Home > Lessons I've Learned > Going to Church [*]

Going to Church [*]

I grew up in a family of five: three boys, a mom, and a dad. I don’t know what’s typical in other homes, but getting dressed, fed, and out the door each morning was a bit of chore for us. We had two cars and two drivers. During the week we usually had three or four destinations and arrival times. There was a lot of running around the house to get ready. Amazingly, during these week days, we were almost never late. On Saturdays, we often stayed at home but still had things to get done. Similar to our weekday schedule, we seldom were late to whatever tasks or destinations we had those days.

Sunday mornings were a whole other story. Every Sunday we all had one place to be at 11 AM. We needed one car and one driver and we had plenty of time to get ready. Yet, somehow, at least one person was always lagging. Most of the time, it was my mom. I have countless memories of us three boys and my dad sitting in a car with the engine running in the driveway impatiently waiting for my mom. We’d all shout stuff like “Come on, mom!! Hurry up!!” with a nasty impatient tone, even though there was no way she could hear us. My dad would honk the horn a few times and us boys would eventually resort to punching each other to pass the time and to vent our frustrations. Eventually, my mom would rush out the door, still trying to apply that last bit of make-up or attaching that critical piece of jewelry. My dad would pop the clutch into gear just as she shut the car door and she’d have to buckle her seat belt while also fighting the inertia of the accelerating car. Needless to say, by the time we were all in the car and on our way to church, we were in anything but a good mood.

Our family attended church every Sunday, said a prayer before every dinner, and tithed consistently. Although these things are all good and I think everyone should do them, I feel, now in retrospect, that on the whole we did these things as more of a chore than anything else. It was like we had a checklist: Feed the pets, check. Shop for groceries, check. Go to church, check.

There was consensus among us boys that church, prayer, and tithing were not things to get excited about. They were duties. If my parents hadn’t made us go to church, my older brother likely would never have gone at all, and my younger brother and I might only have gone because we had friends to hang out with there (or girls we wanted to meet).

Looking back now, it’s no surprise to me that when my parents got divorced while I was in high school this is exactly what happened; My older brother permanently stopped going to church and I only continued going because my friends and pretty girls went. Once I got to college and I started losing touch with my high school friends, I stopped attending church altogether.

It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact reasons I began attending church again, but in a lot of ways I can relate to the younger son in the story of The Prodigal Son as told in Luke 15. I had experienced the far country, realized the error of my ways, and returned home.

It’s kind of laughable to reflect now on the hard parts of my life back then. My parents were loving and respectful to us and each other. Apart from the car-in-driveway incidents I just described there was almost no yelling in our home. We always had food on our table. My parents drank alcohol but only in reasonable amounts. There was no drug use in the home. No physical or verbal abuse. I could go on, but my point is that my “hardships” usually had something to do with the style of clothing or brand of shoe I had to wear to school. – I once wore hand-me-down bell bottoms with metal rivets in the shape of a star on both side pockets because I had nothing else to wear! Also, I have owned exactly one pair of Nike’s my entire life. – My life was good, but I wanted to explore, got myself in minimal trouble, and ran back to church and God.

I certainly have my share of challenges in life, but since I have always had a place to rest my head at night, have never been sexually abused or raped, have never been in jail, and have never had a drug problem, I consider myself to be pretty fortunate.

Church and things of that nature could easily be an afterthought for me. It certainly is for a lot of the people who surround me here in this wealthy part of the world. For many in Orange County, church often is an afterthought, an add-on, a duty. They attend church as long as it’s convenient and entertaining. If church time were moved from Sunday morning to the time of their favorite T.V. show, they wouldn’t go. If church services were relocated to Watts or Mexico, they wouldn’t go. If the funny church pastor was taking a break that weekend in favor of a guest speaker, they wouldn’t go.

With all this in mind, I absolutely marvel at what happens every Thursday night on Santa Monica Blvd in Hollywood! Every Thursday for the past five-plus years, a small team of young people (many of whom are white college students from affluent homes) has assembled on a street corner in the middle of the night, prayed publicly, and then went and mingled with the prostitutes, drug dealers, addicts, transgenders, and other outcasts of society. Over the years I have seen this team range in size from as many as 35 people to as few as just two people. I have been blessed and honored to be a part of this team for the past three years.

I have witnessed countless illegal transactions and scantily clad boys. I have been spit on and cussed at. I have been solicited by dealers and prostitutes (not to mention horny drunk gay men) and have been harassed by security guards and the police. But I have also seen lives changed. More than once, I have seen someone become pleasantly surprised when they learned that the enjoyable conversation they were having was not with a fellow street person but with a Christian who drove 40 miles (each way) in the middle of the night just to show them the love of Jesus. I have a handful of stories I can tell of real growth and restoration that has occurred in the lives of these people that society wrote off years ago.

Keep in mind that we encounter many people on the streets and it’s not like they just decided one day to have a sex-change operation, start snorting cocaine, and begin selling their body to strangers on the boulevard. Every person has a unique, and always sad, story about how they came to be who and where they are. Most were abused or abandoned at a very early age. Many people we encounter are bitter and resentful. They gave up hope long ago and don’t want any pity or help from us. They do their thing and we do our thing. It’s a minority that accepts us and talks with us. They talk into our lives just as much as we talk into theirs. It is this minority, and the prompting of the Holy Spirit, that has kept us coming back each week.

Last night, I went out to the boulevard for one of the last times before I leave California at the end of this month. There were just two team members last night, me and Holly. I drove 40 miles from Orange County, picked up Holly on the way, parked, and walked to the regular meeting place. Holly and I stood in the Del Taco parking lot for a few minutes and reminisced a little about our week as well as our past three years of serving together on the streets. Then we prayed and headed out to mingle.

As we approached the local donut shop, I thought I saw a familiar drug dealer. The moment I reached out my hand to shake his I realized that, although he was (most likely) a dealer, we had never met before. We shook hands anyway and then I apologetically told him that I wasn’t interested in buying anything. Oops. Holly and I quickly went inside the donut shop and bought some drinks. Shortly thereafter, we began seeing some people that we did know. We talked to various people about recent family issues, recent deaths, recent stints in prison, and more. One guy who I’ve hung out with before proudly introduced me to his sister. She and I had a lengthy and enjoyable chat. Holly and I made a point of inviting at least three people to our midnight church service and we did so loudly enough that everyone around got the invite as well. One guy heard one of my loud announcements and drunkenly turned to me and asked “You guys gonna have pizza tonight? I haven’t eaten in days.” We didn’t have pizza last night but I promised him donuts if he came.

No one wanted to follow us, so Holly and I walked down to where the church services are usually held, bought a dozen donuts (at the other donut shop), and proceeded to sit on a window sill and make small talk. We didn’t pray like we often do when no one shows up, we didn’t ask God to send people to us for the sermon, and we didn’t fret about what to do. On the contrary, before the night had even begun, we had already given the entire night over to God. We had already agreed that if people came we would have service, and if not we would return to the street after a while and just mingle some more.

I should mention that although Holly and I took a break from actively inviting people to join us for the church service, someone else was still very much at work! Forty miles away, in Orange County, a team of about five pray-ers was meeting in someone’s apartment to pray on our behalf.

After Holly and I had been chatting for roughly ten minutes, a group of people rounded the corner and approached us in the parking lot. There were six people. We smiled and greeted them and asked if they came for the donuts. Four of them said, “We came for donuts and to hear the sermon.” The other two said, “We came just for the sermon.” šŸ™‚

We all gathered in a circle, held hands, and prayed for the food. Then everyone sat and I gave a sermon. As I often do, I left the sermon open for discussion. In the middle of it, one guy asked who wrote the Bible and another guy mentioned that his favorite book of the Bible is Revelation. Two people in particular reminded me of elementary-age kids in a Sunday School class. They added their thoughts to the lesson and wanted to make sure they answered every question I asked. They were proud of their involvement, excited even.

This last point brings me back to my opening story. For me and my family, church wasn’t exactly exciting. It wasn’t something we invited our friends to. And, sadly, it certainly wasn’t something we would gloat about. The six people who came to the service last night left with an air of accomplishment, a bit of a glow even. They had learned something new and seen old things in a new way. A part of them had been cleansed a little such that they were refreshed.

Allow me to put all this into proper perspective; most people who linger in our area of Hollywood do so in order to buy or sell drugs or buy or sell sex. That means that it’s highly likely that at least a couple of these six people put off making financial transactions long enough to come and hear a message about God. When was the last time you left your cubicle, your shopping cart, your check stand, your desk, or your place in line to attend an impromptu church service? If someone approached you next week at your place of work or while you were out shopping and invited you to a 15-minute Bible study in a parking lot, would you consider that an inconvenience or an opportunity that’s worth putting everything else on hold for?

Only God knows what’s going to happen to these six people and what exactly was going through their heads last night, but one thing is certain. They felt that the word of God was worth forgoing all else, at least for a moment, in spite of any temporary inconvenience. They thought to themselves, “I may not be ready to commit my life to Jesus, but there is something special about Him and these people that come here every week to talk about Him, something special enough that I want to know more.” I highly doubt that’s exactly what they were thinking but I am sure it was something like that. In any case, their thought process was nothing like what most of us think when we are considering going to church on a Sunday morning.

Shouldn’t going to church be a joy? A reason to celebrate? Shouldn’t church be a place that is so enjoyable that we invite our neighbors and co-workers to it? I mean, shouldn’t learning about our Creator and singing praises in His honor be a positive thing? Shouldn’t having a conversation with the Creator of the heavens and earth be a reason for great delight? I confess that sometimes I don’t see church this way at all. Other times I do. Once a month, Rockharbor Church in Costa Mesa has something called Third Wednesday. It runs from 7pm until about 9pm. We sit on the floor. We do a mix of singing, praying, talking, and listening. I think the proper word to describe it is “fellowship”. I love Third Wednesday. It’s something I get excited about. Afterward, I feel refreshed and invigorated, ready to cheerfully face the many troubles ahead that life will inevitably throw at me. I think that all church services should be more like Third Wednesday.

I think that attending church should be a reason for joy.

The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field. ~Matthew 13:44 NIV

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