Church leaders often worry that Sunday morning is the “most segregated day of the week.”
On Sundays, churchgoers gather inside congregations that are remarkably monochromatic. Whites with whites, blacks with blacks, Latinos with Latinos, Koreans with Koreans, and so on.
This phenomenon, however, is more than discomfort with diversity. It is also a search for safety. In the historic black church, for example, worshippers can assert the dignity and worth that a white society denies them. For three hours on Sunday, the need to avoid offending whites doesn’t govern their lives.
As we are learning in Ferguson, Mo., African-Americans feel unsafe — far more than many whites have realized. Young black men, for example, flinch whenever a police car passes — a vulnerability that money, job, and education can’t overcome.
According to one of my favorite authors, Brennan Manning, "The single greatest cause of atheism in the world today is Christians, who acknowledge Jesus with their lips, then walk out the door and deny Him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable." It is just a much more eloquent way of saying that the world thinks we’re a bunch of hypocrites.
To be quite honest, most of the time, the claim is warranted. I have a friend who wants nothing to do with Jesus because his father, a very religious man, was active in the local church but was abusive behind closed doors. Another friend continues to distance herself from anyone associated with the church because of their judgmental glares about her lifestyle choices.
Whatever their reasoning, I understand. I, too, have personally encountered the hypocrisy they see in our communities of faith. And if I'm at all honest, the number of times I have been the hypocrite who has turned others away are too numerous to count.
If Christians stopped bickering about church, presenting sex as a first-order concern, telling other people how to lead their lives, and lending our name to minor-league politicians, what would we have to say?
We need to figure that out, because we are wearing out our welcome as tax-avoiding, sex-obsessed moral scolds and amateur politicians.
In fact, I think we are getting tired of ourselves. Who wants to devote life and loyalty to a religion that debates trifles and bullies the outsider?
So what would we say and do? No one thing, of course, because we are an extraordinarily diverse assembly of believers. But I think there are a few common words we would say.
Christians ultimately attend church to meet with God. But sometimes we turn our churches into distractions, and spiritual leaders mistakenly prioritize things beyond God, becoming obsessed with marketing, consumerism, and entertainment — creating false idols.
The diluting of church happens in both subtle and obvious ways:
Scripture is substituted for a stirring YouTube video.
Worship is tweaked to incorporate flashing lights, fog machines, and synchronized graphics.
Visitors are given nicer gift baskets.
Contests are held. Websites are updated. Social media is expanded. Apps are developed. Promotional clothing is given away — a brand is created.
My sister has one of those plastic playhouses in her backyard for her two boys. When she hosted a garage sale a few years ago, children accompanying their shopping parents would see the playhouse and join in.
I remember looking over at one point and seeing five children playing together. Different ages, different sexes, different races. All strangers. All playing together.
When they looked at each other, they saw a playmate.
In his autobiography, Nelson Mandela noted that children have an innate openness that tends to get closed off as they spend more time in the world.
“No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion,” Mandela wrote in his autobiography. “People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”
Anyone who thinks much on theology will tell you that you go through patterns of thought. For a long time, I was intrigued — and still am in many ways — by the notion of Jesus as a “third way” prophet, offering something different than both church and secular culture most of the time. As I learned of different interpretations of the crucifixion, I became obsessed with nonviolent activism, and the idea of responding to force or bloodshed with something else entirely.
Now, my latest mental track is sacrament. I am interested in what makes something a sacrament, yes, but also in the power connected to sacraments and what human beings do with that power.
I am part of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), a denomination that has Alexander Campbell as part of its roots. Campell was notorious for supposedly causing a stir in his local church around the sacrament of communion. At that time, the Church handed out tokens to those it deemed worthy to participate in communion. No token? No communion. So this one particular day, Campbell entered the church with his token in hand, but when they offered the elements to him, he refused, tossing the token on the ground and walking out. He went on to help start the Disciples based, in large part, on the concept of the open communion table.
It’s interesting how we tend to think of birth and death as opposites, two bookends with life in the middle. But we also know from experience that birth and death really are two different words for the same thing. They involve change, a moving from one phase of life to another.
Birth and death and rebirth are parts of the very fabric of life.
This moment, countless cells inside our bodies are dying and being replaced by new ones just like them. New ideas are being hatched in our heads, replacing old ones. Stars throughout the universe are using up their final fuel and imploding, sowing seeds for rebirth throughout the universe.
All around us and within us, there’s a constant birth and death and newness.
It’s what life is about.
The same is true of our human institutions. Whether they’ll acknowledge it or not, they’re constantly going through the birth-and-death-and-rebirth cycle. It’s certainly that way with our religions and our churches.
To a Dying Church,
Guess what? It’s not that bad.
You just have to get it together a bit.
Seriously, like yesterday. I mean, we have time. But, seriously, we’re all waiting for you to get it together.
You have the means. You have the ability. You have the know-how.
Actually, you don’t have to do that much. You just have to realize that Jesus has done it all and there is a current of immense possibility right under your feet.
Tap into it. Remember it. Root down.
This happens every so often. We are cyclical people. Every once in a while we forget.
But this time you’ve really done a doozy on your own health by chasing after insane supplements and growth hormones. And you’ve also picked some really lame fights. In the race to grow you’ve forgotten your way a bit and now you’re bloated and punch-drunk in the streets swinging at anyone that’ll ask a sensible question.
Stop it. You’re better than this.
To the dying church,
I think I missed the moment. It was a pretty big moment, too. At least here in the United States, you were a force to be reckoned with until a few years ago. You helped form the fabric of our society. Pastors were well-respected people of authority. They built great big sanctuaries, and people wore respectable clothing on Sunday mornings. To be fair, you didn’t — and don’t now — always live up to the hype. Sometimes you hide your head in the ground when it’s time to stand up against racism and homophobia. You’re still not so sure about the equality of women. You sometimes sell out to political agendas.
But regardless of the good and the bad, the moment is now over, and you’re dying. Or that’s what they tell me. All that power and influence is fading away. It sounds like some churches are having trouble even keeping the lights on. I know I should mourn for you, but allow me a moment of self-pity here too. What, you thought it was all about you?
You see, I’ve been getting ready for a few years now. A bunch of us have. Some of us have grown up with you, and some of us have just met you recently, but we’re all lining up to serve you. Somehow we all have this nagging sense that we’re supposed to be with you in these days, so some of us went to seminary and some went to college to learn youth ministry. We went to conferences and gave up our evenings and weekends to church basements with committees and youth groups. We read books and studied Scripture and prayed and imagined the kingdom of God breaking into the world through you. They call us emerging leaders, and we had a lot of hopes for you.
To the dying church,
Sometimes you have to get worse before you get better. You are dying because you’ve been applying band aids for a far deeper problem. You are consistently doling out superficial remedies for surface wounds when the source of pain lays untreated.
Church, you have confused biblical hope for optimism. When hurting people walk through your doors, you play the positive thinking guru and dispense quick fixes with inspirational quotes. You provide cheap grace and empty promises that are driving people out your doors.
You have mistaken confidence with certitude. When people come with authentic questions, you forsake healthy dialogue in exchange for a veneer of harmony. You post your doctrinal statements at your gates and demand unsure people to come in or stay out. The resulting homogenous bubbles you’ve created are sure to burst.
How to talk with our children about homelessness.
The diagnoses are grim. Fervent supporters and ardent critics of religion both point to your decline. An urgency, if not an all-out alarm, fills the air. There are those who hope beyond hope for your renewal and transformation. Others stand steadfastly by your side as they "wait and see." Still others wipe their hands of the whole ugly mess and leave you to your ever-more-inevitable demise.
I'm not sure what to do. But I know I love you.
I know that you have grown weary in a bewildering, fast-paced world less inclined to pause and listen in. I know you have clung to models of leadership, governance, and programming through which you reached prominence, but now seem sluggish in the world today. I know you have tried new methods and "relevant" techniques for attracting new life, but they did not pan out like you dreamed. I know you have been let down by ministerial leadership, and not just in the pulpit: in the boardroom, in the choir lofts, in the denominational office. In this time of shrinking attendance, recycled ideas, and diminishing resolve, I'm not sure what the magic cure is. Or if there ever was one. But I know I love you.
You left groceries on my family's doorstep when my parents could not make ends meet. You carried the weight of my family's grief when my sister drowned. You encouraged me when I felt so alone and afraid. You challenged me to live beyond myself and for those who are so often ignored. You surrounded me with gentleness and love on my wedding day. You gave me time-worn words and melodies to express the joy and lament of my spirit. You pointed to a holy feast big enough to include all of humanity, and you set a place at that table for me.
You introduced me to God.
I received some distressing news today. Oh, I know you thought you’d kept it secret, but I answered the phone when the doctor’s office called to change your chemo appointment.
Chemo? Seriously? What, you thought I wouldn’t find out eventually? I know I seem preoccupied sometimes, but I’m not an idiot. I can see the signs.
I knew something was up when I saw you shrinking, little by little over time. Maybe other people couldn’t tell, but I suspected something bad was going on. You can paste on a smile, and listen to your happy music, and buy new stuff. But anyone who really knows you, realizes your body has been slowly betraying you.
Dying happens. I get that. What really makes me mad, though, is that you didn’t trust me enough to tell me. Maybe you didn’t know for awhile. I guess that’s possible. But the doctor had to have told you, right? I mean, at some point you decided to do something about it — if only to keep it a secret. And if you didn’t know, then you’re not who I thought you were.
Let me start off this letter by expressing my deep love and appreciation for you. I have been an active participant in the community of faith for about 10 years now, and I have been profoundly blessed, cared for, loved, and inspired to be a better human being through you. I have also seen — and even participated in — some of your ugliest and most unfaithful moments in recent history. But through all of these experiences, nothing but utter appreciation and love remains for you. I believe, in the words of Bill Hybels, that the church is the hope of the world. I believe in your great power and potential to renew and reconcile our broken world through the way of Jesus. I believe that you can do it. That we can do it, together.
With that said, there has been a lot of talk recently about your impending death. For a long time, I believed the hype. I saw the numbers of millennials who were walking away from the churches and both mainline and evangelical churches closing their doors. I was convinced that maybe the church had truly seen the end.
But I was recently reminded that what we have been witnessing in the West is not, in fact, the death of the church at all.