Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Keeping Church "Real"

Dear Friends,

I don’t mean this to be a disparagement of the wonderful  denomination that ordained me; they listened to the church growth experts and tried their best. I’m going to call it the “3circle” denomination and many years ago, they sent me to a two week training program on church planting. We learned about niche marketing, branding, how to grow into a megachurch and what was stressed throughout was our  “authenticity.” The (then young) GenX demographic was the golden generation we needed to attract in order to save the church. GenX’ers detested church formality and  rituals and they demanded relevance. If any part of church did not meet their felt-needs, they discarded it as meaningless. Raised on cutting-edge technology and entertainment, they demanded theater-quality visual images, special effects and professional sounding praise bands. They demanded authenticity – meaning you needed to look, act, speak and smell “real” or you were deemed phony and fake. One session for us pastors was on how to dress and we heard that wearing Hawaiian shirts and Polo shirts said that you were “real and relevant.” A smart aleck asked the session leader how those could be considered “authentic” if you were not Hawaiian or a polo player and he told me that we needed to “create an impression of authenticity.” Oh. I see..

Back then, jeans that were “stonewashed” to fake a worn look were the rage among pastors in order to “keep it real.” Today, in order to relate and be “real” to the Millennial Generation, pastors have gone from casual to scruffy and some urban pastors now wear store-bought torn jeans in order to fake an authentic appearance. In a local 3circle church, a 50+ year old pastor learned from the church growth experts and stalks around a stark, dark, stage-setting in old jeans and a scruffy tee shirt with his face eerily lit up from an iPad that has his Bible app. That’s because we 3circle pastors were encouraged to leave that old-fashioned book we call the “Bible” on the bookshelf and project the sermon verses on a screen. 

I was in a service once when the 3circle guest pastor, an older woman who had thoughtfully reinvented herself to be “cutting-edge,” came on the platform in her spandex jeans and set up a laptop on the podium to read her sermon. Because of her height, we just barely saw the top of her head over the laptop screen and only heard her disembodied voice. I was distracted throughout her sermon and trying hard not to laugh because I kept thinking of the wizard in the movie the “Wizard of Oz.” I was waiting for the little dog “Toto” to pull over the podium and hear her say, “Pay no attention to the woman behind that screen!” 

Okay.. Maybe I’m just an old Curmudgeon Clergyman, but we don’t need elaborate stage sets and performance hype to sell the Son of God. Jesus Christ was “cutting edge” 2,000 years ago and He still is today. He is all we need.

And I am thankful that God has taken NHFC into the most authentic and relevant ministry than I ever thought was possible. This is a ministry that initially was exceptionally challenging for me. Bordering on terrifying. I’m not kidding. Nothing in my ministry experience prepared me for this. During those denominational training programs, I can’t remember a single seminar session on what to do when a member of your congregation has an involuntary bowel movement in the middle of the worship songs. Nothing prepared me for the woman, locked into her dementia, fighting her demons and uttering the foulest of filthy obscenities during Holy Communion. The 3circle Ministry Manual gives no advice on what to do when the blind and deaf woman walks up to you during your sermon and tries to use her walker to push you out of her way. When another woman told me she was Jesus Christ and sent by President Obama to help me conduct the Wednesday service, I can’t remember that being covered in my Bible College class on “Building Your Ministry Team.” But thanks to God, I’ve now finally learned what authentic and relevant ministry is. 

To be “authentic,” some large churches create realistic, urban street scenes on their stage and project scripture “graffiti” on the back walls in order to be “gritty and real.” But nothing created by a megachurch set designer quite says “gritty and real” like a fresh pool of urine on the church floor.  I have now come to love “real.” I recently told someone that if God were to give me a choice between being a megachurch pastor or a pastor in assisted living facilities, I’d choose the latter in a heartbeat.

The residents no longer drive and some leave the facility only in an ambulance to go to the hospital. 60% of all people in nursing homes and assisted living facilities have no one who visits them. Ever. After 1½ years of ministry to them, many still thank us with tears in their eyes at the end of each service for bringing church to them. Family, friends and even their old church assured them that they would visit regularly and they didn’t. But they know they can count on us to be there for them. They are all at the point in their lives when death is approaching and they need the comfort, strength and assurance of their salvation from the Lord. They are not interested in a polished church performance. To them, “relevance” is the Nicene Creed. They need the plain and simple Gospel message. They need to raise their voices and sing the hymns “Blessed Assurance,” “It Is Well With My Soul,” “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty.” They need words of encouragement from scripture...the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist...the touch of a hand holding their’s when we pray for them. We bring “New Hope” every Wednesday and I now know what an authentic, genuine church really does look like. It’s truly the most beautiful thing you will ever see. Amen?

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