And to think it all began with The Church Without Pants

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Un-invited (Part 1)

Some friends and I recently visited Big City Church (not its real name). It's new and edgy. And it's big. Huge, even. More like a campus than a church. The architects melded the main structure into the swell of a rolling hill so that it managed to blend in and, at the same time, call an almost obscene amount of attention to itself. It's pure genius... The blue lights at night are a real cool touch producing an almost iridescent glow. On the inside they had their own bookstore, a bistro with fair-trade coffee, a Nordtroms Rack, an Audi dealership, and plenty of hip young adults. My old Honda with the rocket launcher roof rack was totally embarrassed when we drove up.

A few generations ago the mainline churches in the United States decided they were going to un-invite a whole segment of the population from their gatherings. It certainly wasn't the first time the Church un-invited a group of people from their house and it probably won't be the last.

Big Old Church (not its real name), where I now serve is pretty old and pretty mainline. It's closer to 200 years old than it is to 150 and throughout its history the people of this church have played central roles as public servants working in government, health, business and trade professions. They even helped establish a major university in the community. Within a few years after the civil war, Big Old Church helped set a tone in the community by becoming one of the first churches in town to accept people of all colors as members. The church even employed African Americans. This went on until near the turn of the century, when by seemingly mutual agreement a new and separate "colored" church was established. Whether or not anyone protested or decried this action, no one now remembers the conversations and there is no record of anyone calling very loudly for the groups to stay together.

Today, although Big Old Church would welcome any person from anywhere, any African American who visits can hardly avoid noticing that this is a congregation of "white" people. Old white people.

We can only imagine what Big Old Church might be like today had someone one hundred years ago insisted that they work out their differences. What if they had chosen the more difficult path of looking their problems straight in the eye and declaring without blinking, "Not here, Satan. We are the Body of Christ and we're better than you think." What a model of authenticity and determination they might have been. Instead, they all took the easier road and one hundred years ago the "coloreds" were invited to leave.

And they still have not come back.

A half century later churches all over the country invited their youth to go somewhere else. Well, they could stay in our buildings, but usually in some funky, out-of-the-way corner of the facility. It probably seemed like a very cool idea. (At Big Old Church they met upstairs in the unused room below the bell tower. It was very cool and very out-of-the-way, not even in the same building where the younger children and adults met. It was accessed by ascending a spiral staircase then walking across the balcony of the sanctuary. The room was poorly heated, un-airconditioned and it leaked when it rained. It was the epitome of funky.) We'd even supply them with leadership and funds for programming and events. They could do all the stuff they like to do, sing the way they like to sing, talk the way they like to talk and dress the way they liked to dress. And we could do the same. They'd be happy doing their thing and we'd be happy doing ours. Every once in a while we'd invite them back to put on a show for us. It would be called "Youth Sunday." The Youth Pastor or one of the youth would preach (not very well because they don't do that very often), sing (songs we didn't like with words we didn't understand and usually not sung to our high standards) and pray (in the stammering manner of youth who think "Uhhh" is a complete sentence) ... And we'd smile and applaud and silently give thanks that next week everything would be back to normal. (And maybe they'd be just as thankful that they wouldn't be trotted out on stage to be put on display next week, too.) Instead of doing the hard things like cooperating and learning and adapting, we chose the easier road. It was about three generations ago that we invited our teens to leave our churches.

And they haven't come back.

In fact, we gave them enough confidence in doing their own thing that that's exactly what they're doing. They're starting their own churches and they still meet in funky places. They still preach differently, sing differently and pray differently than their parents and grandparents. And for the most part they resist the denominational labels of their churchly elders and predecessors. (Curiously, they're beginning to recognize that they can't function independently and so they form "associations" of like minded churches. I like to think of these associations as "proto-denominations.")

So, was it a mistake to invite people of different ages (or colors) to leave and do their own thing? Did we do the right thing? Or, what if under the guise of, "We were just doing what we thought was best," we seriously missed the target?

If we did the right thing, then let's stop complaining that our children and grandchildren are joining with congregations that think and do things differently than we do. Let's recognize the fruits of our labors and celebrate when these newer churches sprout up on the swells of rolling hills or in living rooms and basements, or in our downtown storefronts, coffee houses, bars and nightclubs ... (They do meet in the funkiest places, don't they?) And no, they're not coming back. We invited them to leave. We gave them our blessing to go and do their own thing. And Big City Church, you might want to be a little more gracious and a little less audacious. And maybe even say, "Thank you." Because your "parents" did the right thing.

But if not, if the "parents" did make a mistake by inviting these people to leave, and some of these newer churches are the offspring of our mistake ... Should churches like Big Old attempt to reconcile with Big City? Would that be the Godly thing to do, or are we beyond redemption?

I also wonder, Are places like Big City a correction, a perpetuation or possibly a magnification of that mistake?

And mistake, or not, Would you vow to do things differently than your "parents"? Even under the best conditions I think anyone who has ever been a child has, at some time, promised that when they grow up they'll never treat their children the way their parents treat them. And every parent, even on their best days, can find themselves regretting that they just said and did the very same things their parents said and did.

So, what will our children's and grandchildren's churches do with their younger generations?

Will they do the hard thing and figure out how to live in the same room together?

Or will they also invite their children to do their own thing in their own space?

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