Knittin’ Mittens for a Snake

annoyedWhen will we begin to listen?  Much of what we are offering people, they don’t want, can’t use, and don’t value.  A growing population of deeply devout people — of all ages — have determined that organized religion is for the judgmentally insane.  I was sitting in a meeting with a group of conservative evangelical independent almost fundamentalist teenagers who are furious with their church for not welcoming minorities — racial, ethnic, gay, poor.  One by one the young people lamented that they simply don’t care to be part of any religion that uses hate, exclusion, violence, injustice and abuse as their governing values.  Twenty years ago, many young people in conservative churches would have not batted an eye at exclusion — only those liberal bleeding hearts would have wanted “those people” anywhere near the church.  The trends are fairly clear: more people are avoiding the church because it is too judgmental and restrictive, not because it is too liberal and unrighteous.

Part of the problem and challenge is that many in “the church” cannot distinguish between what is truth and what we have chosen to believe is truth.  The pick and choose nature of biblical interpretation is ghastly and embarrassing.  Individuals make a simple, basic decision about their Bible — to use it as a tool or to wield it as a weapon.  And a growing number of older adults are failing to realize that those they are injuring most are their children and grandchildren.

Oh, I know the fear is there.  For those who believe that the devil is stronger than God, the idea of tolerating human brokenness is terrifying.  If I believe that a particular sin is like a viral infection and my God is impotent in the face of disease, then I will fight until my dying breath trying to deny that taint.  If I believe that the shortcomings of others have more power than my own faith, I will attack them in every way possible.  And I will twist holy writ in every direction to make it justify my anger and fear.  But I had better pay attention to the unintended consequences of such faithless behavior.  People are watching.  The hostility of the narrow-minded are corrupting the credibility and integrity of the church.  Young people are not drifting away from indifference, they are making a conscious decision to break from the toxic energy of judgmentalism, persecution, hostility, anger and violence.  A young woman told me, “I had to get out of the church just to feel God’s love again.”

Another young man shared with me that he has three very good friends — a Filipino youth, a gay neighbor and a mildly mentally challenged classmate.  On different occasions he took them to his United Methodist church.  He told me that each time he has been asked NOT to bring them back — they aren’t the kind of people he should be associating with.  Guess what?  He left the church.

When my grandmother thought I was wasting my time or doing something foolish, she told me I was “knittin’ mittens for a snake.”  As I see more and more effort dedicated to preserving our institutional church and our personalized, privatized, sanitized sacreligion, I can’t help thinking we might be knittin’ mittens for snakes — we may be guaranteeing that we have no future, no hope, no mission, and no positive witness.  Even if we truly believe non-churchy people are sweaty sacks of sin, they should be the very people we DO want.  It is very hard to save those you deny and reject.  Two whole generations of Christ-followers and faithful seekers are basically absent from our churches.  They are very open, honest and transparent about why.  And we can happily reject them as ignorant, misguided, and evil — they don’t mind a bit.  It simply reinforces and proves what they already think.  If there is anyone we don’t want in our church, we include them as well.  Some say we have no future if we let sinners in, but the reality is we have no future as long as we keep God’s precious children out.

22 replies

  1. Ah, if we were only more inclusive. If we were more like the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America or The Episcopal Church and welcomed and affirmed everyone, no matter what they did or believed, then we could grow like the Evangelical Lutheran Church (down 5.9% in 2012) or the Episcopal church (down 2.8% or more in 2012r). Instead we only dropped by 1.2% in U.S. membership last year. Certainly, we don’t want to be like those intolerant unwelcoming fundamentalist Assembly of God churches (grew at 4% in 2012) or the Pentecostal Assemblies of the World (grew at 20% in 2012.) As the United Methodist Church dies we can celebrate the fact that we are so much more inclusive, welcoming, and enlightened than those fundamentalist churches that are taking our place in America. (Maybe they will even buy our excess buildings as we close those churches that are so inclusive that no one bothers to come anymore.)
    Perhaps, if we concentrated on being more holy and not affirming anyone’s sin (not even the popular ones like greed, materialism, and consumerism) and helping sinners, like us.know that there is a loving God who wants to be in relationship with us, offers us forgiveness, and divine help to change our ways, the UMC won’t be gone in the US by the end of the next generation. But what do I know, maybe I am like so many in the church that can’t distinguish between what is truth and what I have chosen to believe is truth.

    • Thanks for the honest confession at the end that you don’t know the difference. Were mainline churches the only ones in decline, you might have a point, but it is popularity, not faithfulness that is the hallmark of growing Christian churches. Now, if you want to talk about HEALTHY churches, you find them defined by their love, kindness, compassion, mercy, healing, justice and commitment to peace. Judgment, condemnation, vile arrogance, and haughty self-righteousness may make one feel superior, but have nothing to do with Jesus and the Holy Spirit.

      • Your statement that it is popularity not faithfulness that is the hallmark of growing churches reminds me of the complaints made by the mainline churches in the 18th and 19th Centuries of the ‘vulgar methods” employed by the rapidly growing Methodist and Baptist churches who called for repentance from sin rather the preaching genteel scholarly sermons about helping neighbors preached by the educated pastors of the declining Congregational and Presbyterian churches.

        We moderns tend to justify our sins by accusing those who bring them to our attention (or refuse to affirm them) of a Pharisaical lack of love and grace. Unlike God’s merciful justification of us, our justification of ourselves requires no repentance. We remain “righteous” in our culturally affirmed sins. One of the great weaknesses of the modern church is that it is nearly impossible to call the righteous to repentance; without repentance there is no forgiveness of sin; and without forgiveness of sin, there is no Good News, passion for the Lord, or true vitality. After all, Christ did not come to save the righteous (Luke 5:32), The sermon here says it better than I ever could http://gafcon.org/images/uploads/The_Grace_of_God_or_the_world_of_the_West.pdf?utm_source=StandFirm&utm_medium=post&utm_campaign=link.

        So long as United Methodist Churches remain solely focused on doing good deeds, with a bit of condemnation of culturally condemned sins (e.g., smoking and failing to recycle) and affirming culturally affirmed sins (e.g., adultery, fornication, etc.), we will continue to decline. After all you can do as much for your community through Sertoma and you don’t have support the large physical plant or listen to the sermons. If we go this way, those who want real Wesleyan faith and preaching can be Nazarenes (a growing Wesleyan church while we remain in mainline decline.)

    • Sounds like you’re concerned with “the numbers,” like a business executive, coach, or a kid keeping score. While you are right some fundamentalist denominations are having a little growth, they were way low to begin with. Perhaps you should have mentioned the Muslims and the Mormons while you were at it. But rapid secularization and horror by the young at the bad behavior of Christians will only mean churches continue to decline in memberships. I for one am proud that as a Methodist I know that we are not selling the easy answers, hate-you-neighbor gospel the fundamentalists are offering. Bemoaning declining numbers is irrelevant and if you think we can reverse that by becoming more right-wing, think again. We can’t beat the genuinely right-wing churches at their own game.

      Church numbers were always inflated until fifty years ago or so when people wouldn’t patronize a freethinking blacksmith or dentist. Now that there’s no great stigma for being a “None” more people proclaim themselves such. Meanwhile the hypocrites buy ads in right-wing Christianist (that’s akin to Islamicist) papers, always including the little fish symbol so the rubes won’t think they’ll get ripped off so much.

      • Oh, and, re: John H’s second post there – “adultery, fornication”? Let’s get some perspecective there: Adultery has traditionally been the sin of a married woman and her lover, while the married man who keeps a mistress goes unscathed. Fornication? When marriages in Jesus’ day normally occurred when the woman was about 15, it was merely the transfer of her from being the porperty of her father to that of her husband. Somehow I doubt your UMC church is free from the divorced and remarried, and I guarandamtee you the fundamentalist churches down the street have more of them than we do. You don’t solve social problems by beating people up. Next thing I guess you will advocate shaming the single teenage mother who wants her baby baptised, as many fundamentalist churches do, as the solution to teenage pregnancy.

  2. You ended with: “we have no future as long as we keep God’s precious children out.” I lead a bible study twice a month on Mondays. The last time we met, we had just finished discussing I John 3. When the ladies left the room, one started cutting into another verbally. Something in the lesson on loving one another must have been missed. The receiver of the hurt is the one who calls and reminds all about the next meeting. She left me a message last night telling me she doesn’t plan to call that person because of what she did to her and another person who caused a situation in the car on the way home. Today I get to call the “caller” and see where she is on the situation…. On Monday, I get the opportunity to continue attempting to lead and teach on God’s love for us and our love for one another within a context that is not always simple, clean cut, or easy. All of God’s children are precious! That I know to be truth. May I be able to show each one of them God’s love.

    Thanks for food for thought, as always…. Oh, and as for the truth stuff…. Between classes and readings and seeking out from God on that these days, this is something I desire to know and understand…. I want and need the truth to set me free so I can set others free. At the same time, as I love God and love others, I find it difficult to know where that line is drawn in the sand, so to speak….. Yet, it isn’t me that needs to draw it. But as I prepare to be in ministry, I want to prepare to live well, to love well, to lead well.

    Rambling, sorry. Thanks. dd

  3. Is Jesus is a symbol that dies in every generation? I am proud of all the pastors and priests who keep Him alive. I pray for you all. Lead us on. Encourage us to strengthen our faith in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Do not falter or hesitate. Be strong. You are loved and cherished in the midst of our times and culture. Thank you all. Peace and grace.

  4. Jesus came to save the lost, and I think that it can be very hard for the church to continue to acknowledge the “lost-ness” of its state. Many people feel or believe that the church should somehow have all of the answers, every solution to the problems that we all are facing. It is hard for the church to say, “I don’t know, but I’ll love you and find out with you.”

    I think that part of the concern, when it comes to rejecting individuals from the church, is a fear that new visitors are hoping to be affirmed in their lifestyles (I say “lifestyles” in the broadest sense of the term – fiscal, relational, what-have-you) rather that confronted with a radical love that changes them from the inside out. That doesn’t even apply to new visitors alone. Lifetime members of congregations want to be affirmed and encouraged that they are living their lives in a worthy manner as opposed to realizing that they are still in need of salvation.

    Humility seems to be, more and more, the gray area that is very difficult for anybody to remain in. We are afraid or over-confident. We are so very, very easily offended. What is the answer? How do we love and define sin?

    Forgive my rhetorical musings. I appreciate your blog and the deeper thinking that it spurns. Deeper thinking is another one of those gray areas, though. It doesn’t mean we surface with the answers.

    • While you take pains to state otherwise, it appears your comment about people wanting to be “confirmed in their lifestyle” is basically a statement of gay bashing. The term “gay lifestyle is used sneeringly by the religious Right to trivialize LGBT people’s lives and loves. It is not equivalent to a golfing “lifestyle” or a suburban “lifestyle”. Moreover, the phrasing raises the expectation of an ominousness, as if LGBTs do nothing but hook up and make limpwristed gestures. Like the rest of us, they work, pay the bills, raise children, do laundry, and go to Wal-Mart. Perhaps it is you who wants to be “confirmed in your lifestyle” of smugness and self-importance.

      • I would encourage you to re-read my post and perhaps exercise the openness of mind you are claiming to stand for but are negating with your easy and quick judgements. As you stated, I intentionally defined “lifestyle” for the sake of my contribution to the conversation. The term “lifestyle” is not owned by any group of individuals and I claimed that truth for what I hoped to share. I am sorry if you misunderstood. Not only that, but I was contrasting that statement against the idea of radical love – upholding the latter, and quite obviously sharing in the idea that the individuals who currently make up “the church” are always in need of working out their salvation. My intention was the furthest thing from what you state.

        My quote:
        “Humility seems to be, more and more, the gray area that is very difficult for anybody to remain in. We are afraid or over-confident. We are so very, very easily offended. What is the answer? How do we love and define sin?”

        Dan R Dick’s quote:
        “The hostility of the narrow-minded are corrupting the credibility and integrity of the church. Young people are not drifting away from indifference, they are making a conscious decision to break from the toxic energy of judgmentalism, persecution, hostility, anger and violence. A young woman told me, “I had to get out of the church just to feel God’s love again.””

        Given your response, I must remind myself we, as individuals, tend to not see the world as the world actually is – we tend to see the world as we are. When I look back at my original words, I stand behind them. Their intent was not the distortion you are making them out to be.

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