blasphemy (noun) — irreverent or disrespectful words or actions concerning God or sacred things.
mediocrity (noun) — a state of poor or barely adequate quality; neither good nor bad.
blasphemediocrity (noun) — the disrespect of God and the sacred by accepting barely adequate and/or poor quality standards of spiritual belief and conduct.
Three emerging trends in the American cultural landscape call us to some serious reflection:
a growing number of spiritual seekers are engaging in serious, disciplined, and meaningful faith development apart from traditional, institutional church structures.
a fast-growing segment of long-time and deeply committed church members are leaving organized religion in disgust at its widespread apathy, selfishness, and complacency.
an ever-growing number of pastoral and laity church leaders — particularly those under fifty — are raising serious questions about the modern, Western definition of “church” and are attempting to change the egregiously self-serving consumerism of the late twentieth century church growth movement that resulted in an unrealistic love affair with the mega-church.
In the last half of the 20th century, many prominent and powerful church leaders rose to dominance by launching acidic harangues against immorality, corruption, liberalism, the poor, and a colorful palette of other sins and horrors. This created a new kind of church. Historically, organized religion held in tension the relationship between beliefs and behaviors — teaching that, for the most part, while our beliefs shaped our behaviors, our behaviors were the true test of our beliefs (read the Epistle of James). However, one result of the blossoming neo-conservative Christianity in the United States of the past fifty years is a weird synthesis of the belief-behavior relationship: our Christianity is essentially our beliefs about behaviors — the behaviors of others. No longer is the log in our own eye more important than the speck in someone else’s; no longer is judgement to be avoided lest we find ourselves on the receiving end; and no longer do we need take seriously any teaching from the Sermon on the Mount. No, in the holier-than-thou groundswell of belief about behavior, homosexuality is worse than people dying of starvation and disease because of injustice and greed; abortion justifies bombing, maiming or assassinating those we disagree with (because all life is sacred…); killing killers kindly with capital punishment is a virtue (because all life is sacred…); and killing the planet is okay, because good people (who kill planets) are going to heaven soon (to see what kind of damage we can do there?). Is this too harsh? It may be, but it is important to know that this view of organized religion and its impact and legacy on the world is prevalent and widespread — and it is deeply offensive to many of the people we claim we want to reach. There is a common opinion among many who love God and the Christ that the church isn’t a very nice place? Where does this come from? Did people just make it up? We would be wise to remember — perception is reality.
The above mentioned problems may be exceptions rather than the rules, but it makes little difference. Such perceptions are causing many people to ignore our churches, many members to leave our churches, and many seekers to avoid our churches at all costs.
The survey research of almost every major player (GBOD, UMCom, Barna, Alban, Gallup, Zogby, Pew, etc.) bears this out to some extent. The mainline, traditional, institutional church has both an image and a credibility problem. Non-church attending Christians — and they are many and their numbers are increasing — are appalled by the low, poor, and often unkind standards that define “church.” Looking beyond the “bad” things that churches do, these people point to an even more troubling (and more ubiquitous) problem: the fact that the vast majority of churches don’t actually add positive value to the community and world. They ask the very pointed and poignant question, “what difference does a church make?”
For The United Methodist Church, the question is relevant — what difference do we make? Why should anyone want to be a United Methodist? How does our church make individual lives better? How do we make our communities better? How do we make the world better? These questions do not presume that we do nothing of value — but they call us to carefully and critically analyze all that we do to see what impact we are making and the value that we add. Lives are changed. Communities are helped. That’s great. Now, what about the thousands of people who call themselves Methodist who don’t come to church, don’t pray, don’t serve, and don’t give, but are considered “full” members anyway? What about churches that spend more money on parking lots and lawn-care than they spend on missions and outreach? What about the thousands of people who come to church as consumers with absolutely no desire to be changed or challenged?
In our membership vows, new members pledge to “uphold” the ministries of the congregation by “prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness.” But what does this really mean? Who decides whether these vows are being kept or not? What difference does it make whether a person follows through with their promises or simply goes through the motions? What happens to the person who doesn’t keep these vows? What happens to the person who does keep them? What happens to our faith communities when a significant segment of participants take all they can while giving little back? If there is no accountability — if these vows actually don’t mean anything, why should anyone join The United Methodist Church? These are questions that both outsiders and many long-time insiders are asking.
If the criticism were coming solely from the outside, we might find a creative way to dismiss it. Were it to come solely from the disenchanted and inactive cranks inside the church we might ignore it as well. However, what is beginning to happen now cannot be ignored — a growing number of lifetime church leaders are stepping up and saying, “I can’t take this any more!” I have a fat folder of notes, e-mails, and letters from former lay leaders, pastors, council chairs, trustees, choir directors, children’s coordinators, teachers, and team/committee chairs explaining their decision to leave their church and go elsewhere — some choosing to leave altogether. The most common thread is this — the church has broken their heart by failing to be Christian. As one powerful letter puts it:
I am not mad. I’m crushed. I am not leaving the church because it is doing bad things. I am leaving it because it isn’t doing any good things.”
Or, as an angry trustee puts it:
Our church has three simple rules: do no good, do all the harm you can, and ignore all the ordinances of God. Wesley must be proud!”
These are just two examples of people who have dedicated their lives to their church who cannot tolerate the low standards and low expectations they currently experience. These people are not just leaving troubled and dysfunctional churches — many are leaving some of the “premiere” success stories of our denomination.
Too often we fear turning people off by expecting too much of them. It is time to realize that we are turning many people off by expecting too little. I know that this will trigger a defensive reaction from many leaders who will feel it’s unfair and ignores all the good the church is doing. This is not my intent. I merely seek to share the opinions and feelings of a growing minority of people whose criticisms and observations should not be summarily dismissed. They may not be completely right and true, but they certainly are not wrong or without merit, either. No matter how well we do, there is always room for improvement. In a denomination where 30% of the membership is inactive, where only 40% is ever present on a given Sunday morning, and where 71% define “discipleship” as “believing in Jesus Christ,” it is not a stretch to believe we might have some room to raise our standards.
We often focus on things we might do to offend God. It is easy to become sin/behavior-focused and moralize on the right and wrong things to believe, say, and do. We forget that one of the most offensive things we can do is to be “lukewarm.” Lackadaisical, feckless, apathetic, and complacent faith is every bit as irreverent and disrespectful as the “wrong” faith or no faith at all. It may well be time to worry less about blasphemy, and to pay more attention to our blasphemediocrity.