Rediscovering church in the real world

Written by Preston Pouteaux

My Instagram tells me what feels true: that most people are better looking, get to travel, have more money, more friends, better jobs, and better lives than I do.

We all know that’s not actually true. Every influencer knows what’s behind the curtain: it’s a show. Entertainment, really. Filters, staged photo shoots, paid ads. It’s all a mirage of a life that does not exist, even for them. This isn’t a surprise, and it’s all in good fun. Even if we know this, even if we understand the game, the tease of another life that forever seems just beyond our reach is always toying with us.

So, subtly, we find ways to pursue that way of life, even just a bit. Instead of making a life that is our own with those we love, we crave another way of life. Soon we find ourselves unsatisfied with what we do have. Eagerly looking over the fence, or through a screen, we realize that something in us has changed, something has hardened.

There’s an ache to this cycle that removes us from the good, beautiful, and growing things in our immediate lives. Malcolm Guite, a favourite poet of mine, wrote, “We surf the surface of a wide-screen world, And find no virtue in the virtual.”

Whether we are scrolling on a screen, pushing through a crowded school, or along the streets of our neighbourhood, we have become unwittingly skillful at overlooking others. We start to look past, or around, or even through the people standing before us. 

American writer Harry Overstreet wrote that “to the immature, other people are not real.” When we live with our eyes diverted from others, we do not see them as the very real people that they are. Without the right eyes to see, people can become unimportant to us.

There’s a tonic for the lure of a life that peeks at us from our screens. The gift of reality—even with all the smells, frustrations, and unexpected twists we cannot control—is far more lovely and hopeful than our glossy screen lives. It is full of the kind of beauty and goodness we were made for.

I think reality is found in the community of others and in the gathering of God’s people. I think reality is found in church.

Jesus was always on about drawing people together. He brought together a mixed bag of followers who would never have been in the same room otherwise. With Jesus as their common friend, they travelled together, prayed together, and joined in the strange and wonderful work of Jesus. Then, after Jesus rose from the tomb and appeared to His followers, He urged them on in the same way.

The Holy Spirit was now at work in them, drawing them together with an even wider group of people. They called this the ekklesia or “gathering of those called together.” It was the early Church. People came together to sit close, to try on Jesus practices and activities in their neighbourhoods. To pray, sing songs, learn, and then care for the poor, adopt children into families, and talk about all kinds of strange and beautiful activities that changed them, too.

They were experiencing reality in a way that turned heads. Millions wanted in on this Jesus community because it was the most real expression of life they’d seen. Tertullian, one of the early church leaders, observed how these early followers of Jesus were coming alive. He said, “Look how they love one another!”

Even a non-Christian philosopher, Athenagoras, when asked about what he saw going on among the Christians, had to admit that their way of life “has made itself heard with a loud cry.” Something about this new community of Jesus-people must have been convincing, because Athenagoras became a follower of Jesus, too.

The Roman world of the early church was not that different from ours in some ways. People were busy collecting stuff, going into debt, and looking for new experiences that could give them some sense of peace, fleeting as it may be. Art, new foods, creative drinks, new plays—the Romans were looking for something. They also experienced pandemics, heated debates about big ideas at the local forum, and political gossip.

It was not uncommon for Romans to have all kinds of sexual partners apart from their spouses, and the wealthy were keen to keep the poor, slaves, and outsiders in their place. This myopic way of life was flaunted by Roman emperors who modelled the most selfish excesses of their society. The masks worn at the theatre were an apt metaphor for the masked culture, hiding the growing malaise.

When the early Christians started to see the Jesus Way as more real than what they found around them, the Church grew. Instead of being offered vapid diversions, they were being asked to give to the needy, to care for the sick, to be quiet in prayer, and to learn a new language of love. They were ridiculed for being modest, for not hoarding lots of stuff but giving away what they had.

Slaves became friends with slave owners. Men, women, religious people and outsiders were all now caring for each other and their neighbours. It was not like anything that they had seen. The emerging communities of Jesus-people were a light in a dark room, and by it people began to see what was real, good, beautiful, and true.

Today, nearly two thousand years later and thousands of kilometres away, I’m part of a community like this. My church meets, serves others, learns to pray, and cares for our city.

I’m also a beekeeper and a gardener, and I feel like churches and gardens are similar. I’ve come to appreciate the “realness” of something alive and growing. My strawberries are varied in size and shape; they are not perfectly uniform like red candies in a plastic package. But to eat warm summer strawberries with giggling little girls, red juice dripping down our chins, is heaven.

This place, my garden and my community, it’s real. And to those who draw near, it is lovely. The more I join in and tend to what is growing, the more I seem to come alive with it. My garden, from seeds to bees, is teaching me to enjoy, see, know, and love. Those things I help grow, from my garden to my community, are helping me become human again.

My neighbours are real in this way, too. Walking on the sidewalks with their dogs or yanking grocery bags from the back of their vehicles, these are not perfect people, but they are good. And as I step out, I discover my neighbourhood is much more real, still. This place and the people who live near me are beautiful, and despite all their imperfections they are worth knowing. Each person I’ve come to know is a gift, and it is changing me. Something has softened.

Jesus invited His followers to love their neighbours and gather in community, to become the Church and learn to live into reality. Where others were overlooked, Jesus saw. Where others were not known, Jesus said their names.

Where others loved less, Jesus loved more. To Jesus, people were good, beautiful, and beloved.

Church is a community that refuses to be exempt from what is real and steps into the garden of humanity with our loving God who invites us to tend to growing life together. This ekklesia is a gathering of those who have responded to the invitation to step out of the virtual, and into real life with real people, participating in the creative work of God who made it all.  

When we join with a local church to live out this way of life in our neighbourhoods, we are participating in a growing, buzzing, imperfectly beautiful garden way of life. As plants grow, they produce fruit. Paul says that the Spirit of God will nurture in the garden of our lives fruit like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. These are real gifts that come from living life with God among those God loves—the gathering of those longing for what is real.

Preston Pouteaux is a pastor at Lake Ridge Community Church in Chestermere, Alta., and is the author of several books including The Neighbours Are Real and Other Beautiful Things.