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. Thanks, Dan. You’ve said very well what’s been bouncing around in my brain for a few years now. There is another problem/opportunity that I see as well. Many UM Conferences are not geared to be able to support ministries outside the church walls. If the numbers aren’t there on our year-end reports, the pastors may not be considered effective. But if a pastor is involved in helping such groups as the two that you’ve described, not requiring that the folks who attend such meetings join the church, can they be counted for our reports?

    And, if a pastor is spending time doing such work, and a member of the church sends a letter to the Bishop and/or D.S., can they respond in positive way that affirms the new faith community being built? Pastors, of course, would need to balance their time commitments. I do, however, remember a statistic shared, I think, by Bill Easum a number of years ago. If a church wants to truly connect with those outside the church, at least 25% of the pastor’s time must be spent outside the office, on the streets of that community.

    I was in trouble with one SPRC a few years ago because I spend 5% of my time on the street. They wanted me in the office so they could drop by whenever they wanted…. Today, however, that church affirms their current pastor’s work on the street and they’re seeing the fruit of his labors with growth.

    I think what I’m really asking is, How do we help the system affirm new faith starts that may occur in non-traditional ways? Is it really something we can do?

    • You raise a HUGE issue. Our current metrics reward the wrong things and punish innovation and alternative approaches. Unless those at the top really understand what is being done and why, the numbers game will continue to hold us stuck in the status quo, and any opportunity to “transform the world,” will remain limited to those fragments of the world who happen to stop by. The glimmer of hope is that more bishops, district superintendents, and conference leadership are beginning to question the status quo and look for different metrics of success. But, it will take time if the culture is to change.

  2. Dan,
    Your statement that “those outside the church might be finding a better way” reminds me of a few things about the ministry of Jesus, and why I am still in ministry in the local church, seeking ways to connect to the community at large.
    Jesus came not for the healthy and those who know the way, but for the lost, and the sick. I fear that the most lost and sick might well reside in the church. However, the truth that there are many lost and sick outside the church remains. It is trying to find and gather all of the lost and sick for healing and repentance that spurs me into ministry, and the two distinct mission fields – inside the church, and outside.
    Peace,

  3. Dan,
    I would have read those three quotes as agreeing with you rather that dis-agreeing.

    “What does God want” could have been talking about a church that rarely asks that rather than the groups.

    The “whats in it for me” quote could also be a criticism of our church culture that so rarely gives back or help the community.

    The “what are the parents doing” quote could also be about parents – not just children – who have become fed up with a church that offers them everything except a relationship with God.

  4. I want to say that I am fifty years old, and was born into and raised, and baptised in the Methodist Church. I have served as song leader and musician in two Methodist churches and I been a lay member to our annual conference. Having said all that, I am giving serious thought to leaving the United Methodist. In fact, this past Sunday night, I attended a worship service at a church that’s not part of my denomination for the first time of my life..

    Why, you may ask, would I dare consider leaving after all these years? Because , quite frankly, I am fed up! The United Methodist Church today is really not a a church anymore; it’s a corporation! The top leadership came say otherwise but I’ve worked for two corporations and I know a corporation and a corporate mindset when I see one.

    Church politics, not the Cause of Christ, is the main driving force for everything. The local churches are treated like a bunch of Burger Kings by the bishops and district superintendents. Certain power clicks in the local church rule the roost and marginalize every one else in the church. if you dare make a comment that the click doesn’t like, they tell you to go find another church.

    And people have the gall to wonder why the young people take one look at all this and say no to it? If they are meeting outside a church building to study the bible, pray, sing, worship, and do outreach; then they are to be applauded; not dissed. They are more of a Christian Church and doing more of the will of Jesus Christ than many so-called “real churches” are doing today. May God Bless them and sustain them.

  5. The problem with old metrics is huge. Our stated mission is to ‘make disciples of Christ for the transformation of the world,’ but at every level we lift up ‘making members of UM churches.’ And when I tried to make this very point at a District gathering last year I was told I was ‘in denial.’ Yikes.

    • Part of the problem may be that “make disciples of Christ for the transformation of the world” isn’t measurable. Yet, when it comes time to pay the bills for the general church that requires a certain number of green pieces of paper. So, reality does have a way of biting when someone least expects it.

      If your church goes for two or three or more years without bringing in anyone through confession of faith, then there is a problem. It is also true that if your church does no outreach ministries then that is a problem too.

  6. Understood. Yet it is also true that the effectveness of our outreach for Christ, particularly among the young, is not accurately measured by the numbers who join our churches.

    • To Creed and Barbara, it isn’t that discipleship and transformation can’t be measured, they merely cannot be measured quantitatively, and qualitative measurement takes more time and energy. Where churches shift their metrics to transformation and spiritual growth, the “hard” numbers tend to follow. Churches that spend less time counting who comes in and spend more time counting who is going out and bothers to find out what they’re doing to serve and witness in the world are our strongest churches of all — though they often receive less attention than the huge crowd-pleaser churches. Where our treasure is, there will our heart be also. What we measure is the clearest indication of what we truly treasure and care most about — so if it is membership, attendance, and dollars, that speaks volumes about who we really are. If we track lives touched and changed, people served, and numbers equipped to minister in community and world, then that reflects our deepest values. It ain’t rocket science. And there are a growing number of churches measuring the latter, and fewer concerned about the former — which I take to be a very good sign.

      • I think I see where you are headed with this. I would be fine if churches without a lot of hard numbers to show could tell a good story about what they do for people. But, too often, we seem to get “this church is in suchandsuch of an area so we shouldn’t expect the apportionments to be paid or the billings” but the membership is either “stable” or declining and not much else seems to be happening. In “white” churches, we would say that they are “family chapels” and probably shouldn’t get a full-time appointment. But, we don’t seem willing to say the same thing for “racial/ethnic” churches in the same category. Accountability needs to be practiced across the board otherwise it is just playing favorites.

  7. Any suggestions about implementing qualitative metrics in the local church? I know we are having an impact that”s not reflected in statistical reporting.

    • What is your story? What are you asking from your fellow churches to support you being able to tell that story?

      I believe we have plenty of churches that are paying their apportionments and their bills, but aren’t growing BUT do have a good story to tell about their outreach or their nurturing.

      The problem comes from churches that aren’t pulling their weight and have become a social club. We can’t afford to subsidize that anymore (not that we ever could).

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