again, I have no much idea how deacons work within our church structure.

What is next? Try to collect feedbacks from different people. But I am doubtful if people would honestly tell me main reasons why they didn’t want to come back, or if anything had turned them off during the fellowship sharing. I also found out that people in this church do not like the words “evangelism” or “testimony” to characterize the spiritual works, because such words remind them of street corner preachers who shouted the “hell” to passing-bys. They seem okay with “discipleship” or just “sharing” though.

My home can still be open, but I don’t want to do this alone. I need a team to do fellowship regularly. This needs to be part of church ministry, not an individual venture any more. In member meetings, I heard “Holy Spirit” is mentioned by pastors, sounded like everybody understood it. It is, again, just sisters and brothers never talking about how the Spirit is at work in their lives. But I will definitely want to wait for the Spirit’s direction.

Meanwhile, I observe that there are people who began to open their homes and share their stories, thanks to our pastors. They also determined to have more potlucks after church services. They also work to expand existing meeting groups, such as choir or committee meetings, to have spiritual sharing. During worship, pastors started to ask kids and congregation about “God sighting” moments, and there are people who responded and shared. I pray that slowly people are getting used to hear and share testimonies!

This is my prayer: May the God of endurance and of encouragement give to us to be like-minded one toward another. –Romans 15:5 (Darby)

1 comment:

  1. The four-part definition of evangelical faith, articulated by historian David Bebbington: obedience to the Bible as the ultimate authority, belief in the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross as the source of salvation, the necessity of a personal “born-again” conversion experience, and work to spread the Gospel.