Culture works on church like a cancer. Popularity is the new standard of excellence. Having a slogan or a sound bite or a brand is so much more important than being relevant or having integrity. Our get-’em-in-the-doors-by-any-means mentality has done more to kill the church than almost anything else, but it gives the false impression of success. I saw a man set a record for cramming over three hundred french fries in his mouth at one time, but the caption along the bottom of the television screen read Highlands Assemblies of God Church — and I thought, what a perfect metaphor! Super Size UMC. It’s no wonder that the rest of the world looks at what has become of the church and walks away shaking their collective head. They simply know a sell-out when they see one — reducing the gospel of Jesus Christ to slogans. I got news for you, slapping it on a bumper sticker ain’t evangelism — it’s the path of least resistance. It is what we do when we choose not to do the hard work of actually getting to know people and sharing with them the beliefs and values that give our lives meaning. It’s letting McDonald’s and Wal-Mart teach us how to set up a money-changers franchise in the temple. We have been doing it constantly since the 1960s. How’s that workin’ out for us…?
Oh, I know the argument of those who are doing it — you need to get them in the door, you’ve got to start somewhere, you need to catch their attention, yada, yada, yada. But the problem is, there simply isn’t any substance below the surface. Our symbols have all been subjugated and subsumed. I watched a mom get out of her car with little junior in tow — her minivan was coated with fish symbols and crosses and religious bumper stickers and a big WWJD in her back window. She waltzed junior into the liquor store for an obvious refill — this woman was in no condition to have been out driving — and as they returned to the car she lost her temper with her little one, jerking his arm repeatedly, then swinging wildly at him when she put her package down. Three college kids were sitting close by and one muttered, “she goes to my mom’s church,” and his friend snickered and said, “You go to church?” Shocked, the first boy snorted and said, “Nah, man, people like her go to church.” I couldn’t resist. I caught the kid’s eye and said, “So, you think everybody who goes to church is like that?”, referring to the woman. He looked at her for a minute, then he looked at me and replied, “Not exactly like her, but like her, you know? They act like everybody else but they pretend they’re better ’cause they go to church. You peel off all the stickers and there’s nothing there.”
You peel off the stickers and there’s nothing there. Okay, maybe this is the opinion of just one young man — but don’t count on it. Our superficial spirituality isn’t fooling anyone but us. Oh, and don’t we hate it when young people — the very people we say we want to reach and include — are the one’s to point it out to us? I wanted so much to defend the church and to tell this trio of young men not to judge the whole church by this one woman (or me, for that matter) but I couldn’t in good faith say it. They weren’t judging based on this woman; they merely saw this woman as a confirmation of their own personal experiences.
The integration of outward appearances and inward orientation is the crux of faith-filled living. Being who we say we are is a lifelong endeavor and the church exists to help us bring our real selves in line with the ideal selves God creates us to be. For too many people, church is a safe place that never challenges them to be anything other than what they already are. In this culture, being a Christian has nothing to do with integrity, but with attending a church, carrying a Bible, and putting a decal on the car. Any time the church panders to such low expectations and behaviors, shame on us. And many of our clergy and laity leaders are the primary culprits. A handful of churches whose leaders have no clue what is really happening draw bigger numbers, and like lemmings to the cliff-edge others blindly flock, seeking to learn the great wisdom of these minority churches. There is no wisdom for easy growth. Fundamentally, growth is about context and chemistry and being in the right place at the right time. The vast majority of our “successful” pastors are one-hit-wonders who are popular in one place, then never able to repeat their success anywhere else in their ministry. These are the pastors that write the books and teach the seminars. And generally their only claim to fame is they came to a small church and made it big.
I am being overly caustic and provocative because I am frustrated. Can you tell? As a denomination, we are enamored with image and confuse it with identity. We fail at prayer but devote inordinate amounts of time, energy and money to popularity. Getting people to “like” the church is more important than getting people to live as church. And we are paying a dear price. If we do not break from the numbers-game mentality we will die — at the hands of the people who keep using statistics to terrorize the church to action. If I hear one more idiot/expert scream “decline/decline/decline” thinking he (they are pretty much all white privileged males…) is being prophetic I will lose my lunch. These people are not visionary, they are not insightful, they are not helpful — they are simply the lamest form of fear-mongering. Anyone who thinks our future is dependent on our past is simplistic. What we aren’t is poor motivation for what we should be. But we have so cheapened the church that even a fear-induced call to mediocrity seems like a Promised Land. But let’s face it, we can do a lot better. We have the gifts and passions and abilities to do great things and be a great witness, and when all is said and done, that’s what God expects from us.