Thursday, October 11, 2007

Thrown Out

You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
-Matthew 5:13-16

In response to last week's Parable of the Pub Owner, Dan raised the objection that perhaps the problem isn't that we aren't out on the streets talking to people. Perhaps the problem is that people really don't want what we're offering. I'm reinterpreting. Correct me, Dan, if that isn't what you were saying. To quote directly, Dan said (in the terms of the parable), "In the circles I move in, nobody wants beer at all, even when given to them in the public square or on the street. These people were raised on beer, already know what it tastes like and just don't want it anymore - cheap or refined."

Now I've heard of the surveys claiming that most people would come to church if asked, and I know that a lot of churches are growing and those people have to be coming from somewhere, but sooner or later we're going to have to come to terms with the fact that there are a whole lot of people out there who do know what Christianity is about and just don't want anything to do with it. What do we do about this?

Part of the problem, no doubt, is that the public face of Christianity isn't always a pretty one. Another part of the problem, I think, is that people just don't find church all that appealing. God they like. I'm certain we could sell them on Jesus too. But church? A lot of people just don't see the point.

What if they're right?

We do not read in the Gospel that Jesus said, "Go therefore and build big buildings. Get people to gather weekly to sing songs and have coffee afterward." Isn't it possible that we could fulfill the Great Commission without getting people to come to church?

Let me go off on a tangent for a second. The place where I work is gray -- all of it. We have gray walls, gray carpets, gray cubicles, gray desks, gray cabinets, gray chairs. I'm not making this up. About a year ago someone got the brilliant idea that maybe all this gray wasn't good for morale, so after a vote on what color to use, they painted one wall red. Again, I'm not making this up. More recently, it was decided that more drastic steps needed to be taken. We're running a pilot program on my floor where the entire workspace is being radically remodeled. According to our VP, they're taking it "down to the studs."

A day or two after reading Dan's comments mentioned above, I read Matthew 5:13: "You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot." It made me think of the remodeling project at work and the words "down to the studs."

Do we need to rethink the Christian mission? I'm not saying we don't need churches, but as Kelly Fryer has often said, church is so not the point. What's essential? What should we be sharing with people?

The problem with stripping our churches down to the studs, of course, is that no two people agree about what's a stud and what isn't. And maybe that's part of the problem. We're all pack-rats. We've got too much that we won't let go.

Jesus said, "let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven." He did not say "so that they may see your beautiful liturgies" or "so that they may see your sound doctrine" or "so they may hear your inspirational sermons." Have we put our light on the lampstand, or have we put something else there?


Pastor David said...

Given that (a) many don't want what we are selling, and (b) we aren't very effective at it, I think that part of the answer is we need to stop selling.

Stop selling the church, stop selling Jesus, and start living the life to which we have been called. How many would come to the church, if church-people seemed...well, nicer? How many would come to the church if its primary focus was a life of true community?

People know when we are being disengenuous with them. They know if we are friends with them for the sake of evangelism. They know if we are talking up our congregation just to bring them in. It is time to stop seeing the unchurched as "its", and start to live into a I-Thou relationships. There is, quite simply, no better evangelism than abandoning the selling-model.

Andy said...

I think you're definitely right that we need to stop selling, at a minimum, but I'm not sure being nicer is enough. It's a good start, but lots of people are nice. It seems to me that we need to be doing something extraordinary.

Then again, maybe Christians being nice would be extraordinary enough.

Steven Craig Miller said...

I wonder if your problem is not based on the fact that Christianity in the past has been too successful? In some places there were people going to church simply because it was a status thing to do. If church no longer carries the status it used to, then fewer people will attend church, but is that a bad thing?

Andy said...

No, it's definitely not a bad thing if people stop coming to church who aren't serious about it. That said, while I'm happy to level a judgment like that against our culture, I would be much slower to point it at any individual.

But the real issue I think we need to face is that for whatever reason Christianity is tepid, at best, and often distasteful to many people, and, more to the point, we need to face the fact that often this is our fault.

The "selling" that Pastor David cites is a prime example of this.

toujoursdan said...

Sorry it took me so long to respond to this but I think you hit my comments on the mark.

I went back and saw some of the follow-up comments when someone noted that beer is flowing in Africa. This may be true, but beer was also flowing in Ireland and Poland until they joined the EU and got rich. Then church attendance fell like a rock.

Is affluence and relative comfort the enemy of religion? And if so, what does that say about what we have to offer? Relative comfort and affluence is something everyone naturally wants. Who wouldn't rather rather live in a middle class home in the Portland, OR suburbs than in a mud hut in Nigeria worried about whether their child will survive to the age of 5, whether militias from the neighbouring ethnic group will kill their family or where their next meal will come from. I don't think there is anything wrong with wanting the former, but it certainly seems to kill the desire to be involved in church.

I think, paradoxically, mainstream Christianity is a victim of its own success. We took Christ's command to help the poor and created the welfare state (under attack in the US but intact elsewhere) and gave 95+% of the population 3 square meals and a roof over their heads. We took the Biblical concept of human dignity and created Universal Human Rights Declarations, Bills of Rights and Charters of Rights and Freedoms, labour and housing codes, food and water safety standards which everyone must be accountable to. We took Biblical concepts of justice and created transparent government and court systems which usually work fairly. People don't feel a need to turn to church for these needs.

So now how do we engage people? The overwhelming perception people I know have is that the messages of God and love are wonderful but once you join the church you become part of a moral (particularly sexual) regulation society that uses threats of hell as a weapon. Many have had enough education to find elements of the Christian story - God becoming human, resurrections, heaven/hell, miracles hard to understand but feel that unless they believe them literally, they cannot belong.