The Church and the Solution

I have a reputation for choosing ungainly titles, so my titles are often replaced by editors with better taste or judgment. Such was the case with a piece I wrote recently for Patheos on seminaries.

My main point was that seminaries are succeeding at producing energetic, engaged, educated, and creative young leaders who too often step from the high-speed train of seminary education into the brick wall of change-averse, socially dysfunctional, spiritually constricted first assignments. I can’t remember what my original title was, but I know it wasn’t “Seminary is Not the Problem—the Church Is.”

I don’t like using “the Church” as a generalization. I don’t even like using the term “Christianity.” Whatever “the Church” and “Christianity” may be, the actual churches and Christians I know – and I’ve spoken in many hundreds of churches in my travels, to lots and lots of Christians – are so diverse and idiosyncratic as to defy broad categorization. I try to avoid making even more limited generalizations – about “those Evangelicals,” or “those Mainliners,” or “those Catholics.” I lean toward speaking of “Christianities” instead of “Christianity,” because the differences among the different Christian tribes and kindreds often seem greater than the differences between some of them and other religions entirely.

Beyond that, I think “the Church” receives more than its share of critique, and critique can cross a line where it resembles beating a dead horse (not to compare the church to a dead horse).

Besides, some churches and Christianities actually thrive on being criticized; each critique feeds into a victim narrative and solidifies an identity as an oppressed minority, misunderstood by “the world” but valiantly faithful to God. Other churches and Christianities have been pushed by excessive critique into a survival narrative, where they seem to acquiesce, “Yes, we’re a mess, we’re declining, we’re dysfunctional, and we’re doomed, but we’re just holding on a little longer.” Still other churches respond to critique with aggressive counter-attack, adopting a revenge narrative, clicking into a kind of spiritual adrenaline rush where they’ll show the rest of us who God’s elect is: “Criticize us, will you? We’ll show you!”

I have no desire to push any of my fellow Christians further into any of these narratives.

Yes, I do meet too many young leaders who have been damaged, even savaged, by the dysfunctional churches I wrote about in my seminary column. But I also meet amazing, wonderful, thriving church leaders and vibrant, beautiful, encouraging congregations. I don’t know what the exact percentages are, but my hunch is that this Sunday, more churches will be moving into the latter category than a year ago, and next year, more will be there than today.

Under the guise of “ministry as usual,” positive things are afoot. I feel it. I believe it.

I felt it a few weeks ago in my home church on a typical Sunday. The music was good, as usual, and the sermon was thought-provoking and inspiring, as usual. The prayers were solid and meaningful, as usual, and the people were warm and welcoming, as usual. What stood out for me was the family seated next to me, a dad, a mom, a daughter, and a son whom I didn’t recognize. Based on the boy’s movements and the attentions given him by his mother and sister, the son seemed to have some form of autism, maybe Asperger’s syndrome.

His foot and leg were bouncing almost constantly, calming only momentarily when his mother gently touched his knee, which she did every five or ten minutes. Before and after communion, he crossed himself repeatedly. He sang with more enthusiasm than musical ability, but if one must choose, that’s the one to have.

The moment that really touched me came at the offering.

He didn’t have money, but when I handed him the basket, he bowed toward it. At first I thought he was reverencing the basket as if it were an icon or some other holy thing. But then he leaned forward even more, placing the basket on his knees and nearly touching his forehead into the checks, bills, and envelopes inside. His family didn’t intervene, as if this were his normal routine. Then he sat up again and handed the basket to his mother.

Suddenly, it dawned upon me: he was putting himself in the offering basket, diving in head-first, if you will. And this must be what he does every week, his own self-made ritual.

And at that moment, I was awash in a baptism of grace.

Yes, there are many things in our churches that are easy targets for criticism. Yes, some of our churches and some of our Christianities are part of the problem. But be careful, as the old parable says (Matthew 13:24-30): if you try to pull up all the weeds, you’ll dislodge some of the wheat too . . . the tender shoots of faith and devotion growing up in truly important people like that special boy.

I feel it week after week, speaking in congregations across the country that include people so sincere and bright and ready to go that you can’t care how many or few they are, how rich or poor, how old or young, or how influential or marginal. You just know that people like this have what our world needs, that they’re part of the solution. You know that their spark is going to catch fire and spread, and that what is in them—faith, hope, love, wisdom, humility—can heal what ails us, and will heal it, as long as they don’t lose heart.

Which is why I didn’t want to let my previous post with its potentially discouraging title go unchallenged.

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