Its probably not the best time to come out with a post like this at the same time one comes out with a blog. Ideally, an intro would do well here. Perhaps this helps focus the intention of this blog, that it may be random and sometimes un-syncopated with anything really. Having said that, I’ll move to the topic that got me here in the first place – an apology.
This apology is to the Mar Thoma church, officially the Mar Thoma Syrian Church of Malabar. It traces its roots to the apostle named Thomas after he made his way to the western coast of India in AD 52. It is a church that is somewhat independent from the Reformation and kind of not (read their website and you’ll see). Today it can boast of having about 1,116 “parishes & congregations” worldwide, 795 priests, and approximately 900,000 members. And that’s probably one of the shortest intros you’ll ever find. Now, whats the need for the apology?
Laying Ground Work
Having grown up in this church, like any other kid, I eventually realized that it was possible to go through the motions. In fact, I can say that I did. I had time in various ministries of the church from children to adults. If church involvement is a two-way street – to give something (service) and take something (edification) – I can certainly say that I leaned heavily on the service side.
It was towards my last year of high school that I had gone through some personal struggles that made me hunger for more than these motions. My friend suggested that I visit Time Square Church (TSC) in NYC with him for their Tuesday night services. I really enjoyed my time there – so much that I became frustrated with my home church for its lack of TSCishness.
However, I didn’t take the logical step that any frustrated person in my position would do – change churches. That’s because I had family in my home church and dear friends that I considered to be family. How then could I leave? I would be leaving my closest social circle. The next option was to try influencing it somehow. And with some zeal I set out to do just that (not necessarily alone either). What did this look like? Well, as a choir director I would try to pick songs that TSC would sing. When given the opportunity to preach, I would preach like TSC preachers. When I prayed… well, you get the point. Although it’s difficult to deny fruit from these endeavors, what eventually happened was disheartening; I grew more and more frustrated with the practices of the Mar Thoma Church.
I wish I could insert some success story here; one that was Martin Lutheresque. Unfortunately I can’t. As soon as I graduated with an undergraduate degree, I ended up moving to Dallas, TX to enroll in seminary. And aside from a few visits here and there, Long Island Mar Thoma Church never heard from me ever again. The sorrows are certainly there and certainly mine.
Since my time in Dallas, my circles of Christianity has exposed me to a multi-denominational seminary and well Dallas (a.k.a. the buckle of the bible belt). Since moving, my walk with Jesus has changed me quite a bit (but not as much as I would like, hopefully more on this later). After having my experiences in nondenominational (evangelical) circles, I grew accustom to its forms, which were very similar to TSC’s. Yet, eventually those feelings of frustration made its way back. And then I had to confess it – “No church is perfect!”
All churches have things they do well and things they don’t. As I got into more leadership positions in the church, what frustrated me in the nondenom churches was the lack of the grand narrative – the full redemptive/gospel story of our God: Creation, Fall, Redemption, Restoration. Any understanding of Christianity that misses this frankly misses Christ (and that is a big deal). Yet there were services “thriving” without any reference to it. What did it look like? Let me be a little facetious just to get the point across.
I noticed that in a given weekend, an entire service could revolve around a given theme and not touch the grand story. If the pastor was talking on marriage, then beginning to end, we need to pull out our marriage material – marriage songs, marriage prayers, marriage offerings (?), etc. And if it is on dealing with Financial wisdom, then the program would revolve around money that weekend.
There were questions in my heart that we weren’t answering in the services – the big “Whys.” Why are we dedicated to marriage? Why are we wanting to be good stewards of our resources? In my frustration, we were missing the grand narrative to put these themes into. Frankly, we were missing what liturgy does. I can’t speak for all liturgies, but I can for two influential ones that have shaped my worship and understanding of God, the Liturgy of the Mar Thoma Church & The Book of Common Prayers (Anglican). How did this understanding and conviction come about?
Towards a Re-formation
In God’s providence, I had the opportunity to serve at an Anglican church, a group of people who I still hold dear. Thinking that I was going “backwards” into a liturgical church, I did all I can to fight off requests to help with the music when offered a worship leader position. But when a (non-heretical, my position then) church was willing to support me, it was hard to be picky with its practices. Yet, as in most cases, God had other intentions as well.
He had a plan to let me see what was missing. The structure of the liturgy followed the meta-narrative: Creation, Fall, Redemption, & Restoration. There was not one week I would walk out without hearing the gospel. There was not one Sunday I would not be made aware of my/our sin, God’s holiness, and His grace and mercy to me/us through His Son (with the future that entails). Although my time at the Anglican church was just 4 years, I’ve learned so much – so much that I felt as if I needed to extend an apology to the Mar Thoma church.
But before that, please hear what I am and am not saying here. I am not saying that liturgical churches are the only ways to express our worship – it’s a pretty limited view of worship if that was. Nor am I saying that all non-liturgical churches need liturgy – many churches have other ways of emphasizing the gospel clearly at their gatherings. All I am wanting to say is that liturgy can (and designed to?) give the church the meta-narrative that she needs, weekly. If it comes in other (non-liturgical) forms, awesome. I must also say a word to those thinking that a particular form is either “right” or “wrong.” Regardless of the church you are in, anyone can go through the motions – liturgical or non. A denomination cannot save you, only Jesus can.
Having said that, here are some things I must apologize for:
- I apologize for thinking that liturgy was not good for the individual soul and the collective church. There is something absolutely beautiful about liturgy when the heart is truly worshipping Jesus and the words are based on God’s word.
- I apologize for thinking that zeal was the only appropriate emotion in the church. There is something beautiful about the reverence found in many liturgical churches. I imagine that anyone truly standing before the glory of God would have some element of this.
- I apologize for thinking that having the position of priests in the church assumes that you don’t believe in the priesthood of the believer. I understand this no longer to be true. It is true that every church needs leadership that can rightly divide the word of God but what is not true is that we must not call them priests.
How to conclude? While every church has its sins, there must be still something consistent that transcends the reality of our time here on Earth. I’ll use the words of a DTS professor on this. I talked to Dr. Abraham Kuruvilla about the Mar Thoma church and his response addresses the essential truth needed for any true church at the end of the day. This was his simple reply to my question “What are your thoughts on the members there?”
“If they have a relationship with Jesus, they’ll be in heaven.”
Future Related Posts
I welcome thoughts on topics to write about. While I cannot promise to write on all topics, I will make a good effort to write on the ones I feel somewhat comfortable writing. Below are ones that I already plan on.
- What to do if you find yourself in the not-so-ideal church?
- Is it ever right to leave a church? If so when?