I had a friend in high school with a white Camaro. Classic car. Meticulously restored. White-glove-clean inside and out. But whenever this friend had to go somewhere, he got a ride from friends or family. He owned a car, but he never drove it out of the garage. He retained it as a showpiece, but the purpose that car was built for—transportation—never happened.
Believers in Christ sometimes act like that Camaro owner. We (think) we have meticulous theology, airtight beliefs, and a knowledge of right and wrong. We’re constantly disciples, learning about God, but for what purpose? What is knowledge of God without action that resembles God? Jesus isn’t interested in us all getting a Ph.D. in Doing Church. He wants us to drive the car out of the garage and use it for its purpose.
If you’ve been around social media for any length of time, you’ve seen the reactions to weeks like we’ve recently had.
“I’m shocked!” “Heartbreaking.” “How is this still happening?” “I can’t imagine.” “Why aren’t we doing anything about this?”
This can be any number of things.
Right now, it’s a(nother) devastating school shooting. A week before it was a(nother) supermarket shooting, aimed at black Americans. Before/concurrent with that, a(nother) report of massive church negligence and buried abuse. But it could be so many things.
We’re always shocked.
Not really. We’re never shocked anymore if we admit the truth. Anyone still shocked hasn’t been living in reality. It’s an easy placeholder when we have nothing else to say. When we have no intention of doing anything about the source of our shock.
We’re always heartbroken. We can never imagine what the tragedy is like, even though we can’t help but imagine every time we go to school drop off, at least for a while. BIPOC can’t help but imagine constantly.
We pretend we don’t know why it happens, and we wring our hands in hopelessness at any change. Then we go back to our lives and pray, in those hiding places in the depths of our minds and hearts, that “next time” isn’t coming for us. We know there’s a next time; we know the space between is increasingly tighter.
It comes down to retention of power. What have we proven ourselves willing to accept in our fealty to the god of power? What sacrifices does this god require to grant power to those who are willing to feed it, bow to it, and beg from it? Church, how many silver coins have we taken to retain our small fiefdoms?
We know the answers.
Too many church leaders have been willing to accept the collateral damage of people in our congregations dying or being permanently disabled by Covid. It’s a sacrifice worth making to the gods who will ensure we remain popular and powerful.
As a whole, we’re willing to risk our children’s lives and mental well-being, so long as we can retain the power we imagine guns grant us. Future generations damaged by the psychological dissonance of fearing the place they should be safe don’t matter. Persons obsessed with their “rights” (and their campaign donations) keep their power. Children are a disposable sacrifice willingly made to uphold illusions of guns bestowing power and safety. Church leaders will pretend this is true so their base remains beneath their pedestal.
Abandoning church abuse victims, while destroying their mental health and reputations, seems a small price to offer the gods. It leads to easily retaining the power of office, leadership titles, and flowing funds.
Women know, too, when they speak up, that they will be screamed down by the worshipers of power. They know the price they will pay. They understand their abusers will receive at best 12-year sentences. Almost certainly, they’ll never even face legal ramifications. They know their careers will be endangered. Women recognize their detractors will be congratulated quietly in secret church meetings and openly on social media. The acolytes will never readily accept insulting their gods.
Our citizens, and future citizens, of color appear marginal losses compared to the blessings bestowed by white majority power. The zeal to retain it—refusing the delusion of “replacement”—allows for just about any sacrifice on the altar of supremacy. Violence is a tenet of the religion. It’s preached from pulpits that dare to be backed by a cross.
Our women endangered by traumatic pregnancies can be re-victimized and even left to die, because control over their behavior matters more than their lives. The church rightfully cares for life, but the lengths some will go to legally control rather than preserve life reveals their true goal. He who holds the control over any group’s bodies wields the power. Ask anyone who has a passing acquaintance with slavery in the US.
That acquaintance, by the way, some in power desperately would have us not ever pass, for the same reason. Defaming brilliant people of color is a price they consider well worth paying. Don’t ask, don’t tell about our history of horror, and all will be well.
Make no mistake—these things are all related. They’re all related to power. They’re all part of the design to keep it at all and any cost. They’re all deeply rooted in the church, not just the culture.
Our outraged shock is misplaced. We should be past it. We can no longer be shocked, and we ought to give up the pretense. Shock isn’t action. There is no prize for being the most appalled. We’re not impressed by those whose privilege allows them to be continually amazed.
Our repeated cries of “Why?” only feed those in power. So long as we’re asking questions and wringing hands, we won’t be making any demands. Powerful churchmen can even appear righteous by answering the questions. Deflection. Whataboutism. Thoughts and prayers.
The church needs to strike at the idolatry. She needs to ask herself—what am I worshiping? The church—its power structures and people—must return to its founding Rabbi and internalize his words of humility and emptying. The people who crave churches based on goodness, while acting in humility and kindness, can’t hold back on those strikes. The American church has a graft of an evil branch attached to its tree, and it needs pruning. After all, “How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?” (Psalm 137.4). This land, right now, is very, very foreign.
Any church leader who prizes reputation over transparency shouldn’t lead.
Any church leader who bows to white values (sometimes mistaken for family values, biblical values, God and country values) shouldn’t lead.
Any church leader whose behavior and doctrine embody disdain for women shouldn’t lead.
Any church leader who isn’t willing to submit to and be taught by the marginalized shouldn’t lead.
Any church leader whose love affair with authority exceeds a love for people shouldn’t lead.
And denominations should be holding their leaders to this, or we are right to abandon them. The church in American isn’t failing because of culture wars or Millennials and Gen Zers who just want to sin freely. We’re failing because we’re worshiping a false god and preaching a false gospel. When we give our offerings to the god of power, we reap the whirlwind we’ve sown.
Why does this keep happening? Because those in power are willing to let it–they want it to keep happening. Those not in power need to be loud in our refusal to assent.
I looked at the summit of the volcano in whose crater I now stood. Surely the end of the trail was on one of the lower areas of the semi-circle. It couldn’t be at the very highest point. Could it? But barely visible, a vague roof and building skeleton told me it probably was exactly in that spot. And I saw stairs. Lots of stairs.
I told my husband he could go on the hike and I’d stay at the bottom and watch birds. I could never make that trek. Between the Ehlers-Danlos that causes my ankles to turn at the hint of a pebble in the road and my knees to hurt five minutes into a hike, the accompanying dysautonomia that gives me shortness of breath on a simple flight of stairs, and recurring plantar fasciitis, I’m learning my limits. The top of Diamond Head was one of them. Hiking websites say it’s not hard. The websites don’t consider a lot of the population. (Besides, according to the park site, “The 0.8 mile hike from trailhead to the summit is steep and strenuous, gaining 560 feet as it ascends from the crater floor.” So there, hiking sites.)
He told me the entry fee was cheap and I could stop whenever I wanted to and come back down. So what was there to lose to walk a little way? Fine. It was our first day ever in Hawaii and a lovely morning. I’d hike a short way.
Hikers are the best sort of people. Sure, there are those on a mission. They only want to reach point B, and if you’re hindering that pursuit, they’ll run you off the road. They’re the minority, though. Every time we visit a new place, it’s the hikers who are the kindest people to meet. They make room for you on the path. They smile. They tell you you’re almost there (even if you’re not, which is not always helpful).
The older ones give me confidence that I can still put one foot in front of the other. The younger ones both make way for a disabled hiker like me but also look at us with admiration. This always surprises me. I’ve rarely met a young hiker who appeared to believe I was in the way and out of shape, even when I clearly am. They seem to know the folks on trails are a community. All with the same goal, all doing the best we can, all needing encouragement and wisdom.
You’ve probably guessed that I never quit and turned back. We took many breaks. I needed regular breathers after what seemed like only a few feet. It wasn’t until we hit the first set of stairs that I thought I might make it, and several times on the almost 200 stairs I revisited that idea. We made the top, and the view was as glorious as promised. Although I’d pay for that for the rest of the trip, I didn’t regret it.
I’ve been thinking a lot about church lately, specifically about how much I have left to give and how much I will need to make way for younger generations to take the reins. What can I give, and where do I make way and offer only mentoring and wisdom but not new contributions? With the corner of sixty ahead and loss of physical ability, the questions are crowding my thoughts.
Diamond Head helped me figure some of them out.
I still have the capability to climb. I can still reach the vistas of new adventures and ideas. But it’s slower. Steadier. Far more careful and measured than when I leaped from rock to rock. I have what’s known as a “quick start” personality, and that’s not as possible anymore. That, Diamond Head taught me, is its own beauty. I see things in the slowness that others don’t see. They see things farther along and maybe catch a vision I can’t, because I’m watching my feet.
As I’m looking down though, watching each small step, I’m seeing the little things that make up the big picture. Someone else views the treeline and the shoreline, but I notice the warblers and the damselflies. I find the others who are struggling. I see a little thing in the person approaching me that I can call out and compliment them on. It takes enforced slowness to do this.
Most of all, I recognize the community of hikers and realize that this work of summiting is for all of us, not one.
The best encouragement for continuing on was the ones who had been there. The hot shots might run up on their own, but for most of us, the journey is far easier, and pleasanter, with one another’s smiles.
As I started down from the top, a man coming up took in my ankle braces, hiking poles, and heavy lean on the railing and said, “You are one determined person.” He will never have any idea how much those five words meant. He won’t know that I won’t forget them. Someone noticed a strength in another person, a strength she wasn’t at all certain she possessed in the moment, and he wasn’t afraid to call it out.
The community needs us all. It’s less without its variation. If our strengths change over time, that’s right and good. Maybe when I was younger it was agility and speed. Now I’ll take determination. Now, I’ll make sure I notice and call out the gifts of others. Now, I’ll make sure we all reach the summit.
I learned a new phrase this week—“New marriage imposter syndrome.” I’m very familiar with the last two words, but not in the context of marriage. When explained to me, though, I understood the concept perfectly.
“It’s when you wonder who let someone your age make such an adult decision as getting married.” (Reader, it doesn’t matter what age you actually are.)
I remember that devastating crash of doubt the day after I got married. I assumed I was the only one who’d ever felt it. It’s not great to begin married life believing you’re an awful wife for momentarily thinking you might have made a terrible mistake. I’m glad we can name it now and let newly married people know it’s normal.
Imposter syndrome is real in most areas of life. It’s well documented in the workplace, especially affecting high-achieving women. (Although some current research suggests maybe it’s not the women who have the problem but the workplace. Finally.)
It happens to parents. We wonder—Who let me walk out the hospital with this little creature? I don’t know the first thing about what to do with one of these! It doesn’t let up. We’ll spend the rest of our lives second-guessing our ability to help a child grow into a happy, healthy adult and beyond. Pastors question ourselves on the regular. Christians are sure God loves us but not at all positive God likes us very much.
Usually, this is hurtful nonsense. But I’m going to flip this thing a little bit.
What if, despite the very real detrimental effects it can have, imposter syndrome isn’t wholly bad?
Perhaps a little bit of understanding that we’re not able to do all this (whatever all this is) on our own is, dare I say, a healthy thing? Maybe it’s women who are in the right of it when we doubt our capability and believe we need to crowdsource rather than the men who (statistically) are certain they are the right man for whatever job they want to do.
When I officiated our daughter’s wedding two weeks ago, I asked the guests to stand as they pledged themselves to help the new couple through the joys and sorrows of their relationship and their faith. It’s a sacred pledge, and I wanted them to recognize that. We’re used to thinking of our marriages as “our own business.” Americans are used to thinking of anything that touches their lives in any way as their own business.
In reality, life is a communal event. Because we’re not any of us old enough to make life’s most important decisions on our own. It’s taken me so long to accept that.
When God said it wasn’t good for humans to be alone, God was making more of a statement about community than marriage. It wasn’t whole, in order, good for humans to be on their own.
Maybe we all need simultaneously to be standing and saying “Yes, I will help you through this thing called life—I will be your people” and also seeking that input from others with all our hearts.
Yes, the church has failed egregiously when we’ve been too intrusive in others’ lives. There is a correction and complement that seeks a self-righteous “I told you so.” We’ve witnessed the delving into someone else’s privacy that cuts wounds with its veneer of holiness. Too often, church leaders have sought to be the authority in believers’ lives without the vulnerable posture of fellow pilgrims. Too often, we’ve been happy to tell others they weren’t qualified to run their own lives and we were. We need to repent and lament that pride.
The true community of believers—those who will cheer us on us when we’re capable and shore us up when we’re not—has become a unicorn. So rare as to be a rumor one has heard of but doesn’t quite believe in. It wouldn’t be a rumor, though, if it didn’t exist. Ive seen it. I see it in our church. I see it among online believers. I see it in house churches and small groups of straggling pilgrims who’ve decided they’re not church but are working together toward being something.
The people who are there for us when we admit we feel like imposters in this world. They tell us—yes, you are. We all are. Every one of us. But it’s OK. We’ll get there, together.
Imposter syndrome isn’t all bad. Let’s let it lead us to our need for others.
Well yes, I do chase waterfalls. Scrambling over wet rocks, climbing higher in spray, jumping down them to solid ground below—that was my perfect road trip afternoon for most of my life.
These days, Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome exacts a painful price if I try that. Every step on uneven terrain has potential for a turned ankle or a fall. I climb and descend—but slowly, carefully, watching every single foot placement and evaluating the next one for security. Recovery for a mistake takes far longer now than it did when I could jump up and dust off the skid marks from my backside.
It’s slow. It’s not the joyful abandon of earlier days. I sometimes can’t appreciate the vista around me for the attention to detail below me. But it’s reality, and ignoring reality isn’t wise for anyone, regardless of natural ability.
On our September trip to five national parks out west, I learned this again and again. Watch where you’re going. Calculate where your steps will lead. Be ready if the footing shifts.
I don’t like it. It’s not my personality. I think, though, it’s a good lesson.
It’s Not Just Hiking
This process describes most of my life as a church leader, too. I used to have no worries about scurrying down the hill, quickly sidestepping roadblocks, creating plans B and C on the way.
“Throw is at the wall and see what sticks.”
“Don’t be afraid to fail.”
“Just do it.”
I’m not suggesting these outlooks are wrong. They served me well. One of the things I wish young people believed more was that failing is not fatal. Having the courage to let go of control would benefit more church leaders and their people.
It’s just that perhaps, some of us are in a different time now as leaders—whether of churches, families, organizations, or volunteer brigades. Maybe those of us who have been up and down the waterfall a few times have a different job. Maybe it’s our calling now to proceed with more caution.
Experience Teaches Something about Jumping
A jump is a commitment. I tended to make those commitments before. Now, I’m more cautious, knowing there are perils I can’t see until I’m balancing on the rock. Perhaps in lieu of jumping higher right now, It’s my call to look down.
I have the experience to yell back to others—
“Hey, that rock has some solid spots, but don’t put both feet there. Stay aware of its weaknesses. Be ready for when it lets you down.”
“You can choose that route, but you won’t recover from a fall from that path. You’ll wash out at the bottom. Stronger than you have tried.”
“You’re in the weeds. I know it looks like there isn’t a path because pain or confusion has covered what you thought you knew. But there are footholds there that will hold you. I know this. I’ve been held.”
“You can do this. The reward is worth it. Keep going!”
The trail has been blazed for those coming behind me with leaps and skids, with triumphant sprays of joy and frightening slides. Now could be my time to create a different path. One that makes clear where the footing is solid and won’t fail beneath. A path that shows where and wh
A call from my place of experience that says, yes, there are dozens of ways to get up and down these rocks, but don’t put all your faith in one outcropping, and don’t forget there is solid footing to which you can always return.
Now I’m looking ahead enough before every step to instinctively know when recovery will be too difficult if I choose one direction, when one path will get me to the goal albeit slower, and what my limits are either way.
It’s my turn to travel slowly, deliberately, and wisely, knowing the leapers and jumpers behind me may choose other routes, but they will know, from what I’ve laid out, where sure footing lies. They can return to it. It will hold.
Hearing someone describe the sport of cricket reminds me of Dr. Seuss’ grinch kvetching about Christmas morning chaos. “And they’ll play noisy games like zoozit and kazay, a rollerskate type of lacrosse and croquet!”
Mixing bats, balls, wickets, and bowling sounds like a sport that can’t make up its mind.
This means, by the way, that she spins the ball with the fingers of her left hand, attempting to trick a batter into believing the ball will strike the ground and bounce one way when it will, in fact, go quite the opposite direction. Spin bowlers rely on deception rather than speed (hence the addition of slow in the description) to strike out their opponents.
Why do I know this? I’m taking a Master writing class (veery slowly) from Malcolm Gladwell. He’s who I want to be when I grow up. The first assignment was to accept a randomly generated topic and write an article about it. My assigned topic? Rajeshwari Gayakwad.
You won’t be surprised I’d never heard of her, given my obvious knowledge of cricket. I thought—how can I write an article on this person and sport I don’t really know, or care, one bit about?
Then a funny thing happened. The more I read about her, the more interested I became in cricket. By the end of the article, I was googling world titles, country stats, and discrimination in India like I wanted to write a book on it.
I’d found commonalities with Raj. She also lost a parent very young. The feeling of responsibility that creates toward the surviving parent empowers her, while it nearly destroyed me.
She knows what it’s like to be a woman in a man’s profession. She understands far more than I do how a culture can work to hold women in their assigned places, even and especially talented, ambitious ones. Her defiant post— “I Was Told Cricket Is Not A Girl’s Game,” resonates with this woman who was told the same about pastoring.
She wants to make her profession better for the women who come after her, as do I.
A woman on the other side of the world suddenly mattered to me. Her success at playing cricket, inspiring girls, and buying her widowed mother a house mattered. It mattered because I had taken the time to learn about her, even when I thought it was a strange assignment on an uninteresting subject.
The correlations should not be lost on us.
First, there are a lot of people on the other side of the world right now in need of compassionate comprehension. The Afghan crisis is one that requires our attention, but it also requires our effort to learn before we begin to post ALL the opinions. As has been mentioned on twitter, it’s funny how many people suddenly pivoted from being epidemiologists to foreign policy experts.
That might mean listening to or reading the stories of refugees to find commonalities. Common ground brings out our compassion and our willingness to learn more. As losing a parent made me care about Raj more, so maybe discovering you share an occupation or a goal with a refugee can bridge the language and culture barriers. Driving Afghan refugees to doctor’s appointments gave me a window into how dangerous it was for them to assist the US military—and it gives me compassion and fire to do something now.
Before we dismiss the desperation of others we know nothing about, let’s delve into their stories so that we can find what makes us alike, not fear what doesn’t.
Another correlation is quite different—it’s in the face that we in the church show others. Hold onto your pearls—those who don’t go to church find some of our language—and even Bible stories!—quite odd and disconnected to their lives. It’s like the rules of cricket. Unintelligible words and rules that they don’t see a reason to care about and certainly don’t want to run afoul of.
Pastors, leaders, preachers—how can we make our speaking about the Bible make sense, and be interesting, to those for whom it’s a foreign language about an obscure sport?
In my monthly newsletter, I mentioned the Theology of Work Bible commentary—it takes the Scriptures and correlates God’s ideas about work to people today who are seeking meaning in what they do.
This summer in church, we studied Romans—and talked about the strong correlation between believers who judge and look down on one another then and now.
Bridging. Correlating. Creating connections that make people care about something they didn’t think they cared about.
This is good discipleship.
That’s our job as pastors, whether it’s teaching Scripture or teaching love of neighbor. We are given this task of reconciliation. (2 Corinthians 5.16-20) That’s what bridge-building is. It’s the work of the kingdom at hand.
Can we handle another opinion on Simone Biles? Spoiler—I follow gymnastics, having been a gym mom for years. My daughter follows it in extreme detail. We know all the sides. So I don’t come to this imbroglio as an armchair pundit, and I come with zero tolerance for criticism of this courageous woman.
I do come, though, with a conviction that Ms. Biles, and the discussion following her decision to withdraw from competition, mirror a debate in our Christian culture over what strength is and who defines it.
I posted this inquiry on twitter—one I didn’t expect to get so much discussion.
The answer appears to be circular. Boys don’t go into it because our culture holds up football as the ultimate goal for male fame. Basketball is good second option for popularity.
Sports and Other Things
When boys don’t choose a sport, funds for it go down in the most important arenas of training. As kids don’t see any heroes emerge in those sports, fewer find them interesting. Especially when they’re as difficult as gymnastics with excruciatingly slow gains. And the cycle perpetuates itself.
Even as we had the mild debate, some declared—“Boys just prefer contact sports. They’re wired for it.” Are they? Or is it that our culture refuses to value the things boys and men can do that don’t fall into the “manly” categories we’ve preassigned? This, obviously, doesn’t only apply to sports.
Is it coincidence that the people decrying Ms. Biles are mostly white men who want to replace her as GOAT with—other white men? Could there possibly be anything else going on there?
The debate rages in the church, most importantly for my, and I’m guessing your, purposes. What makes a person strong? How do we define courage? A large contingent of popular teachers want to answer those questions in a very unhealthy way.
Strength in the Church
Strength, to this demographic, means domineering, winning, ignoring personal pain, and refusing to value compassion. It’s the John Wayne paradigm, as Dr. Kristin DuMez has so perfectly explained. It’s what many of us have been listening to in CT’s podcast about Mars Hill.
This popular mindset in the church doesn’t only devalue a courageous gymnast. It’s more a symptom of a pervasive illness of which, sadly, conservative church men are usually the carriers. It devalues the Christlike perspective that gold medals and power and lack of self-examination don’t make you a whole human being.
Whole, shalom humanity comes from an entirely different kind of strength.
The kind that says “no” to winning when it would destroy your soul (or your body, family, etc)
The kind that chooses to walk away, when all of you wants to stay, if staying would violate who you are and what you need
The kind of strength that offers the opportunity to shine to someone else, when you could hoard that chance to yourself
The kind that chooses the good of the group over the glory for yourself
Strength that is willing to take the boos of the crowd rather than violate your conscience
Strength that sends a message to others that you are worth more than what you do
As most overwhelmingly support Ms. Biles, there is that contingent. That group that demands—if you won’t dance to the tune we play, you don’t deserve our praise. If you won’t conform to our definitions, we will replace you with someone who will. (Not surprisingly, a black woman never will be able to meet their definitions.)
As so many gratefully praise Simone for her courage, what if we do the same for our leaders in the church? What if we throw off those terrible, unhealthy definitions of strength, power, and courage, and embrace the path she has shown us? The path Christ showed us, long before this.
What if we begin to value choosing to go small rather than big? Giving away our power? Holding enough of ourselves back for our mental and physical health, our families, and our souls? Declaring that we are more than what we do, and everyone gets a chance to do what they do best?
Today the blog is devoted to the Introduction to my new book–Preaching in the Soundbite Age: How a Collaborative, Image Drawn, and Skeptical Generation Can Reshape Our Sermons. It’s a case for radically changing the way we preach and teach.
I hope you enjoy it, and I hope you will give me your feedback, or share my email signup link with someone you think could be interested!
The Christian life is a spiritual pilgrimage. It is a not a journey to a shrine which has limitations of space and time. It is a journey into life, a life so rich no limitation of space or time is able to contain it. But is this how we perceive the Christian life? We go to church, worship, study your Bible, etc. But where do they call for the high-adventure?
Francis DuBose, God Who Sends
The people in our churches are crying for the high adventure. They’re dying for it. Especially our young people. They might not know they want it, but they do. Behind the entertainment, the adrenaline-fueled Sunday morning gatherings, and the guaranteed-no-fail discipleship programs, people in our churches hunger for something they haven’t quite defined.
They hunger for participation, not spectatorship, in the kingdom of God. Once they’ve experienced it, they don’t want to return to the passive sidelines, watching their faith but not shaping it. They’ve found the joy of discovering what God is doing with and through them and living the process with their community. They want to know why no one has told them before that discipleship isn’t a program but an on-the-field, glove-in-hand team sport.
It’s not an easy sell.
Most worshipers are used to being fans in the stands, not players in the arena. They won’t warmly welcome a radical change in that plan. They aren’t going to be excited about taking the reins of their own spiritual growth—at first. They might be like the high school classes I taught years ago.
Used to sitting in their seats and listening to the teacher lecture about sonnets and Steinbeck, those teens looked at me like I had asked them to teleport to Neptune the first time I said, “What do you think?” The strange new teacher asked them questions instead of feeding them information. What was this sorcery?
Yet within a few days, those same students engaged in conversation about Shakespeare, voiced their opinion on Jonathan Swift, applied Jane Austen to their daily life,. and told me that classes had never been so interesting. I even had the rare privilege of a senior coming back to thank me for teaching her to think, thus getting her into her college of choice.
Pedagogy has known for decades what churches haven’t grasped—people learn, and change, when they engage and invest.
Monologue had created a dislike of literature and a distrust for its relevance in my students. What is it doing in our churches, where the stakes are far higher? The adaptive change necessary for preaching and teaching in a completely new way will take time, finesse, and patience. Do we want to be whipped by the potential backlash? Is the difficult work, both in crafting something new and in convincing people to accept it, worth the effort? Can we afford the possibility of attrition in a church already beset by loss?
Here’s the more important question to ask:
Can we afford not to?
In a spiritual climate where we’re already losing our next generations in high double digits, can we afford not to put in the struggle to retain them—not for their butts and bucks but for their, and our, spiritual well-being? Just as in the Babylonian exile, their well-being equals ours, too (Jeremiah 29.4). The older generations’ faith is only viable as it gets passed on. It’s only fresh and flexible as we’re learning from others.
If we are not making disciples with our preaching and teaching, what are we even doing on Sunday morning?
As I wrote this last year, I sat in my home office, in isolation because of COVID-19. Racial trauma roiled our country. We feel the stirring of God doing something different in his church. We know in our hearts things will not be the same when this is over. For some of us, we’ve been feeling the need for a wave of change long before pandemic forced our hand. We’ve been looking out to sea, watching the horizon, waiting for the sails to come over the edge that signal God taking us on a different journey. Some of us have been longing for it more than we ever imagined.
Things will not be the same. Preaching should be one of the things that changes.
We’ve realized the value of community and the preciousness of input from others in this time of uncertainty and isolation.
Interactive preaching is the perfect tool for putting teaching and community together to disciple our churches.
Our people don’t need programs and workbooks. Why would we offer them a classroom when we could be putting them on the field? They need to be equipped, as the early Christians, to disciple themselves toward being like Jesus. They don’t need information so much as awareness of how to filter the information they’re already surrounded with 24/7. They need the skills to learn deeply, slowly, and permanently, the things of God to change their lives from the inside out. This we can give them, if we learn to change ourselves first.
Pastors, preachers, church leaders, boards, and elders—it’s time.
I didn’t even see a name on the restaurant front. Its virtue was that it was steps from our tiny hotel’s door, and we were exhausted after a 36-hour ordeal/flight from hell designed by an airline which shall remain nameless.
The chef/owner slid open a window and informed us the place was reservation only, but he would take us if we wanted to sit outside. It was a tasting menu–whatever he wanted to cook that day, we would eat. We sat, intrigued (and tired). We took in the modest patio, with dogs barking low and nearby car horns hitting the high notes. Near the door hung strings of drying corn. We finally figured out these weren’t decor–they were on the menu. Our sturdy table sat in the equatorial moonlight, and we closed our eyes, with no idea what we were in for.
A Surprising Conversation
We conversed with the owner through the meal, as his window was five feet away. He detailed what he was cooking, where he got his ingredients, and he asked about our travel plans. Through the courses, we started discussing deeper things.
Chef Sebastian explained that, pre-covid, he had owned several places in higher rent districts—wine bars, restaurants, etc. He was forced to shutter them. It looked like defeat. Then he ended up opening this one small place, Quitu, in a much different kind of neighborhood.
He spoke of using fresh local ingredients, becoming much more affordable to people because of much lower rents, and how he loved his new life. Then he told us something that stuck with me.
“I decided to become a restaurant for the neighborhood instead of a restaurant for the world.”
A Church Like Quitu
My mind jumped to church and leadership and why we do what we do. Yes, I want us to speak about national issues, world justice, the responsibility of the privileged of this globe. That is part of living with both feet in the Kingdom of God.
Yet it’s so easy to lose our way when our focus points toward that large stage. Any large stage, really. The popular allure is more mesmerizing than the neighborhood grit. It’s easy for “winning” to become the idol and affirmation to morph into the goal. I think our Quiteño chef understood that. He’d had the success. Covid forced a choice he now embraced. He wanted to return to a life where the community felt welcome and his food wholesome and accessible.
Church leaders, how do we embrace that value? How should we be redefining “normal” to make the places we lead accessible, inviting, and healthy? How ought our yearning for justice to roll down and integrity to be great again affect not only our twitter feed but our presence with the real life people on our block?
How do we become a church for the community rather than a church that happens to be in a community?
Downsizing. Decentering human leaders. Sourcing our nourishment from the wells of goodness and grace. Looking around and asking ourselves–what do the people here need, and why am I in this place and time?
I like chef Sebastian’s approach. His food was pretty great, too.
See, I typically write my blogs a few months in advance. What you read in March I wrote in January or even December. But today, that’s kind of inconceivable.
I have no idea what this world is going to look like in a few months. I’m not even sure about next week. I don’t feel any sense of security or serenity writing about what my outlook on things will be in March as we sit here a few days out of a coup at the nation’s capital. I’m not assuming it’s over.
Much has been written on the day, and much of it has been stellar. I’m not repeating those analyses.
So today, I’ll move some things around and respond to now, not two months from now.
My focus, as you know from reading my banner if not my blog, is not on the politics so much is on the church. Not that the former is not important, but the future of the church is the passion that God has given me. What do these unsettling times mean for the church? Most importantly, what does the fallout mean for the next generations of our church?
It’s not an exaggeration to say that this could be the most devastating event for the American church that we have seen in a very long while. The next generation has seen the church in reaction, and they’re not having it. I don’t blame them at all.
Mind you, I wouldn’t be all that sad to stand at the grave of much that passes for American Christianity. My concern is with the baby that will likely get tossed with the bathwater. The bathwater stinks. It’s filthy. It is in desperate need of change.
But the baby—the church you don’t see in the cameras—is filled with people who honestly, humbly, falteringly attempt to follow Jesus. They could be the innocent victims of this drive-by disaster.
Jesus’ church really does have people in it who love him more than they love themselves. They’re just harder to find in the swill and swell of the stinky bathwater.
God will not suffer. Ultimately, his church will survive. Jesus Christ is King, and that will not change. He does not need us to defend him. He will raise his remnant as he always has. Like Simba, the church that survives will stagger up, blink at the light, and bewilderedly continue in the circle God has started. But it is likely to die, first.
Four in ten young adults between the ages of 23 and 38 now say they are religiously unaffiliated.
IN a 2017 study, “Political rifts between young Christians and their congregations are growing. A quarter (25%) of recent dropouts said disagreements over their church’s stance on political and social issues contributed to their decision to stop attending, compared to 15 percent
That those rifts have increased with the advent of QAnon and “Stop the Steal” conspiracy theories being welcomed and applauded in the church is clear from a thirty-second perusal of social media.
The exodus isn’t temporary, as it has been in the past, either. For the first time, young adults are not returning to church when they have families, because they don’t believe they need the church to teach their children how to be good people. That isn’t because they believe God has failed them or isn’t good. It’s because they believe the church is no longer filled with good people.
While in the past most of those disaffected with church retained their belief in and some relationship with Jesus, that is also changing. 2019 saw the greatest surge in atheism in America. Those who consider themselves atheists, agnostics, or”nothing in particular” have risen to over a quarter of the population. The next generation has lost their spiritual community, and with no one to talk with about their questions, doubts, and ideas, their faith has eroded as well. This was inevitable—God created us for community, and we cannot go without it for long without serious effect.
An Atlantic article explores the sudden sharp decline in American Christianity in the 1990’s. “According to Christian Smith, a sociology and religion professor at the University of Notre Dame, America’s nonreligious lurch has mostly been the result of three historical events: the association of the Republican Party with the Christian right, the end of the Cold War, and 9/11.” The last two have complex sociological issues and are fascinating to look at. The first is the important one, for my purposes.
Here are some of the reasons younger generations are leaving the church right now. They are amazingly clear-eyed at the illogic and incongruity they see. These are the things they can’t understand. Church, we have to bring these things they see into the light. face them unflinchingly, and set them right.
The same peoplewho have told them that men cannot meet with women over lunch because they fear the “appearance of evil” are silent regarding “Jesus Saves” signs next to confederate flags and nooses—unmistakable symbols of white supremacy and lynching. These symbols do not convey the appearance of evil—they are evil. We are to believe Christians can stand next to them and not participate in the stench of their meaning. Yet a male pastor cannot accompany me, a female pastor, to a training meeting because “appearances.” This is the incongruity causing young people to leave the church.
The same people who tell them social justice and creation concerns are not the gospel and “just preach the gospel” are very concerned about fighting for their constitutional rights. Also, they don’t appear to know the gospel very well. This is the incongruity causing young people to leave the church.
The same people who protest that talk of racism is dividing the church will tell them on social media that anyone who votes for a democrat is a baby killer and not a real Christian. We are supposed to assume this is not sowing division but righteousness. This is the incongruity causing young people to leave the church.
The same people who taught them that “Jesus loves the little children—red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight” don’t find those children precious when they’re in cages at a southern border. They shrug and consider those precious souls collateral damage in a war against the neighbor we’re supposed to love. This is the incongruity causing young people to leave the church.
The same peoplewho counsel them to “think for yourself” succumb to outrageously unlikely claims that fit what they see as a “safe” worldview. The same pastors who tell teens to question what their teachers tell them admonish them never to question the pastors.This is the incongruity causing young people to leave the church.
I’ve been an English teacher, a writer, and an editor. I’ve graded hundreds of papers and critiqued dozens of articles. There are two kinds of writing that an editor or a teacher find almost impossible to critique. That which is perfect as it is—and that which is hopelessly bad.
In the first, we can find nothing bad to say. In the second, we don’t know where to start. We don’t think there’s any way to help the work improve.
If I critique the church, it’s because I have hope. It’s because I don’t think it’s beyond fixing. I don’t think the people in it, like myself, cannot do better. I believe they, like me, are sinners in need of redemption. I edit with conviction and ferocity because I know we are better than we’ve been. I believe God is working, as Paul says in Ephesians 2.10, on a masterpiece.
The problem is, sometimes the block of clay God is trying to mold prefers to mold itself into a different sort of creature entirely. One that does not image the Creator. This is when God needs to start over, sometimes smashing that clay down, to re-form it in the way it was meant to be.
If that’s what happens to the American church, so be it. It needs to be re-formed. I pray that we choose to work with the artist in that reformation. I pray that the next generation wants to come along for that work and join us in it. Let it be a re-creation of integrity, free from incongruity (which others read as hypocrisy). Let it be a church that transparently looks and acts like Jesus.
We’ll get some things wrong. I have no illusions that we won’t make our own massive errors. We’re all hypocrites, every one of us, preferring to see others more clearly than we see ourselves. That’s why we need one another.
We need to do one another’s critiquing, while we’re not too far gone, and we need to hear the critique of the next generation. As the mom of three of them, I can tell you—they’re pretty smart.