This past Holy Week, three experiences re-shaped the way I understand the relationship between the church and American culture.
SCENE ONE: THE TRIP TO THE GROCERY STORE
It all started on Palm Sunday. After leaving my church’s early service, I drove to the grocery store for a few needed items. When the morning’s news came over the radio, I expected some announcement about the world’s Christians commemorating the start of Holy Week. Instead, the journalist noted the day’s biggest headline: a report of presidential impropriety and a scandalous “60 minutes” interview.
Walking through the produce department a short time later, I was struck by how many people were not at church but were at the grocery store. It was 9:30 AM on Palm Sunday. You have to understand that I am a pastor. For most of my life, I have spent Sunday after Sunday in series of countless worship services. Of course, I have known that there are people who do not (or cannot) attend church, but I can’t say that I have really ever experienced or understood their world. It is almost like a parallel universe. In the “church” world, the day began with an exclamation of “Hosanna!” In the world outside of the sanctuary, I overheard two employees discussing plans for the store’s daily food shipment. For them, Palm Sunday was just another day at work.
SCENE TWO: YARD SALES ON EASTER
A week later, I celebrated Easter in Southern California. While on the way to church that morning, I saw the most curious site—a yard sale. A yard sale on Easter. Intentionally or unintentionally, this household decided the best day of the year to sell their home’s unwanted items was Resurrection Sunday. I couldn’t believe it. Cars lined the block. I saw a stream of eager shoppers power walking to the house while countless others browsed through the bins of clothing, electronics, and small appliances scattered across the yard. While I anticipate that some of these individuals had been to worship at some point that weekend, I have a feeling that many had not. For them, the most amazing part of their Easter Sunday may have been the discount they received on their second-hand purchase.
SCENE THREE: EASTER MONDAY
I flew back home late Easter Sunday night. The following morning (Easter Monday), I was walking to my office at Indiana University when I saw one of my colleagues. I asked, “How was your weekend?” She replied, “I’m pretty tired.” Being in the Mid-West, I expected that her weariness resulted from a weekend full of longstanding family traditions or faith commitments. Instead, she said, “I worked my second job all day on Sunday. I’m exhausted.”
A FAILURE OF INCARNATION
I am realizing how little I understand the world outside of the church, and I fear that many church leaders are like me. In the days since Easter, I have noticed that our worship services, sermons, and even public invitations are often filled with language and allusions that this culture does not understand. Many of us—me included—are internally focused, blind to the world outside the sanctuary, and unable to speak this culture’s language well. As a result, we fail to incarnate the gospel of Jesus Christ effectively.
Jesus’ incarnational understanding of the culture outside the temple allowed him to communicate the divine message in a way that public crowds followed him. Like Jesus, the Apostle Paul used culturally relevant imagery and language throughout his ministry to reach people where they were. It’s what the early Methodists did during the Wesleyan revival when they decided to exit the church and preach in the open air to coal miners. My friends, we live in a day where yard sales are scheduled on Easter. Effective church leadership necessitates that we seek to understand this world, connect with it incarnationally, and learn to speak its language.
Several years ago I stumbled into the Heidelberg Catechism. Wanting to know more, I started looking for books about it and came up with three very recent ones. Although each book was dealing with the exact same catechism and all were written in easily understood modern verbiage, they were not the “same” and I liked each for different reasons. The reason I liked “The Good News We Almost Forgot” by Kevin DeYoung was his use of very modern, almost edgy verbiage to describe the profound truths of Christianity but yet absolutely none of what I call the WOW Factor was lost. Too bad DeYoung is a Calvinist. In fact, the biggest disappointment I experienced with any of the books was that before I had engaged the Heidelberg, I had looked high and low for comparable teaching from within the United Methodist Church and could not come up with anything that came close to “Body & Soul” by M. Craig Barnes, ; “Comforting Hearts and Teaching Minds” by Starr Meade; or DeYoung’s book.
As a lifelong Methodist/United Methodist my greatest frustration with the denomination right now is that it has lost the ability to connect the person already sitting in the pew to God in any meaningful way. Make no mistake–the church’s presence in my life was a positive one. But the church also left me in a spiritual never never land caught between God and the world, unable to find peace with either–like John Wesley said, that is a miserable place to be. Yes, the church needs a better way to communicate with the people here and now, but it needs to start with the people who are already at the church. Compared to the randomness I received growing up in the church, I was amazed at the clear cut, robust theology that was instilled in the rank and file people of 16th century Germany. As DeYoung stated in the intro to his book, I wondered where this had been all of my life!
Thanks so much for your reflection, Betsy. I especially am moved by your comment that the church has “lost the ability to connect the person already sitting in the pew to God in any meaningful way.” What I find so striking about that idea is that the people who sit in the pews straddle and live in these two worlds in a way that many clergy do not understand. By beginning where the laity are, the church takes a first step at bridging the gap.
On Sunday, I attended a UMC church in Tennessee. Much of the conversation in the service had to do with the current state of affairs in the denomination. I spoke to a young woman after the service. She said, “I am new to this church. I have just been coming for the past few weeks. I was thinking about joining this church, but now I have my doubts. When I came to worship this morning, I expected the service to be about worshipping God, but it wasn’t. It was so focused on the institution’s problems, not my problems or the problems of this world.”
Thanks for your words in this article. The associated article of Snyder’s (“John Wesley’s Start in Preaching to the Poor”) that you linked to I believe begins to offer the solution you suggest that as a church we are disconnected. Wesley’s solution was to put the people to work via their giftedness. In American church culture, we have unfortunately turned toward a consumer mentality and if we are to serve we have to have some credibility. I am no historian but I believe Wesley would have been hard-pressed to be as effective if his army of volunteers required training and accreditation. How do we change the culture from passively consuming to active service in an effort to provide relevance? Does the concept of mentoring provide a solution; find someone who is only one step ahead of your situation and they will be an excellent teacher because they would have the most in common with your situation.
These are deep thoughts and thought provoking questions, Dustin. I am especially struck by the question: “How do we change the culture from passively consuming to active service in an effort to provide relevance?”
In some ways, we need to re-think many aspects of our church operations. For instance, while I am a strong proponent of preaching, our model of preaching–essentially lecture style–feels like a product of the Western academy. Is one-way communication the best way to engage an audience today? What would we gain (or loose) by making the sermon more interactive?
I do think that there are many similarities between our day and the days of Wesley…. and the days of the first century church. I hope we can look to them as the forerunners of faith.