Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus. IVP Books.
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.
To the Dying Church,
I hardly know what to say. Watching someone you love, who helped raise you, who cared for you when you weren't well, who partially defined who you would be, slowly perish before your eyes is difficult to say the least. I love you. I don't want to lose you.
But, this is life. These things happens. Those you love do die. It's just how it works. I mean, there were churches before you. They may not have looked like you or sung songs like you or taught exactly what you do, but they all had Love – just different ways of expressing it. They changed people's lives. They made some people better people and, sometimes, they made people worse people. Then, they died.
In all of it, Love was there somewhere hoping to be valued, hoping to be expressed, hoping to be shared.
Standing at the foot of your bed as you struggle to hold on, fight to catch a few last breaths, is uncomfortable and wonderful, all at the same time. Remembering the twinkle in your eye from my childhood, the liveliness of your step is as beautiful and heartbreaking a thing as I can think of in this moment.
I attended a funeral last week and was struck by something that happened at communion.
The church was packed for a loving man who had touched many lives with his kindness. People from varied backgrounds and faiths came to celebrate his life and support his family. The eulogy noted that he never turned anyone away.
At communion time, several young adults from a different denomination got in line. When the first young man got to the priest, he received a question instead of a communion wafer. The priest said something to him. The young man looked surprised and shook his head. The priest traced a cross on his forehead and sent him away breadless.
On a day of shared grief, the young man had given the wrong answer to the age-old question: Are you one of us?
I grew up in the days of the encyclopedia salesman. I clearly remember the day when a clean-cut well-dressed man knocked on our apartment door to sell the 26-volume World Book Encyclopedia.
We were recent immigrants and could not speak English fluently. We had few worldly possessions and the last thing we needed in our house was a 26-volume encyclopedia.
After the hour presentation during which we flipped through the volumes full of exciting information, my dad said no. The salesman looked sad and pitiful as he packed his sales kit. As he exited the door, he gave one last pitch and, suddenly, my dad changed his mind and we bought the whole set.
Either the salesman was good or my parents had this strong desire that their children needed to know “everything there is to know about the world.” Maybe it was a bit of both.
In 2014, long gone are those 26-volume encyclopedias that once filled the bookshelves of many of my childhood friends’ homes. Now we have everything that we need to know at our fingertips through iPads, computers, cell phones, or other gadgets.