I note with dismay that your blog is consistently critical of the church. It doesn’t seem fair or balanced to continuously pick at flaws while ignoring the good. While we certainly have problems, there is little benefit in dwelling on them all the time. I don’t care to be made to feel bad or guilty on a daily basis. My advice is to make as much of an effort to find what is praiseworthy in the church as you do finding fault.
This person has a point — to a degree. Honestly, I am critical. I take what the church says seriously, and for eight of the last ten years it was my job to travel across this denomination to test the veracity of our claims with clergy and laity inside the church, and the non-religious and the spiritual seekers outside the church. In this blog, I report on what I heard — representing the opinions of a wide variety of people in our modern culture. Two-thirds to three-quarters of what I have heard in the past decade is critical — much of it negative. I make no apologies for telling the truth by sharing a non-sugar-coated report of what I have heard. It doesn’t mean people have to like it or agree with it, but I am not going to lie or pretend that people are more positive than they actually are.
Our denomination makes the claim that it wants to serve new faith audiences. However, I have spent considerable time with:
- the poorest of the poor in urban, suburban, and rural areas whose experience of us is that we are not open to them
- the least educated in our nation who do not feel welcome or comfortable in our churches
- Hmong, Korean, Chinese, Filipino, Puerto Rican, Mexican, Central American, South American, Cuban, Haitian, Dominican, Jamaican, African, African American, Caribbean, Native American (of no less than twenty tribal heritages), Eastern Indian, and Middle Eastern groups who report regular acts of racism that they face each and every day in the church
- those on the fringes of society — in prison, institutions, nursing homes — who feel ignored and abandoned by the church when they need them most
- physically and mentally challenged individuals who feel unwelcome; who feel their disabilities preclude them from “belonging”
- the most educated in our nation who do not feel welcome or comfortable in our churches
- the richest of the rich who have little time or patience for our church
- college and university students who look at our church and are dismayed by what they perceive as irrelevancy and “lameness”
- seminary students who are growing disillusioned with the whole institution and question their call to ministry or religious academia
- professors of both universities and seminaries who have lost faith in the leaders of the church system
- mainliners who look at the decisions made and the way money is spent who decide to leave the church altogether
- people working for the church at all levels who are suffering low morale because they no longer believe what they are doing matters
- retired clergy, including bishops, who lament the path of the current church, identifying the problem as a lack of leadership
- Conference leaders struggling to “lead” when the demands of the system are on management
- Government, education, international relations, and economics leaders who cannot fathom the short-sightedness and simplistic approach our church has to social problems
- Women of all levels of leadership who are appalled at the remnant sexism that undermines their ministries
- Youth and young adults who want meaning and purpose and find that church provides neither
My list is a LOT longer, but you get the idea. There are people in our church who want to ignore all these things and only focus on the good. I actually do a fairly good job of lifting up the good from all my research — it’s simply that there isn’t as much good to report. Does this make our job bigger and harder? Probably. But I’m not sure where the idea came from that it should all be sunshine and roses. It is not enough for us to say we have “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors.” If that is not how we are perceived by the very people we want to reach, we NEED to know that. If we invite people to “ReThink Church,” but they don’t believe, trust, or respect us — because they don’t think we’re serious — then we have a problem. If we save a life by purchasing a net, then we need to take some responsibility for that life as it grows through childhood into adulthood. Just solving one problem (infant/childhood disease and mortality) by creating another (abject poverty, hunger, malnutrition, gang violence, tribal warfare, etc.) is not the kind of witness we really want to make. Denying the truth of all these criticisms doesn’t solve anything.
And, sure, I could be more positive and spend a little more time saying what I think is right with the church. Recently, a director from UMCom said to me, “Why do you always pick on us, and not CF&A or Pensions?” My response was, “I think they’re doing a fantastic job, and I don’t hear nearly as many criticisms and negative responses to what they do.” Same could be said of UMCOR. I think UMCOR does a fabulous job — and I have said so on the blog, and will continue to do so. I think the mission awareness work that Global Ministries is doing is fantastic, but I have said that here, too. Most of my criticisms of UMCom and The General Board of Discipleship come from the interviews I have done with people across the denomination. Sometimes they align with my own opinions, sometimes not. But when I talk to fifty people about something like ReThink Church or Burning Bush or Romans 12 and forty of them offer complaints, criticisms, mockery, or downright contempt, that’s what I report. Sorry, but people have a right to their opinion, and it was my job for a long time to find out what those opinions are and to share them. I have never quite understood why people responsible for these projects try to censor me — if I were them, I would want to know that people dislike the product or service I’m offering.
I had friends who grew up in a household where it was not allowed to criticize or argue. Any attempt to voice a negative opinion was clamped down upon immediately. The mother in the family wanted to preserve peace and harmony at all costs, and she simply wouldn’t allow a cross word or discussion of anything unpleasant. Today, all four of the children who grew up in that house are troubled and in therapy. To those who wish for nothing but moonbeams and buttercups in The United Methodist Church, beware. No problem gets solved by ignoring it. If we want to reach new people for Christ, we need to listen to them — even when they tell us things we don’t want to hear. Our goal cannot be to change everyone else while we stay the same. We have things to work on — and enough people to work on just about everything! There is nothing wrong with pointing out areas for improvement. The only real problem we have is pretending we don’t have problems.
And while my motives may not be clear, I can only say — if I didn’t love and believe in this church, I wouldn’t even bother. I hear the criticisms of thousands of people, and each one breaks my heart a little more. I want the church not just to be acceptable or good — I want us to be great. I want our witness to the world to be so powerful that people beat a path to our doors to be a part of something beautiful. I share the opinions and criticisms of the thousands of interviews I did while at the General Board of Discipleship in hopes that we might see ourselves as we are seen by so many, and what to do something about it.