There is a deadly threat looming over the church today. It’s a threat greater than any theological or denominational difference, greater than any intra-church fighting or political battle, greater than society’s cultural shift towards the more secular. It’s a threat that the church isn’t talking about because 1. it’s hard to recognize from within and 2. it’s the kind of thing you don’t talk about because it’s actually really insulting.
The threat is that the church has become really boring.
I know this may sound insulting, but I feel like I am in a good position to say this since I love the church and I am a part of her…and because I oftentimes find myself being boring too. I mean, heck, you just need to look at me:
- I dress predominantly in grey or black.
- I am a white, middle-upper class girl who grew up in suburbia.
- I’ve always been the “good kid”
- I’ve never smoked pot.
- I go to bed at 9:30pm.
- My idea of a perfect evening is to be ALONE with a good book and a hot cup of tea.
I have to work really hard NOT to be as boring as I really am—especially when I preach. Preaching isn’t that hard. Anybody can do it, really. Preaching well, though? Preaching in a way that is interesting? Now that’s a lot of work. And I certainly don’t always succeed. There was a man in my congregation in North Carolina who fell asleep every time I got in the pulpit. Seriously…I would just open my mouth and I’d see him start to nod off. I told myself that he must have narcolepsy or something. It was my only solace.
Not being boring is hard work….but what I am finding in my ministry and as I make my way through life…..is that it is essential work to the ministry of Jesus Christ. Just listen to Jesus’ words to his disciples again. You are the salt of the earth. You are the flavor. You are the spice that wakes food up. You are the counter to bland. You are the preserver of fresh! Does this, my friends, sound like the church to you? Maybe in some cases. But I must admit a growing frustration with the church as I travel and preach. And my frustration is that we all seem to look and sound the same. We congregate in churches where we are around people who are like us—people who worship in the style we like to worship, people whose lives mirror our own, people whose issues are our issues. We all have the same hang ups – we can’t talk about sex, or politics, or money very well because those topics aren’t polite and we Christians are very polite. At the highest level of our church’s governance, all the denominations are fighting the same battles…gay marriage, women in leadership, abortion, peace. But rarely do these important debates trickle down to the local congregations. Locally, our battles are the same too. Every church I know has fought over the color of the carpet to be replaced, how much money should be devoted to the mission fund vs. the building fund, and whether the pastor should stay or go. In light of all this it feels to me like the church has simply become predictable.
Which, according to Jesus, is a very dangerous state of being. If salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.
I started to think about these words from Jesus in a new way while reading a book on writing by the poet Stephen Dunn. Dunn writes that the “burden of the writer is to somehow keep alive and vital amid all that’s dangerous and deadening in the world, and this is difficult wherever one is.”
Dunn then quotes a poem by Theodore Roethke called “Dolor” (a word that means a state of great sorrow or distress.)
“I have seen dust from the walls of institutions,
Finer than flour, alive, more dangerous than silica,
Sift, almost invisible, through long afternoons of tedium,
Dropping a fine film on nails and delicate eyebrows,
Glazing the pale hair, the duplicate gray standard faces.”
Not to become one of Roethke’s “duplicate gray standard faces” takes vigilance, Dunn writes. We must guard against this danger to our vitality. We must look around with prophetic eyes and put on our spectacles of truth in order to see where the dust is falling. Have we been standing in the same place for too long? Has life become an endless Walmart checkout line? Have we moved forward, developed or grown? Because if we haven’t, something must be done. This is not life well lived. This is the life of the walking dead.
So what do Christ’s disciples need to do in order to guard the church against this loss of vitality, this life of the walking dead? Who do Christ’s disciples need to be to be the salt of the earth?
Each disciple needs to answer these questions for him or herself. But I can tell you about my experience. Two come to mind. The first being the time I decided to preach a sermon series at my church in North Carolina on difficult texts and issues. It was my husband’s idea really. (He’s always doing this to me.) I wanted to do a series but I couldn’t decide on a topic that interested me enough, or that would interest my congregation. Dan suggested the difficult texts and topics, which scared me to death. But admittedly, it was interesting. So I ended up preaching on Cain and Abel, which turned into a sermon about capital punishment. And I preached on the story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac, because it is a story I have never been able to justify—and I decided not to justify it in my sermon, only point out its problems. And then I preached on homosexuality—a topic I had always avoided as a liberal Christian living in the bible belt.
Each sermon in this series was an extraordinary challenge. My fear and anxiety over tackling these topics motivated me to work harder than I ever had. My goal was to preach in a way that could be heard by all, even if they disagreed.
In the end, this became one of my finest experiences of the church. My congregation came alive with energy and attentiveness. Our discussions about the topics lasted long after Sunday morning worship. No one told me I shouldn’t have done it. Everyone seemed to agree that the church should be discussing issues that matter—even if those issues were controversial.
My other experience is one that is still ongoing. I have recently reawakened my passion for writing. Since moving here I started attending the Iowa Writer’s Festival in Iowa City each summer. There I have discovered that the “writers world” is much bigger and much more diverse than my “Presbyterian Church world” and that the church can learn a lot from writers—particularly poets. In order to be a successful poet, a writer must walk through life paying close attention, mindful of the details, the nuances, the complexities of everything. When the poet puts pen to paper, he or she needs to write about life in a way that is not cliché, or stale, or (the worst) predictable. Instead the poet must write to be surprised. There should be a point of discovery in every poem—a discovery that will be meaningful and memorable to the reader.
Now I have a poet for a writing coach. I send her every sermon and she sends them back full of red ink. She calls me on my overly abstract, “churchy” language and tells me to speak directly to the people in the pews. She pushes me, and pushes me, until I find my way to a new discovery. She tells me to be specific, to give people an image to hold on to, to use more concrete details.
All of this has been extremely helpful in my quest to be Jesus’ salt. So I do not broach the topic of how boring the church has become today without hope. The opportunities to be alive and vital as the Body of Christ are limitless. But we in the church must:
- Be vigilant, to guard against the dust that is falling, asking ourselves questions like: What are we doing just for the sake of doing it? What has lost its meaning? Where have we grown numb? What practices, programs, even doctrines, are we perpetuating simply because this is what we know, this is comfortable, this is the way it has always been done?
- Subject ourselves to feedback and constructive criticism from those who know things we wish to learn.
- Speak about issues that matter–whether it be gay marriage, or the power of money or the growing diversity of our community.
- Reveal to the world that there are still discoveries to be found within Christ’s body and among his people—reveal to the world that we are not the walking dead.
We in the church bemoan her decline. We wonder how we can attract new members—young people! children!—and then keep them. We cry foul at a world and a society that doesn’t much care. And yet what are we doing that is different? How do we feel about change? What risks are we, who love and cherish the church, willing to take?