Just because you can doesn’t mean you should

Over the years relatives have shared church bulletins with us, thinking that we might find what the churches are doing of interest.  That’s understandable, considerate, and sometimes we do find them interesting.  There are other times when they are just crazy-making.

For example, my wife’s parents sent us a bulletin from their church in Exeter, New Hampshire announcing a new fall film festival.  The subject matter?

“Fresh”….according to the bulletin “Fresh” celebrates the farmers, thinkers and business people across America who are re-inventing our food system….Forging healthier, sustainable alternatives, they offer a practical vision for a future of our food and planet.”

“Botany of Desire” is the second film on offer and “presents case studies that mirror five types of human desires that are reflected in the way we selectively grow, breed, and genetically engineer our plants.  The apple reflects the desire of sweetness, the tulip beauty, marijuana intoxication and the potato control.”

Finally, the fall series concludes with a film devoted to the “Natural History of the Chicken.”  The bulletin reads: “Most people best know the chicken from their dinner plates — whether as thigh, wing or drumstick.  Consumers barely pause a moment to consider the bird’s many virtues.”  In response, the film promises to expand “the frontiers of popular awareness and delightfully reveals that this small, common and seemingly simple animal is as complex and grand as any of Earth’s creatures.”

Well, isn’t that special.  Just reading this bulletin made me want chicken potpie.  But I wasn’t looking for a plane ticket to New Hampshire.

Why not?

First — this has nothing to do with the mission of the church.  The purpose of the church is to form Christians.  Its mission is not about improving the reputation of the chicken.

And far from advancing the work of the church programming of this kind trivializes its role rendering it the one place where you can have grave, serious, unfocused conversations about anything, but its mission.

It also completely confuses people who might be asking themselves why they should go to church.  It’s true, based on what I have heard in pulpits around the country, it is not clear that clergy know anything.  But presumably, they were taught something about biblical studies, systematic and historical theology, church history, spiritual formation, and pastoral care.  Why would I waste my time learning about farming, botany, and chickens from the church?  When clergy offer up programs of this kind what I hear is this:  “We don’t know why we are here.  We aren’t interested in talking about what you would think we talk about.  So, we thought we would talk about chickens.”

But there is something more profoundly amiss here.  People once died to be Christians and own the name of Jesus.  They still do in many parts of the world.  Is our grasp of the faith and its significance so feeble that we are prepared to turn the church into little more than a curator of quaint conversations?  Did the martyrs of the faith, past and present, die in order to make the world safe for conversations about chicken potpie?  If so, we should not be surprised to find that churches of this kind are attended by shrinking numbers of the aging alumni of Woodstock.

Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.  Unless you just don’t have anything worth talking about anymore.  But remember…if that’s all we have left to offer as a church, then there isn’t anything here people couldn’t get more comfortably and pleasantly through Netflicks.

About Frederick Schmidt

The Reverend Dr. Frederick W. Schmidt, Jr. holds the Rueben P. Job Chair in Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL, and directs the Rueben Job Institute for Spiritual Formation. He is an Episcopal Priest, spiritual director, retreat facilitator, conference leader, writer, and consulting editor at Church Publishing in New York. He is the author of numerous published articles and reviews, as well as several books: A Still Small Voice: Women, Ordination and the Church (Syracuse University Press, 1998), The Changing Face of God (Morehouse, 2000), When Suffering Persists (Morehouse, 2001), in Italian translation: Sofferenza, All ricerca di una riposta (Torino: Claudiana, 2004), What God Wants for Your Life (Harper, 2005), Conversations with Scripture: Revelation (Morehouse, 2005), Conversations with Scripture: Luke (Morehouse, 2009), and The Dave Test (Abingdon, 2013). He and his wife, Natalie (who is also an academic and an Episcopal priest), live in Highland Park, Illinois, with their Gordon Setter, Hilda of Whitby. They have four children and four grandchildren: Henry, Addie, Heidi, and Sophie.


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