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Taking off the Next Two Days

Hey, faithful blog readers!  Just wanted to let you know, I’m not going to post again until Monday.  I’m taking tonight and tomorrow off so I can participate in an event at church.

For those of you not members of my church, we’re raising money for a couple of great charities.  The teens in our student ministries, along with some of our high school graduates and the adult leaders, are fasting for the next day and a half.  This event is similar to World Vision’s 30 Hour Famine, but we will be donating the money to other initiatives.  The money raised at what our church has named Hunger for Hope will go to Children’s Relief International and the Ugandan Water Project.  I hope you will consider doing something similar, either with your family or your faith community.

In the meantime, please pray for us.  Pray that we will be able to give generously to these charities; pray that the youth at our church will be touched by their experience; and pray that this is not an isolated event, but merely one way that we can reach out in hope to our world.

Thanks all, and see you Monday!

“We heard about your church and decided to check it out…”

The other day, I played a game with myself called “what if.”

What if a married couple came to your church because they’d heard about it via postcard in the mail or through a web search? Imagine they come in, two small children in tow. They worship among the other people in attendance. They bring their kids to the children’s ministry or Sunday school or junior church. Suppose they like what they hear: the Sunday sermon is meaningful, the praise music is uplifting, and the people seem genuinely friendly. Their kids love their class and begin to make new friends. This family decides to settle in, remaining in attendance for six months. They decide the time has come to join as members.

Pretty common experience in many churches, especially those on a steady trend of growth. I know that at most churches, people would be thrilled with a new family becoming a permanent part of the congregation. It would mean more people attending, the possibility that this family might reach out to their friends, family, and neighbors. It would mean the chance to see their kids grow up and hopefully integrate into the life of the church. It would mean more people to pitch in and help out in the ministries of the church. It would mean a chance to make new friends. Everyone wins, right?

Just not if the couple happens to be two women or two men.

I live in a place where marriage equality is the law. So a married same-sex couple might actually be legally joined. For that reason, we need to start asking ourselves what we might do as a church in a situation like the one I described above. It’s possible that a couple might attend a church unaware of that church’s position on homosexuality, even if the church appears conservative in other ways. I attended a church for ten years, and never once heard the pastor give a sermon on the subject.

In a church that holds to a certain reading of Scripture, there are usually prohibitions (written or not) against membership when a person is actively engaged in something the church specifically teaches as sin. That means that an unpartnered gay person would likely be allowed membership, provided he or she remained celibate. A gay couple would probably be allowed to continue to attend church, but would not be offered membership. In some churches, membership might be extended to one or both if they were to end their relationship and commit to celibacy. So that brings up the question of what to do if the couple I described seeks membership.

There are a number of possibilities, all of them fairly grim and not particularly loving:

  • Refuse to allow the couple membership, but let them know they are welcome to continue attending. That might be an option, but it would severely restrict the ways in which that family could serve in the church. Many churches have policies prohibiting people from participating in certain ministries unless they are members. Besides, would you want to keep going to a church that wouldn’t let you join officially? You might as well just…
  • Ask them to leave. Pretty rude, considering they’ve been with you several months. Still, at least it’s honest. But unless you are giving them the name and address of a local affirming community, you have no assurance that these people will ever set foot in a church again. And if you choose not to do so (because you’re kind of self-righteous?), are you saying God has given up on them? If you’re in the business of helping people find Jesus, that misses the mark. Besides, we’re talking about people who have a six-month history at the church. Kicking them out would really hurt. So maybe you…
  • Tell them they can be members if they break up. I suppose there are people who might have considered that to be some bizarre sort of solution before same-sex couples could legally marry. Nowadays, that couple can’t just split up. They would literally have to divorce, which introduces issues such as alimony, child support, and custody. And seriously, what kind of heartless jerk does that to a family with children anyway? Plus there’s the problem that we don’t do that with other couples who are not married under “Biblical” circumstances. I’ve never heard of anyone being asked to divorce a spouse because they had had an affair and then married each other. Well, as a last resort I suppose you could…
  • Shun the family or refuse to serve them in any way unless they “renounce” their sin. What part of “love” wasn’t clear? I’ve never seen ignoring anyone work as a means to salvation. This ends up in the same place as bullet point number two.

So what are we going to do in that situation?

See, the problem here is that whole “live the sinner, hate the sin” thing. It allows us to separate people from their behavior, but it denies the fact that there is more to people than their behavior. It allows us to imagine being gay as something people do as opposed to someone they are. It lets us think “those gay people” are doing yucky things with each other that we don’t like, and keeps us from seeing two people who have built a relationship, a marriage, a family, and a life together. It prevents us from understanding that there are children who could be hurt, not by their parents’ “sinful lifestyle” but by our condemnation.

It could happen. A church web site proclaiming the congregation to be “Bible-believing” or “conservative” or “traditional” might say something about whether or not a married same-sex couple would be welcome (probably not). On the other hand, many mainline churches could be described with those words, yet are in fact affirming. A warm welcome on their first visit might indicate the future of the relationship with that church. But a lot of people would be reluctant to openly reject anyone right away, even if they felt uncomfortable. Would it work if someone were to simply pull the family aside, explain things to them, and turn them loose? I don’t know. I suppose it might ease the conscience of the people at that church, knowing they were honest right away.

Real life, real people, are complicated. We can’t just wait for a situation to occur before we know what we’re going to do about it. That leads to panic and ends up with too many people being hurt. I think it’s time to face the facts that even though an awful lot of churches might like it to, marriage equality is not going away. Any church that isn’t affirming needs to decide what will happen when the inevitable occurs and a family walks through the doors looking for a church to call home.

Why Do Young People Leave the Church? That’s the Wrong Question

There’s a lot of buzz in evangelical churches about young adults.  It’s everywhere, from church ministries to surveys, books to blog posts.  Speculation abounds as to why youth are graduating high school and leaving church (local) behind and what it means for the future of the Church (worldwide).  In fact, there is even some disagreement about what it means for the individual young adults in question—are they leaving their Christian faith behind, or just the institutional church?  Does this include youth from all of Christianity, or just the evangelical set?

I think that the panic over the loss of young people is twofold.  First, well-intentioned Christians are worried that young people leaving the church means losing their faith, or possibly that they never actually had any to begin with (for those who believe one can’t lose one’s salvation).  For people who see unbelief as a one-way ticket to Hell, then it’s understandable that folks would be afraid for kids who leave the church.  Worry over eternal souls is a powerful motivator.

Second, and probably for most people more at a subconscious level (I hope), is the fear that our churches eventually won’t have anyone left.  If all the young adults leave, who will carry on the ministries when older people retire or die?  Who will be left to fill the seats?  Sadly, this is probably what drives some churches’ “outreach” as well.  It’s hard to argue with the idea that if we don’t get new people inside the building, the church will go the way of so many others and eventually close its doors forever.

Everyone has an opinion on what it would take to keep our young people.  We develop ministries, try to cater to young people, imitate celebrity pastors in an attempt to appear “relevant” to the younger generation.  Are these things making a difference?  It’s hard to tell at this point.

If you ask me, we need to throw it all out and start from scratch.

I notice a couple of things right away.  For one, we’re all a little pessimistic about the whole thing.  (This coming from me, the Queen of Pessimism.)  It sounds dramatic when we give statistics on the number of churches that go under.  But we’re not factoring in the number of megachurches that are continuing to experience growth, or the new churches that are springing up.  We’re not taking into account the reasons why churches close up shop.  Is it because all the members got old and died and all the young people left, or is it a failed church plant, or is it a church that engaged in foolish activity?  Those figures are often thrown about by a particular type of evangelical, the sort who believe they “know” which churches are “Bible believing” or “teach salvation.”  That alone can make it confusing.  Let’s take a step back and dig deeper instead of merely citing scary statistics.

For another thing, in our zeal to stop the bleed of young people, we’ve forgotten about the ones who didn’t leave.  Has anyone asked them why they stay?  Yesterday, my husband and I had the privilege of watching a friend be ordained as a Presbyterian minister.  We’ve known him since he was about twelve.  I have no words for how blessed I was that his first time serving communion as a Minister of the Word was to our children.  As far as I know, no one there was concerned with asking him why he stayed in the church.  Another friend of ours, whom we’ve known since he was younger than our children are now, is a missionary.  When we pledged to support him, we didn’t say, “So, how come you decided to keep on going to church when you graduated high school?”  These two young people are hardly oddities.  We know many young adults who are faithful Christians, actively engaged in the life of both their churches and the world around them.  They are missionaries, ministry leaders, musicians, pastors, and more.  They stayed, and they deserve more from us than stalking them to make sure they don’t change their minds.

Finally, we talk a lot about what we can do to coax young adults back into the church, what ministries or programs might work.  But one thing we don’t do is a whole lot of listening.  Or maybe we just don’t like what we hear when we ask young people why they leave.  We are happy to latch onto it when they say they don’t feel the sermons are relevant to their lives, or when they complain there’s no way for them to connect with each other, or that they don’t know how and where to serve.  But we don’t hear them when they say they see hypocrisy or they don’t like the way LGBT people are treated or they are frustrated by having to choose between science and the Bible as though they’re mutually exclusive.  We ignore them when they say that we’re too wrapped up in what happens inside the walls of our building.  We respond with, “Maybe we need to say it better, so they understand.”  We remind ourselves that we’re teaching “truth,” and that some people won’t like it.  We carry on fixating on intra-church ministry.  But we don’t examine ourselves, or ask young people why they have reached those conclusions.

Let’s stop looking at people as target populations.  Treating people like that doesn’t work in education or health, and it doesn’t work in church.  Jesus isn’t a brand to be marketed and sold, with research on what kind of advertising will attract the right demographic.  Maybe that’s exactly what our young people are seeing through when they say they don’t find church genuine enough.  Are we ready to stop looking for answers and start looking at people?

Sunshine, Happiness and Gum*

The youth at our church are going through a series called “Happy,” on the Beatitudes.  In yesterday’s message, the youth pastor asked what culture says they should chase after to find happiness.  The answers weren’t surprising: Looks, relationships, money, popularity, possessions.

Not much changes between adolescence and adulthood.

It set me thinking about a couple of things.  First, it occurred to me that we don’t just tell people that they will be happy once they beautify themselves skinny, meet Mr./Ms Right, and settle down in their McMansion with their 2.4 children.  We also tell them that if they don’t have all that and a side salad of career power, they should actually be unhappy.  It goes beyond conveying the message that having it all makes your life good, but that your life simply cannot be good unless and until you do.

The second thing I realized is that Christians are just as guilty of this.**  We like to tell ourselves we aren’t.  After all, aren’t we so counter-culture in our insistence that life isn’t about money, sex, and power?  We’re all about Jesus!  And Love!  And Following God!  I don’t even mean that in a self-righteous way.  I mean in the sense that we define ourselves by being people who have relationship with the Living God, and what could be better than that?

It’s certainly noble.  The problem is, we make the opposite mistake from “the world.”  We assume that people who are “far from God” are the most unhappy, miserable people who do nothing but run after all the wrong things.  We assume that people of other religions are unhappy because they are too busy making sure they follow all the rules.  We assume atheists are sad because they have no hope.  We assume that people who tick the “none of the above” box on the census are miserable because they have no morals.  We assume that anyone who doesn’t follow Jesus is desperate to have his or her life turned around from the wicked ways of lusting after earthly pleasures.

Not quite.

I don’t know about you, but I know plenty of joy-filled, content non-Christians.  I also know an awful lot of Christians who are unhappy, and it isn’t because they don’t have enough faith or because they are still caught up in pursuit of cultural happiness.  Religion that dictates whether or not we should be happy with our lives is religion gone bad.  It diminishes the real joy and the real pain that people experience.

I see why it happens.  People are reluctant to frighten their friends and neighbors by telling them they will go to Hell if they don’t convert.  (Not that this is bad; scaring people into faith is pretty sick.)  So what can we do, if we don’t just want to turn everyone off to Christ with our fire and brimstone?  Aha!  We can remind them how hopeless and tragic this life is unless they know Jesus.  Unfortunately, that isn’t an improvement.

We need better ways to communicate the Gospel without reducing it to a set of before-and-after pictures (either the Hell kind or the happiness kind).  I suggest we start by living the way Jesus taught, pursuing love, peace, and justice.  The rest will come.

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*For the morbidly curious, the title of this post is a line from a Phineas and Ferb song.
**This isn’t meant as a criticism of the message the youth heard in church on Sunday.

Listening, Heart Wide Open

We need to hear people’s stories. Not just the ones we want to hear, the triumph-of-grace-over-sin, feel-good, happy-ending tales of a life turned to Christ. Not just the kind that make the people cheer in victory, that another soul has been rescued from the clutches of Satan.  We need to hear the stories that make us squirm. The ones that cause us to lie awake nights, asking the deeper questions about sin, salvation, and grace.

Here are a couple of links to just such stories: Life Abundant, a guest post on Andrew Marin’s blog; and this one, the most recent post on Ryan Nix’s blog, Queer as Faith.  (Nix’s posts are much less about being the “gay Christian dude” and more about drawing us back to the heart of the Father.  Incredibly inspiring and often convicting, the posts are very well-written; it’s worth checking out some of the others as well.)

Often, we might say that we ought to get to know real-life LGBT people. But the subtle underlying message we hear or sometimes speak is, “So that they come to know Christ and give up their lifestyle of rampant sin.”  The fault in that is two-fold. First, it’s incorrect to assume anything about someone’s faith (as seen in the links above). Second, it’s never a good idea to enter a friendship with an agenda.

Most of you know where my heart is.  If we’ve talked, then chances are I know where yours is.  No one is being asked to jump immediately on board the train and change their thinking, certainly not overnight. But we do need to hear what people different from ourselves have to say. It’s not a matter of listening with an open mind but an open heart.  When we do this kind of open-hearted listening, we are offering ourselves to G-d to work through us and in us.

Who will you listen to today?

Partnership for a Hurt-Free America

Anyone who grew up in America in the ’80s remembers the formation of the Partnership for a Drug-Free America.  You probably also remember this ad from 1987:

A little cheesy, but we all remember it, right?

Suppose we were to take the same concept and use it in the church—only with social justice.  What if we could visualize the needs and hurts in our communities?  What if, instead of rock bands and multi-media and hipster pastors, each week we saw images of the hurts all around us? And what if, instead of in-church ministries and building projects, we put our time and money into making it better?

Just as media advertisers put their heads together to create a partnership, churches might do well to consider the same.  No one church can address every need in every community.  But if we lay aside our theological and philosophical differences, each church might form an alliance with an ecumenical agency to take on just one issue.  Instead of fighting over politics, spirituality, doctrine, and the right way to “do” ministry, we could change the world.  And that would be something, wouldn’t it?