When It Goes Sideways

This pastor was a rising star. Wrote a couple books. Had a church that was going gangbusters. This pastor gave me hope not only in our denomination but the future. Had so many gifts.

Then they up and quit. Out of the ministry. I was shocked. I was dismayed. I reached out.

“Why did you leave the ministry?” I asked.

“I’m waiting for the church to decide what it wants to be,” they said.

Gil Rendle details how we got to this place in history in his book Quietly Courageous. Many of us come from an age where we just had to put up a steeple, and we’d get 50 people on a Sunday. Many of us think that this is normal. It’s not. It is actually abnormal. We only know the abnormal time.

Gil calls this the aberrant time. There was a demographic burst of growth as soldiers returned home from WWII and created a baby boom. There was an economic boom thanks to the war economy transitioning to a manufacturing economy. The women who worked these jobs during the war still wanted to get outside the home, so they went to church and other community organizations. Following the war, church construction increased by more than 350%.[1]

This boom started in the late 1940s and continued through the 1970s when we first started to see the church demographics start to lag. What many of us think of as normal has never happened before nor does it look like it will happen again.

So now the church is on trial. Why should people go to church? Why should we subject our kids to this? We showed up and it really didn’t impact our life much. We were bored. Or abused. Or we don’t really believe that the church believes what it’s supposed to be about. Since Vietnam, institutional trust has eroded. With good reason. So many scandals and violence have been carried out by our societal institutions: Some people think the government can’t be trusted thanks to Vietnam. Corporations can’t be trusted due to the lack of jobs and the growing wage gap. The institution of marriage is a coin toss. And the church has largely looked the other way and covered up its own failings.

The church is on trial. It has to decide what it’s going to be.

In earlier eras… a church could be anything. It could be a social club that was a nice place to gather, but nothing really happened. We used it for community connections and to network, but that’s about it.

Church could be a place for our names to be on the roles for weddings, baptisms, and burials. It could be a place we show up on Christmas and Easter and that’s about it.

Church could be a place to give us positive platitudes but never challenge our consumerism and greed. It could do mission trips TO places and FOR people without any transformative effect on the people going. Like how people can go on mission trips to Latin America and still call people who live there “those people” and chant to build a wall to keep them out.

At its most toxic, church could be a place where we demand that we are kept happy at all costs. It’s the place we try to control in a largely chaotic world… and they have to be nice to me… so why not take advantage of that?

The church has to decide what it’s going to be. And the church is on trial in this time. In their book UnChristian, what a new generation thinks of Christianity and why it matters, David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons report that when people think of the church, they don’t think of Jesus. Christians are supposed to represent Christ to the world. But according to the latest report card, something has gone terribly wrong. Using descriptions like “hypocritical,” “insensitive,” and “judgmental,” young Americans share an impression of Christians that’s nothing short of . . . unChristian. In these times, I look to the early church. I love going through Acts.

I love today’s reading with Paul on trial. “I cheerfully make my defense…” Paul’s first words.

I can’t say that this is the stance some Christians have taken to the news of decline. Just going through the comments and reviews online of the book I just mentioned, I read too many angry reviews in all caps.

I cheerfully make my defense. I want to be judged not when things are going well, but when things go sideways. I think the church is in a great place. As Soren Kierkegaard pointed out, “When everyone’s Christian, no one is Christian.” Christianity is at its best from the margins. It’s a different way of life. It’s a different culture. One of peace. One of radical love of enemy. One of looking for the common good. One for the pursuit of truth, even when it paints us in a bad light.

Why go to church? I’ve come back myself, and I’m raising my kids in church for a variety of reasons.[2] The first is that I’m really curious about the Bible. It’s way more interesting when you read it instead of just listening to what other people say it says. It’s messy and complicated, like life. Like people. It’s not neat, clean, nice, or logical. It’s not politically correct. But it aspires to the transcendent. If we start with the humanity of the story, we’ll be surprised by the divinity.

I want church to be a place where we read what’s in there. Where our kids don’t have to unlearn stories. The church is a safe place to learn how to deal with the great unsolvables of life: love, death, power, time, and purpose. And where we fit in all of that.

Church is a place where I encounter the other. I can stay in my pre-approved bubble of people in their mid-to-late 30s, who are obsessed Dungeons and Dragons and think that the Smashing Pumpkins are the greatest band in the world and the rest of you can be wrong. Or I can show up here. To show up to the intergenerational nature of this place: learn from the older and younger generations. No filtering, no pre-approval required. This encounter helps me humanize my neighbor. See the divine in them. To pray for their well-being. It’s how the seeds of peace are planted and nurtured.

Church is where I learn compassion. I’m inspired by people like Father Greg Boyle and his work with gang members. Or Dorothy Day and her work with the poor. The Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber and her commonsense approach that takes in all the outcasts: the addicts, the LGBTQ+, and other beloved children of God.

I think there is great promise in this moment, because we actually have to be church. No one is going to do it for us. The church is on trial, and we can cheerfully and clearly state what we’re here for. We’re for the Way. And Christ is our Way. The Way that honors the best of the tradition but also follows the new paths the Holy Spirit is leading us to. We can hold fast to tradition, yet we can also embrace change for “the wise brings out of their treasure new things as well as old.”[3]

I see that we were becoming increasingly isolated and fractious. We were over-scheduled. We each had our bubble, bubbles of class, generation, etc. To be a place of inter-generational connection of all classes and people? That’s radical in our culture! I think that we’re realizing now that things have been taken away, the power of face-to-face connection. Zoom got us through, but I need more of the face-to-face. It was taken away, but people are aching for it. We’re going to see a ton of new faces, we’re already seeing new faces.

I think the way forward is straightforward. We have to know our core values as a church and live them out in everything we do. We know what our core values are: Welcome, love, and serve. If we can’t say we are doing one or more of these values, we don’t do them. If something is viewed as unwelcoming, unloving, or only serving ourselves, don’t do it.

We value the old ways and the innovative ways. Sometimes the old ways are the best ways. Face-to-face interaction in real time is just the best. I was so giddy last Sunday seeing y’all! No offense for those who stayed on the livestream, as I think you were just as fired up to see folks in church as well. We want to hear what the other generations valued and what they did. We also want to update it. We’re going to have to experiment pervasively. Failure isn’t fatal. We’re going to have to change if we want to stay the same. You’re already done this.

For example, I’ve been here 4 years. Not one horse. No one is riding horses to church anymore. You have switched to cars, so we didn’t need a stable anymore. You’ve changed and adapted.

You are a place of innovation. You’ve got a history of this. You are the first church that was electrified, and do you know who did that? The candle guy! You’d think that’d be bad for business. A.I. Root was the guy who thought to put electricity in the church. He brought it to two places on the Square, here and his dentist. He was a practical man, he wanted to make sure his dentist had the right tooth, could see it, and his foot didn’t get tired powering the drill.

We’re a church of innovation thanks to H.G. Blake. He was a conductor on the Underground Railroad, working to free the prisoner and let the oppressed go free. He did this because of his faith, not in spite of it. He remembered what we were about when everyone else was looking the other way because they had the right skin color or they made money on it or that’s the way we’ve always done it. H.G. Blake said not in my house and not in Medina and he got people to freedom. He was a member here and a leader here. And he ended the Black Laws which were the Jim Crow Laws of the North.

I wonder how you’ll innovate and forge a new path. How you’ll be church in this new normal. What love give to the world?

Works Cited

[1][1] Quietly Courageous, page 76.

[2][2] An awesome blogpost with cute pix of Sam and Eve when they were little can be found here: https://associatedluke.blogspot.com/2013/06/why-im-raising-my-kids-in-church.html

[3][3] Matthew 13:52

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