So I had an experience this week, one which has stuck with me and caused me to reflect a lot.
I was in a local hospital visiting with a church member on Monday afternoon. He was in a room which had two beds, which is not uncommon in some settings locally. I made my way in. passing the individual who occupied the other bed, and I visited with my church member. The time then came for me to leave and on my way past the other bed, the individual sitting in it, who had obviously worked out that I am a pastor, asked me if I would say a prayer for him. Of course I said I would and I stepped over to his bedside. The following conversation then took place:
Me: What’s your name?
Me: Hi Johnny. I’m pleased to meet you. My name is Charlie. Where are you from?
Me: Wow, you are a long way from home. I have a good friend that lives down there, I know the area a little. Do you have a local church family down there?
Patient: No. I have not gone to a church for a long time.
A slightly awkward silence then took place, lasting around 5 seconds before the patient looked up at me and said this:
“I go to the church of Johnny. I pray every day and I believe in God.”
I assured Johnny that he was not alone and that there are many, many other people in the world like him who believe deeply in God and who pray regularly but yet do not belong to a local church. I then proceeded to pray for him before saying good bye and walking out of the room.
I encounter folks like Johnny very frequently. They have no connection to a local church either because they never have done so in their lives, or because they have become disillusioned with the local church or with God, and they have given up on church attendance/membership as a means of expressing any faith they have left.
This is, of course, troubling to me in some ways. I am a pastor and therefore I do very much believe in the local church, and I believe in being part of a local church as a vital aspect of maintaining healthy faith. Does this mean that I blindly affirm all that happens in local churches? No way. I am more than happy to critique local churches and admit oftentimes the local church can make a real mess of living out the Christian life. That said though, I also know that in most cases the local church also does the very best job it can of professing and witnessing to the love of God in both word and action in the local communities where the church exists. Any criticism of the local church which does not also affirm the brilliant work done by people of faith through the local church, is not worth listening to, in my opinion.
But back to the Church of Johnny and why it troubles me.
The Church of Johnny is the church of the individual. It lacks any sense of family or community. In the church of Johnny, there is no sense of life together, or loving one another. There is only life in Johnny’s way, lived out on his own. Spirituality in the church of Johnny is a spirituality made up by Johnny as he is going along through life. Whatever feels right in the moment is what is right. There is no sense in which anyone can question the spirituality of the church of Johnny. There is no-one to question it, because in the church of Johnny there is only Johnny. In the Church of Johnny there is no accountability of thought or action. The single member, Johnny, is the sole arbiter of all doctrinal statements of belief which the Church of Johnny adheres to. There is no-one to question you or your thinking in the Church of Johnny. The church of Johnny is the very epitome of the rampant individualism which is tearing western civilization and culture apart, as millions of Johnnys all over the world sing along with Frank Sinatra and do life “My Way…”
You might be reading this and thinking that there is absolutely nothing wrong with life in the Church of Johnny.
Respectfully, I disagree. Let me illustrate why by telling you a little more about the man I went to hospital to see that day.
He was an 89 year old man. He had been married for over 60 years, raised 4 children, who in turn had raised their own families. This man had served in the US Navy, and then worked on Cape Canaveral, helping to send humans into space. He loved his family, bluegrass music, and his garden. He was a Christian man and had been a regular (weekly) church attender throughout his lifetime. He had been a member the church where I pastor for over 30 years. He was a gentle soul who loved God and knew that God loved him. He was a treasured member of our church family. He loved the people of our church and they very much loved him too.
As I spoke with him that day, it was very clear to me that he was approaching the end of his life. We talked about how that felt, and he told me that he had absolute peace. He told me he knew God, who is the creator of all things, and that he knew he would be okay. That day he embodied ‘eschatological hope;’ actual peace and hope, which, I believe, is only found in God’s love through Christ and the Christian community. His was a spirit which was at peace with the world, and with life.
He passed away three days later.
As I walked away from the hospital that day I reflected on the experiences of the two men I was talking to.
The member of my church was completely at peace and utterly bereft of any fear of what the future might hold. In his pain, he had peace. In his struggle for breath, he had peace. In the thought of the end of his life he had peace. His was a peace which was born in his faith in Christ and in his experience of the Christian community.
Johnny, on the other hand, appeared to lack any peace. His life was not in danger that day – he had had a relatively routine surgery that morning, and yet he still felt fear and discontent, and he appeared to have no sense of peace.
Both men were believers. My church member professed his faith in a loving God, and Johnny told me he too believed in God.
Both men were men of prayer. My church member was faithful in prayer, and Johnny told me that he too prayed every day to God.
And yet…both men seemed to have very different levels of peace within their souls. My only conclusion that day and since was to note the difference in the ‘belief experience’s the two men. One stands alone, developing his own beliefs about the world and about God; he is utterly dependent on his own thoughts for any sense of spiritual security. The other stood in the fellowship of Christian community, and has his beliefs about the world and God shaped in the context of that community. His sense of peace and hope is found in Christ; born in the 2000 year old Christian tradition; lived out over a lifetime in Christian community.
And this is where my problem with the Church of Johnny lies – ultimately it lacks any depth to its foundation, and when the fragility of life comes to the fore, the Church of Johnny collapses and is found wanting. It offers no real hope, and no lasting peace.
As I reflected on my brother’s life when I was preparing his funeral service, I couldn’t help but think that when my time comes to leave this earth, I want to do it with all the peace and all the hope that my brother, Dean did. The only place I will find that peace is in the divine love of God, made manifest in Christ and Christ’s church.
The Church of Johnny might be great in the here and now; it might offer the illusion of personal freedom and spiritual autonomy in one’s life. But ultimately it is foundationless, and, at in moment of fear, worry or desperation, the whole structure could, and probably will, in most cases, come crashing down, and I find that deeply saddening.