The Most Holy Irreverence

On Facebook I’ve had a bit of a running status series called “Only at Penn Avenue”. I post one of these whenever something happens at my church (Penn Avenue Church of the Nazarene) that is shocking, hilarious, unorthodox, or all the above. Some of my favorites include:

Only at Penn Avenue would you try to point out the guy that looks like Morgan Freeman by saying “It’s the guy sitting behind the woman holding the puppy!”

Only at Penn, a big guy, easily 250, gets up onstage at CR and says ‘Hi my name is flynn, and i struggle with anorexia and confusion’. Brilliant!

Only at Penn Avenue… a woman walked up to me while I was on stage talking, in the middle of a service, and handed me a half-eaten ice cream cone, hugged me and walked away

Only at Penn, a guy just stole two garbage bags of kfc donated for dinner tonight. He is being pursued on foot by several church members.

Now, aside from the theft described in the last one, these statuses describe for me a kind of church without any presuppositions. Penn has something that not many churches have, but a lot of churches badly need: the ability to walk in the door, as you are, and for that to be okay.

Because I really believe that is the kind of church that embodies the Kingdom. Why is it that when we walk into church we feel that we have to have our best face on? Isn’t the Church supposed to be a people of honesty? Of transformation? Of transparency? And yet we’re more comfortable showing our true selves in every other place but the church. We feel the need to fit into some “churchy” mold and not stand out, and we never realize the kind of community we were created to be.

And the saddest part is that we do it in the name of “worshiping God”. What kind of God are we worshiping that we restrict ourselves to solemnity and dishonesty in the house of the Lord? If we are truly made in the image of God, why do we hide our most sincere image when we gather to worship that God?

At Penn, there is no such “reverence”. People often shout out things during sermons. The people with the worst voices tend to sing the loudest. People bring pets and make jokes. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Because the same “irreverence” that produces some of these awkward experiences often results in some of the most authentic community I’ve ever seen. In my first month, a man who I had just recently become friends with leaned over to me in the middle of a sermon to confess to me that he had relapsed on drugs. I was able to pray for him right then and our friendship grew from then on. Another time, I heard a man say once, “On Tuesday nights I used to drive down to the crack house and spend all my money on drugs. Now on Tuesdays I drive my kids to soccer practice.”  If that isn’t the Kingdom of God in action I don’t know what is.

I don’t mean to say that Penn is perfect. Nor do I mean to suggest that all churches should have no reverence in worship and just do whatever they want on Sundays. All I mean to say is that at Penn Avenue, I have tasted and seen a church with no presumptions or requirements for dress, behavior, or social standing; and I have seen that it is beautiful.

To finish off this post, I will quote two more statuses about Penn from the past, in the knowledge that it is only because we are the kind of church that produces statuses like those earlier that we are able to produce statuses like these.

A guest speaker at Penn: “If Jesus were to come back today, I believe we would find him sitting there, across the parking lot, eating with people like you.”

“We are just a bunch of unlovely people, serving a very lovely God, who is making us better.”


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