Brightly colored banners touting secular virtues hang on the walls of the pale green elementary-school auditorium that serves as a worship space for Mercy Community Church. It’s a fine old list: Trustworthiness, Respect, Responsibility, Fairness, Caring, etc. — and on a notice over by the bulletin board, Compassion comes in for a lengthy (and laudatory) definition.
Looking up at the banners and then over at the young couples with their little ones in the congregation, it’s easy to start feeling comfy. Church in a school: look at this huge, happy overlap between church and state, between Christianity and the world! Common values, a similar interest in healthy communities! Even the cover of the Bible belonging to the guy in front of me seems cheerful — The Devotional Bible, Max Lucado, general editor. Experience the Heart of Jesus. Hey, Jesus was all about the love, right? Who wouldn’t want to experience His heart?
But Christianity really is different from civic virtue. This becomes clear right at the outset, when Trevor the worship leader sings a plea to God: “Come have Your way among us.” (As if to provide a bookend, Pastor Hubbard says at the service’s end that what Jesus wants from us is “death to self.”) This isn’t just about doing right; this is inviting Another to take over our being. A man offers a prayer regarding the offering: “Everything You give us belongs to You, and we want to give it right back.... We give You our bodies, our souls, our hearts, Lord...that our lives would be about You, Father.” A man might die for his country if called upon to do so; but here, loving self-sacrifice is simply the point of things.
Because, of course, God is not country. He’s the loving Father, in whom, says Hubbard, “we have life and breath.” Hubbard’s daughter-in-law Katie is visiting from Philadelphia, where she sings at Calvary Chapel, and she performs her own composition, singing in God’s voice. “Taste and see, I’m the only one.... I am your soul’s satisfaction.... Eye has not seen all I’ve got in store for you...so go on and dream.”
Toward the end of his final song, Trevor asks the congregation to “sing this one last time, and make it a prayer.” Then he quotes from the Psalms: “Whom shall I fear? Of whom shall I be afraid?” For the friends of God, the correct answer is “no one.” But that’s not to say there won’t be temptations to fear: “Last week,” begins Hubbard, “Jesus informed His disciples of the hate that the world would have for them because of Him.” This week, we hear from John’s gospel that “the time is coming when anyone who kills you will think he is offering a service to God.... I have told you this, so that when the time comes, you will remember that I warned you.”
Why the hostility? Because, says Hubbard, “the world needs to hear the absolute truth of the Gospel, and it’s not a social gospel. The message of the church is not political activism, social reform, or psychological fulfillment. I’m not saying that we don’t help to meet people’s needs, but the church’s ministry, ultimately, is to testify to Jesus Christ” — His “life, death, and resurrection.... That’s not always a popular message because it calls people to repentance. If you’ve never fallen on your face before a holy God and acknowledged that you’re a sinner and repented of those sins, then you can’t be saved. To those who are perishing, the Gospel is very offensive. The message of His coming is going to bring division.”
Hubbard says that this is why Jesus promises to send the Holy Spirit, “the one who enables you to witness in those difficult times when you need to be aided. The reason most people don’t is because they’re not in the word” — the Bible. “In these last days, toe the line. Be men and women of the word. Then you can step out into the world in the confidence of His spirit.”
But for all that, there is still that similar interest in healthy communities. A bunch of congregants celebrated Hubbard’s 50th birthday yesterday. “I just want to thank each one of you for your love for me,” he says this morning. “Yesterday was a day that God loved me through you.” Later, he decries husbandly pride. “When we’re exalting self, it’s going to cause division. For the sake of peace and serenity and being able to minister to your wife...why do we have to be right?”
What happens when we die?
“If you are a believer in Jesus Christ,” begins Hubbard, “and you have faith in the finished work of the cross, then heaven awaits you. If you’re a nonbeliever — God sends no one to hell, people choose hell because of their unbelief.”
Founded locally: 2008
Senior pastor: Erin Hubbard
Congregation size: 100
Staff size: 1
Sunday school enrollment: 30
Annual budget: n/a
Weekly giving: about $1200
Singles program: no
Dress: mostly casual
Diversity: majority Caucasian, but diverse
Sunday worship: 10:30 a.m.
Length of reviewed service: 1 hour, 30 minutes