I’m in a bit of a quandary, and I’m not sure how to resolve it—or even if there’s anything to be resolved. Many people look to the church for practical advice on daily life. What does the Bible say about how to keep my kids off drugs? What is God’s will for my spouse? How can the church make me a better person? I need a girl/boyfriend; does the Bible give any tips on how to find a good match?
From authentic life-obstacles to a truly selfish prosperity “gospel,” there are many congregations and denominations that provide answers to such dilemmas. And usually these answers follow a particular pattern: God wants you to have “x,” so if you do “y,” God will do “z,” whereby you end up with “x,” and life is good. Because I want a better marriage, children who are more polite, a higher paying job, an easier life, a healthier body, I can go to church and get the steps from God/the Bible. I can follow them and bam! I have what I want and God’s blessings to boot.
I consider this to be, in the words of Tommy Smothers, “El toro poo poo.” It is simply consumerism at its most base level. I will go to church for the primary purpose of getting something. If one church brand doesn’t give me what I think it should, I can switch to the next one. And I can simply keep moving around until I find a church brand that gives me what I’m looking for. And if I don’t find it in a church, I’ll look somewhere else. After all, it doesn’t matter what the “dispenser” looks like as long as my life gets better, right?
I believe that God, the Bible, and the church are bigger than that and desperately more important than that. I am also recognizing I’m in the minority, a minority that is getting ever smaller. Jesus, as I understand him, goes a completely different direction. The call of Christian disciples isn’t to provide religious blessings and recommendations for a better personal life. It is to be part of God’s work of redeeming and caring for all of creation. “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (Mark 8.35).
Now perhaps some good, practical counsel can help us do that with deeper wisdom and fewer distractions, but improving my own life situation cannot be an end unto itself—insofar as being a disciple of Jesus and a member of his church is concerned. We are to practice forgiveness, mercy, compassion, unconditional love, and grace and carry that into our Monday through Saturday world. We are to show the world what God’s love looks like. We are to reveal the presence of God in the world. We are to point to signs of the reign of God anywhere we recognize them. We are to teach and equip disciples to be part of God’s mission according to our particular contexts (though I think we have a lot to learn about context).
Yet there is a continual call for a consumer approach to church. Generally, people aren’t captivated by being part of a renewed world free of violence and injustice, where all are loved and valued. Rather, we become excited about solving personal problems and taking steps to make our own lives more fulfilling.
My quandary is whether or not there is room for consumerism in the church. Is it sticky enough to use as a connection to people, genuinely caring for their personal needs, and then offering a larger vision of God’s mission in the world? Is that a manipulative bait-and-switch, or an authentic incarnational approach to mission? Or something else entirely?
What do you think?
I’m writing this blog post on Memorial Day, and will confess that I have some mixed feelings about it. Not about a national day of grieving those whose lives have been lost as a result of war, but about how we in the church deal with days like today, including our views on war, armed service, patriotism, and faith.
Full disclosure: I am a Lutheran clergyperson (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America), a registered Democrat (though I am considering changing that), have never served in the military, lean toward pacifism, and genuinely wonder why there isn’t even a discussion about repealing the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Though my father served in the army during the Korean conflict and I have a nephew currently serving as an Army Ranger, I have no bias toward the military. I am a patriotic American, love the freedoms that we consider our rights as human beings, recognize the role our military has played in procuring them, and am greatly appreciative. Talking about constitutional rights, I am a committed advocate for the rights of all persons, including our LGBTQ brothers and sisters as well as all immigrants, regardless of status, and I consider racism to be one of the most horrifying evils in our world. Theologically, I don’t believe in eternal “hellfire,” trust that there is a God of mercy somehow, and that for those in the church, revealing and living this mercy and compassion trumps everything else–American citizenship included. Some would call me a liberal or progressive; I can live with that, though I don’t find pidgeon-holing to be very helpful.
My profession causes me to think deeply about how the issues of our culture intersect with my theology and faith (or perhaps the other way around). The current general American acceptance of war, violence, gun-rights, and the connection of these things to “real” patriotism wrankles me. Even more so, I find it despicable that these things are viewed as somehow “faithful” or “Christian.” Many of our Christian churches recognized Memorial Day yesterday during their corporate worship. Excellent! We have a need to mourn all who have died in war, for each death is truly tragic. But how many of these same churches mourned only U.S. American losses rather than all people God loves, non-Americans included, who have died by our hands in war? How many used this day of collective grief to equate military service with American patriotism? How many connected a constitutional freedom to worship with Christianity? How many compared American service people who have died in war to Jesus’ death on the cross?
Those who serve or have served in the military are to be respected, no question. All of them that I know are courageous, honorable people who go about their work with pride and who perform their duties well. I’m just not sure how military service gets mixed so deeply into Christian piety or worship. There are many people who do their jobs well; lots of people who risk their lives in their work. Many vocations require courage and principle. Millions of people are committed to their work because of their integrity and dedication to something beyond themselves. I can’t begin to count how many people take tremendous personal risks for the sake of others. The things we honor most about military service are not exclusive to the military.
This doesn’t mean we as a culture shouldn’t honor veterans on Veterans’ Day or ignore our collective grief on Memorial Day. It does mean that we in the church do need to make clear the difference between God’s vision for peace and reconciliation and a U.S. American cultural agenda. They aren’t always the same thing. In fact, I believe they are becoming more disparate than ever.
It’s fine to have an American day of remembering and grieving death in war. Because grief and war are real, it’s also good to do so in the church. But the very identity of the church is grounded in God’s vision of redemption, mercy, and grace. In the church we claim our identity as disciples of Jesus, who brought among us God’s vision for loving enemies, forgiving all who are offensive, reaching across boundaries to those who are different, recognizing that all people from all cultures, nationalities, and races are loved and valued by God, and that those who have the most resources and power have a responsibility to love and walk with those with the least. These are the principles and values that Jesus considered to be worth dying for. And on this Memorial Day I’m not sure the church that bears his name can always say the same thing.
Perhaps we should have a day in the church year where we lift up peacemakers, honor those who have made it their life’s work to be among the poor, applaud those who are ridiculed for standing up for LGBTQ folk. What would it look like to have a day in corporate worship to recognize those who advocate on behalf of immigrants, to be inspired by testimonies of those who have struggled with forgiving enemies but have been moved by God to do so?
We are, without a doubt, Americans who happen to in the church. But I think it is infinitely more important to remember that we are church who happen to be in America.
One of my favorite things about being a Lutheran is that we openly talk about being “at the same time, saint and sinner.” This doesn’t mean that sometimes we are good and sometimes bad. It has nothing to do with whether choices we make are holy or evil. It doesn’t even divide us into part saint and part sinner. No, we Lutherans talk about everything we are–and therefore everything we do–is at the same time absolutely broken and yet completely redeemable. The God who can raise Jesus from the pit of death is the same God who brings life and hope and newness out of my most deeply dark places.
I like that. It makes so much sense and explains so much about our life experience. I ponder this aspect of Lutheran theology and find it truly grounding and helpful. No matter how much of a scoundrel I am, God’s goodness and love can bring something new and beautiful out of me. And no matter how wonderful and delightful I am, my brokenness gets in the way.
Consider that next time your best efforts fail miserably. Watch for God to bring something life-giving out of it. And when you are being praised for a job well done, don’t you always know deep down that you’ve somehow kept your inadequacies covered up–at least this time?
For those of you who are involved in a congregation, doesn’t this “saint/sinner” theology make sense for your faith community too? Sometimes I think we are harder on our congregations than we are on other organizations. Maybe because we somehow expect more saint and less sinner in the church. Maybe because congregations are often places where we pretend saint-ness and hide our sin-ness. Perhaps other reasons as well.
But the reality is that the church is made up of people. Not better than anyone; not worse than anyone. Just people. People who are, at the same time, saints and sinners. How, then, can the church–including your own congregation–be any different? The church is completely messed up, broken, and selfish. And the church feeds the hungry, shows mercy to the helpless, and walks with other saint/sinner people at major turning points in their lives. Jesus is Lord of all creation, not just the church, and yet we understand the brokenness and hypocrisy of the rest of the world. We somehow expect something different from our congregations.
It seems that your congregation (and mine) deserves a break. We will never, ever be whole and magnificent and holy. We will never reflect God’s love the way we should. We will always fight and be divisive and mean. Everything we do will have selfish motives. Just like each one of the congregational members. Just like each one of us.
And at the same time we are forgiving, merciful, and go out of our way to love. Somehow, God’s grace and compassion and life-giving ways still find a way to be lived out in and through our congregations. Sometimes in surprising and unlikely ways, but it happens!
It’s easy to bemoan our congregational deficiencies. It’s easy to blame someone else for our congregational problems. But it takes God’s gift of faith and hope to trust in God’s redeeming activity–in your congregation and in mine.
Easter is fast approaching, and we Christians celebrate victory of life over death, of newness springing forth in the midst of hopelessness. This Easter, I plan to re-emphasize my confidence in the God of life, of hope, of mercy. In my life, and in the life of my congregation. My church is, after all, a broken and divided community that reveals God’s love and grace in the world in ways that are beautiful beyond description. And you know what? So is yours.
It’s time to quit making disciples. At least, in the way we’ve recently come to understand it. In Matthew 28, Jesus does tell us to “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Let’s be honest, we’ve historically took that to mean “converting” them, getting them to believe what “we” believe, getting them to come to church and become one of us. Is that what Jesus really meant? Or is that our own cultural self-righteousness and judgment oozing forth–quite in contrast to pretty much everything Jesus said and did.
The church’s typical understanding of making disciples sounds more like the Borg–“We will assimilate you. Resistance is futile.”
Instead, I think, Jesus lived and spoke about loving people. It would seem that authentic, caring relationships do that best. If we approach the people of the world with an attitude of changing them, “saving” them, or making them somehow better if they believe a certain (my) way, we are in opposition to the gospel that Jesus was all about. And in opposition to him.
Loving them, however, looks much different. Typical discipleship-making serves the church, loving others serves the world. Consider the difference in the following statements, and see which way best conveys your approach to making disciples.
–Get them to serve the church, or get the church to serve them.
–Change their beliefs, or see God already present in their beliefs.
–Point out the errors of their lack of faith, or listen authentically while they point out the errors in yours.
–Preach to them, or get to know them.
–Continue to refer to them as “them,” or recognize the ever-blurring lines between those who serve with a church community and those who serve in other ways.
–See boundaries between who’s in and who’s out, or see all people as created in the image of a God who loves all of us.
So, how’d you do? See the difference? Something to think about, anyway.
It seems to me that following Jesus means going where he goes. With his love. For all. Unconditionally. Period.
I’ve long been a proponent of the benefits of a church community. Nowhere else can you receive identity, support, encouragement, and companionship on the journey of life. Those who gather in the name of Jesus, regardless of belief about him, are influenced by him. Therefore, I’ve said and written, as we follow him and are changed by him, we reflect the kingdom forgiveness, grace, compassion, and justice he brought into this world.
So we teach/learn, pray, sing, hang out, and serve–all in the name of Christ. We’ve got the corner on that stuff. These activities reflect our Christianity and discipleship to a world that needs to see it, hear it, experience it. Recognizing this, we can be somewhat comfortable in our attempts to follow Jesus into the world. Our identity as Christians is clarified, honed, and practiced “in church,” and then lived “in the world.”
All this unique to us, the church.
Until now. A recent movement with its genesis in the UK is Atheist Mega-churches. These weekly gatherings are gaining ground in the US, and provide a communal, supportive, beneficial gathering with music, inspiring speakers, and more. All without God or religion. And it seems to be catching on.
And I wonder, for many of today’s church-goers, if this could be just what we’re looking for. All the benefits of church and religion without all the problematic things like “Jesus” getting in the way. No, I’m serious about this.
Let’s face it, the biggest problem for the church is Jesus. Not only are there all the difficult demands like “love your enemies,” and “give to everyone who asks,” which most Christians conveniently opt out of, but there’s the whole divinity/resurrection thing. Not to mention bloody internal battles about such basics as baptism, Holy Communion, the Bible, worship, and ordination.
Many Christians, with nowhere else to go, endure the difficulties of arguing about Jesus and church doctrine. They put up with the inconvenience of feeling guilty about not being generous enough, holding grudges against evil-doers, questioning their faith, and inadequate biblical interpretation. They also are forced to put up with hypocricy, self-righteousness, and power struggles that pervade the local church. All this for the sake of being part of a church community. Apparently, the advantages outweigh the disadvantages for many, as churches continue to permeate the American landscape.
The atheists have provided a solution for many. Individual beliefs don’t matter, doctrine doesn’t enter in, and there are no difficult mandates regarding accountability of behavior. If you are confused about whether the Eucharist is the body and blood of Jesus, represents the presence of Christ, or somewhere in between, the atheist churches welcome you. If you disagree about your church’s stand on homosexuality, the atheist churches probably don’t care. If Jesus’ concern for the poor and the marginalized cause you too much discomfort, the atheist churches aren’t likely to hold you to an impossible standard of generosity.
So I say, go get ’em, atheists! For all those in Christian churches who have difficulty with Jesus, thank you for providing us with a community, a sense of unemcumbered belonging, and freedom to feel like church without the difficulties. You are the new American Civil Religion, where we can maintain our individual preferences without having to be challenged by a mysterious higher authority. You allow us to make sense of the world on our own terms without concern over ancient doctrine or empty faith practices. We can follow our own agendas, free from guilt, compromise, or accountability. Community without the cross. Encouragement without the need for forgiveness. An inspiring presentation without preaching. Great music without praise.
I’m not kidding when I say it sounds like what many current church-goers are wanting. Thank you, atheist churches, for giving us a viable community experience with the ability to opt out of Jesus–and all the messiness and conflict he brings. There are days when I’d think about being part of you, when being a Christian is just too hard. There are days when I doubt, when I am helpless, when I am frustrated, when I am in dire need of forgiveness. You provide a way out: by side-stepping all that religious piety.
Perhaps I might join you one day. But for now, I guess I’ll stick with the hope recorded by a line of people seeking meaning and purpose for thousands of years. I’ll endure the mystery of contemplating something that is outside my ability to understand. I’ll trust in some mysterious author of ultimate goodness, who steps into my life and my world with mercy and unconditional love. I’ll face the presence of evil with the hope that it is not the final word for the world. I’ll take the grace that comes in the experience of deep-down, soul-wrenching forgiveness. And I’ll do it all as part of a messy, broken, hypocritical, sometimes judgmental community that doesn’t always represent Jesus very well. I guess, when I’m honest with myself, I fit there better.
More and more, denominations are coming to the realization that starting new ministries is the most effective way to reach more people with the gospel of Jesus Christ. And in this era of “nones” and declining church participation across the board, reaching more people is in higher demand than ever. Regardless of what we may say to the contrary, church is still primarily a numbers game, and bigger certainly wins.
They may be right.
But for good or for ill, as a pastor, that isn’t what I’m called to do. Instead of forming a new ministry with no weirdness outside of my own, I’m called to deal with decades of previous, overlapping, compounded, criss-crossing weirdnesses in addition to my own. Instead of energy put into mission in the world, I’m called to deal with energy around preserving what has been. Instead of shaping a ministry from the outset to deal with the realities of 21st century culture, I’m called to deal with memories of church in the 1970s and 80s. Although I have never been a new mission developer, I have overseen that work, admired (envied?) those with the gifts to do it, and have an understanding of the intensity of work involved. I have celebrated with new mission developers who, in part because of their exhaustive work and dedication, have seen their ministries explode in growth. I’ve wept with new mission developers who, despite their exhaustive work and dedication, had to shut down their ministries before they ever got off the ground. By and large, developing new ministries is a pretty effective way to reach new people we haven’t been able to reach before, e.g., ethnic groups, LGBTQ folks, and Millenials. It’s exciting, invigorating, and exhausting!
And yet, I’m called to reach those people through the ministries of existing congregations. I don’t have the gifts, the aptitude, or the extroversion to start a new congregation. Since I believe with all my being that the church–whether 3 minutes old or 3 centuries–is created and called by God to proclaim and participate in God’s mission in the world, I have a choice to make. I can work to preserve and maintain an institutional congregation or I can attempt the impossible–revitalize one so it can embrace the LGBTQ community in the neighborhood, the Spanish-speaking in the neighborhood, and a new generation of those largely uninterested in anything the institutional church has to say in the neighborhood.
For me there is no real choice. I’ve spent almost 30 years feeling like Don Quijote, jousting at windmills. Many say the work that I (and any number of others) are trying to do is a waste of time, since it is so rarely successful. Sometimes I agree. I can’t begin to count the number of sleepless nights I’ve spent because my congregations have chosen status quo over mission. My wife still experiences post-traumatic stress at congregational meetings because of the hateful and anti-Christian comments that have been said about her husband over the years. I believe I could fill a lake with tears spilled over people we’ve hurt in our stubborness, neighbors we’ve neglected in our obtuseness, Spirit-given opportunities we’ve missed because of our institutionalization. My children have seen the dark under-belly of the church, and have no illusions about how badly we can behave. I’ve yelled at God until I’m hoarse, begging for some tangible sign of success or mission advancement.
Is revitalizing an existing, institutional congregation impossible? I will never believe that. The God who raised Jesus from the dead is the same God of these status quo fortresses. Some of these institutions will die in the next generation. Others will manage to hang on. And a very few will be moved by the Holy Spirit to die to themselves and be raised again as communities boldly overflowing with mercy and grace in their surrounding neighborhoods. A very few.
And I want desperately to be part of one of those. I want to be in a faith community that uses its tradition and heritage as tools to be fully present in a broken world. I want to see the lights come on in the eyes of an 80-year-old guardian of the institutional church when he passes on his great faith to a teenager in baggy pants with his belt below his butt. I long for this.
And I’ve seen it.
Glory to God, I’ve been part of it. It doesn’t happen every day. It doesn’t get the glitz and the press of new mission starts. But I get glimpses of the reign of God present in the institutional church. I’ve seen a martriarch who fought me over every little change put her arms around a single mother and hold her. I’ve seen a stoic defender of the status quo mist up when serving holy communion to a disheveled stranger. I’ve watched as neighborhood children suddenly have advocates, as a quiet young mother prays with a sick and elderly woman, as a child actually shouts for joy after taking bread and wine with the rest of her congregation. I’ve been part of a church community where the mentally ill are accepted and the differently abled are treasured. I’ve been partners with the most disagreeable alligators who serve food in a homeless shelter every week, offering dignity and grace in addition to a plate of food and a warm bed.
You have too.
Honestly, there probably won’t be a lot of existing, institutional congregations that will look like exciting new mission starts. And some of our existing congregations need to recognize that their days are coming to an end. But God will not be denied. Resurrection is real. Perhaps our success isn’t to be measured in bunches of shiny new participants but in the straggly and disheartened ones who are touched by Christ’s love through us but will never step into our old buildings. Maybe the conflicts over carpet and wallpaper don’t overshadow the foundational love and compassion that are often shown in the neighborhood but even more often go unnoticed.
And, perhaps most importantly, we battered, bloodied, and sometimes exhausted clergy-types need to support one another in seeing God at work in our midst. Attempting to be part of the revitalization of an exising church is lonely, difficult, and endless work. The rewards are few and far between. The glamour is usually non-existent. So perhaps it would be a good idea to call a pastor in your neighborhood and take them to lunch. Listen and find ways to affirm what they are doing. Ask them to do the same for you. God’s reign is happening all around us–let’s make sure we don’t miss it due to weariness or discouragement from attempting an impossible job.