What Am I Missing?

After

After

Before

Before

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?

Mr%20Old%20Fart_350When 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.

25 replies

  1. KM, my former Bishop Ken Carder used to remind us that our families were as much a part of our congregation as our church congregations, and should be in many ways our primary congregation. However, the drive for success in combination with the voices that Dan mentions in this article sometimes leads folks to think that their “calling” takes precedence over everything else in their lives, not recognizing that God’s judgment (yes, even as a supposed liberal, I believe in judgment) will be more harsh for our failures in love toward our families as they are for the spiritual well being of our congregations.

    I hear your pain in your comment, and while I have no authority in the United Methodist hierarchy, I apologize for the failings of my colleagues in ministry that failed in their responsibility toward you and your family, for if this covenant community thing that we bandy about has any meaning, it has to include our families as well.

  2. I was married to an “ordained” elder within the united methodist church. 20 years we were married. The last 10 years of our marriage, we (our family) served in the ministry. It actually took him ALL 10 years to accomplish all of the educational requirements and other “hoops” before he was considered “worthy” of ordination. WE finally reached that day in June 2007. 9 weeks later, he walked out on our family. The factual details of this entire tragedy is so bizarre I still find it hard to believe. Funny, but his drastic change in personality (enter the darkness) started taking place when he was appointed by the UMC to start a new church plant. Not only did the UMC do nothing to prevent the completely unjustified divorce, the leadership has never once agreed to speak with me or my children. They have never offered any help during this devistation. The private behavior by their “ordained elder” is unbelievable to this day. He still stands behind the pulpit of the “new church” preaching of love, grace and forgiveness when he refuses to practice what he preaches. He told me when he left “nothing will come before my “calling”, not even my family”…??? oh, but they DO have a coffee bar and free Wifi!!!

  3. I need to take exception to your depiction of church planters. Yes, there are some bad ones, but most come from inside the church and have a serious commitment to the gospel of Jesus Christ. I believe the majority of new churches have absolutely no interest in numbers or trying to be a large, or mega, church. New churches are about faith building, and whether that is with ten people or ten thousand people makes absolutely no difference at all. There is absolutely no evidence that supports a claim that new church planters have sold out to secular values. I am absolutely convinced that the man you spoke to was a rare exception.

    • Absolutely! I am no trying to paint every church planter with a single brush, but this guy is the type that gives real disciple-making visionaries a bad name. And I can’t quite agree with you that the majority of our new church planters have no interest in numbers. Just the few days at the School of Congregational Development proved that. We are OBSESSED with the numbers. They define just about every goal we set (but this has more to do with our ongoing struggle to believe you can measure anything you can’t count…) and they limit our vision of what can be accomplished. The source of my pain is that I do think we are selling our souls to corporate shills. We’re hiring outside consultants to tell us what to do and who to hire and fire, we’re hiring ad agencies to tell us who we are and make us over into something more appealing, we’re looking to secular sources who have no sense of our identity and tradition to tell us what kind of future we should have — we have lost our center, and we have people without good leadership skills hiring people who do to compensate for what we lack. It is not a healthy place, and I think this brief encounter is — sadly — not a “rare exception,” but is quickly becoming the norm.

  4. Dan, your comment on low income church starts really struck a chord with me. In too many conferences (mine for one) we only want to start/plant a new church in areas where there is “money”. Forget planting a faith community where there is need of one or where people desperately need to hear the good news. If it won’t make money or won’t be self sustaining in 3-5 years we don’t want to do it. Sometimes there is a need for a new faith community that may always be a missional congregation of the conference or, heaven forbid, larger churches of the conference/district. Wesley quit preaching in the institutional Anglican church to bring good news to the poor and those unwelcome in the “church” of the day. THe United Methodist Church (in this country anyway) has forgotten her roots and has become one of the upper crust churches that really don’t want the poor in their midst.
    And don’t get me going on the lack of depth to our sacraments. And deep study of the scripture is something to be avoided at all costs (at least where I serve.)
    Keep up the work of opening eyes.

  5. When a church (or the Church) goes into survival mode the temptation is to look at the trappings of churches that appear to be surviving (coffee bars, movie screens, etc.) and assume that adopting the trappings will bring similar results. On the other hand I have seen churches with and without coffee bars, with and without multi-media that know who they are and what God is calling them to be about in their community and the world. They follow God’s vision with consistency, faithfulness and integrity. Some grow numerically, some do not. What they all have in common is not the trappings of ministry but the reality of ministry.

    If you want to call yourself an old fart, that is fine, just keep up the good work.

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