I met Charlie when he was the interim pastor of the church Sharon and I attended. It’s hard to say why we were attending that particular church. It’s a very liturgical congregation, something I have always appreciated but high church ritual doesn’t do much for Sharon. We ended up there because we had tried every other style of church in the city and always ended up disappointed or worse.
Every Sunday morning it felt like we were really going to church as we passed through the thick wooden doors in the front of a massive, gothic type structure with beautiful stained glass windows. I have never been a fan of attending church in a building that looks like a big box department store on the outside and a sterile community theater on the inside and this place really felt like being at church.
We liked the church but it always felt like something was missing. Our Sunday School class was good, people were friendly, music was great. We even managed to make the Wednesday evening meal upon occasion and attended a couple of business meetings (the true sign of a committed church member). Because of my background and experience, I was asked to serve on the Endowment Committee, a place where it was obvious after one or two meetings that I did not fit. Sharon enjoyed helping a group of young Korean women learn English, but as hard as we tried, we never felt like we belonged.
When Charlie became our pastor we did not anticipate much to change in our relationship with the church. I had actually met him many years earlier but I’m sure he does not remember. I’m not even sure why I remember. It was in the parking garage of the office building of Texas Baptists where I worked. We met at the elevator. I guarantee you cannot ride an elevator with Charlie, even for one or two floors, without having a new friend. I knew who he was, the pastor of a large church in San Antonio, but he had no reason to know anything about me. At the church in Fort Worth, we became friends.
Charlie invited us to attend a Thursday morning Bible study he led every week and we did. We enjoyed the group but he kept telling us we might like an evening study he was leading even better. As you might imagine, the morning group consisted of folks who were free during the day so the average age was much older than us. Although I am in a wheelchair, I was probably the healthiest man in the group. We did attend the evening group and felt more at home with the younger crowd, although we were now the “old folks.”
Our church called a full time pastor and Charlie moved on to other things, but we continued with the Bible study groups. During that time we had numerous conversations about the church and what we should be doing. Charlie kept telling me that some of the folks in his Bible study groups were interested in having a time of worship.
Our friendship with Charlie strengthened significantly when I was in the hospital in critical condition immediately after Christmas in 2009. He came to the Intensive Care unit and led in prayer – a prayer that I am confident God used to impact my life. I sometimes say that I credit Charlie with saving my life and I am not kidding.
Both of us felt a burden to do something different. We had been listening to the young people in the evening Bible study group. They had an interest in spiritual matters but very little interest in the church. This was difficult to understand for those of us who had spent our entire lives actively involved with church.
Charlie came to our house and had a prayer time with Sharon and me. During the visit it seemed as if God confirmed something in the heart of both of us. We thought it was time to start a worship service, building from the members of the Bible study groups. We choose Sunday evenings for a couple of reasons. Charlie was still preaching frequently on Sunday mornings and he wanted to continue to be available. Perhaps more important was that it seemed like a better time for those we wanted to be involved in the worship time. It was too much to expect young people who are not currently involved in church to get up early on Sunday morning.
In the fall of 2009 we held our first worship service. Meeting in the community room of the apartment complex where Charlie lived, the place was full. The majority of attendees on that first Sunday were folks who wanted to support our efforts but who had little interest in being a part of a new church. They quickly faded away and we had to begin building from scratch. Today, there are very few remnants of that first service.
In one of our early times together, Charlie made a statement that has stuck with me and has really become a theme of what we are trying to do together. Quoting something he had heard, he said, “The church should have Christ as the center and no circumference.”
We have heard time and again that an enormous number of people have great respect for Jesus but want nothing to do with the church. In other words, they like the center (Jesus) but they don’t want anything to do with where we draw the circumference line – the line that determines who is in and who is out, who is right and who is wrong. The reason they feel this way is because we tend to spend most of our time focusing on the circumference and not so much time on the center.
I have been actively engaged with the church all my life. I have been a pastor and a church consultant my entire adult life. Having preached in as many as five hundred churches, I have some definite opinions about how we do church. I realize that I am generalizing, but I have come to believe there are only four kinds of churches. Each of these would fight you if you suggest that anything other than Christ is at the center. However, it is the circumference where they differ:
- Fundamentalist – They have a very small circle (not number of folks, but acceptable beliefs and activities) with a clear, impenetrable line for their circumference.
- Conservative – They move the circumference line out a little and it might not be quite so clear, but it is still there. They might not kick you out if you cross the line but they will certainly let you know when you are in error.
- Moderate – Once again they move the circumference line a little farther out, being more acceptable of certain behaviors and beliefs. These folks are actually willing to allow people in leadership positions who would not even be allowed to belong to a fundamentalist congregation.
- Liberal – They often get accused of not having any rules or limits but they do. In fact, they spend a great deal of time and energy debating that it is acceptable to believe and do things that many other churches consider ungodly and disgusting.
The one thing each of the groups have in common is that they have a circumference – a line drawn that determines who does and does not belong. The reason so many are not interested in these churches is because they spend a great deal of effort fighting over where to draw the line. These skirmishes are what drive people away from the church, in spite of the fact they are attracted to Jesus.
Thus, at Bread Fellowship, we have determined to focus our attention on Christ and leave the circumference up to Him. Consequently, everyone is welcome. We like to say that we are a faith community with Christ at the center and where everyone is welcome. This does not mean that anything goes when we gather for worship. We strive to worship Christ and our understanding of Him is guided by God’s Word.
However, rather than determining who is or is not a believer, we try to just point to Christ and allow Him to do the judging. Our focus is on the center, not the circumference. Obviously, this opens us up to criticism, especially from the circumference police, but I am convinced if we can continually point people to Jesus, He will do the job of getting their lives correct.
Everyone is welcome at Bread – believer, unbeliever, agnostic, or whatever else you consider yourself. When you come you will be invited to join a discussion of a text from God’s Word, your opinion will be welcome. It is unlikely that anyone will say you are incorrect or worthy of damnation, instead we will try to point you once again to Christ. All you will be expected to do is respect our beliefs and opinions and we encourage you to give them some thought. If you have a need, we will pray for you and we would love to have you pray for us, even if you pray in an unorthodox manner.
Almost every church advertises that everyone is welcome, often accompanied with the phrase, “come as you are.” While it is true that everyone is invited and likely that no one will be turned away for who they are or how they appear, that does not necessarily mean they are welcome. What it often means is you are welcome to come but as soon as you get here we expect you to become like us. If you have a drinking or drug problem people will keep their distance. If you had an abortion they will probably make you feel like a murderer. If you happen to be Democrat they will make you feel like an idiot.
What we strive to do at Bread Fellowship is to welcome you in without asking you to change. Our hope is that you will participate in our worship and respond to our fellowship so that you will be drawn toward the center – Christ. When that occurs, He will do the changing. This creates some messy situations at times and it means we have a very eclectic group in our fellowship.
Our goal is not to change people. Our task is to lift up Jesus (Christ in the center). We have deliberately chosen not to build professional quality worship experiences or obtain a state of the art facility. Instead, we see ourselves as a group of believers who gather around Christ. The gatherings happen in homes, parks, community rooms, and churches – wherever we can find the space. We sing, we pray, we study God’s Word, we fellowship, we encourage, and we almost always share Communion together.
We talk and pray a great deal about the direction of Bread Fellowship. Several amazing things have happened. Everyone who participates is there because of a relationship with someone in our group, they were brought by someone. I think this is great because it shows our evangelism is happening outside of our worship time. It also makes it easier to incorporate them into the body because they already have a connection. We have only had two people show up out of the clear blue and we have had a difficult time establishing a continuing relationship with them.
Bread Fellowship has become the product of all our individuals coming together. We are who we are together. We have not set out to become anything in particular. The music we sing, the discussions we have, the fellowship we share are not preplanned to be a certain way, they are a reflection of us. Every person who joins our group changes the makeup of the group. Charlie and I might be more vocal than most of the others but we are aware that we are no more important. God is putting together a very unique group that we call Bread Fellowship and we are honored to belong.
The downside is that numerical growth is slow (if that is really a downside). We could plan some big events; Charlie is a marvelous communicator with much experience speaking to large crowds. But, we have chosen not to do that. Instead of attracting a crowd, we are trying to build a church. One person at a time, we are inviting family, friends, co-workers, and other acquaintances to come. They will feel welcomed, everyone does. We will ask about them, talk to them, allow them to share in everything, and at the very least they will be drawn closer to Jesus. The closer they get to Christ, the less important is the baggage they bring with them.
When we say, “Come as you are, all are welcome,” we really mean it. We will not try to change you, guilt you, condemn you, or criticize you. We will simply invite you to journey through life with us and see what happens.