Back to Basics

News flash!  We’re making the gospel harder than it needs to be.  I mean, how difficult is “good news?”  What part of “God is love” is so confusing?  What’s with our penchant to load up “for God so loved the world that he gave his only son” with rules, regulations, judgments, punitive indictments, condescension, pettiness, exclusion, insult and contempt — and label it “Christian piety?”  Why do we seem more obsessed with sin than grace, condemnation than compassion, disdain than mercy, fear than faith, and being right than doing good?  Why is it that fewer and fewer United Methodists pray regularly, read/study the Bible, fast, celebrate communion, and engage in adult spiritual formation?

On August 2, Jon Stewart on The Daily Show compared The United Methodist Church to the University of Phoenix.  He notes that we seem to be the equivalent of a diploma mill — that we are the church where you can just “phone it in.”  Harsh words, but unfair?  Not according to a large number of people who have tried the good old UMC and found it wanting.  During the Seeker Study I spearheaded for the denomination in the early part of this decade, many deeply dedicated Christian spiritual seekers walked away from The United Methodist Church in disgust and disappointment because:

You don’t know your own story.  You don’t know who you are and what you believe.

You seem to spend more time keeping people out than actually trying to include them.

You strain at gnats and swallow camels.  You believe some of the lamest, weirdest stuff and ignore the simple, kind, and helpful stuff.

Methodists are all over the map.  I spent almost a year finding out that they don’t have a clue what they really believe.

The way they treat women, minorities, gays, other faiths?  God must be so embarrassed by United Methodists.

It feels like a time warp — like 1984, but from the other side.  I was looking for “open hearts, open minds, and open doors” and all I found was that I don’t belong there.

I went to about six different United Methodist churches, hoping to find help on my spiritual journey.  I could not find it.  I couldn’t find people to pray with, Bible studies were all at a fourth grade level, the worship was insipid and tedious, and I left each week depressed.  I heard a few good sermons and met a few other people interested in growing in their faith, but overall I realized that the (UM) church would just slow me down.  I don’t have time to waste with people who don’t really give a s*&#.

I have so many questions — about God, about life, about belief, about the world — and I really hoped the church could help me sort these things out.  Imagine my disappointment when I realized that the church really doesn’t care about any of these things.  The churches I tried were interested in getting new members to serve on groups, to sit in the pews on Saturday or Sunday, and to make a financial pledge.  Beyond that?  No one seemed much interested in anything.

It’s like walking in on a conversation already in progress.  I don’t go to church much, and I went and there was all this “code” language and insider terminology.  We read a creed together, and I leaned over to a woman near me and asked, “Why did we just do that?”  She looked at me all shocked and said, “We do this every week!”  I asked, “But why?  People don’t actually believe all that stuff do they?”  She said, “Shhhh,” and ignored me the rest of the service.  I stopped at the preacher on the way out and asked if she could explain a few things to me.  She told me I could join a new members class where everything would be answered.  I haven’t been back since.

I got invited to a small group, and I thought, “Cool.  A small community of people where I can really dig deep and learn about living the Christian faith.  I showed up, we had a five-minute devotion, watched a silly little church video with a VERY sincere “hip” pastor, ate snacks and played Bible Pictionary.  I called our small group leader the next day and asked if this was normal for what the group did.  She said, “Well sometimes we go to a movie or restaurant, or bowling.”  When I asked if there were other, more serious, groups I could check out, she told me that ours was the “best” and most active.  I couldn’t believe that’s what adults do at church.  I felt like I was in Sunday school when I was ten.  I couldn’t believe it.

These are a handful of verbatims from hundreds of interviews we conducted in early 2003 through 2006.  Now, it is important to note that these were all interviews with people who tried the UMC and chose NOT to stay involved, so it is a negatively biased sample.  But that doesn’t mean the viewpoints don’t have merit and that we can’t learn from them.  There are a few important common themes:

  1. people are disappointed that there isn’t more focus on prayer, reading the Bible, and spiritual conversation
  2. people are disappointed that we don’t seem to know why we do the things we do; why we believe the things we believe; why we say the things we say
  3. people are surprised and put off that we spend more time looking at what divides us instead of what unites us
  4. people are disturbed that we seem to prefer breadth over depth, surface over substance, and talking to doing
  5. people feel we are out of touch, behind the times, and disconnected
  6. people discover that church doesn’t offer them value or support in their spiritual journey

Are these universally, generally true observations?  Of course not.  Are they widespread enough that hundreds of people share them?  Yes, and for this reason they are worth taking seriously.  Jon Stewart is not the only person who thinks you can believe and do anything and be a Methodist.  Very few of the people who take the vows of membership in our denomination are held accountable to those promises.  Widespread both within the church as well as outside is the view that membership is a meaningless concept in our church — that there is no difference between someone who is a member and someone who is not.  There are no explicit expectations, requirements, or commitments — a person can say “yes” they want to be a member, then for all intents and purposes do whatever they want to without penalty, sacrifice or follow-through.  In many people’s minds, this is what it means to be United Methodist.

Turning things around shouldn’t be so hard.  What many people in the church as well as outside are seeking is simple, basic Christian community.  They want to know how to pray.  They want to know how to read and intepret the Bible.  They want to be able to talk about Christian beliefs and practices.  They want companions on the journey.  Most are willing to define what it means to “uphold this congregation of The United Methodist Church by your prayers, presence, gifts, service and witness.”  They are less interested in sound systems and Powerpoint and delivery style than they are about the substance and quality of what is being communicated.  They are seeking less, rather than more — less noise and activity and information in favor of greater value, content, and experience.  People are seeking depth, and a safe place to dive in… and they reject those places where people don’t know their own story — the story of the church, the faith, and God.

17 replies

  1. I agree that there are many “Christians” who attend any church, whether Methodist, other mainline or non-denominational, who are there for a Sunday lesson and then go on about their lives without searching deeply and without trying to build a personal relationship with God. But none of us is perfect, whether we never go to church, go at Christmas and Easter, every Sunday or whether we do daily Bible study, etc.

    I can tell you from personal experience that I have been in all of these positions. I have gone years without being in a church, going rarely, going each week, but not building that personal relationship with God. And I am now in a position where I am an avid reader of Scripture and books with a variety of insights into Scripture. I attend church weekly and am actively participating in my local church, and ministries. And God is calling me into helping others build their faith. I praise God that God does not limit nor has not limited my participation because of where I have been at any point in my journey. I have left several churches which pushed their ideology to the point of my beginning to believe that perhaps I wasn’t a Christian. Perhaps I needed to study another religion or just do my own personal reading and faith practice. The one church which has always been open to my foundering ways was the United Methodist Church.
    I agree that we need to encourage all who come to find a deeper relationship with God, BUT! we need to encourage them to continue participating however they can. If that had not happened to me, I am not sure I would have heard God calling to me. All of us are seekers. We wouldn’t go to a community religious event (Sunday church service or other) if we were not seeking something.
    Sometimes we need to just get to know others who believe before we can make the step toward God. I know that God has accepted me whereever I am, throughout my whole life. And God has continued to say, just as a parent teaching their child to walk says, “Hooray! That was a wonderful step toward me. Now take another step. It will be even more exciting!”
    May I be as accepting and as encouraging to others, no matter where they are, as God has been to me.

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