By Starlette McNeill
For the past three years, I have led a young adult women’s group. It is comprised of 18 to 35 year olds, that mysterious group and magical age range that we know exists but can’t seem to catch for Sunday morning worship. In college, graduate school and doctoral programs, new, single, married and divorced moms, single, married and divorced women meet bi-monthly at one of their homes. Our focus is simple: our story. Our goal is much more difficult: to tell it. I call the ministry TESTIFY, which stands for “telling every story to internally free you.” And while the key is on the outside — here being one’s mouth — it is not as accessible as one might assume.
Women have no problem gathering. We come together to check for lipstick on teeth or food stuck in between them. We come together on playgrounds, in grocery store lines and bathrooms. Watchers, we look out for friends, family and strangers alike. We like to help others. However, when it comes to helping ourselves, some of us behave as if we are ill-equipped or if such an endeavor would be waste of time.
We love talking about our family and telling cute stories about our children. But, there are some stories about ourselves that we do not tell, that we would not even whisper to ourselves. This year, we are looking at our story according to social media, and at this month’s meeting, we looked at what was trending in our lives and in our social circles.
Body image kept coming up. They were tired of feeling as if they had to compete with surgically enhanced bodies and conform to socially acceptable bodies. They were sick of this trend in American society and among women, which got me to thinking about the spiritual body, Christ’s Body.
Though we claim the “blessed assurance” of being made in the image of God, we, too, are concerned about our own. We have made changes to the Body in order to appear real and relevant to the culture. Feeling inadequate and out of touch, we have changed to meet the needs of this generation. We have surgically enhanced our Body, cut away the old in order to look new, added to the Body because we do not value what we have.
Yet, there is a line between the sacred and the secular, whether thick or thin, I do not know. And there is a delicate balance between being “in the world but not of it.” This tug of war pulls on our theology and its practice. How are we to acknowledge the senses of this world while sharing faith in the otherworldly? I’m not sure what many of us saw when we looked at the Body image of Christ but I fear now that we are so earthly minded that we will be no heavenly good.
But, this problem is not new. These two sides, two faces that keep up appearances in an attempt to benefit from both sides of the equation, was identified in the Pharisees of Jesus’ day. In fact, it is the number one excuse offered by those who do not attend church: “The people are hypocrites.” They say this as if to suggest that they are exempt from being one, as if coming to church is what makes you a hypocrite.
And yet, the judgment of hypocrisy is true. This imbalanced focus on the external when compared to the internal, our double-mindedness, is not a stretch of the imagination. Pastors want to make a good impression so we talk about the number of seats and members and ministries and services and persons on staff. Our church is “large and in charge.” McChurch: 30,000 served. Members share the name of their pastor, hoping to impress listeners with her or his reputation as a business, community and political leader.
We have changed our name, cut ties with denominations and become partners with capitalism. No longer churches but worship centers, fellowships and plazas. Along with Christ’s salvation, we offer banking options and gym memberships. We are a “one stop shop.” We have outsourced the clothing closets and soup kitchens. Now, you have to “pay to play.”
We have nipped our doctrines and tucked away our history to hide our age in hopes of connecting. We have given ourselves a makeover. Dressed down, we don’t wear robes or suits but jeans and T-shirts. No cross — instead globes represent our ministry to the world. We have updated our language, changed our vocabulary. We are contemporary, not traditional, not religious but relational, no choirs or hymnals, just screens and praise teams. Pews have been replaced with theater-style seating. We have made all of these changes and still, many of those 18 to 35 year olds don’t sit in them. Maybe they asked Siri our age.
And while these are external changes, I wonder how our attempts to appear “progressive” and viewed as forward thinkers look to the brokenhearted and the captive, the homeless, the widow and the orphan, the immigrant and the stranger. What message is our image of Christ’s Body sending them? In our attempts to catch up and keep up with the world, what of Christ’s words and ways have fallen by the wayside?
Did we pick up our phones and put down our cross? Did we become the creators of our image, holding the world in our hands? While we were “changing the methodology but not the message,” did we reduce the kingdom of God to a virtual reality, a 4.7-inch touch screen? I suppose the answer depends on the way we look at it, which mirror we choose to look at, whether we want to appear “larger than life” or represent the abundant life that Christ came to offer. I assure you that the images are different.