Summit Mennonite Church
Hannah Troyer is a member of Summit Mennonite Church. She shared this sermon at Summit Mennonite in September 2017.
When I was growing up, I attended a church that met in the old auditorium at Stark State College in Canton. I remember as a little girl, running around playing tag with all the other kids, having to set everything up and take everything down every Sunday, because college students were going to be flooding the halls the next day. I remember knowing exactly what rooms we were allowed in and what rooms we were not allowed in. I remember meeting in people’s houses during the week because we didn’t have access to our “church” except for from 10 a.m. to noon on Sundays.
When I was in elementary school, the announcement was made that we were going to be building our own church building. I remember everyone being so excited about it. I remember people talking about how we’d be able to use the building during the week, we’d be able to do more programs and have meals on Wednesdays and all these other cool things that other churches got to do. We were taking the next step in “church growth.”
I was a senior in high school when I realized I missed the days of that church that met in the auditorium. I missed the innocence and the authenticity of the old school projector that they used to let the kids project the song lyrics on, the Sunday school rooms that got set up and put away every Sunday, the old burnt orange seats and the ’70s paneling on the walls.
Somehow, the gathering seemed more genuine in that space.
Having a church building isn’t inherently bad. A building of our own opens lots of doors for things we could never do before. Here at Summit Mennonite, our church building serves as a place where thousands of people can gain access to food every week. But having a church building does come with responsibility; there are certain things we must guard against: becoming too comfortable, allowing the building to come before the real Church.
How does the Bible define church? How does Jesus define the Church? Is it the building? The people? What qualifies? Do we use a big “C,” or a little “c”? Can we call the building, the people, and the act of meeting on Sunday all “church”?
This summer, I’ve personally been reading through Acts. We can get a pretty vivid picture through reading the stories and experiences of the early Christians, of what the Church is to look like, act like, etc.
They were bold, they were committed, trusting, and very human.
Check out this passage:
Acts 2:42-47 — “The community continually committed themselves to learning what the apostles taught them, gathering for fellowship, breaking bread, and praying. Everyone felt a sense of awe because the apostles were doing many signs and wonders among them. There was an intense sense of togetherness among all who believed; they shared all their material possessions in trust. They sold any possessions and goods that did not benefit the community and used the money to help everyone in need. They were unified as they worshiped at the temple day after day. In homes, they broke bread and shared meals with glad and generous hearts. The new disciples praised God, and they enjoyed the goodwill of all the people of the city. Day after day the Lord added to their number everyone who was experiencing liberation.”
Is this what our Church resembles today? Not really. Is that okay?
You all have experienced a spiritual high, right? I got to get high on Jesus every summer at camp. It was awesome. Maybe it was at a camp or conference or a missions trip or at a super inspirational church service. You want to stay there forever and just soak in Jesus.
But, you can’t.
And then you have to go back to “normal” and figure out how you’re going to “apply all this stuff to your everyday life” and make it through until the next time you can get high on God.
I remember having spiritual highs and then long periods of lows throughout most of my childhood, all the way into high school. Looking at the way we educate kids and young adults in the faith, this is pretty much how it’s set up. Get them SUPER excited and emotional, immerse them in Christian culture, and hope that somehow it sticks until the next spiritual experience.
Our culture is failing to learn, accept, and teach the everyday Christianity, what it means to walk with God and with a community of faith.
Shane Claiborne refers to this as spiritual bulimia: gorging ourselves on all the products of the Christian industrial complex, then vomiting it all back up for pastors, small groups, and friends, without allowing it to really digest.
This. Is. Unsustainable.
Pentecost was probably a spiritual high more intense than any of us could imagine. They most likely rode on that for a while. But, like any “high” it fades away.
When did the newness fade away? When did the Church start to stray from the structure we see in the New Testament?
Humans were made to live in deep community with other humans. No matter what your occupation is, where you live, if you’re an introvert or an extrovert.
Now, I have to admit, I’ve never lived ‘in community’ before, as in living intentionally in the same house or the same close community with several other people.
The closest thing I have to living in community is living with my husband, William. We share pretty much everything. And there are ups and downs and good and bad, and we just go through it all together.
We read that the early Christians didn’t just get together once a week for a worship service. They shared their entire lives with each other. Even when they got mad at each other. Even when they disagreed. Even when they doubted. They were committed to one another.
They took Church seriously, and they were committed to the work of the Church.
So is it okay when church is just something that happens on Sunday morning with just the people that show up for the service? Is it okay to seek spiritual highs and then continue living our lives like we do until the next one comes along? Should we be continuing with our current form of “church,” or should we be looking back into Acts, into the example of the early Church, to reframe and reimagine what Church could look like here?
I want to share another experience that I had, this summer while we were in Turkey, visiting William’s cousin.
William’s cousin is a Franciscan friar. He converted to Catholicism in Turkey, where his family was living at the time, doing missions. He was raised Mennonite, and although his conversion was very difficult for his family, they are now seeing the ways that God is working through him in the Roman Catholic tradition.
We traveled to Turkey, because Andrew was being ordained as a priest this summer. We got to be there for his ordination, and travel around Turkey with him, his family, and his Brothers (other friars) the week after.
Seeing the way that the friars lived in community with each other, the way that they were so committed to each other, was an entirely new experience for me. They held each other accountable, they affirmed each other, they wrestled through the hard things with each other. They had committed to the faith and to each other for the long haul. They walked through the daily ups and downs of life together.
Couple this with the 4th century cave churches that we were touring and the early Christian history that we were learning, and the early Church became as real as it has ever been for me.
I wanted to include a reading from the Gospel today, because if we don’t have the Gospel, we don’t have a reason for Church. When I racked my brain (and then the Internet) for passages in the Gospel about “church” I couldn’t seem to find what I was looking for.
Then I came across Matthew 18:20: “For where two or three gather in my name, I am with them.”
I realized that I couldn’t find what I was looking for, because Jesus never tells us that we must attend Sunday church service. Jesus doesn’t necessarily give us a structure for “church.” We made that up mostly on our own. But in Matthew he says, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there.”
When we’re gathered around a bonfire talking about our deepest dreams and desires in life, that’s Church.
When I’m sitting at the bar with my friends talking about how to dismantle systemic racism and sexism in our communities, that’s Church.
When the homeless person I’m almost positive is lying to me about what he’s doing and where he’s going asks me to “please pray” with him, that’s Church.
When we’re building relationships with the neighborhood kids, that’s Church.
When I’m holding a sign alongside members of my community that denounces racism and invites conversation, that is Church.
When we are packing school kits to send to children so that they can continue their education with one less hindrance, that is Church.
And yes, when we’re all singing hymns together on a Sunday morning and watching the children come up for children’s time and eating a potluck lunch, that is also Church.
I have to remind myself constantly that all these things are Church because I too had a time of significant doubt. I had to discover and realize that I didn’t have to go into the building where we held Sunday services to find God.
I could find God in the morning on my porch with a book and a candle. I could find God in the streets with my friends, standing up with people who were being oppressed. And, I could find God in a coffee shop over a delightful cup of Ethiopian coffee, talking with a friend who was struggling to understand church just as much as I was.
You can often find me whispering to myself, “this is church” as I contemplate the trees, hold up my sign, and take a sip of my coffee.
Rachel Held Evans says in her book, Searching for Sunday, “Church is not a building or a denomination or a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. Church is a moment in time when the kingdom of God draws near, when a meal, a story, a song, an apology, and even a failure is made holy by the presence of Jesus among us and within us.”
As a young person in the Mennonite faith who does go to “church” pretty regularly, I often get asked the question, “Why aren’t more young people coming to church?”
I want to address this because I think it’s important in the conversation of how to move forward as the Church.
There is certainly not one answer to this question; everyone has their own story. I can only truly speak for myself.
What I’m hearing and seeing from my fellow young people though, is that we are searching for something different.
For a church that is authentic.
A church where we don’t have to choose between science and religion and where asking questions is not only okay but encouraged.
We are looking for a church that isn’t trying to “sell” us anything, because we’ve been marketed to our entire lives, and we can tell when something’s not genuine.
We are looking for a church that isn’t soaked in political affiliation on either side.
We are looking for a third way church where we can be loved and where we can have really tough discussions free from the simplistic answers that we’ve been given up until now.
We are not looking for hip pastors who wear cool clothes, and we’re definitely not looking for free giveaways.
We want somewhere where we can go to wrestle and rest and be affirmed and be filled by the Holy Spirit.
I also see many Millennials who are “doing church” during the week. Volunteering in their communities, having emotionally and spiritually draining conversations with friends and family, working in demanding jobs….
Getting up every Sunday morning to listen to another sermon about how they should live, where they have to act like their life is going great to everyone that asks, just isn’t something that they’re interested in.
But, I do see a shift towards the Church of Acts in the younger generation. I see a shift towards more intentional community. I see a shift towards transparency. I see a shift towards living life together and worrying less about the formalities and the details and what it looks like to everyone else.
So, can we still call the building, the designated time on Sunday, and the body of believers, all “church”?
If you didn’t know, something else Millennials are very concerned with is words, language, and labels.
Personally, I like to call the building what it is, the building. I don’t like to attach the name of “church” onto it, because it’s already muddied the waters enough, and just the word can bring up hurtful and damaging past experiences.
I like to call what we do on Sunday morning, Sunday service. Calling what’s happening here church, gives the impression that this is it, that this is all we have to offer. And that’s surely not the case.
Finally, the body of believers. I call this the Church. And to be the church? To actively live a life that follows the radically scandalous ways of Jesus.
To call the body of believers the Church, is to create unity. Unity beyond denominations, cultures, races, and doctrines.
So, what do you see laid out in Acts that we could apply to our lives, collectively, so that we could be the Church better?
There is a sign hanging in the foyer of our church. You can’t miss it when you walk into the entrance. My sister painted it last summer. It dawns the colors of the rainbow and begins with the phrase, “Be the Church.”
I’ve talked to many young people who’ve come to me telling me that they want to reject Christianity and stop going to church. I always tell them, “Don’t let the church ruin Jesus for you. Don’t go to church, BE the Church.”
What does it look like in our community, to be the Church?
I want to affirm some of the things I see Summit Mennonite already do well.
We eat together. Sharing meals is a deep part of our tradition as Mennonites, and some of the best conversations I’ve had with other members of our congregation have been over potluck meals.
We invite the hard conversations. We’ve wrestled with things that other churches I know wouldn’t even touch. Being able to discuss these things together knits us that much closer.
We affirm each other. Listen, I don’t know a lot of other churches who’d let a 20-something woman who didn’t go to college stand up and give a sermon on a Sunday morning. I’ve never felt a shortage of affirmation for the younger generation here. You continuously invite us to participate and empower us in ways that allow us to rise into our roles as church leaders.
These are just a few things I’ve experienced in our four years at Summit Mennonite.
As we recognize these things, we also need to examine the places where we can grow. How can we become closer to the Church we’re called to be? How can we become more of a refuge for those we’ve hurt as the collective Church? How can we better serve our neighbors? How can we live more simply, for the benefit of the rest of the community? How can we cultivate that “deep sense of togetherness”?
The last verse of Acts 2 talks about how many believers were added to their number.
It’s no secret that congregations these days want to grow. They’re always looking to add to their number of people who show up on Sunday morning. So they have meetings to talk about how they can draw more people to their church. They try to convince people why they should come here rather than go there, and why they should DEFINITELY not just be sleeping in on Sunday mornings. They try to lure kids in with fun youth group activities, free stuff, flashy services, rock bands, and pastors in skinny jeans.
They’re missing the type of church we see in Acts 2. They think people couldn’t possibly be interested in joining a group of mildly crazy people who sold all their stuff and ate meals together all the time. But maybe, that’s exactly what people are searching for…