Showing my age, one metaphor that comes to mind for the contemporary United Methodist Church is the Shmoo, from the Li’l Abner comic strip — originally appearing culturally in the late 1940s, and appearing in my young awareness sometime in the early 1960s when my passion for comics and cartoons hit its zenith. The Shmoo is a pale creature, looking basically like a bowling pin with legs — very bottom-heavy with a small head and no arms — completely docile and pleasant (and as I remember, good to eat…). How are Shmoos analogous to the dear old UMC? Follow along…
Bottom-heavy: 85% of the Shmoo exists below the neck. 85% of The United Methodist Church membership is passive, complacent, perfectly happy to sit in a pew (occasionally), be served (regularly) and otherwise be left alone (perpetually). The small head exists to serve the large bottom — the 15% at the top doing everything in its collective power to keep the 85% at the bottom happy, satisfied, and content. The energy in the church today moves from the most invested to the least invested. Is it any wonder, then, that new people seeking a life-transforming relationship with a world-transforming deity are less than thrilled with what they find? Instead of the energy flowing from the bottom to propel an ever-widening circle of motivated disciples into the top tiers of leadership and action, we have a drain of energy pulling the best of our resources and gifts into a maintenance and perpetuation cycle. Shmoo church.
No arms: we run around a lot on our short, stumpy legs — you cannot accuse The United Methodist Church of not being busy! But activity should never be confused with productivity. Transportation is not the same thing as transformation. We are constantly moving, but we’re not getting anywhere. We stand passively by, unable to touch, grab hold, carry, lift, or unite.
Pleasant: we love the concept of “nice.” Look what we did to a core value like “radical hospitality!” We made it mean being friendly, pleasant, and nice… until someone “new” tries to change something, or touch something, or question something. We aren’t interested in welcoming new members into the family — we merely want to entertain guests. And we all know the best thing about company — eventually they go home. Our facade is smiley and
gay “open”, but once you get backstage it is anything BUT.
Shmoos are a joke (literally — look up the old Li’l Abner strips) and prone to be laughed at rather than laughed with. Among young adults with little or no interest in The United Methodist Church, a key reason for their indifference — to downright disdain — is a church perfectly happy with its complacency and bottom-heavy sedentariness. A thirty-something named Kathy told me, “I want someone to challenge me — to urge me to DO something. Every church I’ve ever gone to SAYS they want people to get involved, but they define involvement as “sit down and shut up, unless you’re asked a question.” It’s like I come in excited and all my excitement gets sucked out of me.” Shmoo church — drain the energy from the top to settle in the bottom.
So, what’s the solution? A good first step is to admit we’re Shmoos and not tolerate it anymore. The complacent 85% can’t call the shots anymore. What do the 15% need? What will take the most engaged, most gifted, most passionate, most ready to the next level? What can we do to equip, enable, and empower the head to lead the tail? What can we do to shift the flow of energy and spirit from the bottom to the top? Prayer comes to mind, as does actually taking the gospel seriously for a change. A commitment to excellence and world-class performance wouldn’t hurt. Some standards, demands and accountability — actually expecting people to ACT like Jesus the Christ — might be fun. Taking our faith seriously as call and vocation for the priesthood of all believers instead of hobby and leisure activity when convenient could be interesting as well.
No Shmoos is good Shmoos (do we need a T-shirt…?) should be our motto. We have got to want to be something more. Don’t we?