For a long time, I dated people through internet dating sites. It’s an interesting process where you fill out a questionnaire telling stuff about yourself, like your age, your level of education, and if you like cats. And then they try to match you with someone who would appear to be somewhat compatible based on the information you both have shared.
I’ve often mused about what it would be like if someone developed a similar process for people who are searching for a church. The church would fill out a profile about their ministries, their style of worship, congregational demographics, and so on. And then an individual would answer questions about themselves and the kind of church they’re seeking, then we could match them.
Of course, the big problem with that system is similar to the big problem with internet dating. In order for a system like that to work, the person answering the questions has to be completely honest. That means they have to honestly know what it is they’re looking for. And most people are clueless. They wander through life like the person who is hungry and goes to the grocery store and starts wandering up and down the aisles, not sure what they’re looking for, but hoping they’ll know it when they see it.
What are you looking for? That’s the question Jesus asked of his first disciples in John’s gospel. As he was walking down the street he had the feeling he was being followed. So he turned around and saw two guys who were obviously tailing him. “What are you looking for?” he asked them.
Notice they don’t answer his question. They don’t tell him what they’re looking for. Could it be that they don’t really know, but are hoping that they’ll know it when they see it? Maybe that’s why, instead of answering Jesus’ question, they reveal that they were following him to find out where he was staying. Of course, when they ask where he’s staying, it’s pretty much like inviting themselves over to his place. So, Jesus says, “Come and see” and they do. In fact, they remain with him for the rest of the day and into the evening. Jesus wasn’t someone they could learn about from a distance, they had to experience him firsthand, in relationship. They had to abide with him.
In his gospel, John talks a lot about living in a relationship with God. The word meno that we translate into English remain, or abide is one of John’s favorite words. It conveys the idea of staying close to home and not wandering off. God abides in Jesus. Jesus abides in God. We abide in Jesus. Jesus abides in us. John uses meno 34 times in his gospel. When Jesus invites his first disciples to stay with him, it’s an invitation to abide with him, to be in relationship with him, which is really the only way they can come to know him, and find what they were looking for.
What are you looking for? It’s a universal question. And I wonder if the answer isn’t also universal. Could the answer be -- a life-giving relationship with the God of love? Or, at its most basic level, union with God? Isn’t that the way people of most religions might answer the question, “What are you looking for?”
And that leads me to wonder what it is people are looking for when they first come to us at Holy Trinity? Every week new people show up. Some haven’t been to worship in a long time, maybe decades. At one time, they were ready to give the church up forever, but here they are. Why? What is it they’re looking for? They may go from church to church never really sure how to answer that question, but hoping they’ll know it when they see it. And therein lies the problem.
What you’re looking for in a church is closely related to what you’re looking for in life. And a lot of is aren’t really sure, but we’re hoping we’ll know it when we see it. There are some churches that count on that. They market their product and convince you that they know what you’re looking for and they’re there to provide it. You’re looking for high tech, we’ve got it. You’re looking for music that rocks you to core, we’ve got it. You’re looking for exotic mission adventures, we’ve got it. You’re looking for quality programming for your kids, we’ve got it. You’re looking for preaching that will both inspire and entertain you, we’ve got it. When you really don’t know what you’re looking for, it’s easy to be convinced.
I haven’t had to choose a church in about 40 years. And I’ve been thinking about what it will be like, after I retire, to find a new church home. So, here’s what I’ve decided. I intend to be clear about what I’m looking for. Size doesn’t matter. The preacher doesn’t need to knock my socks off. It doesn’t have to be a Lutheran church. It doesn’t even have to be liturgical. Although the Eucharist will be important because I’ll be looking for a community where I can experience Christ. In the ways people care for one another, in the ways they care for the world around them, I will see, and know, and experience Jesus. I will be in relationship with Jesus through my relationship with this community. That’s what I’ll be looking for.
Mind you, I’m not just talking about a sense of community. You can find that lots of places. In fact, atheists, thinking that’s what they’re missing by not being a part of organized religion, have been forming communities for this purpose. There is a very large atheist community in Charlotte. And that’s cool. But it’s not the same thing as experiencing Christ in community.
I resonate with author Rachel Held Evans who was asked why churches fail to engage the millennial generation. She said: “We’re not leaving the church because we don’t find the cool factor there; we’re leaving the church because we don’t find Jesus there.”
I get that because I have found Jesus in the faith community I’m a part of now. No, Holy Trinity is not perfect. We’ve got issues, just as all churches do. But what I have come to know through the people of Holy Trinity, despite our very human limitations, is Christ in community. And that’s what I’ll be looking for someday, when it comes time for me to find a church where I’m not the pastor. I know it’s not something I’ll find by reading about a church on the internet. It’s not something I’ll find on one Sunday morning visit. It’s something I’ll find by hunkering down over the long haul. I’ll be looking for a community where I can abide in Christ. That’s what I’m looking for. How about you? What are you looking for?