A popular misconception about professional Christianity is that most of us with business cards reading “pastor” love talking about church.
I can’t tell you how many breathless conversations I’ve had with people about the font size of a worship guide, or when exactly large wooden plates should pass in front of us in order to garnish around 10 percent of everyone’s wages, or what kind of instrumentation is “appropriate” for the worship of God, or when people should meet together for stilted and impersonal conversations about the Biblical text, or even what kind of clothing individuals should don in order to deliver confusing speeches to a large room of disinterested listeners.
Usually, I find the “DO YOU HAVE THE NUCLEAR LAUNCH CODES!!!???” approach to ecclesial decision making deeply hilarious, but sadly, there are always a few moments refusing to be laughed off stage.
Like when people get personal, or vitriolic, or toxic, or rude, or alienating, or destructive in the midst of their ever-fascinating rants about the theological merits of having someone dressed like a Big East basketball coach pilot a guitar playing soft-rock-Christian-slow-jamz on Sunday mornings.
“I NEED MORE TAMBOURINE IN THE LEFT MONITOR!”
To be clear: I find these discussions ALMOST as interesting as watching college baseball on TV.
Read: “not at all.”
Sadly, despite my lack of interest, they’ve seemingly become a litmus test utilized to determine the total makeup of an individual or community’s fidelity to the Christian faith. How organizations worship or order themselves or design buildings or landscape or program for children or utilize multimedia all end up hijacking the conversations I inevitably have with people anytime they discover my job title.
In a recent chat with a friend of mine, who happens to be an Episcopal priest, he lamented the fact that his community was mired in an ongoing argument about the nature of their Sunday morning worship experience. And by “worship experience”, I mean “music”, and by “music”, I mean “what songs people sing off key together each week.”
In the midst of our time together, he unearthed something revelatory for me:
“Eric, it’s like my little faith community’s under the impression that people outside our building actually care what we do.”
This is a popular, albeit unarticulated, sentiment underwriting many “churchly” discussions filling the atmosphere around me. That being, the belief that the world around our crumbling buildings and sparsely filled sanctuaries is actually concerned with the happenings taking place inside.
To be clear: most people don’t care, especially when the only context they have for understanding the totality of the Christian faith is whether or not you sing along to something called a “Hillsong United”.
If the time, energy, resources, and emotional capital you spend in “service to the LAWD” mostly concerns your likes, dislikes, rising nausea, and/or excitement about the music, speaking, building, programming, and overall functioning of an organization that for all intents and purposes self identifies as a “church,” then, pastorally speaking, I’m not quite sure you understand what that word means.
Because, while I hate talking about church, that doesn’t mean I’m opposed to discussing how we are to be the Church. Like, in the historic, ancient, Jesus-ly sense of the word.
For instance: Jesus spends very little of his time discussing the strategic components of his movement, and instead spends a great deal more time on how individuals and groups of individuals are to concretely participate in the reconciliation of all things broken, empty, misaligned, wobbly, destructive, and abusive.
When religious professionals went so far as to ask Jesus extremely pointed questions about why his movement wasn’t living up to the theological, ecclesial, and political assumptions controlling popular conversations about God, life, and faith, surprisingly, he didn’t respond by moving into the vacant movie theatre next door and offering something only “cool moms” would be into.
Nah, he healed sick people, fed hungry ones, took care of poor ones, clothed naked ones, empowered weak ones, and welcomed weird ones.
So, when we pretend, 2000 years later, that holding strong opinions on what happens over the course of an hour on Sunday mornings gives us the right to self-identify as followers of Jesus, we come across a bit like that heavyset friend we all have who spends Saturdays in the fall shouting at the TV from his overstuffed-rooms-to-go couch:
“WE JUST NEED TO GET A STOP HERE ON 3rd AND LONG.”
so, uhhh, “we”, you say?
Conflating the organizational health of a group of people attempting to agree on the speeches they like hearing and the music they like singing with the universe wide redemption and love of a self-sacrificing God is a colossal burying of the lede.
What the world needs isn’t more conversation about how church is cooler, or better, or different than people remember, it’s that God’s love for the world is looking for partners and participants and priests and prophets, but the one thing it’s never looking for, is parishioners.
I don’t care what kind of music you like.
I care even less what you think about sermons (except for mine…NO! be cool, Eric.)
However, if you self-identify as a follower of Jesus, I do care whether or not you know any hungry people, or weak ones, or sick ones, or poor ones, or alienated ones, or limping ones.
And I care if they feel safe around you.
And I care if they’re better off because they know you.
And if they don’t or they aren’t, then I can’t tell you how little I want to talk about how loud or cheesy the music was last week.