Pastoral Letter to me! Sometimes I just need to kick myself in the seat of my pants and grab on to something and hang on for dear life. This letter is a reflection of my thoughts and faith at this particular moment. I write it to myself but if it helps someone else that would be wonderful.
Dear Pastor Mike:
Being on the other side of the Exodus story sucks, doesn’t it? I see the panic on your face and hear the fear in your voice. I feel your internal terror as you read the treasurer’s report and look at the Trend reports, hear the statistics, and desperately seek to find the secret of why that other church across town “seems” to be doing alright. I know you think this is your fault even though you have no control over what’s happening. Look… it’s happening in the whole church. Get a grip on reality. You are not alone!
Yes, I see the denominational offices reconfiguring, downsizing, and scrambling to do damage control while congregations try to engage the fence-sitters, inactive members, and create passion from the remnant, and I dearly and passionately want to help you.
Even though you say you do, I know you don’t understand why people are leaving you, and young families no longer seek you out. You think it’s all because “the culture” is so lost, their priorities askew, so into themselves and their technology that they are beyond help. You think and may even truly believe that they’ve turned away from God; chasing after that which is not bread and laboring for what does not satisfy to quote one of your prophets. But that isn’t the problem.
I am tired of hearing you blame the evangelicals, right wingers, and how bad theology has screwed up Christianity turning it into a moral and ethical decision making religion. Yes, I hear you every time, when you say Christianity isn’t about making bad people good, it is about making dead people alive. Why don’t you believe it then? I hate to tell you this but thinking that this is God’s judgment on the church for not doing its job is not why people are abandoning the faith in droves. Face it, sometimes people need to hear judgment, condemnation, and have some guilt. But they can get that anywhere. What you have forgotten is that the gospel is about forgiveness and comforting those who are afraid and hurting. Preach the damn gospel… that is grace, mercy, and freedom… especially for yourself. The problem seems to be you always assume you have done something wrong when things don’t go your way or the way you think they should? And if you didn’t do something wrong… then God must have.
You see…the things out of your control and the things outside your walls aren’t the problem… It is the walls themselves!
Look at what you do inside your walls. Your liturgies and hymns are not timeless and they are not providing the alternative to the stage, lights, bands, video screens, and technology that you use too. You keep looking for the “real” worship. Your worship, in general, has just become white noise to those really seeking to encounter God. What you do on Sunday often has so little relevance in people’s daily lives that more and more of them are taking a pass because there are other venues that do it much better than you will ever be able to do it. That is, fill their time with meaning.
Yeah, the songs and hymns are cool and the worship is great, but ultimately Sunday morning isn’t really making a difference by Monday afternoon or Friday evening, when people are wrestling with the awkward, messy, painful stuff of life; these are the places where the order of worship or contemporary Christian music don’t help. Remember, we can be entertained anywhere.
Since we are talking about noise… did you know that you talk too much and you do it using a dead language? You’re holding onto dusty words that have no meaning in people’s ears, not realizing that just saying those words louder isn’t the answer. All the religious buzzwords of today and those that used to work 20 years ago or even 500 years ago no longer work today, they are not in our vocabulary because they don’t matter. And by the way, telling me that we have dumbed down religion just pushes me further away.
This “Christianese” language may give you some comfort in an outside world that is changing, but that stuff’s just lazy gobble-de-gook and cliché that keeps people at a distance. They need you to speak in a language that they can understand. There’s a message there worth sharing, but it’s hard to hear above your cerebral gymnastics.
People don’t need to be dazzled with big, churchy words and about eschatology, soteriology, and theological systems. Talk to them plainly about love, and joy, and forgiveness, and death, and peace, and God, and they’ll be all ears. Keep up the church-speak, and you’ll be talking to an empty room soon.
Stop treating Christianity like some kind of item to be sold. The packaging and the delivery are not as important as you think. Slick programs and a coffee bar, a children’s ministry that resembles a professional babysitter and fancy teen center are smoke and mirrors … and costly. In fact, most of your time, money and energy seems to be about luring people to where you are instead of reaching people where they already are.
Why don’t you go out into the neighborhoods around you and join the amazing things already happening, and what God is already doing, you seem content to copyright your particular brand of “Christ-Centered” ministry and righteously wait for the sinful world to beat down your door. Want to know the best way to do ministry… leave the building!
Want to know which group to join? Stop thinking about how this is going to bring more people to worship or join the club. Stop thinking about butts, bucks and how to patch the holes in the sinking ship. Every day we see a world stricken with poverty, racism, violence, bigotry, and hunger; and in the face of that stuff, you get awfully, frighteningly quiet or at best throw money at it.
The old way of doing church has ended. The 19th century models of ministry are no longer working. You must use your imagination and vision. God is with you! Yes, it is scary for those who make their livelihoods working in your national, synod, and congregational offices but the reality isn’t going to change. You are the one who must change…You have adapted to your environment over and over through the years and so has the church. It is time to adapt again. The early church did not have any formats or guidelines to be church. They just did what they needed to do in each place. Look around you! God has given you a great opportunity. Listen and get out there!
Peace, Pastor Mike Conklin