Somewhere around the time I decided to start peeking into these sundry churches, my brother Rundy suggested I should go to the 2008 Searching Together conference (for reasons unknown, the 2008 conference is not mentioned on the website). At that point in time I had only travelled by plane twice before in my life, on business; out of the 14 persons constituting my immediate family, only my mother had ever been on a plane for personal travel, and that before she was married. Well, no; I guess she has also taken a trip to a gardening convention or two in recent years. But this little diminishes my point that we are not a travelling family. A long trip is around an hour or two, and a very long trip is over three hours–by car, always. Economic considerations have been a part of that, but the personalities of my family and especially of my dad have had more to do with our home-staying habits.
So attending this convention was not a small thing for Rundy to suggest, and I kept it in consideration for a while. When my ruminations were complete, I had decided that I would like to go and would never be in a better position to go. My family has had sporadic contact with the Searching Together group over the years, and if you look around their site for a while and compare with my notes on these local churches you will see for yourself that I have sympathies with this organization. So I went.
In brief, I loved the convention and before the four days of my stay were over I had half forgotten that I did not plan to spend the rest of my life there. I like talking about Christian ideals so much that I can do it for days and not think of stopping. I feel like I made a whole bunch of good friends and it was hard to realize I would not see any of them again any time soon.
All of what’s been said is well and good, and even true on top of that, but if I am going to go into any more detail I will have to revert to my usual negative manner of speaking. By negative I do not mean necessarily “it was bad;” I mean also “it was not bad,” which is a negative way to say “it was good.” This erosive method of discovering quality wears on some people and is completely obnoxious to others. I think it is partly a result of the way I think; I absorb thoughts I agree with into my thinking without distinction, loosing the details of the positive thought until I have synthesized my own thought out of composite sources. Points of disagreement I retain in their particulars to better identify the failings.
This passive-aggressive thinking reflects through all aspects of my personality. While I was in the midst of the conference I was continually thinking of ways to represent my experience to different audiences; preemptive condemnations, sarcastic deflections, anticipatory justifications. For people who might suspect the convention of being doctrinally weak, I tried to catalog the strengths I observed to justify the merits of the convention, and to also make note of the weaknesses so I could disclaim them before anyone else pointed them out. For people who might find the whole idea of the house church radical, silly, cultic, or just strange, I thought of dismissive remarks to undermine either the credibility of the questioner’s ethics or their expectation that I would conform to normalacy in any case.
After a few days I stopped worrying so much on how to spin the convention to people back home and started fretting about how to spin back-home me to people at the convention. They were all such wonderful people, just oozing grace and forbearance and maturity, and then some of them went off and complimented me. Well, this indicated that they saw me on the same level as they themselves, and perhaps even looked up to me just a bit. That of course means that I have to be worthy of their respect, and there are several things that I am not so sure that crowd would respect if they knew about. My negative mode of thinking, for example; I think I kept it pretty well tamed in the convention and appeared to be a fairly positive contribution to the discussions. Or my very short temper, which was not put to the test during that time. Or my propensity for cracking jokes with sexual innuendo. Yeah, that especially would raise eyebrows.
So, as the convention drew to a close, I began to admonish myself to pay more attention to cleaning up my language, disposition, and general comportment. I exclaimed to myself how fortunate I was to have the righteous influence of these people in my life, and assured myself it was the help I needed to launch another reform–not on my own strength, but by the grace of God, who in His infinite holiness also desires my holiness and so must always have the necessary grace ready on hand for any sinner who wishes to become holy enough to hang out with his holy friends.
As you will have observed from my tone, the biggest drawback to this convention for me was myself. The strongest message I seem to have actually internalized from this convention (wherein one recurring theme was the uselessness of outward, works-based righteousness that is the mortar of most institutional churches) was the necessity for greater apparent righteousness.
I do not deny the true need for a heart more pure. Out of my mouth comes blessing and cursing, beauty and perversity. I also think one of the legitimate benefits of fellowship is the example of Christ in other Christians, their faithfulness in matters where we are weak which, without a word spoken, calls us to account and does not let us rest in our rebellion. But the call to Christ-likeness has been subverted when it is perceived as the call to Christian-likeness. Christ was no more in me and with me there than he is now and was before I went; if I struggle to be more like them than I strive to be less like Christ, for his reference point was always the Father. The criticisms of the righteous were never the guideposts of his life, whether those righteous were the Pharisees, Peter, Jesus’ own family, or (to stretch the point a bit) a reluctant John the Baptist. If I cannot find the conviction for a change of heart in my own private meeting with God, I have no business discovering it amid the believing public.
As I have already alluded, I have little doubt that this popularity-righteousness would be rejected by the conference attendees. The conference format allowed equal time for discussion as for presentation, so nearly all attendees gave some hint of their affairs in their home church (if they had any), and one recurring trait of their various assemblies was an open welcome for people with obvious spiritual problems. Many people have rightly condemned shallow and self-glorifying standards of conduct in the church at large, and many who have observed it react by welcoming any and all and refusing to hold them to any standard. Among those at the conference, the acceptance of people with problems seemed to be precisely that; not a dismissal or gloss of the problems as insignificant, but a welcome nonetheless, and an arm offered to help fight the spiritual war besetting.
A common affliction among those who had fellowships turned out to be the prolonged tolerance of people who were not just hurt but hurtful, refusing the painful process of healing and inflicting poisonous wounds on the assembly. But those who had suffered from this mistake of over-tolerance did not come bewildered by the “failure” of their love, nor spiteful against those who had refused to truly join the loving fellowship, but moderately chagrined by the presumption of their “loving forbearance” that would hold a spiritual serpent to the bosom of the assembly. An indication of tolerance gone to far is damage done to several members of the spiritual body–not one person hurt and offended, or several in disagreement, but one person spreading suspicion, resentment, and malice.
The balance between forbearance and care for the health of the church is difficult to adequately describe, and impossible to walk without the Spirit of grace. A theme from those who had been in the walk for years was that any disagreement that arises from even one member must be addressed by the elders and by the whole congregation, not by stifling and snuffing out with an adamant statement of the majority view but by open invitation to consideration as equals–for in the history of the Bible (and of the church) the minority is often right. But if the disagreement becomes contentious and divisive, it behoves all parties to part ways. Whoever is right, the few or the many, have nothing to gain by those who insist on wrongness; if you cannot stand to part then you should be able to continue to work for resolution in good spirits, and if you cannot work for complete consensus in the right spirit then you have nothing to benefit by artificially continuing together.
Any branch or single church that emphasizes love for one another as a distinction from the church at large is immediately suspect of having more love than truth. But there was no deliberate neglect of truth for the sake of love that I noticed. I have no doubt that given enough time, someone there would develop or be observed to have some belief or practice I could not hold party with, but that sort of speculation holds no profit. What I saw was an equal concern for truth and love, a commitment to a local church that was both welcoming and spiritually nurturing without a concern to make the whole world righteous.
A church that gets more than one thing right is hardly to be dreamed of, and invites my recurring skepticism. But if I am so confident that not many an accept the leading of the Spirit to negotiate mankind’s split of love and truth, between holiness and mercy, then I could take that conference as a kind of proof; there were few enough in attendence (about 25 in this 9th iteration of an established national conference), and fewer yet who had fellowships to return home to. All had stories of rejection and splintering churches, and irrationally malevolent opposition. This fits the composite profile picture of the faithful of God throughout the Biblical record. Not to overdo the comparison–I don’t mean that the only Christians in the country were at the convention! No, I think there are true believers in all kinds of churches all across the land. But nothing that is very popular for very long winds up being very true.
But now I am back home, and the only people I know with a similar mind on fellowship are my own family, and this business of searching together appears to be a lonely occupation. The secret notion that the leader of the conference might be able, like God himself, to open the book of life and read off names of nearby believers has died and blown away like a flower in the desert–not that I’d admit to having such a notion in the first place.
I am glad I went.