Posts Tagged ‘Complaints’

contact-lens-discomfort-296x238“Were you Baptist before Lutheran?” someone asked me recently.

No. I was more atheist than anything…which is sometimes like being Baptist (as any faith affiliation is), but mostly not.  A closet atheist, but a convinced one nonetheless. I think I was asked this question because sometimes I sing Gospel tunes in worship, or ask for an “Amen” in my sermons.

Lutherans can do that, right?

In one of my theology classes at university (called “Black Theology/Black Church) we were assigned the task of visiting a historically black church on a Sunday morning.  For a university that, at the time, was only 6% people of color, you can imagine this was a stretch for many in the class.

Off I went with two classmates one Sunday morning to First Church of God in Christ in Gary, Indiana.  We arrived a little early, disrupting a small Bible study taking place in the sanctuary.  And when worship started, the small Bible study turned into the small congregation, perhaps only numbering 20 in total.  And the little electric organ ramped up and we all stood up and clapped (on 2 and 4), and hands were held high and “Amens” came aplenty and we sang and sand for probably half an hour.  No hymnals, mind you. It seemed everyone got the words but us newbies…though we stumbled along.

And then the pastor came with a message, another half hour or so.  And then an offering, “the tithe” as it was called.  And then more singing.  And then a second offering, or “the gift” as it was explained. The pastor must have seen my perplexed face. And then an altar call, where no one was particularly saved but everyone was blessed.  And then gone.

And the whole thing was totally foreign to me.  Totally uncomfortable.  Doubly uncomfortable, in some ways.  I felt that my presence was a disruption…this white guy coming to watch.  And then I also felt disrupted by the strangeness of it all: I didn’t know the hymns, I didn’t shout “Amen,” I didn’t want to be saved.

And looking back I’m thinking, I’m wondering, if this experience wasn’t one of the big wedges that got stuck in my armor of atheism. It shook me up. It made me feel totally uncomfortable.

And I paid attention to it.

When something forces you out of your comfort zone, there are two natural responses: run or ridicule.

We can run from discomfort, preserving ourselves and what we already know.  As Father Richard Rohr has been known to say, “We only want to learn what we already know.” This is true in most all of life, but I see it most clearly in the church where the ruffling of the feathers means the rumbling of the masses.  We essentially decide to go find a place that makes us feel more comfortable…at least, for a while.  Because nothing is comfortable forever. Evolution is the way of all living things.  And even the relative plateau times are really just the cover for quantum leaps of change.  Even in times of so-called steadiness, the tectonic plates are shifting underneath it all.  Hence why a straw can “break the camel’s back.”  Were things not always in flux underneath the surface, a straw wouldn’t have that power.

Or we can ridicule it.  Write it off. “That’s not the way we do things,” I say, trying to preserve a sense of “we” that is largely based off of a heightened sense of “me.”  Ridicule is a philosophical tool we use to take power away from things that don’t fit in our worldview.

But we have another response that we can use: we can pay attention to the feelings of discomfort inside of us and learn from them.  Why do I feel this way?  What is the underlying thing, true or imaginary, I’m trying to hold on to?  How can this moment teach me?

Jesus employed discomfort as his tool for growth in everything that he did.  He caused everyone around him to feel uncomfortable.

The Christian church is going through this extreme time of discomfort.  It’s happening at all levels: from the denominational offices to the congregation (and even to the individual Christian).  And we can run from it; some are certainly doing that.  They’re voting with their feet and their faith.   We can ridicule it; some are certainly doing that.  “Just keep things the same until you push my casket down the aisle,” is a phrase many pastors have heard and many parishioners have entertained.

Or we can learn from it. We can let it instruct us.  We can trust that we catch a better glimpse of God in these moments of discomfort. After all, there must be some reason Jesus used this as his primary teaching tool!

Discomfort is now my friend.  We’re not best buddies; I’d like to see them less than I do sometimes.  But they always teach me something, usually something about myself and my preconceived notions.  Something I can’t learn elsewhere.

And it’s hard to learn these lessons…any other way.

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2165374689_0c605b8e92_bTransparency note: my bias is toward pastors in these situations, mostly because that’s my vantage point.  That being said, I do recognize that it is really difficult when someone comes in and starts changing things a community has held dear for centuries.  I welcome all responses.

This last week I heard another example; it was the second time in as many weeks. I heard about another colleague who had received an anonymous note or had been the recipient of anonymous passive-aggressive behavior from someone at the church who was disgruntled about something.  They were crestfallen.

Actually, I hear about these incidents a lot.  An image of Sisyphus always comes to my mind when I hear about these incidents, because that’s exactly what it feels like to get feedback you can’t do anything with. Anonymity provides the critique without the accountability…

Quick aside: speaking from experience, anonymous feedback is the worst kind of feedback.  It makes it absolutely impossible for follow-up, encourages tactlessness in messaging (after all, if no one knows it is you writing, you can be as mean as you like), and most disappointingly, it is endemic of a passive-aggression that seems to be fostered in the communities of faith.  It’s not scriptural. God is highly relational in the scriptures, so don’t you think we should be, too?

My advice? Throw it in the trash.  I’ve been blessed to have calls where I’ve received relatively few anonymous notes.  I can say I’ve not been the victim of bullying that I’ve seen some of my colleagues endure…which is a good thing.  But I wonder if I’m the exception.  I hope not, but I wonder.

Let’s be honest: if you can’t sign your name to a note or a criticism, it’s not worth sending.  If you can’t stand behind your statement, it’s not a conviction but a predilection.

But my above advice is just a short-term solution.  I think there is a larger issue that we have to deal with in some way, and it is this: many churches simply do not want the pastors that seminaries are producing these days, and many new pastors simply do not want the pulpits available.

Let me explain myself before you send me that anonymous note…

My seminary class was full of idealists.  We had, and many still have, a strong conviction that God in Christ is active in the world, and that as pastors we would connect people to God’s action and the world would start to look differently, first at the individual level (for hearts changed), and then at the communal level (for societal change), and then at a systematic level (for world change).

That’s still our vision, at least one that I cling to in big and small ways.

But I also know that, at least in some ways, social justice can be talked about as a savior in some instances…and that’s just not scriptural.  It’s evidence of the Savior’s work.  It’s a call of the Savior.  But social justice is not Jesus; it’s easy to fall into that rabbit hole, though…especially when Jesus is largely thought to be assumed in the church’s work.

We need Jesus along with justice, people.  We don’t need exclusive “social justice,” but rather “social Jesus.”  We need growth in faith while also being invited to act on that faith in real, tangible, life-changing/system-changing/world-changing ways.  We need that Jesus who speaks to our inner faith and discipleship growth as well as calls us out of our comfort zones to engage the world.

…”Social Jesus.”  I might trademark that…

And I wonder if sometimes the seminary community doesn’t find themselves falling down that rabbit hole in much the same way university students find themselves becoming entrenched in this cause or that, siloed off into affinity groups for action.  Group think can be a powerful force, even in a place of robust dialogue.

On the flip-side, faith communities can also become that siloed place where group think takes hold.  Jesus has often been talked about, communicated, and felt in particular ways in a particular community, ways that people are reluctant to change.  Particular patterns of life together are largely assumed to be universally understood in many communities of faith. Pastors are often expected to reinforce these particularities.

This, too, is a rabbit hole, the hole of particularity.

Traditions and community rituals form us together, but sometimes they also wall us off from new ideas or new expressions of the faith.

And so when you have two entities coming together from siloed places of formation, both with ideas of how and what they’re supposed to be doing, there is not only a gap in expectation, but a gap in understanding about what is going on.  The one believes they’re called to lead a people into finding out where God is active in the world, matching the two up; the second believes they’re calling someone to reinforce for them that God is active in what they’re already doing.

Now, forgive me for the broad brush-strokes.  This is certainly not true for every pastor or every faith community.

But I’m trying to figure out why I’m seeing so many of my colleagues leave the profession (or think of leaving…the stats are surprising), “take a break” from the profession, or trudge along into the headwind of anonymous notes and continual barrage of insults that I’m really not sure happens in any other profession, at least not the way it does for pastors, all the while nursing addictions, depression, self-loathing, or a callousness unhelpful in the profession.

Think about it: in what other profession, other than perhaps politics or a CEO of a non-profit, do you have the people you serve as your literal boss, even though they ask you to lead?  And even in those cases just mentioned, there is a level of abstraction from the person serving to the person being served.

As one meme nicely put it: pastors are the only people who get complaints when they don’t visit people who don’t want them there in the first place.

Imagine sitting at someone’s bedside as they’re sick or dying, and that person has had a history of trying to systematically stand against everything you’ve tried to do in your ministry at a particular congregation, and you have to be their compassionate hand and voice in that moment. Yes, it’s part of what we’re called to do, but let’s not pretend there’s not just a little bit of bitterness there on either side of that situation, and quite a bit of psychological violence as some pastors must minister to people who have said horrible things about them.

Jesus does say bless the ones who curse you for my sake, but he didn’t say that you have to preside over their funeral or entertain their insults to the grave…

Added to this gap in expectation are three more glaring issues that we continue to skirt around: pastors leaving seminary today often don’t look like their predecessors in style or theology (not to mention gender or race) than even a decade ago, some churches are in the pressure-cooking process of dying already, and my generation in particular is deciding that life is too short to do work for people who dislike you (mostly because we’ve seen our parents or our mentor-pastors endure it for years, and we just won’t live like that).

Those three issues create a perfect storm for dysfunction, vocational crisis, and just really bad behavior that looks nothing like Jesus and everything like evil.

Of course there is some fragility that we must be honest about.  Pastors: you need a thick(er) skin.  Let me walk that statement back for a second and re-state it:

WE need a thick(er) skin.

My skin has grown thick(er) over the years, but there are still soft spots.  And I still get frustrated, especially when complaints pile one on top of the other with this work.  Reading and re-reading Friedman’s work and the Psalms has helped with this.

But the Office requires it; demands it.  And the back-biting and dysfunction in communities of faith is not new, nor does it just affect certain flavors of churches.  Just look at the issues that Charles Stanley had when trying to assume the senior pulpit at highly conservative First Baptist in Atlanta alongside the issues that progressive Riverside Church in New York City has had finding a stable presence for their pulpit.  Or, just look at Paul’s advice to that church in Corinth who just couldn’t get their act together.  It’s not new.

I think what is new is that many from my generation of pastors just aren’t feeling the Sisyphean work is worth the pain, and that the situation is literally one of life and death for some churches who see continual decline and some pastors who find themselves trying to fit (or not) into a role they feel they never signed up for.

Pastor: ask for good behavior overtly.  Expect it. And if you’re a Senior or Lead Pastor, it has to come from the top down.  I cannot tell you how many colleagues have left calls because they’ve been bullied by congregation members and the Lead Pastor hasn’t had the stomach to do something about it.

But in a broader sense, I am seeing a really disturbing trend. My fellow clergy are entering parishes that simply do not want their ministry, despite calling them to the pulpit.  They want something else.  Sometimes they say that they want something that looks less like 2016 and more like 1956, or even 1986 (impossible).  Sometimes they say that they want someone who looks more like the pastor they had as a child than one of their grandchildren (even though their grandchild is exactly the person they want in the pew).  Sometimes they just want to get rid of the pastor, a “return to sender” to the Bishop…that’s just not how it works.

And I’m seeing fellow pastors who just don’t want the congregations they’re being called to, either. Sometimes because they don’t want to/can’t offer the ministry desired of them from the people.  Sometimes because they don’t identify with anyone in their congregation in theology or age, and loneliness catches up with them.  Sometimes because their creativity is stifled (though from the pew it can feel like things are changing for the sake of change), and sometimes because they just can’t make their zeal in seminary translate into a zeal for the people they’re called to serve.

And we say things like, “the system is broken” when it comes to matching seminary graduates and congregations.  And that is true; it is broken.  But that’s not the whole story.  It’s not all about bad matches.

It’s also about bad expectations on all sides.  It’s about a changing church and a changing world that we all give lip-service to, but aren’t quite sure how to actually be in yet.

A greater part of the narrative, greater than any of us might want to admit, is that the pews don’t look like the pulpit anymore and we’re all having a hard time figuring out how to do ministry together because of that.

The church today is a church different than a decade ago, and certainly a century ago.  And pastors are asked not only to lead congregations to faith, but also be marketing experts, small non-profit managers, funeral directors, and miracle workers, all without rocking the boat.

And our seminaries just aren’t training pastors to be all of those things.

And the result of that is often passive-aggression and the unhealthy tension of bad behavior and burn out and splitting churches and, well, you get it.

Is my hypothesis right?  Do churches just not want the pastors seminaries are producing, and pastors the churches that are offered?  Are expectations just so radically different on either side?

None of this is helping the body of Christ, by the way.  And this kind of stuff (really, would YOU join a church full of such strife?) makes many into reluctant Christians…if they stay at all.

We have to figure this out. Together.

 

 

 

 

depressionMother’s Day is a continual reminder to pastors that they are truly incompetent in the “make everyone happy” department.

A good lesson, I guess.

Except we’re reminded of it every day…it just intensifies on Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, when the 4th of July lands on a Sunday, Veteran’s Day, and when 9/11 marks the first day of the week.

Out of all of those, though, Mother’s Day really does take the cake because it is really intimately tied to culture in a deeply personal way.  Mother’s Day is really about sex, sexuality, procreation, choice, marriage, divorce, and choosing to raise/not raise children.

And the pastor’s hands are tied, in this case.  Especially if the pastor is accustomed to preaching with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.  You cannot mention current events and not mention the reason why so many women are wearing flowers that morning, I think.

Or maybe you can…I don’t know.  I haven’t figured out a way to do it.

It’s just, well, whatever you choose, be prepared for the emails, anonymous notes, and comments following the service.

A very popular blog post has been making it’s way around this past week.  It’s good. Really good.  It’s been around for a few years.  Like that picture your mom took of you in the bathtub when you were four, it makes it’s rounds about the same time every year just in time to make you feel really awkward.

Yes, the blog post makes me feel awkward.

As a father, it doesn’t make me feel awkward at all.

As a feminist, it makes me shout “yes!”

As someone who wasn’t always sure they wanted children, it makes me feel affirmed.

As a pastor it makes me feel awkward.

Because it’s indicative of a Catch-22 for me.  Mother’s Day isn’t a liturgical holiday, so it really doesn’t need mentioning by the church.  And yet, we lift up Mary as the theotokos, the “God-bearer,” and note her motherly care of the Christ.  We talk a lot about the “womb of creation” as being God’s womb, and make the case hard for feminine pronouns to describe God, especially pointing to God’s work in creation.

And then comes Mother’s Day.

I’m not for honoring Mother’s Day during a Sunday service.  I’m not for pretending it isn’t happening, either.  I’m sure there are ways to straddle the desire to lift up mothering in this world while also not glorifying it as the end-all and be-all of existence.  I truly get that mothers are proud of that role in their life.  I truly get that not all women want to be mothers, and don’t need the church making them feel like they should.  Society does that well enough.  And I truly get that Mother’s Day is painful for some who are grieving their mother, or who have crappy mothers, or who can’t conceive.

Hopefully your pastor isn’t glib.  Hopefully they see all of these realities and try to acknowledge them all. I try to do that…to varying degrees of success.

But it’s just yet another example of why I suck in the department of making people happy.  Pastors truly die from a thousand paper-cuts…not just on this topic.  Which might be why your pastor responded to your email of “concern” or “complaint” in that way that made you feel like they really didn’t hear you.

It’s probably the fifth email of concern they’ve gotten that day…and they’ve stopped being concerned in order to just finish out the day without feeling absolutely dejected.

But I digress. Back to Mother’s Day.

These fights between cultural holidays and Sunday morning worship sometimes make me want to skip out on church altogether.  I don’t blame the women who do on Mother’s Day.  And I don’t blame the women who feel slighted when Mother’s Day isn’t talked about at all at worship, either.  The church of the past was the place to celebrate such things; for many it still is.

But for me?  I’d really just like to say a quiet prayer on Mother’s Day in thanks for God who is mother to us all, call my mom, kiss the mother of my son, greet the young woman who doesn’t want kids where she is, thank the couple who can’t conceive for worshiping God today in our congregation, hug the grandmother who has outlived her children and buried each one with a hug that she won’t get from them, high-five little girls without assuming that they’ll be or want to be mothers, shake the hands of the two fathers who bring their children to church, and not feel like by doing any one of those actions I’m hurting someone else.

Is that too much to ask?

 

Let’s start with some political statements:church_state

“Jesus is Lord.”

Yes; that is a political statement.  You might think it’s pretty innocuous.  Perhaps you even think it’s a bit annoying (sometimes I find how this seems to be a catch-all answer for some annoying).  But, actually, for the ancient people in Palestine, this statement was scandalous.  Because they only had one Lord: Caesar.  And if you went around saying Jesus stands in the place of Caesar for you and your family…well…keep your politics to yourself.

“Prince of Peace.”

Yes; a political statement.  Want to hanker a guess as to who was the Prince of Peace in ancient Palestine?  If you chose Bill Murray, you were off by a few thousand years.  No, it was Caesar.  He was hailed as the one who kept the empire out of war.  He was the harbinger of peaceful times.

That is, unless, you were some of the occupied people under him.  The Roman Empire kept peace through military might and subjugation; through intimidation and economic sanctions.  Is that really “peace”?  The absence of war does not mean the presence of peace…

In fact, the opening chapters of the first three Gospels are chock full of political language.  But no need to just stick to the New Testament.  The prophets were certainly not quiet about politics, both domestic and foreign.  The whole book of Exodus was leaving one political reality for another, tackling immigration head-on.  The whole book of Leviticus was about how the people would organize themselves in the new land.

See, we have people who get pretty angry when they hear “politics” preached from the pulpit.  In fact, a colleague of mine recently noted that pastors should preach the Gospel and then shut up.

But, well, nothing happens in a vacuum.

(…I love that pun)

We aren’t people who are floating free in our own little religious world.  We must talk about politics from the pulpit.  The ancient texts compel it; the modern times call to us from the news programs and paper rags.  We are being pulled into it by the past and the present, and the preacher must put these two things together to comment on how God might be leading us into the future…

We should talk about how farm bills do or do not help feed the world.  We should talk about how, in Chicago, we are bankrupt and giving huge corporations billions in tax breaks while, just this last year, my housing tax went up, but my house value went down.  And if that’s the case for me, who lives in a pretty good neighborhood, what does that mean for my sisters and brothers who don’t?

Explain that to me, please.

We should talk about what it means to be able to carry on your person a weapon that is made only to kill other people.  What might God have to say about that?  What might the Christian world have to say about that?  Especially in Chicago where we don’t ranch cattle, but live in a concrete jungle.

See…your pastor has to talk about politics because you are enmeshed in political systems that have a spiritual dimension.  But we’ve been trained by the world to have a negative reaction to such talk because we see politics as divisive rather than unifying.

But, if there’s one thing that does unify the world, it’s that we are all under a political system of some sort.  And we should talk about it.  Your pastor should talk about it.

What she shouldn’t do, and here’s the rub, what she shouldn’t do is be partisan.

Sure, she has her own opinions.  And you might know them, too.  But her opinions aren’t the Gospel.  And you preachers…that’s important to remember.  God is not a Republican, nor is God a Democrat.  God is not in the Labour Party nor is God a Tory.

That being said, to pretend like the texts don’t say something about political issues is naive.  You follow the Prince of Peace, and yet you don’t think that God might have an opinion on war?  You say “Jesus is Lord” and yet your church is making most of it’s decisions based off of economics, putting money in the place of power?

Nothing happens in a vacuum.

Your church shouldn’t feel like a gathering of the Democratic Party.  That’s a church that would have a hard time saying “Jesus is Lord” and meaning it.  That’s a puppet platform.

Your church shouldn’t feel like a gathering of the Republican Party, either.  Or any part, for that matter.

So many do, though.

And I’ve been accused in my time of preaching politics…it’s a careful line the preacher has to walk, and hopefully it’s done with fear and trepidation.  Politics so easily turn partisan.

But let us not pretend that God might not have a word or two for the systems that surround us, for the systems we’re embedded in, for the systems we inhabit.

We can be careful how we speak, but we cannot not say anything.

I hate election season.

I love election season.

I kind of love to hate election season, if I’m perfectly honest with myself.

For some pastors it is truly a struggle to stand in a pulpit and say…anything.  They struggle out of fear.  There is a fear that connecting the faith with the life of the body politic will illicit the dreaded “email of political shaming.”

Luckily, I don’t get many emails like that.  But I have colleagues who do.

I keep emails that I get telling me that I’m too “political” in my sermons in a special folder.  It’s tentatively labeled “Trash”…but I may change it to “Inconsequential.”

Funny enough, it’s the same folder where I put emails that deride me for not being political enough in my sermons…

It’s not that I discount what people are saying in those emails; I take them seriously.  But I don’t see a way around preaching the way I do.  I think we’ve screwed up our definitions on what is a “political” issue and what is a “faith” issue.

Poverty is not a political issue.  It is a faith issue. It is an ethical issue.  It has just been politicized.

Dignity for the marginalized is not a political issue.  It is a faith issue. It is an ethical issue.  It has just been politicized.

In many respects, how we care for our sick, our elderly, our children, our indigent…these are not political issues. They are faith issues.  They are ethical issues.  They have just been politicized.

I love election season because it has the potential to be an intellectual exchange of ideas that results in action.

I hate election season because it invariably turns into a steaming pile of vacuous rhetoric with sides parading issues as if they and they alone are the standard bearer bringing awareness to them, and that they and they alone care about them.  The opposition not only doesn’t care, but hates the issue and those that hold it dear.

Typical political pandering.

And then I rise in the pulpit on Sunday and say things like, “The early church held all things in common…” (Acts 2:44), or “And Jesus healed the paralytic who was cared for by his friends…” (Mark 2:1-12), or “Joseph and Mary fled with Jesus to Egypt, where he was kept as an immigrant in a strange land until the age of…” (Matthew 2:13)

And what I receive in return are emails that accuse me of preaching socialism, endorsing free health-care, and taking sides on immigration issues.  In effect, those emails are insinuating that these issues are political in nature, and that I’ve made them into faith issues.  Unfortunately, that’s a reversal of reality.

And then I hear issues of personal morality, particularly how we love and how we reproduce, take the stage in spectacularly religious language that seems to drip from pastors mouths in the pulpit laying the bedrock for party platforms.

I wonder if those pastors get emails.

The message is that personal morality fits within the church walls and the political sphere.  Communal ethics, however, are purely political and have no place within the church walls.

Let us not make the mistake of thinking that social issues are God’s good news for a suffering world.  As a Christian I see God’s good news as Christ himself and the work that he did/does in the world for humanity.

But let us also not make the mistake of thinking that we come from a tradition whose sacred texts have no commentary on ethical issues.

I’m a reluctant Christian sometimes because we have a schizophrenic relationship to just how our sacred texts can be used in public life.

To ensure freedom of religion we must have a political process that is free from religion; this is true.

For me, this means that a particular candidates faith tradition, whether it is Christian, Mormon, Muslim, or Atheist, doesn’t affect my vote.

(In our current political season, I care that Romney is a Mormon about as much as I care that Obama is a Christian: I don’t care.  Not one bit)

It means that you cannot use the word “God” to get votes, either in your party platform or in your stump speeches.

It means that if you pick up a baby on the rope line, it better be because you’re checking to see that she’s within the weight ratio for her age, and not to show that you value “faith and family.”

But while we must have a political system that is free from religion, I’m not sure how we can have a religious tradition, that seems to focus intently on how to live together, free from commentary on issues that have been politicized.

My faith is integral to how I treat my neighbor, and how I hope society treats my neighbor.  And to ensure that I keep my faith integrated into my practices, I need a preacher and a church that looks at scripture and civilization together in such a way that we acknowledge personal and communal issues within the church walls.

And I need candidates and political parties who are not opportunists. I need candidates and political parties who don’t look at moral issues through the lens of political manipulation.  I need candidates who shun the vacuous political rhetoric of vote-getting and take up the prophetic leadership voice of one who speaks truth to power even as they seek it.

No more political pandering to my faith, please.

But can we dare to speak about issues in church and not assume that we’re pandering politics?

I don’t know, but I don’t know how to stop doing it.  I have issues with issues.

And if you have an issue with this post, feel free to send an email.  I’ll put it in my special folder…

“The trouble with church is…” or, “If only we would…”

I hear those phrases a lot when people start talking about church.

It’s like a broken record.  Everyone’s agenda is either blamed as the cause or heralded as the cure for whatever is wrong with “church.”

I’d like to hit the needle on that record player for a second.

It’s not that I think organized religion doesn’t have issues.

Man, does it have issues.

Huge issues.

And in many ways it needs to follow the path of Jesus and die a bit so something new can be raised up.

But I think that many times the reasons we give for churches and communities having “trouble” (however you define that word) are pretty lame.  I think we’re pretty good parents, but pretty lousy doctors, when it comes to church dysfunction: we know something is wrong but can’t diagnose it.

Myself included.

But I think I’ve identified some things that might be food for thought.  There are others, of course.  Other responses, other questions, other diagnoses.

The following are my top five; you probably have your own.  Feel free to share them.

So, here are 5 of my responses to 5 of the reasons I hear most often when it comes to “the trouble with church.”

# 5: “The trouble with church is that we don’t have a ‘contemporary’ service.”

Hey, have whatever style of church service you want.  We have a couple different worship styles where I serve.

But if I were to guess, I’d say that the trouble with your church is not that you don’t have a “contemporary service” (whatever that means).  The trouble is that people aren’t connecting with the service that you do have.

The relevance of religion can’t be assumed in this day and age.  I think the common person walking around today downloads apps on their phone for two main reasons.

1: they feel they need it.

2: they think it’s interesting.

That’s why I download the apps I do (and my wife hates the “flashlight” app…mostly because I use it to find the bed late at night if she’s gone to sleep before me).

So why do you do services at all?  Why do you need them?  Why are they interesting/insightful for you?

Do people even know why you’re doing what you’re doing?  Do they see the deep connections that are present?

Do you know?

People talk about “relevance” when it comes to church all the time, but I think they want to do it abstractly and with the wild assumption that everyone thinks “church” is necessary.

But in the concrete, what does it mean to sing communally?  What does it mean to read ancient texts together and hear someone reflect on them?  What does it mean to join your voices in prayer, refocusing yourself on the needs of the world and those who are ill?  What does it mean to eat a communal meal where everyone is invited forward and no one leaves without something?

Are you talking about these things?

I really don’t think that Christians today can fail to have the conversation on why the worshiping community is important, but so many churches aren’t having that conversation at all.

Not even amongst the people that do show up at church.

Change the style all you want.  Unless the deeper conversation is happening, I don’t think it’ll go anywhere.  And then you’ll just have someone come up to you and say, “You know what the trouble with this church is? We don’t have a “traditional” service…”

#4: “The trouble with this church is that we don’t have any young people.”

Yeah, this is a problem in some ways, just like a church with only young people is also a problem.

But energy isn’t generated by age; it’s generated by mission.

If your church doesn’t see a growing group of disciples, my guess is that the group that is there is unclear about what it’s doing there in the first place.  A church that understands itself (much like a person who understands themselves) works best because it knows where it is going.

Where is your church going?  Have you discussed it?

Many times I’ve heard people lament the absence of “young people,” and I think to myself, “So, you’ve already identified what you don’t have…but what do you have?  Where are you going?  Yes, you’ve talked about what you were, but who are you now?”

Know thyself and you will grow thyself.

Or, if not, if you come to understand yourself as a community best served in joining others in service through disbanding and moving your energies that way, then do so.  If people aren’t coming into your community, go out and join theirs!

#3: “The trouble with church is that this pastor doesn’t work enough.”

I know lazy pastors, just like I know lazy accountants, bankers, plumbers and politicians.

But I find that most pastors that are accused of being lazy are actually just burned out.

And they burn out because we’ve stopped hiring pastors to help us be church, and just expect them to do church for us.

Perhaps the trouble is that the pastor doesn’t feel supported.  I have colleagues who don’t even feel liked!  They are simply another reminder to the congregation that they are not who they once were in the roaring 50’s when the beloved pastor reigned over an era of pew-packing popularity, mostly due to the fact that American culture and the church had aligned themselves in an unholy union that we’ve only just recently been able to divorce ourselves from.

It’s unpopular to say out loud, but I feel much of the exodus of this generation from the pews of their parents can be traced back to those boom days when this hemisphere thought that Jesus was waving an American flag…

If you think your pastor is lazy, ask yourself if you’ve taken them out for coffee to chat about what’s going on in their life.  If you do, I’d bet that you’d find a calendar so packed that they’re demoralized before they rise out of bed in the morning because there is absolutely no way they can turn the ship around by themselves with so many issues to attend to…and that they’ve been trying to for far too long.

#2: “The trouble with church is that I could use my time better doing something different on a Sunday morning.”

I hear this one most often from people who aren’t in a faith community.  I can understand their point.

Sunday morning seems, by and large, to still be a time of relative inactivity in this hemisphere.

For right now.

Youth soccer and dance is starting to invade into the Sunday morning schedule, though…and they’re just the first in what, I imagine, will be non-stop programming.

I think this is a cultural problem, by and large, although there are some steps that churches can take to change this.

We, as a culture, or over scheduled.  And we’re teaching our children to be over scheduled, too.

In polling the people of my church community on why they attend, what feeds them, a large percentage mentioned the peace and quiet that Sunday morning hour offers them.

Which means that they’re sleeping through the sermon…

But, I find myself seeking the same thing: an escape from the over scheduled, hectic pace.

That, in and of itself, has a positive psychological impact.

As a person of faith, I happen to believe there are other positives too: a connection with the Divine, connection with intentional community, re-connection with a self that is lost within a sea of calendar appointments.

But if we find that Sunday morning is the only time that we have to ourselves, I don’t think church is the trouble.

To borrow an old cliche: are we living to work or working to live?  Are we taking time to examine our lives, or just gasping for breath between sprints?

I think there is a deep spiritual problem with a life that is so over-crowded that intentional community feels like another thing on the “to-do” list.

When done well, I think, intentional community gathered around the things of the Divine can be the generator that helps us tackle our to-do lists.

#1: “The trouble with church is that it just brainwashes you.  God isn’t real, anyway.”

Again, I usually hear this from people outside of a faith community.

Although, I do have to say that there are plenty of brainwashed people within the church who behave as if God isn’t real…

I think a typical reaction to a statement like this is one of defense.  I’ve heard many people, who truly care about another person who has this opinion, go into a litany of “proofs for God”, eventually collapsing in a fit of tears.

Because proofs for God are dead-ends, and nothing brings a person to tears with such intensity as the realization that your worldview isn’t shared by everyone…and that they may have some pretty good reasons for thinking the way they do, too.

Churches have a history of being, and many still are, places where brainwashing happens.  But so are movie theaters, concert arenas, political conventions, book clubs…the list is extensive.  Group think can happen anywhere if two or three are gathered, I guess.

Because of this, I think that this reason deserves some careful consideration by those Christians whose knee-jerk reaction would be to challenge it out of hand.

We don’t want to be places of brainwashing, do we?

Do we?

I hope and think the point of an intentionally community gathered around God would be to ask better questions: about life, existence, how scripture informs our days and weeks, about justice and the path of the Christ.

And I think that intentional communities like a church can be places that de-program cultural brainwashing when it challenges you not to live for greed, but to give of yourself for the life of others.  Or when it challenges a community to not seek glory, but rather stand with the oppressed.  I think our culture tries to brainwash us all the time with mixed signals that only confuse us: buy this, reject that; eat here, follow this diet plan; give money here, divest there.

In fact, I think that our culture tries to convince us that God is real, and that God is us.

But there is another way to live.  A way around shared experience, intentional Divine connection.  A way of song, prayer, meal.  A way where the reality of God isn’t always assumed, but arrived at through communal interaction where we find God most present.

After all, I can’t force somebody to see the reality of God anymore than I can force somebody to see that I love them.  It takes relationship to come to that realization…and relationships that are coerced, hampered by knee-jerk reactions or blind allegiance don’t often go very well.

The Church has a lot of trouble; that can’t be denied.  But I’m not sure it has to do with service style, age demographics, pastor efficiency, timing, or group think.

Those excuses play like a broken record.  I think that any church who listens to those excuses will never be able to move the needle and get on their way with mission.

I think most of the time the trouble with church starts with the individual who finds the problem.

Myself included.

And I know I need a community with an eye toward the sacred to help me dig that out.

Spare me the hip.

You do not do church “differently” just because you meet in someone’s home.  Or because you meet at a time other than Sunday morning.  Or because you sing songs that aren’t considered hymns.

You do not do church differently because you wear hipster glasses, or you wear a t-shirt and jeans.

In fact, you do church just as church has always been done.  Churches have always met in people’s homes…and that eventually grew into meeting in cathedrals and large buildings because, well, your living room isn’t super comfortable with more than 9 in it, let alone 25.

Churches have always worshiped on different days: sometimes Saturday evenings, sometimes Wednesday evenings, sometimes three times a day, sometimes nine times a day!  It’s not new; its ancient.

Churches have always sung a variety of songs, some contextual and some more reflective of their ancestors.  Ancient Christians sang new songs, ancient Jewish songs, and then some new Christian songs to ancient Jewish music.  You could say the same of any church you go in today.  Amazing Grace done on electric guitar comes to mind.

I would argue, however, that this trend of church songs having only one theme (some variation of “Jesus loves me personally” or “God is awesome”) is fairly recent (within the last 70 years).  That newness, though, doesn’t make it different…I think it should invite us to evaluative questions like, “Is this really the best we can do in expressing our thoughts about God in song” or “Is God other than awesome?  Is Jesus more than just for me?”.

It’s clear those questions aren’t being asked in many circles.  Please, someone, ask those questions.  Mumford and Sons is writing songs with more theological depth than most anyone in the world of CCM.*

And churches have always sought people “where they are.”  And I’ll admit I’m guilty of using that line, mostly because I think it’s true.

I don’t think it’s different, though.  And it certainly isn’t hip.

It’s just that, well, can you actually be anywhere where you aren’t?  Do you really know of a church that thinks you have to change to walk in the door?  If you do, I wouldn’t argue that they’re doing church “the same old way.”  If you have to change to walk in the door, they’re just doing church badly.

And if you think that just because you don’t wear robes you’re “doing church differently,” I’d ask you to read a Christian liturgy book.  Robes, the clothes of a servant, were meant to give a “replaceable” quality to the leader of worship…much, I think, like the t-shirt and jeans of many of today’s preachers who think they’re doing something different.  The “See, I’m no different than you” of the t-shirt and jeans is not a far cry from the, “See, you too can do this. I’m totally replaceable” of the robe.

Along those same lines, the mass-media approach of projectors, screens, TV’s, and made-for-worship movies are no different than candles and incense.  Engaged senses?  Yes.  Ordinary objects?  I bet you’d find candles in the ancient home just as often as you’d find a TV/computer in the homes of today.

The rock-arena stage setting of many “doing church differently” churches reflects a contemporary concert experience.  Bach composed music that reflected his contemporary concert experience.  JSB and BNL are not so far apart.

So, my question is this: why do you feel the need to say that you “do church differently?”

Spare me the hip.

Do you try to connect people to God?  Do you try to tell the story of a world in desperate need of Divine intervention in the person of Jesus?  Do you try to help people see how God is active in the world?

If you do, then you don’t do church differently; you do it in the way it has always been done.  And there’s nothing wrong with that.  I’m a reluctant Christian at times because, well, church branding has become a business taking its cues from contemporary advertising.  In the need to feel relevant, so many places just end up fading into the same melange of commercials bombarding people daily.

What I think Christians and churches should be asking themselves is: are the symbols and mediums we use deep in meaning?  Do they reflect a fullness that exemplifies the fullness of God?

How about we spend our time on that rather than spend time trying to convince people that we “do church differently.”

Don’t do church differently.  Tell the story.  Invite people into a relationship with the God shown through the Christ.

And turn off the advertising machine.  It’s not different.  And although it tries to be hip, it is not.

*Gungor is creating some good stuff, but they often rely quite heavily on male stereotypes in their depiction of God.