-Rev Melissa Fain-
In the past few months there have been moments where I felt I've been on the wrong side of things. Not that I've chosen the wrong side of an argument or anything, but I've found myself being on the inside of need instead of the outside.
Not long after my ordination, a ministerial colleague expressed what she felt was my biggest pastoral gift: speaking truth to a system. She told me I named something no one was looking at, and correctly voiced that if nothing was done about it it would not be helpful. Now, I'm not spilling the tea here. You're not going to hear the details of that event, just that it's repeatable. On the outside of conflict, I can usually bring down the mob and calm everyone down. I understand the reasons beyond the initial conflict. (Honestly, it's probably why my favorite theology is the systematic kind, the kind that requires us to connect the dots.)
February 14th marks a pretty big milestone this coming year. I'll be ordained exactly one decade. If you count my church work before the ordination, I've been focused on working for God for twenty years. Just for context, that's little over half my life, and when you consider my volunteer work before that... well, that's most of my life.
With that being known, we've gotta have a pretty real conversation here. It's time for me to speak truth to this system. I've been on every side of it. I've been a Christian child, young adult, and adult. I've been a volunteer and paid staff. I've been everything from a choir director, to a youth leader to a senior minister*. I've been inside the church, in a ministry outside the church, and completely outside the system. I've seen it all. I've heard it all.
I know what if feels like to be a congregant in a dying church, and I know the frustration of being a minister in a broken church. I've witnessed the heartbreak of a congregation, and mourned with them when their minister betrayed them. Yes, I have the Masters of Divinity to show I have the book smart, but I come to you with street smart to back it up.
There are a few problems going on in the church, and some of them overlap, which is probably why it has been so difficult to nail it down and deal with it. This will be a very honest mirror church, so it's not gonna look pretty.
1) Most of humanity will sacrifice what is right for comfort.
I used to think everyone chose to join a church/temple out of the deep desire to make the world a better place and grow closer to God. In reality people join churches for a variety of reasons, and those two don't often come in first place.
Those things are comfort. They're selfish. Sometimes it's good to be selfish, and I've written on those things before, but they are not the catch-all for church.
No matter what, most people don't want to truly sacrifice for anything. They don't want to actually have to build something, or create. At the end of the day, the church building is comfortable. So many of us have felt God has left the building, yet we stay because we've put the building among the assets. Why can't we fix the church inside the physical church? Ask that to the Israelites, who were called to the Wilderness. They had a building too. They had comfort, but their comfort were as slaves, and we've become sedentary slaves to our physical church.
2) No one wants in once they've been kicked out.
3) We are blind to ourselves.
There was this craze in the Aughts of looking at mental illness as a television special. Hoarders, over-eaters, abusers... it didn't matter. If they were willing to get better in front of a camera, there was a show willing to be produced. We watched celebrities almost die from drug overdoses, while a few channels over we watched a woman try to explain why she needed to keep 28 used pizza boxes. It was all depressing. While maybe progress was made in the episode, usually the person sifted back into their old way of life, and some of them died from their illness.
I believe the Church is suffering from a spiritual illness that is attacking the Body. Some of the overarching themes of these twenty year old shows, especially the ones about hoarders, might at least help us see the problem.
4) The Problem is always "over there."
On some level, I can take the first three. I have focus with the the first three problems. Number four is the one problem that sneaks in and takes away any real power for change. Someone posts a story of church brokenness, and the Church might be outraged, and even sad. Their very friends might show the broken person specifically sympathy. Then, nothing at all happens or changes?
Why? Because the problem, an entire Church problem, suddenly turned into a specific congregation problem. The congregation in question didn't hear the outrage because the church (or the person themselves) swiftly cut "the problem" out, taking away any substantial power to change the system. Eight years ago someone asked me what they could do to help my situation. I told them, "Stay." They did not stay, and it took away their power to make a congregation healthy for future ministers and congregants.
Here's where the Church as a whole really turned into monsters. There is part of our call as Christians we've totally neglected since at least 1992, more than likely longer. We are called to name our failure, bring it to Christ, and die at that cross! Death is actually part of the story! Instead we take our sins, put them on a glorified scapegoat and cut those people loose to do the dying for us!
HERE'S MY ANGER! HERE'S MY OUTRAGE! It's not about having a cushy job in a cushy church! You've thought that's what I'm doing this for? Once those churches cut those people out they talk about the problem in the past tense. In reality the person left, but the problem stayed to fester and grow. Some of those who left take years to realize they haven't been carrying someone else's problem. The damage is huge on both sides!
What gets me the most, is Brueggemann was right in his second edition preface to "The Prophetic Imagination":
A confrontational model assumes that the "prophetic voice" has enough clout, either social or moral, to gain a hearing. Currently, the old "prophetic stance" of such churches lacks much of that authority, so that the old confrontational approach is largely ineffectual posturing. Given that social reality, which I think cannot be doubted, I suspect that whatever is "Prophetic" must be more cunning and more nuanced and perhaps more ironic. -xii
Here's your irony! Here's your prophet telling you in 2001 you will ignore him because the Church stopped listening to her prophets! What has that truth gotten us?
Our insistence to point the finger at someone or something else means so many congregations are gasping for breath at death's door, and no one with the power to stop it cares. You have spent fifty years slowly digging your own graves. Now it's done. You sit in your pit and you'd rather starve than admit God's not in the grave. God's here with me. God's here with those you've cut loose. God is alive, on the other side of death, but for you to reach Him, you have to accept your inevitable fate. You have to admit you met death. Something will die in that grave. It will either be your old way of "church," or the Church itself.
Either way, I'm done waiting. I'm done posturing. This year, I'm moving forward. I'm moving on. I'm going where God is.
* The links to congregations and Christian institutions are for reference only. To link the "senior minister" job is unnecessary. It's important to know that call was to a broken congregation, but as I feel they can find healing, I don't want to put focus on them before they do.