The Best Defense is a Good Pretense

I love to step on toes.  I love to stir people up.  I am especially fond of irritating people around the issue of reaching spiritual seekers who have rejected the church.  We in the church are very quick to defend everything we do, and to deflect any criticism as “well, they don’t really understand us.”  The sad fact is… they understand us better than  we understand ourselves.  The major problem is we simply don’t know what to do with groups and individuals who don’t fit our existing definitions.  One example from this past week: I talked about two groups of people — one group of seven and another group of nine — who don’t belong to or attend any church, but they meet once or twice a week to pray, study the Bible, sing, eat, and to serve the needy in the area.  Someone passed along to me these comments about my blog:

 The first obvious question this comment begs is, “What does God want?”  Surveys are taken, meetings are held, opinions are sought…..all about what these young adults want and little at all about what God desires!  As just a quick shot across the bow, I do believe that God hopes for Christian “community”….small “c” or not!

The second area I believe that Dan may have missed has to do with what seems like a trend in this generation’s shortage of moral (religious) values.  I’m speaking of the very sort of values that centers on “me” and “what’s in it for me” and less on what’s helpful to others.  Of course, this is a circular problem, is it not?  The very values required…..missing…..and basic to Christian faith remain out of their reach in the “church.” 

The third point I think Dan misses ties the first two together.  Where are the PARENTS of these pre-teen, teen and young adults?  Are the parents in church, or do they spend their time at the country club…..or perhaps in a different coffee shop down the street.  I understand that these youngsters tend to move in circles outside of the parental fold……but Christian values are generally more prominent in a young person’s life if they were raised in active church families.

It is stunning the assumptions and inferences this person (I have no idea who it is — the name wasn’t passed along with the comments…) makes about “young people”… but they are fantastic illustrations of the problem.  To groups praying and studying scripture — something over 75% of our church members DO NOT do is viewed as selfish and self-serving.  How is it that people who include God in their faith formation are less interested in God’s will than those who might sacrifice a Sunday every few months to attend a worship service?  Two groups modeling authentic community are criticized because they don’t find that community in an organized church — one that is perceived as not wanting them there in the first place!

The cruel judgmentalism of ascribing a lack of moral values to a generation is the height of arrogance, and a primary reason why young people don’t want to have anything to do with those who use morality as a weapon.  Considering that American culture is grounded in selfishness and greed, it is presumptuous to ascribe lack of moral values to the youngest among us.  I didn’t note that many young adults among the Christian pillars of morality at Enron and AIG.  The idea that the Christian church contains within it those who are morally superior to those outside is not just hypocritical, it is a lie.

Were the future of the Christian church dependent on the off spring of parents that go to church, woe to us all.  Our idealized happy family where mom and dad go to church with kids in tow and they all stay committed to Jesus all their lives is the exception, not the rule.  Many young people are trying to find a living faith apart from their parents.  Some find the religion of their parents to be superficial and judgmental (see the first two observations made by the commentator above).  They want something that has more to do with God’s will than church politics.  Others had nothing offered them, and they are trying to build a relationship with God.  Organized religion doesn’t offer much to help them, so they create alternative communities that resemble the “church” of the first few centuries.  In a country where the majority of murderers, rapists, terrorists, and violent criminals are raised in “Christian households,” we need to at least question how powerful the influence is on morality and behavior.

But it is wrapping ourselves in such myths and platitudes that is a major part of the problem.  Dividing the world into good and bad, us and them, creates false dichotomies that make those inside the church look so foolish and unreliable to those outside the church.  To make everything an “either/or” choice — where choosing what we believe is good, choosing anything else is bad — slams the door on most young people.  We construct a house of cards when we tell people they need what we have, when what we have doesn’t work well, isn’t any better than anything else, and in fact, often does more harm than good.  People inside the church are more moral than those outside?  Where is our proof?  Christian values result in superior behavior than worldly behaviors?  Based on what evidence?  Church people are nicer, kinder, more loving, more caring than those outside the church?  Have you ever attended a church meeting to discuss changing worship?  Some of the nastiest behavior occurs in such settings.  No, setting the church up as a paragon of virtue that everyone else needs is not going to get us anywhere God wants us to be.  All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God — even the sanctimonious saints sitting in worship every single week.  Where two or three are gathered, God is there — whether they have a certificate of membership to Wesley UMC or not.

What bothers many people, I believe, is that they simply cannot accept that those outside the church might be finding a better way.  I wonder how much fear and jealousy motivate criticism of those spiritual seekers of all ages who find great joy and inspiration in prayer and Bible study, who talk freely and openly with each other about how awesome and incredible God and Jesus Christ are, who live their faith convictions in the world as they feed the hungry, house the homeless, visit the sick and imprisoned, and fight to make the world more just, merciful, and humane?  It is always humbling to see others do better what we have been struggling to do for years.  Many lifelong church-members have never known the joy and power of the Christian faith I encounter in many young people unaffiliated with any institutional church.  For many, it is impossible to imagine that we might have anything to learn from those outside on the fringe.  They obviously don’t know what they’re doing, or they’re doing it wrong, right?  It just may be that those not burdened by the status quo — by the “that’s the way we’ve always done it” — are those with the eyes to see and the ears to hear.  Maybe it wouldn’t hurt those of us on the inside to pay more attention.

17 replies

  1. Pastor Barbara, I vaguely recall (being retired and out of that loop now) that our Conference (Wisconsin) was starting to have a place on some statistical report form for recording “outreach” sorts of things.

    Dan wrote in one place “It is always humbling to see others do better what we have been struggling to do for years.” For sure. And it’s discouraging too. Maybe, though, all of our efforts directed properly if not always effectively, will work together for good….

  2. I love your responsive blog to those comments. I think you are spot on. I was a participant where those comments came from and here’s what I had to say in direct response:
    “Name, I think I read the blog with different eyes than you. I saw Dan Dick speaking of 20s and 30s, being college age & beyond, not high school & younger, so the question of where are their parents isn’t applicable in my eyes – these young people are living away from home (presumably) making their own choices in learning and living their faith.

    I think someone had posted this article previously, “A church without walls” but here it is again.

    To me, these young pastors (in the article I linked) are doing the same thing – going out to where the people are. They are finding the unchurched – for whatever reason they are unchurched – and creating communities in which they are welcomed and building a solid foundation for a new church that will have a physical presence. I also know one of these young pastors and he radiated the Holy Spirit at work when I heard him speak almost 3 years ago of his desire to do a new church plant, one radically different than how they’d been done before. It is a joy to see it coming to fruition.”

  3. I think that the Church gets nervous, and I would agree Dan, a bit jealous, when they see groups like this– folks who are not tied down by church structures or polity, but can simply be caught up in the joy of discovering God in the word, and in discovering their faith.

    The church has gotten so good at ‘doing’ church, that when we see people who are ‘being’ church, we get nervous and jealous because we have become so tied down with the ‘doing’ that we don’t know how to just ‘be’ the church. And our structures don’t give us the leeway to find a new way.

    I think this is why a lot of young adults have rejected traditional forms of church. They agree with the idea of a faith community, but they find that most current representations of faith communities don’t match up with what they think Christian community should be. They want a place where they can express themselves authentically, where they feel like they fit and belong, and where they know that they can live out their faith in a way that makes a difference. Often young adults have to create their own faith communities in order to find those things because the Church has become too distracted with polity and politics.

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