Friday, April 24, 2009

What is wrong with church today?

Here's a question I was asked recently, "What is wrong with church today?"

Right off, it is a loaded question isn’t it. I want to say, “I go to a great church, and I went to a great church before this one, and I have heard of some more churches that are pretty great.” Of course there are those “other” churches, “you know” with “those people” that don’t really understand the Bible, or haven’t followed all the recent Biblical scholarship of the past two centuries, they are stuck in the 15th century, or they don’t understand the 1st century, or they can’t interpret the gospels for the 21st century, but my church does, there is nothing wrong with my church.

This question was put up on Facebook page of a friend of mine. Within about 8 hours there were about 40 responses. Here are some of them:

Too focused on what happens inside the four walls rather that what happens outside the four walls.

it's on Sunday morning...usually....thats golf time!

no Goddesses.

My response to this one is, there is the Sophia wisdom, which appeared in early Christian texts, and women are featured prominently in the Bible, but it’s true that they don’t get much play on Sundays.

It’s the uncomfortable seating
Okay, at least that can be fixed.

It’s got a great story, but [I don’t care much for the] fan club.
Well, I can understand that one, but I think it’s based on who he saw the last time he was in church, which was probably a while ago. Or it’s based on, you know, those other churches.

why go to a collective space when the message is all about the individual? church elsewhere is about community, its worth collectively sharing your spiritual journey only when you share the rest of what makes us human. Otherwise, people would rather be doing it alone.
I would love to get a few people together to discuss this one.

The problem with the Church is that they can't keep their drummers.....and Marty Wilson Piper has too many names....
This was mostly for humor value, and it’s an inside joke (Marty Wilson Piper is a church guitarist friend of these friends from Facebook), but it does point to the importance of celebration. Singing with others is the subject of an entire sermon itself. It helps us remember our victories and our tragedies and just the breathing involved is a spiritual act. It also points to the importance of reaching each new generation. With new music coming out so often, that is more of a challenge today.

It’s where “Youth meets Truth”
That’s another one that needs a discussion group.

Then there were these three that I will respond to in more depth:

….people can tend to put God in a box, the box of what we want God to be and to do. i think that hurts us and our faith lives, and, consequently, our churches.

failure to evolve past the idea of a supernatural deity who can somehow conceive of a plan for things. sexist liturgies. too much literal interpretation of biblical text that does not take the context of the times in which it was written into account. need i say more?

Maybe it's not what the problem with church is today but yet how today is the problem with church.

Certainly there are many more distractions today, and church is low on the priority list. It’s easy to dismiss it if you don’t believe there is a man up in the clouds, or that he created the world in 6 days, or if you suspect the story of parting the Red Sea is at least an exaggeration, if not completely made up. I know I don’t speak for everyone, but these are problems for people today. Today, going to church means not only reading and learning the scriptures, but because we can learn about the many different cultures and many different people who wrote them, we must understand the people so we can understand what they wrote.

Take for example the book Exodus. In Genesis, Abraham hears a voice and takes several huge leaps of faith and heads out to find a new land for his descendants. The first few verses of Exodus summarize the generations after Abraham and before Moses. In a few short paragraphs, the descendants of Abraham go from a burgeoning tribe, to slaves. Someone with little or no Biblical education might wonder what kind of God would lead a man across a dessert, promise him the land of Canaan then let his descendants become slaves of Egypt? This seems like a problem for people today. But it is only a problem if you try to approach this story literally, as one of an explainable God that must be consistent. It is only a problem if you are trying to make a case for a God with a long range plan.

One approach to the Bible, and particularly the Old Testament, is to explain that you need to read the entire Bible and read how God sends his Son who sheds his blood and redeems us for our sins. To someone who is more familiar with zombie movies than the Bible, that is going to bring up some pretty weird images. I’m not saying it’s wrong or right, I’m just looking at it from the perspective of someone who grew up watching television, someone who saw people walk on the moon.

Another approach could be to say, the kind of God that would let his people become slaves is the God that the author of this scripture knew. With this approach, it is not necessary to stop and explain all of the events or prove that they happened. Just enjoy the story and accept that someone believed it at that time. This was a time when Kings said they were granted the right to enslave you from birth and to kill you with little or no provocation. They claimed that slaves could never be anything but slaves. That a new nation was about to come on the scene that claimed to have freed itself from slavery is an important turning point in history. Those Kings would be getting a little nervous knowing that there were former slaves walking around who believed they answered to a higher power, not some mere mortal King.

When I take this approach, I can better understand our recent history of the struggles for women’s rights and civil rights, and even our current struggle where elected officials collude with bankers to create Ponzi schemes that end up hurting all of us. I know that I need to put more focus on how I relate to my neighbor, than on how well I manage my retirement accounts. That’s not just some cold comfort. It guides me when I get out of bed and ask myself what I am going to do today.

I don’t think churches can blame people for not approaching church in this manner. Not if they don’t offer it. Luckily, early in my search for community, I stumbled upon some people who were already on this path, and I learned not to do this alone. Since then, I have pieced together information from a hodgepodge of books that I have happened across, my interest in world history, my friends who have studied and practiced other spiritual disciplines, and my friends and pastors from church.

I still have a long way to go, but I have reached a point where I am convinced that studying the scripture does have value, and I don’t need every piece of it to make perfect sense to get that value. I am not as concerned with the contradictions as I used to be, in fact, they are what make it interesting. I am not concerned with choosing the right God, or getting every detail of His word correct. Reading other traditions and a variety of opinions enhances my experience.

So if I’ve figured this out for myself, why do I need to be concerned about reaching anyone else and bringing them in to this conversation? First, I know there are people who are looking for something like this, and they have eliminated anything that involves churches because of what they associate church with. That has a lot to do with what churches offer and how they display it. Second, I don’t like how these stories are being misused and abused today. I’m not going to start that debate right now, and I don’t want to try to change Pat Robertson, but I do want to offer an alternative.

Let me explain that last statement. There was an episode of the cartoon show “The Simpsons”. Lisa and Bart, the kids on the show were trying to help their favorite clown, Krusty, get reunited with his father who had disowned him. His father was a rabbi, so Lisa, this very intelligent 5th grader learns the Torah and debates him, and they argue scripture back and forth. Of course she convinces him and they are reunited in the end. I thought that would be really cool to be able to engage a fundamentalist Christian in that same manner, matching his scripture interpretations with mine until he gave in. That’s not my vision any more.

My vision, first my worry, is that if something other than the most commonly found choices that are out there now are not offered, another generation is not going to be attracted to engage in these great stories. The next generation will lose this connection to our ancestors. Well meaning, thoughtful people will not be interested in reading the scriptures and no one will be around to engage that interest. The mean spirited people who use the scriptures to control will have won. History has demonstrated that does not work out well. Life will be difficult for those well meaning people. Science may be of some help, but science usually doesn’t take a moral stand.

My hope is that we can get past the problems with the language and the cultural divides of the centuries. For many, words like “Jesus”, “Lord”, “My Savior” and others are charged with so much negative emotion, finding a positive message in a story using those words is nearly impossible. I have become comfortable with those words, by I am still very cautious about when I use them. Someday, I would like to be able to go outside, out of the church and in casual conversation say something like, “You know, Jesus Said, …” and not have people assume I am a gay-bashing, war-mongering, pull yourself up by your own bootstraps neo-con.

This may require creating some new language but we need to be careful with that. We already have the problem of undoing misinterpretations. We can’t just skirt these issues and water down the language, or use new words that will have a different set of people assuming I’m a tree-hugging, “meditate on this crystal and everything will be okay”, Sadam loving radical. Okay, I did hug a tree once, but that’s not the point.

I’m not offering any easy answers. I don’t see a middle of the road option. Jim Hightower has a book titled “There’s Nothing in the Middle of the Road but Yellow Stripes and Dead Armadillos.” The Bible offers more than comfort, more than guidance, often it challenges with a call to action. Churches can’t avoid that in fear that it will frighten away new members. I believe they can offer much more.

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