Via Negativa

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.

15 replies

  1. Dan, from one really blunt person to another, I wholeheartedly agree that much is not working in our denomination on any level and that we cannot move towards God’s future without being willing to face what’s not working as well as recognizing our assets. As one of the people who passionately believes that Burning Bush has been birthed by God’s Spirit, I would most definitely appreciate hearing any comments you have received about it. Frankly, I would be surprised if many people have even heard of Burning Bush. As a former staff member here at GBOD, you know how difficult it is to even communicate that we’re doing anything at all, let alone that it’s worth anything! Of course, we are doing evaluations with current participants, but if you have heard comments from elsewhere, please e-mail me and let me know. I’m too old and too tired to not spend my time on worthwhile work. Thanks.

    • The comments I have heard are of the “been there/done that/nothing new” sort. People looking for depth are disillusioned with another round of superficial, simplistic approaches to church life. I haven’t been a part of Burning Bush at any level — other than early feedback, where I voiced concern about the generic, abstract level of the model. I remember hearing from someone early on saying, “These people haven’t been in the church for awhile, have they?” What that means, and what frustration it points to is open to interpretation. I was frustrated by the lack of credibility the GBOD had when I was on staff — but I was also cognizant of the fact that we weren’t doing anything to correct it, either. There is some meeting coming up in March in Nashville about leadership, or some such, and I am overwhelmed by the contempt and derision I encounter talking to colleagues about it, but it is strong. We (I still think of myself as past of this connection) have a huge reputation problem to deal with, and continuing to offer things that don’t connect doesn’t help. Whatever Burning Bush was, it probably helped some and left some unsatisfied. I just never really encountered the level of “can anything good come from Nashville?” until I got back out in the church.

  2. Thank you for an excellent essay. You present important material that needs to be considered and prayed over and studied on a regular basis. I do look for more upbeat writing too and I try to keep my personal ministry joyous, but we need to constantly be looking at our Churches and listening to the people we are trying to reach. Your analysis helps us to do that.

  3. Thank you again Dan for telling it the way it is. I try to take this approach in my own congregation with the leaders and end up getting in trouble when I try to challenge them that we are not being the church that we can be. In fact, my pastor even told me to stop reading your blog, which I refuse to do even if it costs me my position as music director. I also happen to be a relatively young leader in the congregation (almost 30), yet I am getting to the point that I want nothing to do with leadership in the UMC anymore because I am getting tired of being rebuffed every time I try to bring up new ideas for the church that will help us to live up to our mission (which apparently many in my congregation are oblivious to). Like many I have read about in your blog, the people in my local UMC are interested in nothing more than institutional preservation and keeping the church the way it has always been, even though they lament the lack of young people. Yet when our young people DO show up and try to contribute to our church, they are made to feel less than welcome that it nearly brings me to tears. I feel that you point out the good, but I’m not really sure if there is a whole lot of good in the UMC as a whole right now. I want to believe there is still a glimmer of hope, but am just not sure anymore. Thank you for helping me keep my sanity and giving me food for thought and keep up your great posts!!

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