The first few minutes of this video (or the print version of the article) reveals a trend in the United States whereby a larger and larger percentage of the populace move toward the “religiously unaffiliated” category. The trend is happening across every age demographic, but is particularly pointed among millennials.
In the wake of the survey results, there’s been no shortage of diagnostics offered, and further dicing of the data. Words have spent explaining why: Homosexuality. Science. The creeping effects of secularism. Theological compromise. Bad music. Justice. Bad coffee.
It’s the same song, different verse, that we’ve been hearing now for forty years. It’s mostly finger pointing, and “speck in your brother’s eye” stuff that we’re talking about. Emergent types are looking for a bigger tent as they read Richard Rohr and drink Scotch. The new religious right quote folks fighting for the all important doctrines of election and inerrancy as they gather for coffee and sound their battle cry.
Blah blah blah. About three years ago I grew weary of taking part in these conversations, fearing that I was just another voice in the midst of the myriad of sound and fury. It became clear by talking with close friends who’d quit the church that only those on the inside care about these arguments anyway, that our internal arguments just reinforce the outsider’s view of our irrelevance.
I still feel that way now, only now it’s hard to even listen. The whole thing appears, on the surface anyway, to be an exercise in rearranging the chairs after the boat’s hit the iceberg. “How shall we set the chairs so people will come? Circle? Rows? Small groups of four? Three? Stacked in the corner?” Nobody cares. The dramatic shift toward unaffiliated is because people are moving on. Any plan that claims to offer a ‘way back’ is, in my opinion, misguided.
What is needed though, is for we church leaders to do some serious introspecting about our own hearts. The truth is that it is we leaders of the past two generations, with our priorities and world view, that allowed the ship to hit the iceberg. We should ask about our own health, not in hopes of getting people back into their fold, but in hopes of fixing the leak in the hull, for the good news is that the church isn’t the Titanic—by virtue of Christ’s life, the ship can be healed!
I’m slowly coming to see that a big reason there’s a hole in the hull is because we’ve failed, often catastrophically, to let Jesus be Jesus. Instead we’ve used some sort of fabricated replica of Jesus, some plastic mass-produced thing, that highlights some elements of Jesus that we think will play well in our time and place.
The real Jesus can’t be fabricated by religious efforts. The real Jesus can only grow in us and express life through us to the extent that we are yielded to his rule and reign in our lives. What grows out of that yieldedness won’t be easily brand-able, marketable, or reducible to sound bytes and Twitter posts. But this requires the hard slow work of spiritual formation, and trusting God with results; hardly the stuff of our upwardly mobile, market share, and metrics driven world.
The way of recovery is to realize that, ironically, the pure Jesus is a mixed drink almost every time, usually of two seemingly incompatible ingredients. The cup that is Christ’s life is filled with apparent contradictions, and the only way the real Jesus shows up is if both sides of the contradiction are present. Here are two examples of what I mean:
Leadership as a Servant – The testosterone saturated view of leadership that’s prevailed for the past many decades has not only marginalized and disempowered half the church; it’s created a situation where, behind the veil, domestic violence and spouse abuse occur unchecked. This is because we have a hard time seeing “servant” and “leader” in the same sentence. And yet the reality is that this is the mixture that is the real Jesus. He led by taking a towel and wrapping himself about, serving his followers the way a slave serves. Though he’s a bridegroom and longed for intimacy with his people, and yet refused to force himself on them in the name of headship, so wept at the gates of Jerusalem because they wouldn’t let him in. Every element of his leadership was saturated with submission and servanthood. Wow!
What if marriages worked that way? What if pastors led that way? What if we prayed and confessed that we don’t really understand how to lead and serve at the same time because the hierarchy embedded in our culture is so strong that we can’t see how to do this, apart from divine revelation?
I’d suggest that we leaders start there, and then take next steps by finding some ways to serve our spouses meaningfully, if we’re married, and our team at work too. Do you think this would make marriages in the church healthier? Might churches becomes more joy filled, less fearful? This has been a profound revelation for me lately, both at work and home. I’ll have more to say, perhaps, when I’ve walked the road a bit further. For now, it’s enough to say that I’m tired of the plastic Jesus I’ve fabricated who leads like a tank. We need to find ways to lead by serving.
Grace and Truth – There are churches that take holiness and transformation seriously, so much so that people are afraid to present their real selves to the community for fear of being viewed as immature, weak, ‘fleshly’, or whatever other derogatory adjective you’d like to choose as the descriptor. The disconnect in these places is between what people present themselves to be, and who they actually are, and it’s this way because there’s no grace.
There are grace churches that essentially have jettisoned truth by saying, “Come as you are. Stay as you are. You’re forgiven; heaven bound. It’s enough.” These places too, are conspicuous in their lack of transformation; still drinking too, or too greedy, or too self-absorbed, after 30 years of participation.
What happens though, when grace and truth are brought together, filling the cup that is our life? For starters, we’ll be free to be authentic with each other and God, knowing that our depths of failure can never diminish the God’s infinite love and acceptance of us. However, we’ll not feel free to stay where we are. We’ll embrace the reality that because God loves us infinitely, he is infinitely committed to our transformation.
These mixtures don’t happen with humans at the helm of the ship. When we’re in control we always drift. Leadership at the cost of servanthood, truth at the cost of grace. You get the picture. And then, boom! There’s a hole in the hull.
It won’t be fixed by fair trade coffee in the foyer, or better lighting. For the church to be the church requires letting the real Jesus show up in all his mysterious contradictions. I can only pray we’ll have courage to move in that direction.