Africa, Faith, Spiritual Encouragement, Uncategorized
Comments 14

The Story That Kept Me From Leaving Church For Good

Even after 40 years, I still have more questions than answers when it comes to church.

I have a lot of hurt, too, that’s come from the hands of church leadership. Sometimes, like some of you, like Donald Miller (author of Blue Like Jazz) I might find reasons (quite easily, in fact) to not attend church very much.

The Story That Kept Me From Leaving The Church For Good -- www.alyssasantos.com

[where’s alyssa? yeah, I’m the one in the sunglasses with blonde hair….]

But my Ethiopian friend, Werku Gole, told a story that forever has kept me in church, not stuck there, but choosing to participate, to show up and carry my rock.

When the communist regime was trying to flex their muscle in Ethiopia, many terrible things happened to Christians. First, all of the foreign missionaries were forced to leave the country – and take their Bibles with them. The Ethiopian believers had truly become dependent on the missionaries for all manner of instruction. Now, they had few Bibles in their own dialects (Amharic is the official language, but there are many tribal/regional languages) and a deficiency of leadership. Second, all Ethiopian Christians were supposed to denounce their silly religions and let the government be their final word, their truth and god. This would not do. Because this was Jesus’ church here in Ethiopia.

Any upstart who defied the new rules would be imprisoned, threatened, convicted of made up crimes (as Werku was). Church buildings were knocked down. People had nowhere to gather, no freedom to praise God, nowhere to hold hands and pray.

When I met Werku in the late 1990s, Ethiopia was no longer communist, but they were still suffering and struggling as a nation. But Jesus’ church grew in strength and number during the communist era. The greater church that emerged from this dark time was eager to move throughout the rest of their impoverished nation with the rich truth of salvation. The gospel had thrived during that dark time, however, Ethiopia was still (and it continues to be) held in the fast grip of superstition and witchcraft. There are still untold millions just in that African nation alone.

Communities In Ethiopia began to rebuild their churches, although they had every reason not to.

After all, hadn’t they bigger things to think about (like where the next meal would come from, how to pay a doctor for medical care, obtaining clean water)? Hadn’t they no church building, no childcare program, none of the bare logistic essentials to support the crowds?

Werku’s friends back home had obtained a piece of land in their community and each Sunday, dozens would walk from miles around to worship in spirit and in truth, serve and sit for hours while being taught the truth of the gospel.

They met and sat on the ground in a rectangle that had no walls.

They sat in blinding sun and pouring rain, in wind that slapped the dirt around ankles and across their cheeks. They had no instruments but their voices and the clapping of their hands. They had no materials, no take-home Sunday school papers, no youth church, no sound system.

Every Sunday, each churchgoer carried a rock to church.

The rock pile grew and eventually there were enough rocks to build the walls. They stripped bark from long, strong tree branches and constructed the frame. After time, the walls filled in with those hand-delivered rocks. Such a fine building. They made benches and a small stage. A podium with a cross.

But they had no roof. The wind and rain and sun tormented the building; mud drizzled on the floor during the rainy season and there was no shade in the hot months.

So we helped. Our small groups and Sunday services raised enough money to buy a corrugated metal roof for that church. The job complete, this Ethiopian community had a place of their own. A solid church home.

But it wasn’t a perfect church. The walls were wonky, the people were problematic. It was just like any other church, not without its problems, yet a necessary component of the bigger plan, the big church of Jesus. They built a place to worship together, because once again, they were free to, and created a center for community change, for hope, for a better way to do life.

Isn’t that why we build churches? We don’t build them to house clubs and programs and groups, to magnify a worship team or a charismatic leader, but to be as a lighthouse in a dark place, a medical clinic available to the heartsick, a hope-house for the hopeless.

Friends, if we carried a bit of our own real estate, week in and week out, and laid it in the pile, might we care about our church more?

If we bore that burden, made that sacrifice, scraped our hands or felt an ache in our arms from heaving the stones over miles of footpaths, might we want to see our churches become a healthy place where others could find Jesus, too?

If we were personally invested, would we pray for our leadership?

If we had to walk miles with rocks in our hands, the very rocks that would become the walls, the very walls that were replacing those destroyed by an oppressive government, might we lay down our pettiness, our inability to “connect with God by singing to Him” or shake hands with a stranger and instead whoop it up in worship, singing at the top of our lungs, thrilled to be there with all the messed up, impoverished rock-carriers?

Because if you can’t connect with God by singing to Him, let me tell you now – Don’t Go To Africa!

The Story That Kept Me From Leaving The Church For Good -- www.alyssasantos.com

Just stay away from the whole continent, because those people sing and dance and holler and clap and lay face-down on the floor and lose all hubris, self-respect, pride or what-have-you — worshipping God with their whole beings. They NEED Jesus and they don’t get distracted by the details, the inconveniences.

If we were just simply grateful that we had a complicated, convoluted, institutional system called the church, could we carry the rocks that would build a truer church, a more loving, connected, peace-filled, embracing, grace-filled church?

The Story That Kept Me From Leaving The Church For Good -- www.alyssasantos.com

It’s Jesus’ church. And he invites us to bring the rocks, to frame the constructs and fill the space with souls. And he wants us to worship him there.

Why, oh why, would we want to walk out on church, on the grand possibilities of what our Jesus could do with our offering-rocks?

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly,
teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom,
singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs,
with thankfulness in your hearts to God. {Colossians 3:16}

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14 Comments

    • Ah, thanks, Nikki. It’s been rolling around in my heart for a while, ever since I read that post by Donald Miller. At first I was agitated — I’m learning to let things mellow a bit before hammering out my thoughts — give God time to whisper grace into the corners of my heart. Bless you today (and that little one, too!)

    • Cathy — even a week or two could change hearts if they were open to Jesus’ leading at the get go. If we ask him for eyes to see what he sees…

  1. Wow. Missed your writing, sister. Love your passion and wisdom. I forgot how wonderfully you’ve been blessed with so many gifts. If all of us considered sharing with the church as carrying our boulders to build it, all perspectives would change. Powerful lesson.

    • Ah, you’re awesome. You know, I got a little busy, then a little distracted and lacked focus for a while. I took a blogging break to just listen to God’s lead for a while. I am glad to know you Floyd, because you are faithful and honest in your words. Steady. And I thank you for that.

  2. Amen, this is church. We forget that WE are the church, not the building, not the pastor, but everyone who claims Christ is the church. It is our bodies standing together that make a church, the church. May I be one of the rocks that builds a protective wall for others to come and gather. Stopping by from Em’s place.

    • Yes! Karmen, you are so right. We are the stones, Jesus is the rock. The meaning behind the meaning of this post was not lost on you — you see it truly, clearly. Bless you!

  3. My favorite read today and I am going to post this on my fb wall. We, the church in America are such whiners…how much good it would do us to carry a rock every time we came to church just to build our church. Instead we carry rock to throw a the church leaders or those attending. Great post.

    • Thank you Betty! I’m so glad you came by and that you’re sharing it. I have grown up in the church in America, been part of the problems and part of the good, but what I’ve learned from my African friends has really changed my perspective and given me a greater love for my church here….

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