What We’re Not Is As Important As What We Are

Go to any Christian bookstore and you can find thousands of books promising to turn your church around (whatever that means).  These books primarily focus on programs and activities that attract new people to the church, or give leadership ‘secrets’ that guarantee success.  (“We did it!  You can do it, too!)  We look to the leaders of congregations that are growing numerically to find out what we’re not doing as well.  This narrowly misses the point.  What we’re not doing is less important than who we’re not

Three stories illustrate my point:

A few years ago I met two young Latino women from the Bronx who shared their story with me.  Jasmine, a twenty-year old mother of two, lived with her younger sister, Amber, mother of five children to five different fathers.  Neither young woman was married, but Jasmine’s boyfriend was serving a prison sentence in upstate New York.  All seven children lived with their mothers in a 600 square foot tenement apartment.  Here’s Jasmine’s story:

Amber and me realized that we had no future — we had to change our lives or die.  So one of the things we decided was to go to church for help.  The first one we tried had a big banner (Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors) over the door.  We went.  We didn’t have very nice clothes, and the kids were acting bad, and it wasn’t five minutes till we knew we shouldn’t have come.  People kept giving us looks, so we snuck out.  We tried a bunch of churches, but nobody really wanted us — especially our kids.  Anyway, Amber and me decided to go back to the church one more time so we could steal a Bible and a song book.  We brought them home and we been looking at them a lot.  We pray all the time.

Not only did Amber and Jasmine start reading the Bible and praying regularly, but they started meeting with others — a Meth addict, two prostitutes, a homeless man, among them — in the building’s laundry room for discussions and singing.  These young women found no welcome in a variety of existing churches, so they made church on their own.

The second story occurs at the other end of the educational and economic scale.  A variety of health care workers — doctors, nurses, dentists, counselors, and the like — in Maryland and Virginia wanted to expand the scope of their healing work to the streets of Baltimore and Washington D.C.  Discovering a shared faith in Jesus Christ and a desire to help those most in need, a core group of eleven people sought church support to do free clinic work.  What they encountered was a deep reluctance to get involved with a group from outside the “church.”  Most claimed liability issues, but all declined to partner with the health-care workers.  Undeterred, the group rented a couple storefronts in Baltimore and Washington and began offering clinic services.  Additionally, they held Bible studies, prayer group meetings, hymn sings, and spiritual counseling.  The group keeps growing, and one of the primary doctors reflects, “Thank goodness none of the churches wanted us.  We’re doing so much more good on our own than we could have done tied to any one church!”

The third story concerns a meeting I attended with scientists, researchers, professors, and writers from a variety of scientific disciplines to examine the relationship of science and theology.  What I encountered was a “good news/bad news” joke.  The good news was that the majority of people from the world of science were very open to ideas of faith and spirituality.  The bad news was that these same people held a deep contempt for mainline churches and the reductionist faith they offered.  As one physicist framed it, “It’s not that we don’t believe in God, we just don’t believe in the petty, simplistic, anthropomorphic God flogged by “the church.”

What we reject is the anti-intellectualism and the narrow-mindedness of most churches.  We don’t encounter faith in churches, but fear — fear of questions, fear of critical thinking, fear of deep reflection, and fear of having to change primitive and pre-modern beliefs.  It is almost impossible to be both intelligent and a person of faith — there is no place for common sense and clear thinking in most Christian churches.

What these stories indicate is nothing more or less than a gaping divide between the church we have and the church we need.  We — inside the church — say we love everyone and we want everyone to join us.  Those not aligned with the institutional church say that they are not wanted.  Among those who say the church doesn’t really want them are:

  • the poor
  • the ill and disabled
  • the uneducated and ignorant
  • the unwashed
  • the homeless
  • the most highly educated
  • those most highly motivated to act on their faith
  • critical thinkers
  • ex-convicts
  • those with mental problems
  • those with addictions
  • those with criminal records
  • those with violence issues

This is not mere speculation.  A 2004-2005 study of United Methodists indicate that we — as a denomination — don’t really want these folks around. (There are congregational and individual exceptions.  Some churches and some small groups of people are doing phenomenal ministry to the “fringes,” but as a whole, we’re not as interested in doing for others as doing for ourselves.)  While 78% of respondents (sample size: 5,765 United Methodists from twenty-seven annual conferences in the continental United States) believe that the church should be caring for the homeless, the poor, the hungry, ex-prisoners, etc., only 1-in-11 (9%) want “those people” in their church.  United Methodists seem very selective about who they want in the church.  Beyond the lost, the least, and the last, most UMs would prefer that the most highly educated would steer clear and not make trouble.  Two-thirds (65%) believe that people who question scripture, raise doubts, or apply critical thinking and scientific method to theology are causing problems and should find somewhere else to make waves.  There is strong evidence that United Methodists need to carefully examine just how “open” their minds, hearts, and doors really are.

Tens (perhaps hundreds) of thousands of people are seeking a meaningful relationship with God, to understand and emulate Jesus Christ, and to act in meaningful and sacrifical ways.  They want to pray, to study, to grow, and to give — and the tragedy is that they do not feel welcome in our churches.  It is important for leaders of congregations to ask hard questions about who “belongs” in our churches and who doesn’t.  We need to examine how much of what we do is dedicated to preserving and protecting the status quo, and how much is leading us to take risks and care for the outsiders.  Who isn’t in our church says as much about us as who is.

Next Monday I’m going to pick up the theme with some further thoughts in Part III — The Path of Least Resistance Is Paved With Good Intentions.

3 replies

  1. These observations closely match mine. I believe we need to pay more attention to everyone on your list, but I find that my personal calling & concern is mainly for those I happen to know best–the most highly educated, the most highly motivated to act on their beliefs, the critical thinkers. I hear from them constantly in response to my monthly letter, Connections, telling me how alone they feel & how much like misfits in the church despite their interest in true Christianity. Any of them who read this & want to know more might want to look at my website– http://www.connectionsonline.org .

  2. I’d really like to see a citation for the survey. Many times we don’t do very well on welcoming angels or being sheep and not goats. But, those numbers seem very suspect.

    One of the issues that you don’t address is that a lot of people come to the conclusion that “big church is for big people.” Little children are usually going to have a problem sitting quietly (or even semi-quietly).

    I would hope that I wouldn’t begrudge anybody a Bible or a hymnal, but I would also hope that I was given a real opportunity to be hospitable instead of being the other guy in a game of “gotcha.”

  3. RE: Creed Pogue — I conducted the survey, though a full report was never published. The survey covered a very diverse sample, and has been confirmed in a variety of settings. United Methodist congregations — for the most part — are middle class, middle education, mainstream values, and middle of the road. Many churches have ministries “for” the poor and marginalized, but few have active ministries in which the poor and marginalized are included as leaders and full participants. As a number of church leaders have told me — we can’t spend a lot of time with the poor and marginalized because they aren’t good givers, and we can’t risk alienating good givers by making them uncomfortable.

    I can’t speak to the “big church for big people,” other than to say that large churches tend to offer children’s programs that remove children from corporate worship (but many smaller churches do this as well).

    I can only say there was no “gotcha” in the Amber/Jasmine story. This is just one of hundreds of stories where our “hospitable” church has been less than open (hearts, minds, doors) and has not just driven the people from their doors, but has made people believe that there is no place in organized religion for them.

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