-Rev Melissa Fain-
This was supposed to be a sermon I was going to write and record. Then the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report hit, and it all of a sudden seemed relevant now.
1“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vineyard keeper. 2 He removes any of my branches that don’t produce fruit, and he trims any branch that produces fruit so that it will produce even more fruit. 3 You are already trimmed because of the word I have spoken to you. 4 Remain in me, and I will remain in you. A branch can’t produce fruit by itself, but must remain in the vine. Likewise, you can’t produce fruit unless you remain in me. 5 I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, then you will produce much fruit. Without me, you can’t do anything. 6 If you don’t remain in me, you will be like a branch that is thrown out and dries up. Those branches are gathered up, thrown into a fire, and burned. 7 If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask for whatever you want and it will be done for you. 8 My Father is glorified when you produce much fruit and in this way prove that you are my disciples.
-John 15:1-8 CEB-
My watch vibrates me awake at 5:15 in the morning, just as it always does every week day. Bleary eyed, I turn the alarm off, get up and begin my morning ritual. I start my coffee, turn on my computer, and check out what’s happening on the subreddit, /r/Christianity. “Is it me or God?” “I’m scared and overwhelmed with anxiety.” “My mom has cancer.” These are real titles that greet me as I sift through the posts, and decide where I’m going to comment. Many of these I’ll leave be, as some great users have already given some great advice and emotional support. There are some good ministers on the internet. Sometimes I step in just to let the user know I’m saying a prayer for them. Sometimes I step in, because there are always trolls lurking, and they say stupid and hurtful things to those who show up online hurt and broken.
Then there are the ministers trying out the internet. Full forty minute sermons show up all the time in YouTube format. Those are never watched and always end up beyond zero- though we have no idea how far beyond zero, because reddit doesn’t go to the negative on posts. I always shake my head at those, because it’s clear this is an evangelism tool where the minister never got to know the community before trying to evangelize to it. The short 15 min videos are sometimes watched, and almost always brutally responded to.It’s harsh and real. Really smart people are pushing in the right ways. They are pulling apart the bad theology. It’s like looking in a 360 mirror. It makes a person resolved and stronger, or forces them out. All the good ministers on Reddit started out as one of these critiqued newbies. It’s a rite of passage if you want to stick around.
It’s also a way to protect those who were wounded. I’m a minister called to the wilderness of the new wild west, called to those who have digitally come to learn, grow and heal. Especially heal. The internet is where many of the individuals broken by the church go.
I'm not the first "Minister of the internet TM." I’m not even the first in our denomination. That title goes to Rev. Debbie Adams-Phelps. It was also not the call in which I anticipated to find myself. For me, starting online was only supposed to be the diving off point. I had it all figured out. I’d announce Fig Tree’s launch. I’d write a few meditations. Start a Facebook page. Get Twitter up and running. It would be awesome. A few months later we would physically launch and everything would be amazing. Then no one showed up for the launch. I was left with an internet site, and some social media connections. It was sad.
I’m sure many would give up and move on at that point. I gave it the good ol’ college try, right? But, you’d be wrong. I did something unheard of. I listened and learned. Instead of packing up shop, I learned what the people were doing and saying online, and I began to talk about the love of Christ in a language they could understand. Some of that was how the language looked. Three quarters of the words we use online are not even understood outside church doors. Some of that was how the language acted. The internet is snarky. It requires seeing things as jokes instead of taking them seriously.
One day a user tagged me with the title #ladypastor. That was my moment. Was he being intentionally cruel, or was it a genuine statement of my calling. I took it as a compliment, and everything changed. People began to seriously talk with me; not at me. In that moment, I began to learn the real trauma of the Christian internet.
John 15 sets up something that is really comforting. Being connected to Christ is like being connected to a vine. We are nourished and we grow on that vine. If pieces of us are cut, it is for our growth, not our death. Sometimes it’s important to hear we need to let go of something healthy so an even greater health can take its place! It’s also important to hear that things that hindered us, and kept us from growing need to be let go as well.
What I found online were complete branches, healthy Christians, lopped off the vine due to church trauma. There was confusion regarding why their faith was drying up, and why entering a new church didn’t naturally attach them to the Spiritual vine they used to drink from so deeply. More than that, I could relate. I was cut from the vine, and returned to a land that was no longer my own.
In 2010 I was called to a small rural church. By the looks of it, it was a great fit. They answered all my questions correctly, and they seemed to be searching for the talents and gifts I had to offer. Unfortunately, the church was broken. This had slipped through the Regions purview because the church had just been moved into a new region, having the old region dissolved. There were ways I could have known. Looking at old yearbooks to see the quick turnaround for ministers was the easiest way. It was my first and only full time call, and when everything went down our family was left homeless, jobless, and with a newborn baby to care for. Also, when we moved back to the Georgia region the regional minister called to welcome me back, but gave me the tough news. He was leaving within weeks. I was coming home to a state in transition, to people who no longer knew me, and frankly, I didn’t know who I was either.
Ministers don’t want to talk about their own trauma. I think there’s this fear of looking weak. I probably would have been the same way, but I could relate with those hurt and bruised voices online. I knew what these broken congregants were saying, and I knew their pain. So, I began to get honest. Brutally honest. I knew what it was like to feel the weight of depression, and not have the money or resources to seek counselling. I told that story. I told the story of having just enough pennies to purchase food for the week. I visited churches to get a feel for my new county. I felt hurt by the local church. I would be ignored time and time again when I'd visit with just myself and my son, but giving too much attention when my husband and daughter would tag along. People thanked me because my stories told them they were not alone. They too had had these experiences. My trauma as a minister was helping them heal.
The church has a problem. The hashtag, #ChurchToo was created to show sexual abuse on the heals of #MeToo, but people have been using it to show abuse in general. The pain is deep and wide. The recent Grand Jury report truly shows that. These people know that immense feeling of being connected to the vine- to God. Then, trauma happens or it continues to happen, and the person finds themselves disconnected. Instead of cutting away the bad parts, we cut away the people that are too close. The church is dying because when you do that, you are taking away the people who gave life to the church, and leaving the pieces that can give little or nothing back. You can't do that. God is the vine, but Christ is the Son. Without a way for the Son to shine on the church and feed the Church with energy- the church dies.
Listen, I know God can breathe new life into theses dried up branches. I know this message was not meant for a General Assembly. It was meant for us. It was meant for those who wonder how they will ever properly connect again. You are not alone, and my focus is on finding new health for those who are with you.