In scanning social media, primarily Facebook and Twitter, and in reading an admittedly small number of blogs, I am discovering a persistent way that the church is characterized:
Clergy friends in mainline churches will assure others that the church they serve is not judgmental or fundamentalist. They will also often assume that their own congregations are the only inclusive Christian communities in existence.
Clergy friends in evangelical or non-denominational churches will assure others that their congregations are not boring, like the traditional mainline churches in their communities.
Clergy friends in mainline and evangelical churches will characterize God, Jesus and spirituality as a good thing and church, religion and congregations in mostly pejorative ways.
Other clergy announce very publically that they are leaving the church, but in fact they do not leave. They are, thank God, always with us!
As I experience culture beyond the church, either through the popular culture of novels, music and film or the high culture of the New York Times (which I read on Sundays) and NPR (which I also support and enjoy), I sense a consistency as well. Christianity (inclusive of the church) is stereotyped in ways that no other grouping would be:
- Most any reference to faith is a caricature of hellfire and damnation.
- Most reporting about ministerial leadership focuses on clergy misconduct and/or greedy evangelists.
- And most congregational experiences are seen through the prism of inhospitality to the LGBTQ community.
In addition, cultural critics expend a great deal of time and energy criticizing or blaming a God they do not believe exists. The intellectual irony of this, upon reflection, is actually very interesting!
I want to acknowledge, here, that a great deal is wrong.
And so there is a strong critique of the faith within our own scriptures: one has only to read the prophets or the teachings of Jesus. There is a plain reporting of moral failure by God's people within our own sacred texts. The human condition is present in the stories of Abraham and David, Peter and Paul. I rarely sense this humanity, or self-critique, in my reading of sacred texts in other religious traditions.
We also have our own self-inflicted wounds, which rehearse again the sins found in these scriptures. Among them: We have been captive to political partisanship. We have mirrored the world's definitions of success. We have violated sacred trusts. We have never learned to make peace with money, sex or power. We have turned inward toward our own tribal traditions, at the cost of an authentic engagement with the world that God loves.
So what does the church have going for it?
1. A person: Jesus
- A book: the scriptures
3. A meal: the bread and cup
4. A fellowship: we believe these first three create a unique community.
What we do with these gifts expresses our engagement with culture, or the neighborhood, or the world. This is not inconsequential, and in fact local churches have a much more constructive influence in communities than is often acknowledged. And because all of this becomes complex, when sufficient numbers of us come together, there is need for order and leadership.
If I am honest, I accept that Christians have little power to shape how we are portrayed. And yet when we pattern our lives after Jesus--as recently with Pope Francis--the world pays attention. All of that---not only his actions but the perceptions of them---has been like rain falling on dry ground.
Maybe our default is cynicism and critique. And yet, I do not believe that we are given the option of choosing between Jesus and his body, the church. Within the household of faith, you and I bear some responsibility for the state of things. In baptism we were made a part of this drama. And in the mystery of providence, through faith, we were grafted into this tree of life. This is who we are. Could it be that, finally, the cynicism and critique (by church leaders, about the church) is a form of self-loathing?
I wonder if we cannot recover the meaning of what it means to become bearers of the gospel about Jesus and his followers who are the church, and engage with social media, popular culture, politics, the world or even the neighborhood in ways that are as Christ-like as possible.
Then perhaps, they (those reading, scanning, trolling, following, listening in) might see our good works and give glory to our Father who us in heaven (Matthew 5. 16).
(Ken Carter is the Resident Bishop of the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church.)