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The Rev. Mark Sargent The Rev. Mark Sargent

The Rev. Mark Sargent is a United Methodist minister based in Atlanta, GA.

Member of:

United Methodist Church


The Thunk, the Gap, and the Six A's

Psalm 51

Proper 13 - Year B

August 02, 2009

Back in the days of my seminary education, I had a professor named Jim Hopewell, who introduced us to the phenomenon he called the "Thunk, which is what he said happens whenever someone in everyday life discovers that you're a priest or a pastor.  Dr. Hopewell told the story of a time when he was traveling on a plane, without his clergy collar, carrying on a perfectly normal conversation with the guy seated next to him.  And, as is often the case in such conversations, the topic pretty soon turned to what each guy did for a living.   

"I'm a priest," Dr. Hopewell confessed.  And that's when it happened.  "The Thunk."  The palpable, unmistakable, inevitable change in the relational dynamic when someone discovers that you wear the cloth.  Your own pastor or priest can tell you about her or his own experiences with the Thunk.

Well, it's been a long time since I took that class in 1982.  And, since then, a lot has changed.  One of the things that's changed is that now, any Christian, not just ordained ones, can experience the Thunk.

Here's how you do it.  Go hang out where people don't go to church.  You won't have any problem finding such a place, since most people don't go to church.  And when you get there, start throwing around the words "Christian" or "church," and see what kind of response you get.  I've done this, by the way.  I've spent a good bit of time hanging out with people who don't go to church.  And, recently, I started striking up conversations with people like servers or bartenders or people with whom I'm standing in line somewhere.  I'll tell them that I have a keen psychological interest in religion and that I'm conducting a study of people's attitudes toward religion and that I'd  like to get them to share with me whatever thoughts occur to them when they hear those two words--"Christian" and "church."  For the most part, it's not a pretty picture.

Every time I get the Thunk, it takes me a while to explain to people everything that I'm not.  There is a lot to overcome when someone finds out that you're a Christian, not even to mention a Christian minister.  There's an immediate credibility problem that has to be dealt with, because we Christians are often thought of as narrow-minded, bigoted, judgmental, uneducated, backward people.  And "church" is often thought of as the place where we narrow-minded people gather to reinforce our stereotypes and to point condemning fingers at those outside our walls.  Now, I realize that is itself an unfair stereotype.  Not all Christians are that way.  But it behooves us to be aware that such a stereotype is alive and well in many places on Planet Earth.

If striking up conversations with strangers who don't go to church is too much for you, but if you want to learn something about the reputation that we Christians don't enjoy, then you could just watch the comedy routines of people like Kathy Griffin and Bill Maher and the late George Carlin, three of my favorite theologians, by the way.  You'll have to forgive them their unvarnished language, but you can certainly learn a lot about what many people in the world think about us by checking them out.  If that's too much, then stay home and order movies like "Jesus Camp" and "Religilous" and see why we have such a lousy reputation in many places and among many people. 

It is a sad thing, because we know that there is a brand of Christianity that is better than the widely-practiced, widely-publicized brand of Christianity that is ethnocentric, anti-scientific, homophobic, imperialistic, defensive, condemning, rejecting, and afraid.  We know that a different Christianity exists.  We know that there are followers of Jesus who are open-minded, well-educated, and accepting.  We know that there are followers of Jesus who are spiritually mature, intellectually honest and psychologically savvy.  We know that there are followers of Jesus who guard against unfair stereotypes and who attempt to check their ungenerous judgments and who work to eliminate prejudice in their own minds and wherever else they see it. 

But there are hosts of people outside of Christianity who do not know that, because people who practice Christian spirituality with spirits and brains and souls fully engaged have sadly become the Christian minority.  And when many people think of "Christian" or "church," they often do so with pejorative overtones because the Christianity that is most widely-practiced and mostly widely-publicized is the brand of Christianity that smacks of religious fundamentalism and adheres to the impossible agenda of Biblical inerrancy. 

And that's why I think that the "Thunk" that you and I experience whenever we chat it up with people outside the church's walls can be explained by the "Gap."  The Thunk is a function of the Gap. 

There is a gap between Christianity and the world.  It is a gap that has been growing over the course of the last century or so, and it is a gap that significantly impedes our ability to meaningfully engage people outside the Church's walls.  The reasons for the gap are multi-faceted, and we could spend a good semester tracing the origin of what started as a fissure and became a full-fledged chasm.  At the risk of oversimplifying, let me say that the Gap exists for two reasons. 

Number one, as I've already mentioned, the Christian enterprise has been largely hijacked by people who have helped create for Christians a reputation that we do not want and that is difficult for us to overcome.  Many people think that we Christians are backward and blind, and that's one reason for the gap between Christianity and the world.

Secondly, the Gap that gives rise to the Thunk exists because there are many people who have been hurt by Christian religion.  Some of these people are still in church.  Most of them are not.  And we can never expect our faith communities to attract the people we would love to reach until we have helped to repair the damage that we have done through attitudes and practices that have caused injury to people and have helped to earn for us the lousy reputation that we have.

This phenomenon is often referred to in some of the psychological literature as "religious wounding," and truth compels me to share with you that it is a chief interest of mine, as both a pastor and a pastoral counselor, and as someone who on countless occasions has had first-hand experience with both the Gap and the Thunk.  And you know something?  When I mention religious wounding to people outside the Church's walls, there is often a deep resonance and understanding, and there is also often the expression of gratitude for the fact that someone in the Church recognizes and attempts to take responsibility for the wounds that we have inflicted, often unintentionally.  Sadly, on the other hand, when I mention "religious wounding" inside the Church's walls, there is often something of a deer-in-the-headlights look that gazes back.  It is essential that we recognize the pervasive nature of religious wounding and that we begin to communicate our apology to the world outside the church.  Only that will finally assuage the Thunk and help to shrink the Gap.

Religious wounding takes place at an intersection.  It takes place at the intersection of faulty religious teaching and incipient human unfolding.  At every stage and juncture of life, we humans are in the process of unfolding.  And if we're truly alive, then there is always some new part of us longing for expression.  When that tender new growth collides with faulty religious teaching, and when that new growth is therefore destroyed or squelched or snuffed out or damaged or broken, a wound is often the result.  And that wound can be very deep and burdensome and even paralyzing.  All we really want as we unfold is for those around us to nurture our growth and to love us and hold us.  So when religious teaching thwarts growth instead of promoting it, when it steps on human blooming instead of tenderly nurturing it, it is traumatic and injurious to people.  Now, time today does not permit that I treat the topic of religious wounding with sufficient breadth and depth.  I'll be taking it up in some detail in future blogs.  But allow me to offer some brief examples.

When a person languishing in a loveless or even an abusive marriage sits in church and hears that divorce is always wrong, a wound can be inflicted.  When a woman or a girl sits in church and begins to hear a voice calling her to ordained ministry while she hears from the pulpit that women cannot be pastors, a wound can be inflicted.  When a faithful person struggles with poverty and hears in church that material wealth is a sign of divine blessing, a wound can be inflicted.  When a young person struggling with gender identity or sexual orientation sits in church and hears that straight is right and gay is wrong, a wound can be inflicted.  When a woman experiences sexual dysfunction in her marriage because of erotophobic messages of shame and guilt that were hammered into her as a child, she's dealing with a wound.  When a smart kid experiences painful cognitive dissonance and even a tearing in her soul because her clear and accurate logic about how the world works runs counter to what she's been taught in Sunday School, a wound can be inflicted.  By the way, I've interacted with people dealing with all of the wounds I've mentioned.  And the number of religious wounds can be as numerous as the number of people who have walked at the intersection of human unfolding and faulty religious teaching.  It's a very large number.

People outside the church get a little nervous when they're around us Christian folks.  People outside the church experience the Thunk when they interact with us.  That's because there's a Gap between us and them, because they often think that we're backward and blind, and some of them have been sorely hurt by religious people who have stepped on them instead of helping them. 

But I have some good news.  We can do something to close that Gap and to lessen the effects of that Thunk.  Now, you and I can do nothing about the Gap between Christian fundamentalism and those outside the Church.  But we can do something about the Gap between progressive Christianity and those outside the church. 

Here's what we can do.  You can do it in your church.  I am attempting to do it in mine.  It involves distinguishing ourselves from the stereotypical Christianity that is often lampooned and caricatured by people like Bill Maher and George Carlin and Kathy Griffin and Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins.  Not every Christian is a Bible-thumping, backwards-looking, gay-fearing, others-condemning, science-rejecting, bigoted, close-minded person.  We can step outside that stereotype and get our progressive message out.

Here's how we do it.  We do it in six A's. 

Number 1.  We can acknowledge, and I think we should acknowledge outloud, that religious wounding exists.  We can do our homework on the phenomenon.  We can talk to those people, both inside and outside the church, who struggle with self-limiting thoughts or feelings or behaviors because they've been injured by oppressive and faulty religious teaching.  They're out there.  Find them and talk to them.

Number 2.  We can apologize.  I understand that not every Christian community has inflicted a religious wound.  But among many people in the world outside the church, you and I are associated with those Christianities that have been injurious, and it is time for us progressive Christians to stand up and apologize for the ways in which Christianity has been often hurtful and not helpful.

By the way, some of you will recognize this process of acknowledgement and apology as steps 4, 5, 8, and 9 in the famous and helpful Twelve Steps.  This is our Christian opportunity to make a searching and fearless moral inventory, to admit that we've been hurtful to many, to identify those whom we've hurt and are still hurting, and to seek where possible to make amends.

I would encourage you to put something like this on the sign in front of your church or in the ad that your church takes out in your local paper:  "If you've been hurt by the Church, we're sorry."

Let me say again that even if we didn't directly inflict the hurt we are associated with those who did, and the process of our taking responsibility for the harm that has been done in the name of Christianity will go a long way toward cushioning the Thunk and shrinking the Gap.

Not only must we acknowledge and apologize, we must be very diligent to ensure that we articulate a Christianity that is smart and kind, that is honest and in touch with the scientific and historical discoveries of modernity, that is sensitive to the shifts that have led us into post-modernity and that is defensible and logical and really good for people.  It is past time that we articulate a Christianity that is focused on just action and not on right belief, that acknowledges that Charles Darwin was correct, that moves away from original sin and blood atonement and back to the just and ethical teachings of Jesus, that regards Jesus' death as a sign of human blindness rather than divine love, that approaches the complex issues of gender and sex with understanding and sophistication, that employs the best of scholarship to read, understand, and apply the truths of Scripture, that gets its head out of the other-worldly sky and turns its hands to the issues that face this world, and that helps move Christianity out of the dark ages and into a place of meaningful participation among the peoples of the world in this post-modern time. 

And at this point in my message today, the fire that burns in my bones, much like the fire that burned in the prophet Jeremiah's, compels me to express gratitude to our sisters and brothers in The Episcopal Church, The United Church of Christ, and The Unitarian Universalist Church for their just stands on issues pertaining to human sexuality.

And as for the rest of us denominations in the Day1 family, I want to give a word of encouragement to the many Evangelical Lutherans, Cooperative Baptists, Presbyterians USA, and United Methodists who look forward to the day that we no longer adopt official policies that are sadly injurious to our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters.  This is not the only issue that faces us, but it is a profoundly significant one, and it will be increasingly difficult for us to gain the growth we seek and the credibility we need as long as we maintain and perpetuate indefensible and hurtful injustice of this kind. 

I was in a conversation recently with one of those unchurched persons I mentioned earlier.  He's a 26 year-old man, who grew up in the Church, and here's what he said to me.  Are you ready? 

"My generation has no use for the Church." 

When I asked him to flesh that out for me, he touched upon some of the issues I have already mentioned.  But foremost for him, and, by the way, he is straight, is the refusal on the part of many Christian communities to relax their Bible anxieties and their sexual anxieties and to simply accept the various ways in which healthy people express their sexuality.  Injustice toward gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and transsexual persons must stop.  In addition to being just wrong, it also seriously compromises our efforts to share the Good News about Jesus.       

And that leads me to the next thing we can do, and that is to act.  Not only can we acknowledge our role in the Gap and apologize for our participation in the hurt and articulate a smart and kind faith that really works in this world, we can act to bring to an end any teaching or any policy in our churches or denominations that damages, squelches, or thwarts genuine human blooming.  Speak up in your churches.  Elect people that will speak up within your denominational bodies.  Think creatively about how you can be an instrument of change.  Resist injustice and oppression with your voice and with your words and with your actions.  Such resistance, often unpopular, not only helps to bring healing to those we have hurt, but it also helps to bring us closer to the same kind of unpopular ministries of love and justice that led to the rejection of the prophets and to the death of Jesus.  And when we resist in such a way that leads to derision and scorn, then we will know that we are being faithful.

Next, we can advertise.  Get to know people who don't go to church.  Now, you'll have to get outside the walls of your own church to do that, but I think that will be good a good thing.  After all, that's what Jesus did.  And when you find those people who don't go to church, tell them about this sermon.  Tell them about my blog.  Order a CD of this message and put it in their hands.  Tell them that there are Christian people in the world who fully understand that we live in a post-Christian, post-theistic, post-modern world, characterized by globalization and secularization and who still believe, in light of all of that, that Jesus is worth following!  Advertise genuine progressive Christianity where you see it articulated and practiced. 

And--and this is a sermon for another day--the more we learn the more we realize that what I'm referring to as genuine, progressive Christianity may well be a more ancient brand of Christianity than the brand that we know best.

As you advertise, remember this.  Not everyone with whom you share this good news will enter your church.  That's not the point of your sharing anyway.  But, as a result of your advertising, some will come.  And I hope they will.  Not so we in the church can get them cleaned up and straightened out, but because they might be able to help us get the church cleaned up and straightened out.  It's what I call reverse evangelism.  And I think it's a good thing. 

And, then, prepare to be astonished.  When the people who really love Jesus get really smart about things and get radically and extravagantly kind and welcoming to all people, then we will have the opportunity to establish the kind of human community that can turn this world upside down.  We really can live out the kind of justice and mercy that Jesus said is what the whole thing is all about.  If, as we like to say, God's love really is unconditional, then we can do nothing else.  And it will be astonishing.  That kind of community that we can help make happen will be the reality to which Jesus pointed in the prayer that he taught us to pray:  God's will done on earth.  I hope it will happen.

Please join me in prayer.

God of Spirit and Fire, Justice and Mercy, help us to breathe in and live out your spiritual power that your astonishing rule and reign may be done on earth.  Amen.


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