I think I have simply evolved into an old fart. Quite recently and suddenly I find myself at odds with a significant number of leaders in the church. It is like we are speaking a different language. No, not “like” we are speaking a different language — it’s a different language. Those on the other side claim that they are staying relevant and in touch with the world we want to serve, while I think we’re losing our soul to the dark side.
I’m on the phone with a “church plant specialist,” and he kept slinging terms like “viable market,” “low-income non-starts,” “religion industry,” and “product appeal,” as elements for successful new congregations.
Your industry is hit-or-miss at the moment. The problem is that every church has a limited product/service line to pitch. It’s why brand is so important, and why you really need a personality to market. If you can’t distinguish yourself from the herd, you get lost. And you have limited resources. You’ve got to look for leverage and walk away from these low-income non-starts. They aren’t sustainable and they draw valuable resources away from more viable markets. Churches today need zazz (sparkle, shine, glitz, and glamor) and just one or two things that set them apart. And they need to exploit their strengths — you know, promote the band, the preacher, the coffee bar, whatever is really best about the church. And kids. Use kids. People love kids. You can raise a lot of interest and money using kids.
There was a lot more to this conversation, but you catch the drift. What am I missing? When I talk to the people who do this professionally, they are slick, enthusiastic, and confident, but virtually none of them talk about the importance of anything spiritual. In our “industry?” “Brand?” “Personality?” “Zazz??” “Exploit?” “Use kids?” (However, I do think of the most effective mission fund raising videos and almost all of them exploit kids and use very manipulative images to tug on people’s heart- and purse-strings…) Is this the church we want? Do we need to do it this way to grow? Does making-disciples require that we “distinguish ourselves from the herd” and “walk away from low-income non-starts?”
A second illustration comes from a recent encounter I had with a very passionate young pastor who took exception to a scriptural reflection I offered. In the midst of the group she stood up with her “Bible” open and challenged, “But that’s not what it says. That’s not what’s in the Bible!” I asked her to read what “her” Bible said, and she proceeded to quote from Eugene Peterson’s, The Message. I politely tried to tell the pastor that I had worked from the Greek and was pointing out some nuances in translation and cultural differences. She stuck out her chin and defiantly stuck to her guns. “But it is right here, and it doesn’t sound anything like what you’re saying (the passage was the Mary and Martha story in Luke 10).” I responded, “Well, I understand there is a difference, but Peterson is a paraphrase of English translations — it isn’t meant to be scholarly, and in fact it is questionable whether it is really a “Bible” or more accurately an interpretation of the Bible. I’m offering an alternative interpretation, that’s all.” Unappeased, the woman sat down, saying, “If you’re not going to teach the Bible, you shouldn’t be allowed to teach at all!”
This is just a single representation of a growing trend I note: what the Bible actually says and meant in context is irrelevant. What we read and want it to say today is all that really matters. I confess that I am a Bible nerd. I read commentaries for fun. I spend a little time each month or so digging into my Greek New Testament. I love word meanings and obscure references. I am crazy over non-canonical writings from the first few centuries. I hold a firm belief that the Bible we read in English lacks whole levels of meaning and richness that was intended by the original authors and perhaps the very Spirit of God. I get all bent out of shape by people who claim to “love the Bible,” then use it in irresponsible and superficial ways. The lazy post-modern dodge of simply letting whatever we read speak to us without any need for critical reflection may work well with Dan Brown & Danielle Steele novels, but isn’t defensible as an approach to biblical reading and study. Does this make me a Bible snob? Well, I already admitted that I’m becoming an old fart.
My last “back when I was just a lad” rant is pure snarkiness on my part, so I apologize… a little. What is happening to our sacraments in The United Methodist Church? A recent typographical error sums it up for me. I attended a church where we celebrated the “Lacrament of Baptism.” I’m noticing a lack in many of our rituals, but two are beginning to annoy me deeply. More and more, Baptism-lite and Communion-lite are the order of the day. The rituals are stripped of their theology. The questions asked of parents and sponsors are superficial and unspiritual, there is no congregational response, no affirmation of faith or creedal confession, and little or no connection to the community of faith. A great show is made of pouring the water, and the little ones are marched up and down the aisles to be introduced (which I actually like and think is very cool…), but little is explained or celebrated about the significance of the act.
And don’t get me started on Holy Communion. Forget about our H1N1-phobia that causes our sanctuaries to fill with the astringent odor of Purell (which leaves an odd aftertaste on the bread and a colorful rainbow-slick on the surface of the grape juice…), forget about the gluten-free option (for those allergic to the body of Christ — just kidding…), forget about the shove-them-through-as-quickly-as-possible assembly line feel in bigger churches — I’m talking about doing away with such things as, oh say, the Invitation? the prayer of Confession? the Great Thanksgiving??! I have been in a growing number of churches where communion looks more like a magic trick than a sacrament — the pastor passes his or her hands over the elements, mumbles a few words, and… viola! Bread and juice become body and blood! More and more churches are dropping the Lord’s Prayer and the Prayer of Thanksgiving as well. What am I missing? When did these things become hurdles to jump over? When did the clock on the wall start to dictate whether or not we could deal with our core sacraments with integrity?
When is the church no longer the church? If we’re becoming something “new,” what exactly is it? When did “brand” become more important than “identity?” When did “zazz” displace integrity? When did exploitation and manipulation become central features of our faith? (Well, okay, you got me there. We have always found creative ways to use exploitation and manipulation…) Maybe these things aren’t problems, and I am just out of touch. Maybe I am less upset about all these changes, and I am simply appalled that I have become… my dad.