I was invited to speak at a Mennonite church last weekend. I was bravely invited to speak some of my criticisms of the church. Below is what I said (with a little editing to protect the innocent:). The scripture was Matthew 25:31-45 about feeding the hungry and doing "unto the least of these" being like serving Jesus. So here is my bit of brutal honesty about the church:
Pastor invited me to speak about my disappointment with the church. I told her this sounded down right therapeutic.
Since this is a personal topic perhaps a little background would be appropriate. My journey with the church has been a bit of a long and winding road. Beginning in the rural Methodist church of my youth, with a jaunt in a fundamentalist evangelical church in my teens, randomly attending a different church each week in college until finally landing at Lutheran Campus Ministry. There I experienced community, exploration, and questioning as a part of faith. I set off for seminary continuing to learn and explore. My questions deepened when my husband was killed in a work related accident. It’s been many years since but if anything my inquiries have intensified while the answers from all corners of the church seem to me to fall short in compassion and intellectual integrity. I look around the world and see so much pain and hurt and it seems as though the church is more concerned with other things. I question and I doubt and sometimes I am afraid.
So I find myself frustrated and disappointed in the church and wondering if Pastor knew what she was getting into when she asked me to speak on this topic. I mean I hardly know where to begin. Out of deep respect for the peace tradition in the Mennonite church combined with my mischievous nature I thought it would be fun to begin by comparing the church to the military.
The church and the military have several things in common, you’ll be happy to know. One thing they have in common is this: both the military and the church tend to attract many good people, with good intentions, and then squander them. The military attracts people who want to serve their country, who want to stand up for what is right, who want to sacrifice for a higher cause. And then, too often, these noble values are squandered on wars entered into out of greed and chosen by the powerful for the benefit of the powerful at the cost of the poor, the powerless and the soldiers.
Likewise the church attracts people who want to do the right thing, people looking for a deeper purpose, people drawn to talk of caring for the poor and the outcast, people willing to sacrifice of their time and possessions for the sake of something larger. And the church takes all these virtues and slowly drowns them under a flood of worship, church maintenance, and demands for adherence to a particular set of beliefs.
Don’t get me wrong, I sometimes love worship. There are times when worship draws me into the mysteries of God, reminds me there is more to life than meets the eye, breathes forgiveness into the ache brought about by my own stumbling and reminds me there is hope. But worship has become the definition of church and other things we do mere bonuses. Jesus calls us to feed the hungry, reach out to the outcast, heal, and love one another. And so we get together weekly to sing songs and read scriptures.
I sometimes think of this as being akin to a Garden Club which gathers together to do wood working only occasionally speaking of plants and soil (more about this analogy here).
I also love exploring theology and pondering faith. But too often theology is used as a dividing line between us. Too often the church claims certainty for things we cannot possibly know. We don’t know what happens after we die. Our understanding of God is very limited. Even our knowledge of Jesus is limited. Faith is a gift. But faith is not a particular set of beliefs to which we give our intellectual assent. When we treat it as such not only do we turn away those who have questions or are uncertain but we benefit the status quo. The powerful of this world love it when we spend our time squabbling over theology because then we don’t bother them. When we do speak up it is over personal morality or defending our beliefs and does little to disrupt their power.
What if we changed our focus? What if the church got down in the dirt to feed the hungry, advocate for and with the stranger and the imprisoned? What if worship no longer defined us but rather supported us in our work of doing unto the least of these? What if we explored our beliefs honestly and treated faith less as doctrine and more akin to hope put into action?
According to the ways of the world it will never work. People want certainty. People are too busy to want to serve. People will think we are just social workers. Numbers won’t grow.
But we are called to be followers of Jesus not marketers of Jesus. When John the Baptist wondered if Jesus was the one, Jesus sent this answer, ““Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” (Matthew 11:4-5) Jesus doesn’t say “count the number of people who come to hear me speak.” We are called to follow Jesus, not keep score.
The very things about the church which frustrate me also give me great hope. These frustrations show there is so much room for something new to emerge. The good news is we don’t have to keep doing the same things and expecting different results. There are ways of following Jesus which we have hardly begun to explore. The good news is congregations like First Mennonite are not dying or dwindling but rather following Jesus. People are being healed and helped through projects like the ReUse It Center. This is how we know we are following Jesus not by trends in worship attendance.
There is so much room for the church to step off the path of least resistance: from the way we run our meetings to the way we think about our material possessions to the way we define ourselves. There is so much room to upset the status quo for the benefit of the poor and the outcast. There is so much room for all of us to find greater meaning and purpose in our lives. There is so much room to follow Jesus in deeply meaningful, radically unique ways.
Perhaps for some the church is fine the way it is. But some of us long for things to be different. For those of us with crumbling faith and souls aching for meaning, it is a desperate longing.
I question, I doubt and sometimes I am afraid. Yet sometimes music washes over me and I hear the transcendent. At other times the beauty of nature overwhelms me and I see glimmers of the divine. There are occasions when fellowship fills me with love and I see the face of Jesus. But most often and most reliably when I have opportunities to work for justice, to feed the hungry, to stand with the prisoner then I know hope and feel peace. Let this be the church. This is my prayer. Amen.