It's a little overwhelming. I mean 31 flavors to choose from. It would be a lot easier if it were just chocolate or vanilla, and if I'm feeling a little crazy maybe some strawberry.
That's why I hate going to the Cheescake Factory for dinner. Their menu looks like one of my old college textbooks. I can't pick an entrée and actually be satisfied because I'm too afraid that I picked the wrong one. The Pasta da Vinci looks amazing, but I haven't even read through the other 13 pages on the menu. What could I be missing?
Ask anyone around Tulsa, and they'll usually give you the same response. "It seems like we've got a church on every corner, sometimes two on a corner," the individual said in a rather disgruntled tone.
What I've never understood is why that's such a bad thing? Whether you're churched or unchurched, it always seems like the variety of churches in our city is a negative. I can maybe understand if you're unchurched because the church is altogether irrelevant to your life and you're always asking, "Why another church?"
Why is that such a bad thing if you're already committed to a church? If we're real with one another, it's because so many times we look at the church across the street or down the road as the competition. Even if we are generally working toward the same goal of "life transformation," we still view other churches as the competition.
I guess it's human nature to despise (or secretly despise in most Christians' case) whatever organization you don't belong to. Even though we are generally on the same team (the kingdom of God), we don't mind (and possibly even crack a smile) hearing about a church struggle or even a church closing for that matter. Sad, but true.
Another common response is that we don't need another church, which I find so amazingly ridiculous it's hard for me to even engage this conversation. In other words, we are saying, "Tulsa has no more people to serve, no more people to reach, and nothing more to accomplish because our church is already here." Yikes.
Earlier this year, I went on a Tulsa church tour that included churches of various denominations and affiliations around midtown. My intent was to meet some great church leaders and glean from the variety of styles and preferences that are being practiced in churches all across our city. I was not disappointed.
It should be noted that my intent was not to wrestle with the theological discrepancies between denominations or try to summarize the practices of an entire denomination by analyzing one particular church. My intent was to embrace the wonderful diversity of church practices we are blessed to have in this city. I also understand the extreme generalizations that are being made as a result of my trip, but I also believe these same discoveries are consistent with other findings around the country.
I visited so many incredible churches in our city. Some of the styles/denominations I visited included Presbyterian, Methodist, Assembly of God, Charismatic, Baptist, Contemporary, liturgical, emerging/missional, non-denominational, etc.
Although there were clear and distinct differences in the Christian practices that are demonstrated in these communities, I left this road trip experience with an intense appreciation for this diversity and an overwhelming realization of how similar we really are.
It's funny how different you look when you stand on the outside and peer through the windows of another church. When you walk inside and experience the service and community you are smacked in the face with the reality of how you're really not that different after all.
Let's talk about some of my discoveries on this little road trip -- some good and some not so good.
My wife and I quickly picked up on a reoccurring theme in many of the more traditional churches. The leaders of these churches understood that they were not influencing the younger generation. In fact, on many occasions as we walked through the doors (we look rather young), people seemed to be shocked to see a younger couple come through the doors. I picked up on this when everyone was staring at us the whole way to our seat.
On numerous occasions, the church leaders straight up told us, "We need younger couples like you. Let's get together." I really appreciated that they understood the need to bridge the gap with traditional churches and a younger audience, and yet I was somewhat disturbed at the stark reality that some of these churches wouldn't exist in 10-20 years.
One of the discoveries we made on our journey that greatly encouraged us was that we saw more and more churches looking to take the church outside its four walls. In fact, I would venture to say that one of the primary signs of a healthy, growing church was its focus on serving/loving their community.
There was an overwhelming realization that having a building and opening the doors was no longer sufficient to bring people in. There must be a movement to take the church to the people of their community through acts of love and service. I was also greatly encouraged to see churches beginning to work together to impact their community and to see lives changed. What an idea: Churches actually working together to do more as a team than we could ever do on our own.
On this trip, I came to greatly appreciate the diversity in worship styles. I loved the more liturgical and structured approach of many of the traditional churches, while I was also inspired by the energy and passion of many of the more contemporary, non-denominational communities. Whether it was Sunday school or small groups, a robed choir or a rock band, a verse-by-verse exegetical sermon or a topical sermon series, there was something in each experience that I came to appreciate.
I'm not going to lie. I have my own preferences in worship styles, as do you. Some of them are influenced by my own personal theology, and some are just my straight up preferences. Regardless, I've learned to appreciate that we serve a God who is not limited to our previous experiences or our preconceived ideas of how our Christian faith should be expressed. I truly believe that people respond to the gospel in different ways and choose to worship in a variety of styles. Same God, it's just expressed differently.
As followers of Christ, as church leaders, as God seekers, I think we could all take a lesson from St. Augustine when he said, "In essentials unity, in nonessentials liberty, in all things love."
Our lives will only be enriched if we begin to embrace the unique and amazing diversity of the community of Christ in our city.
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