Friday, June 21, 2013

Why do we even have that lever?


"The church is a whore, but she's my mother." --Daniel Berrigan, Dorothy Day, possibly St. Augustine, et al

"The church is full of hypocrites." --Most "spiritual but not religious" people I know explaining why they don't go to church.

The best answer to the "full of hypocrites" excuse is this one, which I heard from a professor at my seminary: "If you needed care, would you stay away from a hospital because it was full of sick people?" Ideally, church ought to be the place people go to be cured of their hypocrisy, to be confronted with the prophetic Word that strips them of their pride and exposes them to the truth of their misdeeds.

If you've been to church lately, you probably haven't experienced much prophecy. There may have been some social consciousness raising, depending on which denomination you attend. But there was likely--especially if you attend a large church, regardless of its flavor--a fair amount of self-congratulatory back-slapping. Church, like music, is not something people turn to so they can be challenged. They're looking for comfort, encouragement, kind words that will get them through their week, and the fellowship of other like-minded individuals.

In my fifteen years of ministry, I served a variety of churches. So did my father. I met many sincere Christians who walked the talk, practiced what they preached, put their money where their mouths were. I also met a fair number of indifferent folk who were there because it was expected of them. Then there were the old hands, the senior citizens who longed for the day when the church was full of young people and wanted desperately to bring them back--but not if it meant changing any aspect of the Sunday service to accommodate contemporary culture.

A different breed from all these people was the professional leadership. I've known many pastors in my lifetime. Some were inspirational figures, dedicated to their vocation, utterly devoted to tending their flocks. Others were competent administrators, keeping balanced books, filing all their forms on time, making sure their parish never strayed from its obligations to the conference. Those who had risen to leadership of a larger church were usually politicians, skilled at stroking all the right egos, preaching sermons that lauded the congregation more than God.

Pastors have an impossible job, walking a narrow path between prophecy and pacification. The Bible they preach from is consistent in its condemnation of comfort and wealth, and yet the people they preach to, whom they most need to keep the church on its feet, are the comfortable and wealthy, a class notoriously unamused by prophetic words from the pulpit. Without their generous gifts, the church would have to close its doors; but appeasing them means ignoring the clear sense of the book they come to hear expounded upon.

It hasn't always been this way. There was a time when church attendance was expected of any person of stature in the community--an expectation that freed up the preacher to rail against sin every Sunday. Nobody would walk out on a sermon, however much fire and brimstone it delivered.

For most churches, those days are gone. As an intern, I preached one sermon, just one, about the passage in which Jesus tells the rich man the only way to heaven is to sell everything he has and give it to the poor. My rural congregation was extremely quiet afterward, and one of the retired farmers took me aside and said, "People aren't happy because they think you just told them they have to give up everything." And he was right: that's exactly what I said. It's what the Bible said, too. I couldn't pretend otherwise, nor was I about to explain it away, as I've heard many preachers do of passages that clearly discomfit their congregations. But it was also clear that this was not the sort of sermon I could preach in this church--or, for that matter, in almost any other church I was to serve.

There are some that take these words seriously. I served one, and belonged to another. There are churches that are dedicated to the social gospel, to changing the world in their neighborhood, reaching out to the poor, demonstrating for civil rights, walking in Jesus' radical footsteps. Some of these churches are even large. There's one in San Francisco, Glide Memorial United Methodist Church, on the edge of the Tenderloin District that has an impressive ministry to the homeless people in that neighborhood; that works tirelessly for full inclusion of sexual minorities in every aspect of worship; that presents a weekly worship celebration that is both challenging and inspiring. Youth groups from all over the West Coast go on mission trips to Glide Memorial to work in the soup kitchen and learn about what can be done in Jesus' name.

But Glide is an exception, as was the recently disbanded Metanoia Peace Community Churches like this provide a relief valve for the denominations they belong to. By being on the cutting, even the bleeding, edge of prophetic ministry, they let other churches off the hook. There's no need for us to be in that peace march, the reasoning goes; Metanoia is representing us. We don't have to go out on a limb for gay rights; Glide will be our voice.

It's no wonder that so many young people are walking away from the church, and so many of my generation are finding diminishing motivation to return to it week after week. The preaching, while it has become multimedia and often includes film clips, is rarely challenging either intellectually or morally. The music is increasingly drawn from the superficial world of praise music. There is simply nothing there to challenge parishioners to try harder, think harder, test their beliefs, step out and do something risky in the name of Jesus.

Think about the kind of recreational pursuits that young people find attractive: extreme sports, loud music, spicy foods, stimulation of all the senses. And they want to help. They're concerned about social justice, about caring for the marginalized, about breaking down ossified institutions and rebuilding culture from the ground up. It's radical stuff, but there's nothing new about it. According to the Bible, it's exactly what the early church was engaged in.

In fact, the Bible is something of a trapdoor for the church, a lever that threatens to drop whoever pulls it into a pit of crocodiles. Dig too deeply into this book and you can't avoid its subversive message. It's a divine manifesto calling for the breakup of corporations, the nationalization of profit, the surrender of assets to the greater good, the elevation of the poor and the subjugation of the rich. Pull that lever, preach that word, and you may find yourself looking for another pulpit.

My father pulled the lever a few times that I remember. In one instance, his church had been asked to host a Head Start program. A previous appointment had done that, and Dad had been impressed by the program and its holistic approach to improving the lives of young children living in poverty. But his current church said no. They did not want those dirty little poor children in their building. I don't remember many of my father's sermons, but I remember the one that followed that decision. It was withering. He concluded it but telling the congregation they all should kneel at the rail and ask for forgiveness. And then he knelt there, and that was the end of the service. People left silently.

Somehow he managed to stay there for another year, at great cost to himself, so I would not have to move just before my senior year; but I can understand why it felt like a relief to move to another parish that didn't pay as well, but at least didn't wonder why on earth we even have that lever.

Sunday mornings I play the piano for a church that has its heart in the right place, that is as involved in social justice as a normal mainline Protestant congregation can be. It doesn't do much for me--I crave the daring sermons I've heard in other places--but I'm glad it's there. I wish there were more churches like it. I wish Metanoia had found a way to continue meeting. I wish I could go this Sunday to a service at Glide.

I was born and raised in the church. It is for me, as it was for Daniel Berrigan, Dorothy Day, and St. Augustine, a spiritual mother. Working for the church, I learned that it is also a whore, that it sells indulgences just as did the Roman church of five centuries ago. These indulgences are more subtle, easy to miss, but they do the same work, funneling cash from wealthy donors to a top-heavy institution that needs, more than anything else, to be rebuilt from the ground up. There are not enough Berrigans, Days, Augustines, John Schwieberts, or Cecil Williamses out there to bring it down and build it back up; but it's very possible that it will collapse under its own weight. Mainline denominations are all having to restructure themselves to adjust to declining numbers, but often it seems they are designing for decline.

I was born and raised in the church that is dying. I would not be who I am without that upbringing. But I have walked away from it, finding spiritual nourishment elsewhere. I can only hope that the young seekers who so impress me with their dedication to justice can build something new to take its place, and I am thrilled to see what they come up with.

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