Recently I watched a documentary on PBS about drive-in movie theaters. I was sentimentally remembering going to the movies in my pajamas with my mom and dad and a big paper sack full of popcorn when, just before the end of the program, they started talking about Robert Schuller conducting drive-in worship services out in California. It all came flooding back: going to drive-in church with my grandparents and my little sister in Watertown, SD in the early 1960s. We went to church in our summer shorts and tops instead of dresses and frilly socks, and Laurie and I thought it was the best idea ever! We sat in the back seat of Grandpa's giant car. There wasn't much to see, just some very small figures in front of a huge screen. The speaker hung on the driver side window and was scratchy sounding but plenty loud. I know we had coloring books and crayons and probably a few snacks in the back seat but we were in "church"! We knew we were in church because there were familiar words: "in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" and there was music (Holy, Holy, Holy and other songs we could sing without hymnals). There were readings from the Bible. And every so often Grandma's hand would reach back from the front seat and gently settle us because it was time to pray. And we stopped what we were doing, bowed our heads, and waited for it to be time to say Amen.
There weren't any candles, stained glass windows, hymnals, altar, communion, organ, or flowers. There wasn't a baptismal font. We weren't dressed in our Sunday best. It didn't smell like church. (It smelled like Grandpa, like pipe tobacco and peppermints.) Still, it was "church."
So what makes something "church"? I've been to worship services where I left feeling like I had been to a concert, but not "church." I've been to churches where I've felt like I'd been at a political rally. I've also been to church at a campsite with kids wearing face paint and attended worship in a library where we sat on the floor and shared the Lord's Supper. Why was it church at the campsite but a political rally at the church building?
What makes church feel like "church"? Most of us probably define the "church" experience in fairly specific terms. For me, church is kind of like a birthday party. I go and gather with people I know, and people I don't know, to celebrate the One we all love. We say familiar things and sing familiar songs - sometimes in a park, sometimes in a restaurant. At the center is the One we all know (some of us have known the Guest of Honor all our lives and some have only recently met, some of us are hoping to curry favor, and some are just fans; but we are all gathered around the same table to eat the same food!)
What has to be there to make it "church" for you? This is a great question to explore with your kids. What did your kids say? Tell me your stories - I really want to know.
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