By Jeff Hood
There was an expansive agricultural nursery across the street from the large Southern Baptist church I grew up in. Each Sunday, everyone who attended our fundamentalist church had to drive by the Jewish family who owned it on their way out. On multiple occasions, I remember different people from our church leaning out their windows and screaming at the top of their lungs, “Go to church!”
Such actions were a natural outgrowth of our strategy to evangelize our community or to get more people into our church. While we were busy talking about how to grow our space, the hungry in our community knew they could always go to the Jewish family to get free food. During the quarterly budget meetings about the millions and millions of dollars needed to keep our facility going, I often thought about the juxtaposition of the Jewish family across the street feeding the hungry and our church members screaming at them to “Go to church!”
The more I have thought about this story from my youth, the more I realize that it is an adaptation of an old parable for the modern church. There once was a guy leading a minority religious community. One day, he led his disciples to some good food in the wheat fields. That day being the day that was normally reserved for worship, leaders of the majority religious community came by and demanded that they “Go to church!” or something like that. Jesus sought to make sure that those around him were fed and these idiots were trying to get more people into church or follow their lead.
“How do we grow our church?” Since my youth, I have heard this question asked over and over in a variety of spaces and contexts. The biggest fear of the modern church is decline. Why? I think we actually believe the church is going to die without our budgets, bulletins, buildings, baptisteries, branding and a whole host of things that have become so sacrosanct to us. I doubt we can get much more foolish. While we have spent our time pushing people into our churches, the world is still crumbling and demanding answers to the questions.
How can you tell someone to go to church when they are busy searching for something to eat — due to our concern about adjusting the temperature in our church and not to the changing climate that is destroying crops on the outside?
How can you tell someone to go to church when you know that they are far too strange — to fit into the normative ways that you consistently practice?
How can you tell someone to use their energy and resources to get to church when they don’t have a home — due to the economic inequalities that have contributed to the growth of our edifices and the shrinking of our hearts?
How can you tell someone to go to church when they are locked up — because we have done nothing about mass incarceration?
How can you tell someone to go to church when they know that their clothes smell — and all your people will do is complain about the stench?
How can you tell someone to go to church when they are sick and dying — due to churches refusing to engage in healthcare advocacy?
The question “How do we grow our church?” is offensive and disgusting in a world of injustice like ours. Those who keep asking the question do so at their own peril. For concentrating on growing the church means that you have ceased to concentrate on what it means to actually be the church in a world of crippling injustice. We don’t need more budgets. We don’t need more bulletins. We don’t need more buildings. We don’t need more baptisteries. We don’t need more branding. We need Jesus and that is all.
The greatest heresy of all is that going to church was a part of the plan in the first place. The idea of church has always been more about becoming something than going somewhere. Why do we spend so much energy and resources keeping all these institutions up? How did being the church turn into our present institutionalized nightmare? The short answer is that we lost sight of Jesus. Jesus simply said, “Follow me.
I invite you to stop going to church and learn to follow. Jesus will always be out there on the margins living dangerously beyond our budgets, bulletins, buildings, baptisteries, branding and ….