We Are Nothing
Far too often, people are abandoning Christianity because they are looking closely at believers like you and me and finding very little light worth moving toward. They are rubbing up against our specific, individual lives, and instead of coming away with the sense that God is real and worth seeking, they are determining that God must be dead or at best irrelevant—and we probably shouldn’t be the least bit surprised.
Whether across their kitchen counters or board meeting tables or smartphone screens we are giving people plenty of reason to conclude that religion is a grand failed experiment; a nice, lofty theoretical exercise that falls apart in the practice of actually living. So it isn’t the Church or Jesus that they’re objecting to, it’s you and it’s me. – John Pavlovitz, “Christian The Reason So Many People Are Losing Faith – May Be You”, Stuff That Needs To Be Said, February 8, 2016
I usually don’t reply to these articles but I am tired of folks blaming Christians and leaders for losing their faith. Nothing or no one will stand between me and my Jesus. There is no excuse for losing your faith. – Comment on FB, referring to the above-linked article
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast,but do not have love, I gain nothing. – 1 Corinthians 13:1-3
In our ongoing quest to destroy ourselves as a denomination, an enormous part of the problem is the simple refusal to stop, take a moment, and look at our churches from the outside. What do we see? We see mostly older congregations using thirty-year-old books from which we sing 200-year old hymns before listening to a middle-aged man or woman lecture us about what the Bible says. Then right after that they ask for money. Before all that, the few children are invited forward for a simple lesson before being chased out of the sanctuary either for Sunday School or “Junior Church”. This happens each and every Sunday.
The rest of the time, when this endless unexplained ritual isn’t happening, people in the church are either calling people in their local communities names, sitting and clicking their tongues at one or another younger family that might venture in some Sunday; or, they are yelling at one another, whether it’s about money – it is quite frequently about money – or how the pastor’s wife dresses (when I was growing up, the SPRC in my home church actually met because people were complaining that the pastor’s wife wore pantsuits to church instead of dresses; really, I am not making this up) or writing letters to the editor of the local paper complaining about Harry Potter books or gays in the military or how this or that or the other local, state, or national politician is the Anti-Christ.
Those words about which the pastor talks on Sunday? They’re all about love and forgiveness and being willing to sacrifice for others, to give to others until there’s nothing left of one’s self to give. We are told not to judge others. We are told that Jesus fed thousands from a couple fish and a few loaves of bread, yet we wonder how we’re going to keep the lights on because giving is down. So there’s more talk about money, more talk to fewer people who are asked to give more and resent it. “Why is it all they talk about is money?” people outside will say.
This isn’t a caricature, by any means. This is reality not just for the United Methodist Church, but for all denominations (and I’m going to guess some synagogues and mosques, too). People outside our walls look at us and wonder why in the world they should expend emotional energy and family time joining ever older and ever smaller groups of people who seem to find their only satisfaction arguing over one another and complaining about how no one comes to church. All that stuff in the Bible about loving others, about serving others, about being the church rather than going to church sounds like a bunch of nonsense, a long con to separate people from their money to keep open an old building that does fewer and fewer things for fewer and fewer people. People have better things to do with their time, their energy, and their money. As for faith, well, I’m sure there are a lot of folks not in any sanctuary on a given Sunday morning who might wish to believe. The fact of the matter, however, is that “church” as it is actually lived doesn’t resemble what “Christians” say it does. There’s no service or sacrifice for others; the Trustees don’t want the church doors unlocked during the week to help warm the homeless, because someone might steal something – a thing that can be replaced! There’s no multiplying of meager scraps into a bounty that serves many; penny-pinching and whining, refusing to invest in mission or evangelism because they aren’t “priorities” – people know the church is there, after all, and when worship is scheduled! – leaves the hungry unfed, the naked unclothed, the lonely unvisited. We in the United Methodist Church declare our doors and hearts are open; when a local family who hasn’t attended in a while gets withering stares, or a new couple joins and few if any people greet them with smiles and handshakes, there seems little to no reason for them to return.
Let’s face it: We are our own worst enemies. Even worse, however, is we refuse to acknowledge these realities. We refuse to take responsibility for how badly we’ve damaged how others see the church through our words and deeds. We declare “there is no excuse” for others to lose faith, yet have no idea how that is exactly the attitude that turns people away Sunday after Sunday. We do not repent for our sins, spending far more time looking out at the world and telling it it has to repent before being worthy of our time or engagement. When we ask for forgiveness, we rarely think about how our actions reinforce a view of “church” as a place where older people get together to sing old songs and hear boring sermons on the same topics, all the while demanding money and complaining about all the folks who just don’t come anymore.
There are a lot of other reasons our churches are struggling. We need to realize just how much we contribute to that struggle through our many faults and failures.