Are there prophets in the church today? Are there any willing to speak the truth regardless of the consequences? Anyone willing to point out the unconscionable amount of money and time we waste in meetings and conferences? Anyone willing to point out that our own systems and structures are as unfair and unjust as the rest of the world? Anyone to challenge the status quo and say that mission and vision actually have less to do with our church leadership than power, status, and years of service? Anyone who wants to mention that we treat one another horribly too much of the time? Anyone want to lift up the fact that those who need serving most are receiving it least? Anyone care to challenge the concept that church is a place we go instead of an incarnation which we become? Shouldn’t we be told that the money we spend on bricks and mortar aren’t transforming the world, and that discipleship is about relationships and accountability not comfort and security? Oh, I know, those who stand in glass houses shouldn’t walk under a ladder, or some such. I confess, I am first among hypocrites and a poor example at best. But I get tired. Tired of business as usual and tired of all the bad behavior and materialistic values that define us. And instead of stepping back and working out our own salvation with fear and trembling, we’re hiring $2000 a day consultants from the corporate sphere to come in and tell us how to change. We so desperately want leadership but what we get is American Idol.
Can you guess I am frustrated? Every day I read more rhetoric from my own denomination about loss and decline and financial woe and clergy misconduct and congregational misconduct and connectional misconduct. I want to say, ‘enough!’ People are dying. People are hurting each other. People are starving. People are in such despair they kill themselves. People are seeking ways to take advantage of the defenseless. People are using the name of God as a weapon to hurt others. People are justifying hatred and violence in the name of Jesus the Christ. And we spend our time in the church discussing meeting venues and marketing campaigns and target audiences and copier contracts and fund-raising campaigns. Jesus wept. At a time we need spirit and a renewal of vision (function) we focus on structure and processes (form). When we most need a Promised Land we settle for the Wilderness.
A long time associate — one of the finest pastors, preachers and teachers I have ever known — is leaving the church. He’s going into community organizing and advocacy. His comment to me was, “If I am ever going to do ministry I have GOT to get away from the church.” This isn’t a crackpot. This is a golden boy, grow-’em-big, pop-star evangelist, fill the pews every Sunday, poster child for what we keep saying we want pastors to be. He is a success by every low, worldly standard we keep imposing on the church. And he’s had enough. He’s going somewhere where he can be a true disciple and transform the world. Is there a problem here?
One of the marketing/consultant/organizational savior gurus hired while I was at the General Board of Discipleship told us, “You can’t see what needs to be fixed when you’re riding on the roller coaster. People who aren’t riding the ride have a better view of the whole system,” and we bought the metaphor unquestioningly. Along with all the other spurious sloganeering (“…the view from thirty-thousand feet, follow the hedgehog, getting on the bus, if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will do…” — folks, if you’re on a bus at thirty thousand feet being driven by a hedgehog, the road you’re on is the least of your problems…) It’s a bad metaphor. The church isn’t a mechanical contraption — it’s a body, an organism. And with any body, unless the commitment to change comes from inside, nothing wonderful is likely to happen. The United Methodist Church needs to clearly define health and vitality, then do the hard work to get healthy. We must change our diet (how about reading some good theology instead of the next pop-pastor’s “look at how great you can be if you do what we did” — or maybe we could exchange our endless talk-talk-talk meetings for some prayer and deep relection…), we need to exercise (standing up for hymns and clapping to praise songs doesn’t count…) and we need rest and renewal (whatever happened to Sabbath?). We need to change an entire corporate-denominational lifestyle and reject the standards of pop-culture and redeem the vision for spirituality and service that motivates missional-evangelical faith in the world.
I know — who do I think I am to criticize the system that supports me and provides my livelihood? If I don’t like things, nobody is forcing me to stay. But I believe in the potential of the system and I have dedicated my life to it. I criticize because I love it, not because I don’t. I stay inside the system because that is where I feel I can do the most good. Problem is, I question whether I am doing any good at all. When I worked for the national church, the national church said “no thank you.” (The actual quote was, “the leadership here has decided your work doesn’t support the mission of the church or the vision of this board…) I hammer away day-by-day to do good work, but I have no idea whether that “good work” is producing any real fruit. When I challenge the status quo of our denomination I am asked (politely) to be quiet and to realize that I am hurting the church by my negativity. But I refuse to be positive about institutional preservation and short-sightedness in the face of incredible human need and unlimited opportunity. We need to turn this ship around!
Maybe I’ve got it all wrong, but it really bothers me that a church of Jesus Christ with so much potential for enormous good is having difficulty attracting new good leaders and participants, and is losing so many of the best and brightest — both clergy and laity. We have let ourselves go. We’re complacent and tired. We’re unattractive. We’re unfocused. We’re sitting on the couch complaining about our state and wishing someone would come in and fix things (…if we could just get more people in our currently dysfunctional and declining churches that are failing to appeal to those who already believe that Jesus Christ is Lord, everything will be just fine…). It ain’t gonna happen. If we’re not careful, all the energetic, visionary, competent, and committed people with the desire, drive, and gifts to transform The United Methodist Church will be gone, and the rest of us will be left wondering what we ever did to deserve such a cruel fate. Our conversations need to change. Our values need to change. Our thinking needs to change. And no one can do it for us, but us.