As we pulled up to the church last night, I could close my eyes and see and hear the church camp meetings of my youth:
Families parked hundreds of yards away in open fields and joined an army of others steadily walking toward a large framed tabernacle, which at one time had been open air but had given in to the modern convenience of an artificially cooled climate. Hand-woven shawls now covered older women, replacing the fans with Jesus knocking at door that had once been clutched in their time-worn hands.
Organ music wafted out of the open doors and windows – not in quiet solemnity but in an unapologetically upbeat call to worship with songs like “I’ll Fly Away,” “Just a Little Talk with Jesus,” and “He Set Me Free.” As you moved closer, the percussive rhythms of a snare and bass drum, coupled with the twangs of a small cadre of guitars, swirled around that organ and gave the melody some texture.
Once inside, you found your place but not before shaking more hands than a politician at an Independence Day parade. Younger people always called their elders “Mister” or “Miz,” and “Brother” and “Sister” were the preferred titles. Teenagers tended to congregate in the back or in the balcony. Older couples and widows moved to the front. Everyone else scattered in between. Little children laid at their mother’s feet on pallets lovingly constructed from homemade quilts.
The preacher, to be sure, had on a tie. But hardly any other man, except pastors from the area, sported that particular accessory. The men were clean, though, dressed as respectfully as they could given their wardrobe. These were working folks, so a man’s starched white shirt was liable to be speckled with motor oil or some other testament to his vocation. The women came in equal modesty, perhaps some in a dress, sometimes homemade, but often in a blouse and skirt, never in pants.
At some point in time, the pastor walked to the pulpit and said, “Let us pray.” The congregation needed no further cue… no prodding, no cheerleading. In one voice, everyone would start praying. The cavernous tabernacle seemingly shook with the prayers of the saints, streaming up toward the steeple and on to heaven as sweet incense. Old women, with more wrinkles in their face than shoes in their closet, lifted holy hands and prayed aloud with such conviction that you suspected they had a direct, high-speed line to the throne. Humble men lifted their eyes to the Lord and, often with lips barely moving, made their petitions known to Him. The preacher might bang on the pulpit or move around the stage, his microphone cord trailing close behind him like a sad puppy, but most people were too busy entering into worship, placing their minds in one accord, to listen to his words.
And then I snapped to reality. We were not in Tifton, Georgia, during my youth. We were at a Church of God in Nova Kakhovka, Ukraine – the first ever COG here. This is a church — an entire congregation — that proudly embraces its roots and its denomination. This church alone has planted 100 other COGs in Ukraine.
Yet what caused me make that connection between the church of my youth and this particular one was the amazingly transparent sincerity of their worship and faith.
Admittedly, at times, I can romanticize things, and, to be certain, I carry a rosy view of my spiritual upbringing. However, today many American churches run from anything that smacks of tradition. We segregate our congregations to the point where church is a specialized set of internal worship groups that never interact rather than a single corporate body united in purpose and praise. Think: when was the last time in your church that whole families actually sat together on the same pew, so that children and teens could observe and learn from older generations?
When we walked up the steps of this church in Ukraine, the whole congregation seemed to form a committee of welcome and escort. Old men, teenage girls, mothers with babies circling them, it did not matter. Smiles and laughter and fellowship and love abounded.
We hastily changed and went upstairs and the visions of that tabernacle from yesteryear came back to me. The congregation was plain in some respects, but the entire body exuded he richness of being heirs to the kingdom.
When we sang a song in Russian, they leaped to their feet and sang too… no need for a praise and worship team, no need for an invitation. Their minds and spirits were already there. These genuine people had a song in their heart, a reason to sing… a hope that is steadfast and sure, an anchor that endures.
When we sang a song in English, some joined in on the second or third chorus. But even if they did not know the exact words, they worshiped nevertheless, shouting a “Hallelujah” or an “Ahhh-meeeen” (Amen!) whenever we finished.
The pastor spoke. The deputy mayor came and spoke. A preacher delivered a sermon. Another delivered a mini-sermon when he took up the offering. (This was, of course, a Church of God service.)
But then, at the end of the night, the pastor exhorted his flock to pray for us. I have no idea the words that he or the 250 other Ukrainians prayed, but you could feel the power of the Holy Ghost descend upon that place. When I opened my eyes, I saw hundreds of hands pointed in intercession toward us… people whom we scarcely knew were standing before God on our behalf, praying for our ministry, our safety, our health, our lives… and praying that fervent, effectual prayer that avails much.
Their love and their genuine fellowship as our brothers and sisters in Christ touched us deeply and even overwhelmed some of us. Today it is easy to become caught up in church as a corporation rather than church as the corporate body of Jesus our Savior. I am not writing about any particular congregation but just church in general. We run the risk of programming things to the point where we are more similar to the cruise ship upon which we now sail rather than a place where liberty and freedom allow the Holy Spirit to flow and work.
But in the faces of our dear Ukraine brothers and sisters, many of us saw that first love, that first zeal, that first joy… that moment of salvation still etched upon them. And that was refreshing and uplifting.
Tradition, at times, can be and is a crutch, an albatross, an excuse, all of which can stunt our progress and growth. We like the way things used to be and balk at the idea of any disruption to that routine. Such impediments can threaten any organization’s livelihood, including the church.
But some things are timeless. The simple truth of the Gospel and the sincere style worship that was good enough for our mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers, and our brothers and sisters in lands far away from home, can also be good enough for us.
PS — a blog post for Thursday’s orphanage visits will be coming soon! 🙂