Thursday, September 01, 2005

Death of a Church and Life in the Hot Zone

[Note: This post revised and editted recently.]

My old church died last night. No, it's okay, it was a good thing.

For the past three to four years, I've been a part of a house church. The house church was actually a part of a broader network of house churches (of which I am still connected with). Last night, we officially, collectively, and mutually went our separate ways . . . .

For the first 9 years of being a Christian, I developed the foundation for my faith in traditional type (or what some refer to as 'institutional') churches. These are churches that typically gather in buildings on Sunday mornings and that have programs and events during the week to connect people in and out of the church. The churches I went to were mostly non-denominational churches.

At the time, I never had a grasp of the distinctions between different denominations. I simply read the Bible, prayed more and more, went to church, got to know fellow church goers on a casual Sunday basis, and found ways to get involved. I loved God and I loved His Word and He granted me the privilege of eventually teaching others - either in formal Bible studies or just in relationship - I just had a passion for helping others know more about this awesome God who died for me (of all people). I was hungry for the Word and I was hungry for relationship.

It's a hard and lonely place though to be gay and Christian in this kind of a world - a world where everything was about God and everything was about ministry and everything else was impure - dirty. I didn't exactly seek out becoming a leader. God opened up doors, I felt led to do whatever He prompted me to do, and I obeyed in serving Him. I stepped up when it was needed. But it was weird. As a ministry leader, I was constantly feeling both clean and dirty. The problem was that the Church taught that leaders couldn't be both. How can a gay person possibly be used by God? But it kept me humble because the primary thing that I was able to give testimony to was the incredible grace of God. How can God love or use me despite me? Yet He does. And I found that people responded most to His love for them when I was willing to be vulnerable enough to share about my own (general) imperfections (not being gay - that kind of collision would ruin everything).

So I began to recognize and understand certain divisions in the Church. Denominations. Theologies. Politics. Genders. Ethnicities. Class. I began to see more things that separated the Church than things that unified us. Even our very perspective of our Great Commission seemed off to me. It was less about making disciples and more about making converts of the impure. Why is everything an us vs. them mentality? There was a constant sense of dualism. The sacred vs. the profane and any interaction was a pollution. So why was I so frustrated with all this? Because God allowed me, in His grace, to experience both the sacred and what "they" considered the profane.

It was never religion to me. I had (have) a genuine relationship with Christ. I wasn't about doing the 'church' thing or pumping people into a system of manufacturing Christians. I was about living out my faith in front of others and helping them to do the same. I didn't represent my local church but rather I represented Christ Himself. And when the Church teaches that there must be a "holy" separation between the clean and the unclean, here I stand - a contradiction. Gay and Christian. And God still uses me for His purposes.

I began to see God using me as a bridge builder. He instilled within me a lasting passion for unity in the Body of Christ and shaping the paradigm of the Church. I co-founded a non-profit organization with a friend to do that very thing - getting pastors to trust each other and mobilizing the Church of the city (all the local churches in the city) to get on mission again. Our vision is to see cities transformed as God's people live out the Great Commision locally. We pose the questions: What does the 'Church' of a city look like? and What would it look like for God's people to 'live out' our faith within the city? In previous and future posts i refer to this as my 'public ministry'. (This is my poor attempt at anonymity. I won't mention the name of our organization.)

When I connected with the network of house churches these past three to four years, it just made sense. I wasn't looking simply to "do" house church. I wasn't looking simply to "do" something different. I liked the fact that these people saw church "outside the box" and were willing to live it out. For the first time, I was able to tell other people "at" church that I was gay (or at least, struggled with same sex attractions). They may not have known what to do with that knowledge, but at least they didn't reject my friendship or eject me from fellowship. They just never brought it up.

Two months ago, I began this journey of mine (of which this blog chronicles) into the "hot zone". I referred to this in my last blog post as "the forbidden territory of questioning church, interpretations, and paradigms". More specifically, it's the place where the conversation about homosexuality and faith and God are no longer the "unspeakable topic". It is here in the hot zone where, as Zalm puts it, "transformational conversations that point to reconciliation" takes place. For several months prior to this, I went through a season of not going to "church" at all and I began seeking the Lord by myself about what He was doing inside of me.

Then He led me to a traditional (institutional) type church nicknamed "The Tab" with other gay Christians. More specifically, Christ-centered gay people. What? They exist? It shocked me. So much that it intrigued me enough to step into the hot zone. I began to build relationships with homosexuals. I began to ask questions. I began to question answers. And while all this was happening, I was getting less and less connected with the house church people.

Over a very long period of time (probably a year and a half), I had been getting frustrated with the house church people because, though it was church in a house, it was still very much functioning institutionally (this particular house church was, not the network). Many people were simply "detoxing" from the institutional church not realizing that the "house church" model that they ran to was just a band aid. Some of them failed to realize that it's not about changing how we "do" church, it's about changing how we "are" church. "...worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem..." (see John 4:21-24). And so I realized that my building of relationships among gay people (some believers, some not) was more "being" church than my "going" to this particular house church every week.

[Side note/disclaimer: I don't necessarily think that a particular church model is inherently better than others because of the variety of backgrounds, preferences, and personalities that comprise the Church. Some prefer the traditional institutional church while others prefer a fluid and organic type of church that meets elsewhere (ie. house, park, coffee shop, bar, etc...). I do, however, believe that a person's paradigm of how they see themselves in that church model makes a difference as to the effectiveness of that person "being" the Church in that local community. If we "are" the Church, then we can function effectively in any church model or structure.]

There was alot of drama going on in the house church and so last night was when everyone got together for a meeting to talk about where we were all at with it. Turns out that God was leading all of us in different directions and so it was a natural end to this particular house church. Some are connecting with other house churches. Some are starting new house churches. Some are going to traditional sunday churches. But like me, everyone was pretty much being led somewhere. For me, it was this hot zone.

I don't know what this is going to look like. Am I supposed to start a "house" church with gay people? Am I supposed to start a "small group" in my home for people at this new gay-friendly "institutional" church that I've been going to? Am I supposed to start some kind of independent "ministry" helping gay people live out their faith? Does a group of relationships need to be defined as a "church" in order to be considered a church? I don't know. I value relationships above church models and I value process above agenda. Maybe I don't know what I'm "doing" here in the hot zone. But I do know what I want to "be" here in the hot zone - a follower of Jesus Christ who isn't afraid of being contaminated by those who do not yet know Him.


Turns out, others have been talking about similar/related things:

BadChristian.Com - "What's the Big Idea About Church?"
BadChristian.Com - "Being Outchurched"
Live With Desire - "Ruminations on Church and Deep Ecclesiology..."
Edge of Faith - "What Does It Mean To Be A Christian?", "Closer", "We Have Arrived"
From The Salmon - "Conversation Peace" (Series)

6 comments:

edgeoffaith said...

hey eric,
i just wanted to let you know that i really enjoyed reading your post and can completely understand being in the "hot zone". i no longer go to "church" and may never go again but i do hope you find where you need to be. for now, i believe you "are" the church and when you live your life like it, others will see your heart.

eddie

btw, where abouts in socal are you located?

Heidi said...

Wow, Eric. That's all I can really say: wow.

I've been reading your blog for awhile now - ever since Brandon at Bad Christian recommended it - and I have been challenged, convicted, made uncomfortable, and inspired.

In this post, you said so much about church - going vs. being - that I wanted to say but couldn't find the words, though I just wrote a blog post on this same subject. Thank you for saying what I couldn't - especially about the house church functioning as a band-aid...the last church I attended faithfully was a house church and I felt much the same way.

I love following your journey and learning from you. I guess I'm one of those "dunno, but love you anyway" people you have linked on your blog. I don't have all the answers, but I do know that your walk with God and the things that you are willing to tackle in your hot zone bring fresh inspiration to my faith every time I visit your site. Thank you.

Ron said...

Wow Eric,

I am really humbled. I believe you described me quite correctly! And just to be sure, one reason I do not throw stones, is because I see the flaws in my own character, and have enough to do in a day just trying to work those out!

I noticed Eddie commented on this site as well, and he is another one that I would like to understand further. I initially thought he took offense to some of my postings, but after we discussed more of what he believed, it became a little clearer to me. Keep seeking the Lord; He will make your path clear!

*Christopher said...

Eric,

What a great blog. Your struggles and thoughts are powerful. As a more Benedictine sort of Christian, I would suggest that in following the One who became messy flesh, a focus on purity and impurity isn't the place to start as Christians. I'll be adding you to my blogroll.

lux Christi tuus (The Light of Christ be with you),
*Chrisopher

olympiada said...

Hi Eric
You know my very first experience with a church was with a 'house church'. I could not join up, having roots in the Roman liturgical tradition. My mom grew up in the Roman Catholic church. My grandma wanted to be a nun. My great grandparents immigrated from Rome. So liturgy for me is in my bones...I went from a chinese evangelical house church to the one holy catholic and apostolic church and the orthodox church in america.
in regards to the other items, i emailed you.

Anonymous said...

Hi Eric,
Peace. What a wonderful blog site! I think it is so needed, and it would really help a lot of people, many of whom are Filipinos as well who are struggling with integrating their faith and sexuality. As a Filipino raied in a stric Christian family, it was hard for me at first to reconcile practicing my religion and "practicing" my sexuality. Thank you for your witness. It is true that churches are not safe space for many people, LGBT included. But in my ministry as an Episcopal priest, I find that some churches seem to do better of trying to be inclusive than others. This is true of many denominations as well. I do hope that you would find a community of faith where you would be welcome for who you are. We all need companions along the journey.

Blessings

Noel E. Bordador+

PS: Check out www.epistle.us My BF created and maintains the website for many GLBT who want support in living out their Christian life. Thanks!