Saturday, September 30, 2006

A Welcoming Church

From Kevin Little in today's Toronto Star:

The United Church of Canada has embarked on an expensive campaign called Emerging Spirit to attract 30- to 45-year-olds. Some grumble that this money would be better spent on social justice work or hiring additional staff, but I disagree. The fact is, our land of affluence, greed and narcissism needs to hear the radical "good news" of Jesus (See Matthew 25 and 28).

The United, Anglican and Presbyterian churches have watched their dominant position on the spiritual landscape fade to the margins. While a few formerly mainline Christians have found their way into friendlier, more dynamic evangelical churches and the soberly certain fundamentalist churches, most now just stay home and embrace libertarianism.

Why aren't more 30- to 45-year-olds going to conservative and fundamentalist churches? So-called Bible-believing churches are hardly that. They select carefully what they like from the Bible and downplay what makes them uncomfortable. They are thrilled to quote Paul on sexuality and gender roles but less keen to discuss Jesus' thoughts on wealth. Success theology pastors like Joel Osteen are not likely to remind Christians what Jesus told the rich young ruler to do: sell all you have and give it to poor.

Meanwhile, the yuppies who left the mainline churches in the '60s are finding affluenza leaves them feeling unfulfilled. They have a deep hunger for meaning and purpose in their lives.

We in the target demographic have never being challenged to sacrifice for a cause bigger than our self-interest. Let's be clear that this age group is interested in spirituality, not religion, and it's easy to see why. To attract my generation, the churches must make every effort to free themselves of patriarchy, racism and homophobia. And amen to that.

But with the focus on "welcoming," when does the sincere effort to be hospitable morph into a naked attempt to ape the culture of the day? If we assume the 30- to 45-year-olds are roaming from church to church trying out the sermon, the Sunday School, the activities, at what point do we as Christians stop saying anything that might offend and focus exclusively on the privileged middle-class?

While it is true the church must do more to reach out to those who hunger for God but are allergic to religion, it is also true that deep spiritual yearning can only be satisfied by a message that actually has something to say to the culture.

I can hear the Christian right nodding their heads and saying "Amen, brother!" But aren't these folks even more guilty of letting the culture distort the Gospel? Conservatives and fundamentalists are more in love with 1950s America than they are with the Jesus of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

What I long to see within my denomination is outreach to newcomers and the marginalized. Both resonate strongly with the Jesus in the Gospels and the early church of Luke-Acts. In addition, I think we mainliners have more to learn from our Anabaptist sisters/brothers in Christ than the ultra-successful evangelical worship centres in the suburbs.

I can hear my liberal progressive pals tapping their Birkenstocks to that tune. But wait. What Anabaptists do that we mainliners have thus far refused to do, is to be unabashedly focused on Jesus. I believe this allows them to be far more radical and effective as alternative communities than any of our mainline churches. If you want to see Jesus alive and liberating in the world, look no further than the Mennonite Central Committee.

I often hear my colleagues and the churches they serve buying into the idea that what my generation needs is more affirmation, less stress, less talk of sin, guilt, and judgment. But they're wrong. If we want to open someone's heart to his neighbour, we must first remove the idol that prevents that connection from taking place. We must name the addiction that drives us to distraction but can never satisfy: endless self-obsession and materialism.

Instead of asking the congregation to stand up and give themselves a hug (I was a witness to this one vacation Sunday), we should ask them to reach into their wallets and examine their credit card receipts. As it says in Matthew 6:21 "where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." And we need more connections to the lives of people on the margins, here in Canada and around the world (Matthew 25).

Our churches can share the positive message that within their walls is a different community, where the homeless and the CEO kneel to receive the Sacraments together, where the mentally challenged and the workaholic hand out bulletins together, where the convicted criminal who has done her time and the president of the United Church Women can count the collection together. It is a church where success is not measured by attendance or how happy we feel when we leave. Instead it is a place where we learn to love our neighbour as God loved us, as we love ourselves.

We must be more welcoming. And we must have something to say.

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