There is this great old Peanuts cartoon. Lucy is explaining to little brother Linus how the world works. She takes him to a tree in the yard and shows him the falling leaves. She explains that this is a normal occurence, one of those wondrous cycles of nature. She says that there is an important lesson here, and asks if Linus know what it is. He replies, “Don’t be a leaf… be a tree!” What an amazing observation, and one that we could benefit from in the church. The author of Ephesians writes almost 2,000 years ago, “We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming.” (4:14, NRSV) Two millenium later, how are we doing? Are we grown ups now, solidly joined as one — standing as a tree firmly rooted and grounded — or are we leaves tumbling in the wind? Are we known for our unity or our division? Are we bound together by trust and positive regard or separated by winds of doctrine?
And even being a tree is no guarantee. Outside our condo, a beautiful old pine with deep roots is laying on its side, roots pulled from the ground, due to snow and wind piling up and finally toppling it. It is difficult to stand firm in the face of relentless assault — something the church of Jesus Christ faces, both from without and within. Without unity and commitment to something larger than our own hopes, dreams, and needs, there is no “we,” and without that bond, there is little to withstand assault. In our consumeristic and individualistic society, the church really doesn’t stand much of a chance. Rugged individualism is a blight on an otherwise healthy tree. It rots out the root system, leaving the whole tree at risk. Signs of this rot are a lack of trust, a lack of civility, an inability to disagree with integrity and kindness, a tendency to be distracted by irrelevancies (color of the carpet, flags in the sanctuary, worship times, styles of music, etc.), keeping of secrets, gossip and rumors, public posturing, adoration of bigness, poor communication, and a strong “us/them” mentality (just to identify a few symptoms).
The solutions — though these are more than just “problems” to solve; we need to change a culture — rests in relationships and a return to basics, I believe. Fourteen years at the general church level gave me opportunity to make a number of observations. Each of these speaks to our movement from “treeness” to “leafness.”
- Return to a worship of God — oh, we talk about God a lot, but we use worship for a hundred and one other things — announcements, evangelism, member recruitment, performances, presentations, catching up on sleep — all good in their own way, but not really about worship. Having the whole community gather to turn attention to God and offer praise and thanksgiving often gets lost in the chaotic cacophony we call modern worship. People no longer expect to encounter God or the divine in worship — in fact, they are startled by the very idea. For an awful lot of people, worship has little to do with God and everything to do with them. It is telling how often people will say that the most meaningful worship experiences they have in their lives occur away from the church — on retreat, with a small group, on a mission trip, at an event. Making sure that God doesn’t get lost in our worship services can help strengthen the congregational tree.
- Make “we” more important than “me” — we still call our churches “communities of faith,” but very few of them function as such. It is distressing how many of our regular church attendees don’t know each other, even in our smallest churches. For many, the only real contact they have is a one-hour worship service once a week, where there is little or no interaction. We don’t gather for prayer as we once did. We don’t offer personal testimony as we once did. We don’t meet for study and discussion as we once did. We don’t gather for fellowship as we once did. Much of the glue that held us together in the past dried and cracked. It is time to find new glue ( the old glue probably won’t hold well anymore…). The ease of communication these days with cell phones and email means we communicate less rather than more, poorly rather than better, and with the same people rather than with new people. The myth is that we meet and talk to an ever-growing global network of “friends” but this is the exception rather than the rule.
- Pray — pray alone, pray together, pray when you wake up, pray before you go to sleep, pray when you gather, pray when you eat, pray before a meeting, pray after a meeting — and don’t let the pastor do all the praying. Pray without ceasing wasn’t intended as a sentence or punishment, but a gift. We have a direct, $0, 24/7/365 line to God. Seems like a waste no to use it more. But don’t just pray “about” things and people — pray for them, pray with other people. People say they feel awkward praying with others. I know a really good way to get over that awkwardness…
- Shut up — I actually did this experiment. I recorded worship services in United Methodist Churches across our denomination — traditional, contemporary, blended, confused — then timed how much silence we allow on average. Per 60 minutes, we allow a little less than 3 minutes of silence, mostly between readings, hymns, or to allow the choir time to sit down or the children time to come up. “A Moment of Silence for Personal Reflection,” ranges between 13 and 22 seconds, averaging 17.8 — and it generally has an organ or piano soundtrack lightly playing in the background. I did the same thing for meetings. A 90-minute meeting offers almost 5.5 minutes of silence, generally awkward and often angry. Along with praying to God, listening for God is actually pretty cool — and helpful.
- Read the Bible and talk about it — Bible study may sound too stuffy, but the book is central to all we say we believe, yet most of us know almost none of it. The biblical illiteracy of the majority of “committed Christians” is appalling. We are so busy doing churchy stuff that we don’t have time to find out what the Bible actually says and means. We base our faith on opinion, misinformation, tradition, a patchwork of odds-and-ends beliefs picked up along the way, and things various pastors have told us the Bible says. I can’t tell you the number of people — mostly lay — who have offered some variation of “I never knew THAT was in the Bible!” When I wrote FaithQuest, one of the frequent responses was, “I’ve been an active member of the church for 30+ years… why haven’t I ever heard this before?” The Bible isn’t supposed to be a secret — and Luther & Gutenberg made it okay for everybody not only to own a Bible, but to read it, too. Then we strengthen what we read when we share what we learn and think.
These are just five simple, basic things. The list could be a lot longer, but that’s part of our problem — going out of our way to make things harder than they need to be. (Heaping snow and wind onto the already weakened structure of our church trees…) If we would just give attention to these simple things, I believe we would grow stronger, and in many important ways be able to withstand the winds of doctrine blowing us to and fro. It is at least worth considering…