I love the word ‘simple.’ I like the ‘sssss’ at the beginning…it’s a sound soft and soothing. I like the ‘imp’ in the middle…the way I have to have bring my lips together and then pop them apart to get that ‘p’ sound. And, I like the sort of raspy ‘llll’ at the end…how I have to move the sound back towards the middle of my mouth, sliding towards the throat, to get that soft sound to come out…. And, of course, I tip my hand here as to my propensity towards philology…in its very literal meaning. I love words…and, more precisely, I so enjoy examining the effect and power of words. For me, ‘simple’ is a word of power, able not only to conjure smooth and rounded images in our minds, but even able to lower our heart-rate and breathing, to drop our blood pressure a few points. Yes, this is a good word…and we ought not to use it lightly!
So, on to the idea of ‘simple church.’ For some, there is a sudden, just-out-of-reach disconnect when we put these two words together. Why? Because for some, church is anything but ‘simple.’ Church means getting up early on a weekend and fighting with the kids to get them out of bed…and then to get them dressed, too often in clothes they would not usually want to wear, to go where we they feel they must put on a happy face…mingle with people who have all put on their happy faces…and then sit together (or worse, forced to stand and clap together!) in a large area singing songs that they don’t hear all week long and then listening to a sermon that calls them to give more, do more, be more…and they’re already exhausted and they don’t know HOW to give, do or be more…and their only thought is, “When will it be 12:00pm so we can leave?”…which is followed by, “Where are we going to eat…and what will it cost…and who will we bump into?” Now do you see why many read or hear ‘simple church’ as an oxymoron? These words for many just don’t belong in the same phrase, much less the same sentence.
However, for me, this is a phrase pregnant with hope! Oh, how I long for the reality of simple church. First, I believe we either have to find a new word for ‘church’ or reprogram our minds to hear it as it was first used. We now associate the word with a building and all the feelings that come with that building-image. For far too many, “warm and fuzzy” doesn’t quite capture those feelings. Since I don’t have another word, I’m just going to have to replace the image I have in my mind or give new meaning to the word. Church: from ekklesia in Greek; the congregation, the gathering, the coming together of a group of people for a common cause. For our New Testament fore-fathers and -mothers, the ekklesia was always a reference to the people…not the place. And, it was a special people, for when the ekklesia—the people--gathered, all social statuses were left behind—the slave and the business owner, the teacher and the soldier, the old and the young all were suddenly on common ground, equal footing. Stepping into the gathering of God’s people—regardless of the house in which those early Christians met on any particular day—was stepping into a wonderful place where the socially astute could relax and ‘let their hair down’ and the social outcasts could sit elbow to elbow with the movers and shakers of society.
In fact, when we reorient our understanding and image of the Church—that group of people who gathered regularly to hear the reading of the Scriptures and to understand God’s will for their lives, we find an image of simplicity. The early gathering of God’s people had very little in common with the sound and light shows we find in church buildings today; there would be very little in common with the weekly fashion shows that silently happen in the aisles of our gathering places today; we would not find the emphasis on music (and its seemingly necessary technologies) that we have today. We would find a people who recognized their common dependence on and need for God’s grace, a people hungry to hear the Scriptures and its application to their lives (not so interested in the elocutionary finesse of the reader/speaker), a people who all sat (or stood) on a common level together before God. We would find a simple people…we would find the Church.
Earlier, I said that the phrase—simple church—is pregnant with hope. I’m still looking for that Church, and I feel that I get ever closer. There have been moments when I have been astoundingly close, even there…in the mountains of North Georgia. I hold on to the idea…because if the idea exists, then that idea can become a reality. Even as I write, I see that my attitudes and dispositions, my accomplishments and my university degrees, my self-perceptions—positive or negative—and my judgmental tendencies—all of these must be “checked at the door,” left at the edge of the circle as wade into the gathering of God’s people. In so doing, I believe that God will help me to be what I seek…a simple person in His simple church.