Recently my family and I have been watching Loki on Disney+. For those of you unfamiliar with the world of the Marvel universe, Loki is the god of mischief and an archvillain of the Avengers.
At the beginning of the show, he finds himself being transported to the home offices of the Time Variance Authority. It’s an institution that safeguards the “sacred timeline,” which is a phrase used for what is supposed to happen in the universe. Because Loki has acted outside of what the TVA believes he should be doing, he is labeled a “variant.”
Without giving away too many spoilers, as the show unfolds, we begin to learn that the origin story of the TVA is itself a myth and that they are more interested in control than in what is truly good for the universe. Loki begins to team up with other “variants” who live outside of the TVA’s sacred timeline and calls himself “the god of outcasts.”
Many people view the church as a TVA in our own world. They see it as an outdated institution whose sole purpose is the perpetuation of its own survival rather than what is good for the collective. Many regular church attenders (of which there are fewer and fewer) will bristle at criticisms of the church and lament the loss of young people amongst their fold. And I certainly have no interest in merely taking potshots for the sake of winning points with the disenchanted. However, for those of us who desire to see the church truly be the church in our world, we must listen to the experience of others if we ever hope to be who God has called us to be.
Last week I made a post on my Facebook wall that invited responses from my friends. I asked for feedback from anybody who used to attend church regularly but had made the decision to stop going to church within the past five years. I wrote the post at my bedside late one night as I was pondering how to lead my own congregation. I put my phone away and went to sleep. When I woke up the next morning, the post had at least 20 comments and there were 25 private messages waiting for me in my inbox.
As I made my morning cup of coffee and began to read these stories, I found myself weeping. Here are a few examples of what I read:
“Never quite feel like I can be myself at church. I’m uncomfortable with the structure of church.”
“When I got divorced, I was embarrassed to be seen at church. My family no longer fit the mold that the church seemed to be pushing on everybody.”
“My family no longer fit the mold that the church seemed to be pushing on everybody.”
“I grew tired of trying to make my energetic children attend a worship service where they were expected to be quiet for an hour. They spent the whole time begging me to leave.”
“I work on the weekends and my church seemed to put all of their energy into one hour on a Sunday morning. When I talked to our pastor about a worship opportunity during the week, he shunned me for having a job where I had to work on Sundays.”
“I could no longer tolerate my church constantly pushing a political agenda.”
“I kept wishing my church would be more passionate not just about evangelism, but also about issues of justice in our world. Instead, they seemed obsessed with heaven instead of real suffering here on earth.”
I do not have any easy or pat answers for how best to respond to each of these people. I have faith that simply providing a space for them to express their pain is at least a start. All churches have had to adapt or die in these pandemic days, and I hope we are not foolish enough to waste this opportunity by simply going back to reinstituting the same culture paradigms within our churches that we have been fruitlessly perpetuating for a long time.
This is an opportunity. It’s a chance for the church to take a good, hard, long look at ourselves and to consider where we have drawn the lines of who is in and who is out. It’s a chance for us to consider what we really mean when we say that “all are welcome.” It’s a chance for us to put to the test just how truly expansive we believe God’s grace to be.
I do know that we clergy cannot do it alone. Unless these sort of systematic shifts in church culture bubble from the ground up, nothing will truly change. As much as pastors need to be paying attention to the voices of those on the margins, it is really for congregational leaders like deacons, team or committee chairs, and everyday folks who sit in the pews to begin to decide that their church will be a home for all, even the outcasts.
If we can do that, then the church will be living into what God has called it to be: a community of grace and welcome and good news for all — not a keeper of a sacred timeline known only to the hidden powers that be.
That is our mission. That is, if you will, our glorious purpose.
Tyler Tankersley serves as senior pastor of Ardmore Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, N.C. He is a graduate of Central Baptist Theological Seminary.
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