The Secret Password

The Secret Password March 1, 2013

Time for Lenten weeping and gnashing of teeth. We progressive/mainline protestant types aren’t into the whole sackcloth thing, but a sound ‘mea culpa’ from time to time can be good for the soul. And this week, I’ve got one for us all. Repeat after me:

“I am selfish.”

The other day, a friend posted on Facebook that, while she does not consider herself a religious person, she has been asking frequent prayer for a child in her family who is ill. Her question to her Christian friends: “Does God mind that I’m asking for something when I’m not actually giving anything back?”

Does God mind?… More later on my response. First, I have to ask…what have we done? What have we, followers of Jesus, done to make people feel they have no access to God without going through us?

Maybe it is what we have not done. For years, we progressive Christian types have been so dang polite…we don’t want to be confused with those types of Christians who knock on your door, ask if you’ve found Jesus, and proceed to pronounce judgement on your life. We don’t want to be those types of Christians, with a three-point answer for the world’s every ill. We don’t want to make our atheist and agnostic friends uncomfortable by talking about Jesus at happy hour, and so we say…well, nothing. We say nothing. We miss simple opportunities to share our faith and invite others to explore it. In the effort to define what faith is NOT, we fail miserably at sharing what faith IS.

Beyond sins of omission, our faith communities contain a thousand little messages that say, this is ours. We talk hospitality and outreach, but everything about our structure, language, and buildings sends the same signal– ‘we’ve got something you want. And you can only get it by coming inside.’

Sure, invite folks to engage in community, to discover what inside experience makes faith meaningful for us. But ‘inside’ is a problematic word. In an effort to make Church look attractive and intriguing, we wind up making it a country club. Rather than conveying the intended message of welcome, we set up Church as commodity. The result? People on the ‘outside’ wondering–in a time of great need or sadness–wondering if they are allowed to talk to God without first coming through our doors and our new member class.

The myth that Church owns God’s direct line runs deep, and has been carefully put in place by the Church itself. If we’re going to begin to dispel it, we’ve got to dissect everything about our individual congregations and identify the points of aversion.

1-Visit your church website. If you are saying, oh, we know…we know it’s bad, then, for the love of God, fix it. It might be expensive, it might be hard work, it might bring up all sorts of tensions that you never knew lurked beneath the surface …but it must be done. The web is first point of contact for most church visitors. If you don’t up the game on the website, you will never meet them in person.

Don’t just look at the aesthetic. Think content–is it full of insider language, like acronyms (DWM, CYF, AWANAS, etc) that will be Greek to an outsider? Is there a two-page church history that begins “In 1843, our founders…? Do you share a list of board members, who sits on committees, and when’s the next budget meeting? If anything on that site only makes sense to long-time members, it doesn’t belong there. If EVERYthing on that site will only make sense to your long-time members…well, then it is time to start looking at other parts of your community life. Is there ANYthing that would be meaningful to a seeker, a stranger, an outsider? If so, put it on the dang website, and scrap the minutes from the building committee. (Apply same criteria to any other ‘outreach’ material; brochures, signage, worship bulletin, etc).

2- Examine worship. Announcements, complicated rituals, insider language (acronyms), passing the plate with no meaningful insight as to what it’s FOR (or passing the plate at all), prayer requests for the cousin’s neighbor’s kindergarten teacher, or an invitation to ‘membership’…scrap it. Every minute of it screams, “become a member and THEN we’ll give you the password.”

3- What do we DO in church, anyway? Not just on Sundays, but during the week…are there programs, beyond meetings and administrative stuff, that feed, nurture and support? Opportunities for mission?  Plenty of folks in our neighborhoods may never come seeking the decoder ring for worship, but they would love to serve with us at the food bank. Do we have ways of inviting them to do so?

4- In everyday conversations, social media posts, and beyond–do we use language like ‘nones,’ ‘non-believers,’ the ‘unchurched,’ or, Lord forgive us, ‘the unsaved?’ Do we complain about people who only come to church on Christmas and Easter? Do we lament a ‘War and Christmas,’ and go about feeling persecuted by the diversification of America?

Addressing these subtle messages of exclusion will only begin to diminish the ‘insider/outsider’ image of church. But the amazing thing is, once we begin, we are not only better equipped to connect with those ‘outsiders’ we’ve created… We might also find– within our churches and our very own selves–a letting go of miraculous proportion. In this newly created space for others, our own limited perceptions of the Holy can take on a new dimension.

To my friend–and to all who think we are hiding the password–I can only say this: I’m sorry. I’m sorry that we’ve done such a rotten job of making faith inviting and accessible. And does God mind ?  Sister, God cannot wait to hear from you. We were born for this. We were made for this. The Church does not always get it right. We get awfully busy talking about pledge cards and meetings and paint colors and membership luncheons…and we forget to tell you, invite you, proclaim to you that WE–all of us–were born for this. We were born to seek the holy, to know the One who made us. We were born to ask, in all hope and helplessness, for that which we need. We were born to witness the miracle that unfolds when we take that first step of faith–not into an institution, but toward the God of our being.

All that said–we do want you to come to church. We so want for church to be a place that facilitates this journey, rather than standing in your way. We so want to tell you what Jesus has to do with it, and we promise (well, some of us promise) that there will be no hell cartoons or three-point-salvation plans involved. Give us a chance to get over ourselves–our own limited, selfish ideas of what faith looks like–and we will make a place for you at the table. In the meantime, please don’t let our limitations keep you from praying. God is waiting, with such anticipation, to hear from you.

We were made for this. Thanks to my brave and honest friend for the reminder.


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  • Dianne A

    Your friend’s problem with asking God for help isn’t just for outsiders. I grew up in the church, but had been away for many years, when my special needs child was born. I couldn’t pray – when I needed to, more than ever – because of all I hadn’t done for other people’s kids; for the starving children and the orphans and the kids who die of treatable diseases every day. I hadn’t prayed for those kids. Why should God honor my request about mine? I have been back in church for 15 year or so, but I’m still not sure I understand prayer. We don’t pray for amputees to regrow limbs, but then act as though God has performed a special miracle upon our request when someone recovers from heart surgery… And why do we verbalize concerns and fears to an omniscient omnipotent God who chose to allow us to be ill, unemployed, lonely, whatever, in the first place? God help me.

    • Erin Wathen

      I hear you Dianne. This is all painful and complex stuff. Thank you for your openness. Maybe i’ll address this in another post. Lots of folks thinking about prayer this season, and always.

  • Jon M

    Our church has always contended there is power in massive prayer chains, and that lots of people praying is better than a simple, individual prayer for help. One member in a bible study proclaims an uncited study that purports to conclude that ill people who are prayed for in large numbers have a better recovery rate than those who are not. Heaven help (literally) the control group. I think this also contributes to the pleas for prayer we see every day on facebook.

    I am especially troubled by the “God is Great!” exclamations after someone recovers or improves. There is so much here that I think is unsound. Is it possible to account for God’s greatness if there is no recovery, but instead slow death after months of agonizing illness?