I have a confession to make. There are a number of things people of faith say to others that drive me insane. Now, I know that these things are often said with every intent of caring and showing compassion. I also know they are said because we are not sure what else to say. (A word of advice – a listening ear is always a better – and safer – than moving lips). I came across this blog which summed up my list pretty well. You may find it instructive, challenging, even a little annoying. It is a good exercise in thinking through our faith and avoiding superstition. Any other things Christians say that bother you or trouble you? – Pastor Tim
So, I was thinking that the Church is dead. If not totally dead, it is as Miracle Max from The Princess Bride would say at least “mostly dead” or in very critical condition. I know you probably don’t read a pastor’s blog expecting to hear this kind of thing. You were perhaps hoping for something a little more uplifting. Sorry. The vital signs are, it seems weak.
When it comes to belonging to a church, the fastest growing group of people in our culture simply don’t. 5% of the population said they were “unaffiliated” in 1972. Today it is 16%. People are not choosing other churches, mega churches, new churches or old churches; they are not picking more conservative or more liberal churches, when they leave one church, they are not going to something “better” – they are choosing to do away with church completely. They are often called “nones” because they check “none” on surveys about religious affiliation This is happening to every single segment of the Christian Church – Protestant, Evangelical, Roman Catholic — it across the board.
More facts: 70% of mainline Protestant households have no children; 91% of those same congregations are white (unlike our society). The median age of people in church is steadily and quickly rising (averaging over 62 years). Congregations are getting smaller and smaller on the whole. Only 27% of “members” actually worship each week. Only 7% of Christians have actually read the whole Bible.
The truth is that things have changed in every aspect of our world – economic, political, cultural and yes, religious. The Church that we all remember from our youth is dead, mostly. Think back to the way things used to be:
- You were born into the faith and stayed in your tradition
- Faith was a way of believing, so you learned beliefs first – memorized, understood.
- Christian faith was expected of most everyone
- Institutions played an important part in our lives
- Authority was given to those who had studied – experts
- Keeping the faith = Keeping the traditions
- People seek spiritual connections and religious life on their own.
- Faith is a way of living – doctrines and “truth” are understood to be negotiable or dialogic. So, spirituality is about living daily
- Christian faith is no longer a cultural norm
- Institutions/Denominations have lost their power and are fading
- Seminary training and official teachers are suspect
- Keeping the faith = living with integrity
So, I was thinking that following Jesus is really not very complicated. According to John’s Gospel, Jesus gives one command; one imperative instruction: “Love one another as I have loved you.” (John 15:12) Now, just because something is not complicated does not mean that it is easy. The command is clear – love each other to the point of dying for each other. And that is hard. Honestly, in my years in the church I have learned that we rarely get anywhere close to dying for one another. Too often we struggle to manage being civil to one another, let alone loving each other.
Recently, an anonymous caller left a message on a staff member’s voice mail that was vile and accusatory. The only identification the caller left was that they were a member of the congregation. “Say what?” you reply. Yes, a member of the “beloved community” left a harassing message. I’d be shocked too if things like this didn’t happen way too often, even here at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church. Perhaps it is why, as Pastor Phil noted (and I quoted before) that many people see the church as “too judgmental, too hypocritical, and too hypercritical” and so want to have nothing to do with church or church people.
Church staffs know to expect and deal with complaints, concerns, even conflict when such is offered in a healthy, loving and productive manner. But this behavior, and the anonymous letters and notes, the insults and demeaning gossip that happens is just evil. It is how evil undermines the beloved community and keeps us from following the commandment of Jesus to love one another. It does not happen all the time here and it does not eclipse the loving and Spirit-filled actions of so many disciples in this place by any stretch of the imagination. But it does happen too often and to the detriment of all.
Paul writes to the church at Ephesus that should instruct us all and guide our behavior: “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.(Ephesians 4:29-32)
Luther, in his teaching on the 8th Commandment (You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor) says this commandment means: “We are to fear and love God, so that we do not tell lies about our neighbors, betray or slander them, or destroy their reputations. Instead, we are to come to their defense, speak well of them, and interpret everything they do in the best possible light.” – (Small Catechism)
Each week as we prepare to receive the body and blood of Christ, we share the peace. We take time to reconcile and put aside anything that separates us from one another. If you have hurt someone or carry hate in your heart, don’t come forward until you work things out. How can we receive Christ with a tongue that insults and lies about others?
So, what do we do about this kind of cancer in the Body of Christ in this place? Well, first you need to know that when we receive anonymous notes and letters, they go to the shredder. No name – no attention. Second, if you have a complaint or concern and you present it in a manner that does not conform to the two quotations above – in love, grace and in the best possible light, you will not receive a hearing. Leave your sarcasm and anger at the door. Third, unless you are offering a solution or offering to help, don’t offer a complaint. Fourth, when you insult or accuse a member of the staff, you insult and accuse us all as a team and me as a leader.
Perhaps the biggest thing we can do is for the majority of members, who are indeed loving, committed, disciples to, in ways big and small, call others to account for unhealthy behavior. We can also model love to one another. Support the wonderful staff here publicly; recognize the many good things that people are doing. When there is need for expressing concerns or disagreement, model the most loving, gracious manner possible, treating others with the respect and dignity that comes from being a child of God. Try these:
TOP TEN THINGS YOU CAN DO TO LOVE ONE ANOTHER
- If the person being talked about is not present, stop talking about them.
- If someone starts to talk to you about another person, stop them. They should be talking to the other person, not you.
- Follow Luther: Interpret everything someone says and does in the best possible light.
- If you can’t say it to the person’s face, don’t say it at all.
- Before you react in anger, try to imagine the other person’s position and account for your fault in the matter.
- Never criticize without first complimenting.
- Apologize quickly; take offense very slowly.
- Never communicate anonymously.
- If you can’t say something that builds up and is constructive, stay silent.
- Own your feelings. Others cannot make you feel anything. Anger is a choice.