I am becoming more and more convinced that coffee shops are the new mission frontier. I stopped at Beans ‘n’ Creme in Sun Prairie this morning for my usual fix (nothing fancy, just plain old coffee…) and I saw a group of men all with their Bibles open having a rather animated conversation. They were talking about the new PBS series, God in America, that premiered last night (and that I intended to plug on my blog BEFORE it aired, but I got busy and forgot…). This brought to mind the number of posters, emails, and invites I have seen the past two weeks for viewing parties. What is striking is that all the invitations I have seen or received have been from Lutherans, Catholics, ecumenical groups or campus ministries. Not one viewing party that I am aware of was United Methodist. I find this interesting and a little sad, because almost every other mainline church in our state has been promoting the series. Hmmm…..
One of the men in the discussion group who knows me and knows that I am a UM clergyman, waved me over and said, “We have a quick question we’ve been arguing about: do you have to go to church to be a Christian?” Quick question indeed! I realize they wanted a “yes” or “no,” but any of you who have read my blogs know that I can never answer a question simply. It’s not in my nature. My Socratic side kicked in and I answered their question with a question: “Depends. How do you define church?” Most there were thinking of the steepled building in their neighborhood where people congregate occasionally to sing songs, hear a sermon, toss a few bucks in a bowl, then exit to head home for the Packers game. I pushed back: “if your question is really ‘do we need other people in order to be Christian?’ I would answer ‘yes.’ I don’t believe that Judaism or Christianity were ever intended to be personal and private experiences of God for the individual. Our faith is a shared faith that shapes and equips us to be in service to others. This is impossible to achieve in isolation.” You would have thought I spit my coffee on them. Four of them started talking at once about how they are good Christians and that they don’t need a church or other people to be faithful and that I’m biased because I work for the church. One man, red in the face, said, “I pray, I read the Bible, I’m kind to others — I think it is a complete waste of time to go to church!” I replied, “So, what are you doing here?” He looked confused, looked at his friends and the Bibles open before each of them and said, “This isn’t church!”
I walked outside and noticed two men — one middle-aged and looking very dirty and tattered, and one twenty-something — also looking dirty and tattered, but intentionally so. The older of the two had approached the younger of the two for money. The younger man said he wouldn’t give him money, but he would take him to the diner and buy him breakfast. The older man brightened up and agreed, and as they walked away I heard the young guy say, “Do you believe in God?” He said it so openly and casually that it startled me. I was in the presence of a true evangelist in the Jamesian tradition! The second thought that struck me is “I can’t think of more than a handful of people active in our churches today who would be ready and willing to do what that young man just did.”
I opened my email upon reaching work and had my heart strangely broken (rather than warmed). Two weeks ago I posted a blog, Make-No-Wave United Methodist Church, that generated over 100 comments. The premise was a young pastor asking three questions — what is the church, what is the church for, and what do our membership vows really mean? He suggested that the church could be better and do better. The laity leadership of his church and his district superintendent told him to back off and not push people to grow in their faith. People come to church to be loved and cared for, and we should simply leave them alone. The comments were fairly evenly divided between those who sided with the young pastor and those who sided with the church leaders and DS. However one casualty of the debate emerged to share with me this morning:
I’ve had it. The system wins. The powers and principalities are stronger than my faith. I am done. I am leaving the ministry. At least the ordained ministry. I have got to get out of this rotten system so that I can actually serve God and do God’s will. I took your article (Make-No-Wave) to my church council to talk about “those” churches dying of low expectations and no vision and apathy and complacency and how glad I am that we aren’t one of those churches. And you know what they said? They don’t want to be pushed. They do just want to be loved. They really don’t care what is happening in the rest of the world. The rest of the world is what they are trying to escape by coming to church. They hate it when I “make them feel guilty” that they aren’t doing more. They put up with me. They tolerate all my “motivational clap-trap,” as one council member so kindly put it, because they know they don’t have to do anything they don’t want to, so they can ignore it. One person did say that it was fine for me to do these ministries, and that if others wanted to do them that was fine, but they resented me trying to impose my standards and expectations on them. I can’t do this anymore. I’m not blaming you. Your article didn’t make this happen. It just uncovered what I have been in denial about for a long, long time. The church is dead but just hasn’t had the good grace to lie down. It stinks to high heaven, but we pretend it’s roses instead of naming what it really is. $#!&. I am totally fed up trying to talk people into wanting to be Christian. I cannot believe this is what God called me to.
I haven’t responded yet, other than to ask if I could share this person’s frustration publicly. The person gave me permission, saying it wasn’t going to be any big secret — the gears are already in motion. It made me very sad. What do we really have that we are calling church? Are low expectations, apathy, complacency, squabbling, building buildings, paving parking lots, paying bills, and puttin’ on a show a couple times a week what we’re about? Is it really a bad thing to encourage and challenge people to be better and to actually live and practice a faith rather than just hear and think about it? Truly, as The United Methodist Church what do we believe God is calling us to do and be? Maybe our next multi-million dollar marketing campaign will tell us…