Scary Church

My wife loaded up the compact car already full with two 6’3”grown men and we set out to tour prospective colleges with our son Clinton.  Ten hours later we found ourselves in a high desert ranching community in Montana.  I have had a romantic attachment with Montana for many years and that only intensified with the epic and Pulitzer Prize winning novel Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry.  It is safe to say I vicariously hoped my son would land in this mythic place of hope and rugged beauty.

Clinton has wrestled with church since his days at a private Christian high school.  The idea of attending a large gathering of people who emote during praise songs, weep, and clap to the beat of bubble-gum Top 40 type tunes is tortuous to him.  It gets worse when a talking head at the front of the room moralizes about how a person is supposed to live when that speaker does not even know the person to whom he is speaking.  Add to that the incongruent behavior of many Christians he knew in high school and the increasingly influential impact his non-church-attending friends have on his world view, it is safe to say that Clinton has not exactly been warm to faith in conventional ways for a long time.

But on this day in Montana, we were going to find a church for Clinton, dadgumit.  So we looked up a few churches to scout out.

After a breakfast of stale cinnamon rolls and a bowl of cereal at the Days Inn, we set out to find the churches in time for worship.  If we didn’t like the looks of one, the town was small enough to quickly find the others and be on time.

We drove by the Southern Baptist church first, because, well—it’s what we are.  We drove into the gravel parking lot slowly, taking it all in.  It was a cute, little brown faux log cabin building.  Only six or eight cars were parked.  As we made a turn to exit the lot, we noticed an open upstairs window. Faces were smiling and arms were waving at us.  It felt creepy to be honest, like they were stranded on a deserted island and were waving at a passing search plane.  They seemed a little too desperate for attenders.

I didn’t mean for the car to spin gravel back at them when I accelerated out of the parking lot.

Next, we went to the other Baptist church in town.  The parking lot was full of pickup trucks with a few cars here and there.  A full parking lot was a good sign, right?

The music had begun; we could hear it as we approached the front door.  It had a marching band cadence and rhythm.  The greeters wore polyester suits and ties and—cowboy boots.  Okay, we’re in Montana after all.

We thanked the men for the bulletin. They opened the door for us and the staccato rhythm of the hymns almost pushed us back out the door.  They were singing full-throated as if to yell the devil back into the abyss.  We found a place on the back pew and stood—because they were standing—and tried to sing along.  Even though my wife and I had been in the church all of our lives, we didn’t recognize the hymn.  We three stood stoically, eyes darting furtively around at the polyester clad congregation.  I leaned over to Clinton and said, “Walmart must have an outlet store in this town.”

About that time a stern looking man pushed a smile up from the corners of his mouth and thrust an open hymn book at me.  I’m not sure this was an act of kindness or an effort to get us to conform to the collective and sing.  I took the hymnal and nodded at the man.

The song ended and the man at the front of the room called, with a military clipped voice, “Jonathan Jacobs, do you have song for us this morning?”  It wasn’t a question.  A man about four pews away stepped out into the aisle and made his way to the pulpit, cleared his throat and shouted out, “Number 378!”  The piano began to thunder the same tempo as the other songs we had heard.  I looked at my wife as if to say, “Do you know this hymn?”  She shook her head.  I looked through the hymnal to see if I recognized any titles.  Not a one.

I holstered the hymnal into the rack on the back of the pew.  Someone across the aisle noticed we weren’t singing and brought us an open hymnal again.  I took the book, nodded sternly and when they turned to go back to their seat, I leaned over to Clinton and said, “Let’s get out of here while we can.”  I grabbed my wife’s hand, who looked scared, and we made our way to the exit.

As we filed out robotic heads turned and plastic faces watched us leave.  I wanted to say, “You can come too!”  But the blank faces seemed to have lost all interest in doing anything but shout their songs to the front of the church.

Two men followed us out the door, bibles drawn.  I told Clinton we had to protect our women folk.  He and I turned to face the polyester proletariat.  One of them said in a high pinched voice, “You can’t leave before the pastor preaches!”

“Get your mom and get in the car, Clinton,” I said.

The men took a couple more steps toward us. Standing as tall as I could with a stern look I stamped my Keens and said, “You shall not pass!”

Clinton pulled the car around and I dove in while he squealed the tires.  Nette and I watched the men standing at the edge of the parking lot, hands up turned and spread wide as if pantomiming a message of, “How did you slip through our fierce love?”

“Can we just go to Subway for lunch?” Clinton asked.


About Joe Chambers

I am the beloved of the Most High God. I am an avid reader and writer and have been a continuous learner since my college studies in Ancient Literature and English. I live at the base of Mount Princeton in the Colorado Rockies with my wife of over three decades. I believe I have been put here to tell people that God is not mad at them and to show them the way Home. I am the father of three sons, three beautiful daughters-in-law and four grandchildren. I love to read, tell stories, and spend time in the wilderness.
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17 Responses to Scary Church

  1. Eric Douglas says:

    O this is so sad but true. I just don’t understand how so many churches still operate this way. What happen to keeping your eyes on Jesus and trusting Him to build His church through us. Didn’t He say on this rock I will build my church? I went 25 years without a relationship with Jesus because everyone around me was in the same boat. I thank God I found out what a relationship with Jesus really is in our church. Only now with my eye’s on Jesus can I see and live out a personal relationship with Him, and watch Him build His church through me and my brothers in Christ.

  2. Barry Bishop says:

    Shame on you, Joe! You passed up two churches on Sunday morning based on preferences and then went out to eat. Sounds like you were shopping all along. We had a couple visit our (Baptist) church one Sun. morning and everybody greeted them warmly before the service. They sat in the back and ran out as soon as we started the praise music with drums. One of our ushers followed them out the door and asked, “Is everything alright?”
    “We don’t need this!” they replied crabbily. The sad thing is they probably didn’t go to another church that morning because of the time and distance in our community. I’ve visited churches that I would never go back to but the polite (and godly) thing to do is sit through the service and humbly ask the Lord how He would speak to me through His word. Are you implying that in these two (un-stylish or small) churches there weren’t any believers? What happened to one body, one Lord? You could still find unity with people in Christ who are different than you. One of the signs of being a believer is loving the brothers (1Jn 4:20). Also, are you teaching your son that going to church is primarily about what he prefers?
    Joe, I’m a pastor too here in WA, and I know that you probably know these things already. I hope that these words will cause some helpful reflection for you and others. Like your description, I too am a sinner and I am desperately trying to seek God. I would hope that you too would correct me for anything that I have publicly written that would compromise or undermine faithfulness to God.

    • Joe Chambers says:

      sat·ire (str)
      noun 1. A literary work in which human vice or folly is attacked through irony, derision, or wit.

    • Melissa says:

      Shame, guilt and negating the freedom given to us by Christ are the reasons people, children and adults, leave the mainstream evangelical church. Christian counselors are flooded with wounded people who need counseling after being brought up in legalistic, shame-based families and/or churches. Do you really mean “Shame on you?” Because you are wagging a dangerous, judgmental finger and if you’re preaching it from the pulpit, you’re abusing your power.

  3. Melissa says:

    Run away and don’t look back.

  4. Barry Bishop says:

    I said “shame on Joe” because he, as a pastor (and a Christian), should know better. What freedom in Christ are you referring to? The freedom to not go to church or to love other Christians? The freedom to make fun of them? I understand satire but this was a real incident told in a humorous way at the expense of real people that Christ died for. Who cares if they shop at Walmart? When Saul was on the road to Damascus and was busy persecuting believers and the church Jesus asked him, “Why are you persecuting ME?” Jesus died for the church and for real people.
    By the way, I do not intentionally use shame nor would I ever try to. I am not the judge of Joe’s heart and should not be. Only God is. However, as a brother in Christ, I am trying to help Joe (and others who read his post) in what I discerned was an error (see Galatians 6:1-2).

    • Melissa says:

      Dear Barry, As a fellow follower and lover of Christ and a writer I choose and read words very carefully and in yours I see curious choices ~ and many of those choices seem to be based on shaming the writer of the blog. I believe that you don’t intentionally use shame, but to me that’s the real danger. Few of us intend to, but often it is the underlying or central message. I’ll give a few examples.

      You say you don’t intentionally use shame, yet you did in your reply and in fact, chose it as your opening line. The now infamous, “Shame on you, Joe!”

      Then there’s the line, “Sounds like you were shopping all along.” In Christian circles the term “church shopping” has taken on a derogatory connotation and you chose to use it. Do you believe it’s wrong, or sinful to “church shop”? To look for a church where one is comfortable in worship? Or wants a strong youth group for their children? Or feels like they have something to offer the church? And is it you or God that has deemed it so?

      The couple that left your church are labeled as “crabby”. Was it necessary to include the descriptor “crabbily”? Did it occur to you that they may not have enjoyed the style of worship they saw at your church? Or that your style of worship scared them? Or is it that you believe that someone who does not like your church must be “off” in some way? I’m grateful God is so all encompassing, because if that couple is seeking Him, He will meet them and lead them into a style of worship where they can find comfort and kindred-spirits. Whether they made it to another church that morning or not.

      Most curious to me is the phrase “…but the polite (and godly) thing to do is sit through the service and humbly ask the Lord how he would speak to me through His word.” Jesus was often “impolite”, especially with those who lived in a religious fog or pretense. He shook them up as they needed to be and His honesty was often quite disruptive. To just sit through a service that you don’t believe in or one that is more life damaging than life giving may be polite but not godly. Is politeness being equated with Godliness in your sentence? And is your way the only godly way to sit through a service?

      Lastly, I think you missed the point of the blog which I believe to be important. Important enough for me to stay up late to write this response, which is something I’ve never done before. The mainstream evangelical church, of which I have been a part of for many years, is not meeting the needs of our questioning, seeking, heart-broken, pluralistic culture. Although the truth of Christ will always be, the church cannot rely on “business as usual.” Or as the blogger’s phrase “How did you slip through our fierce love?” implies, it cannot rely on the pretense of love. I ask the church as I ask myself, Are we loving well? And my heart, fully alive and engaged, believes that mainstream Christianity needs to be shaken-up. So Barry, if you mean what you say about wanting to reflect on something you’ve written publicly, perhaps you will reflect on one of these: Is there an underlying message under your words? And if so, what is it? Words hold the power of life and death and Christ’s death silenced my shame, your shame and the blogger’s shame once and for all.

  5. Bob says:

    Hi Joe: Thank you for including me in your blog. In reponse to what Barry said about your article, I can only say that I thought he did it in love.
    I will never forget the day a guy named Ray ( a fellow brother in Christ) took me aside privitely and said for me to “clean up my language” around the Fire Station that we both worked in. I didn’t like his words and they stung for a long time, but I took them to heart and came to know that he did it for the cause of Christ. It all happened over 35 years ago and I am still grateful for Ray and his willingness to “grab me up”. (“even the tax collectors, love the loveable”)
    Honestly though, I too still feel like walking out sometimes to this day. Sometimes I wish my heart could be re-wired, but I also have to be true to myself.
    I found out through a divorce that Christians truely do “shoot their wounded”, and a lot of other truths to convince me that it’s a journey and I better be ready to get tired. Thank God that his mercys are new every morning.
    By the way “A River Runs Through It” remains my favorite Montana movie.

  6. Joe Chambers says:

    Honestly, the first line for this blogs first draft was as follows: “I’m a Christian and some Christians scare me, I wonder who I scare away from grace?”

    I made a choice to let that thought be implicit rather than explicit with my tongue firmly planted in my cheek.

    That is all.

    • Melissa says:

      I’m sorry if I made you feel misunderstood, but once you published it took on a life of its own. It’s an honestly disruptive blog that has been a catalyst for important questions that Christians are free to ask.

      • Joe Chambers says:

        No apologies needed. I love the give and take. The writer of Hebrews says “…And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works.” Sometimes “stir up” is my middle name.

  7. Barry Bishop says:

    Thanks for taking the time to reply, Melissa. I am considering your words. For your consideration, I was reading a review by Michael Kruger of a book by Rob Bell called, “What We Talk About When We Talk About God.” Kruger gives an interesting quote that I would like you to consider. Quote: “In this way, Bell positions himself as an apologist of sorts. Our world views the Christian God as irrelevant and outdated (like an Oldsmobile), and Bell’s mission is to give Him an extreme makeover. Bell takes the God who seems like a grumpy, judgmental old man in a polyester suit who is pointing his finger at you while simultaneously thumping the Bible, and changes him into a hip, urban young guy with skinny jeans and horn-rimmed glasses who invites you to have a latte with him and ponder the mysteries of the universe.” Unquote. The rest of the article can be found here:

    • Joe Chambers says:

      I’m not clear, Barry, what inference we are supposed to make with the quote and the article. Who is the grumpy old man in the polyester suite? I am a grumpy old man but I don’t have a suite, much less a polyester suite. I have skinny jeans, but that is just because I am fat in my regular jeans. I love coffee, but I have never drank a latte. (I’m a black coffee as strong as you can make it person. No ‘foo foo’ drinks here)

      So, that being said…we have already confessed that implicit messages in a blog are subject to overanalyzing and misunderstandings. Responses to a blog can be a bit obtuse as well. What is the quote suppose to teach Melissa and the rest of us?

    • Bell takes it one step further by saying that it is not really necessary to repent and come to Christ as we are all going to Heaven anyhow. I think the fine line any of us in the body of Christ walk is how to speak and act with grace and not compromise truth with each other or those seeking answers about Jesus.

      We were created as individuals and we live in a post-modern consumer society, so style will always be an issue and I think the key is that, no matter your style preferences, that you find a local part of the Body and serve.

  8. Barry Bishop says:

    Joe, your initial blog post has made me think about a lot of things and it touched a nerve in me as you might imagine =o) There are many things I would like to say but I will focus on just two to you, Melissa, and whoever is peeking in on this particular post.
    1) I grew up in a rural area and was never cool. I later lived in an urban, hip area (Austin, TX). I’ve noticed that it is now acceptable (thank the LORD) to start churches that seek to reach the tattooed, the addicted, the hipster, etc. However, the people who shop at Walmart, live in rural areas, wear polyester and boots and are now seen as scary, backwards, or problems to the progress of the church. You said jokingly, “You can come too!” but it didn’t sit well with me. All I wanted to say initially is that Christ died for those (broken) people too, loves those churches too, and that we Christians should love the brothers (and sisters) too even those who are vastly different from us. Doing this demonstrates a unity only found in Christ.

    2) As Rob Bell demonstrates (seems to me), it is easy to remake God in your own image. God is neither a grumpy old man in a polyester suit or a latte-sipping urbanite. I provided the link for Melissa to think about because she said:
    “The mainstream evangelical church, of which I have been a part of for many years, is not meeting the needs of our questioning, seeking, heart-broken, pluralistic culture.”
    The church’s mission is to make disciples, plain and simply (Mt. 28:19). It’s not a country club, a daycare for youth, a rock concert, a therapy session, or whatever else we might like it to be. In making disciples, God will meet the deepest needs of those who are truly seeking, and heart broken.

  9. Joe Chambers says:

    And now we agree, my friend. I am not the best writer in the world. The issue with the fierce church was not what they wore, the traditional style of worship, the boots and the rural nature of the church or the fact that Walmart was involved in their wardrobe preferences. Those were all window dressing to the larger and more frightening issue of how we can create a subculture in our church that is unnerving to folks who are outsiders. Honesty, there was a military and fierceness feel to that church that was unerving. My 75 year old father pastors a small SBC church in the mountains of Colorado and I loooove that little Church. All pickup trucks and gun racks in that parking lot.

    Further, I am quite certain, aside from the work of the Holy Spirit, I became pastor of my first church in Oklahoma back in 1984 because I wore cowboy boots with my three piece polyester suite from Walmart.

    But…I had I had a hipster in the back of my compact car that is on the bubble when it comes to the family of faith. I was being protective of my son’s soul. I wanted to find a church more a kin to a pre-“Love Wins” Rob Bell church. I want my son to find a place to belong and have a conversation about what he believes. I didn’t see that happening in that fierce church.

    My son is still on his faith journey. I pray for him daily.

    “The church’s mission is to make disciples, plain and simply (Mt. 28:19). It’s not a country club, a daycare for youth, a rock concert, a therapy session, or whatever else we might like it to be.”
    We couldn’t agree more. I am doggedly adverse to consumer church. But I don’t pastor in rural Washington. I pastor in the Seattle area…where things are different. The saving Gospel is the same. But I wear Keens and not boots now. Perhaps you would appreciate an old blog I wrote a couple of years ago:


    • Barry Bishop says:

      Ah! We do agree. Thanks for explaining where you’re coming from. I’m sorry, Joe, for jumping to conclusions. I have written before against creating a subculture that asks people to convert to that before coming to Jesus (I had KJV-only churches in mind.)
      Also, my kids are small but I pray for them that their faith will become their own once they go off to college. I myself grew up in a Christian home and had a rough transition to college and by God’s grace was saved at 20. So, as a Dad, I can relate to your hope for your son. God bless.

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