David Whyte continues his critique of church from a non-churchgoer’s perspective.
Christendom seems out of step with cultural change. By this I mean the issues that Christianity are grappling with are often ones the world has mostly moved on from.
For example, women in leadership. The world tackled this in the 1980s and 1990s. It is now no-brainer that women are just as competent as leaders and managers as men. Yet churches wrestle with what it means to have women in leadership.
Another example is environmental concerns. The world picked up on “green” issues, again starting in the 1980s and going mainstream in the 1990s. However it was only after year 2000 that churches started to discuss stewardship of God’s creation and the importance of environmental issues.
Currently the Church is still pressing hard on excellence. The theme is being the best, being professional, of showing leadership, of being a success. Passing an eye over the Christian bookshops, there is a huge amount of information about being the/your best, living the victorious life, of success.
Basically these books are variations of the “self help” and “excellence” books that were around in the 1990s (and sometimes earlier). Instead of using business examples they use “Christian” examples and quote scripture.
Excellence is very important. Achieving your best is important and God would love to bless you. You want to strive (in a restful way) for your vision(s). However society has moved on from this “excellence” ethic. The youth (and not so youthful) have had enough of flashy, entertaining, glitzy life. They have experienced excellence and well-polished smoothness and found it lacking. They have found that this can be a thin veneer that covers a rotten inside, a veneer that quickly rubs off when things turn to custard.
Thus they are cynical of our show, our polished performances. They seek empathy and authenticity. They are seeking people who are transparent about their own issues and inadequacies. These peoples have figured out that a polished service delivered by a motivational team of self-help prophets doesn’t solve life’s nasty habit of being painful and difficult.
People have a distrust of the perfect image. As it has been shown repeatedly, today’s hero is likely to be tomorrow’s fall from grace. They know that the polished Christian orator is just as likely to end up divorced as they are.
So what does empathy and authenticity look like? It is a heart attitude, not a set rule. It’s kind of like trying to mail a hair cut! It is further complicated if we, as Christians, have been walking with the Lord for some time. We then know what behaviour is expected and “play the game” well.
For example, I know anger and yelling at kids is not okay, however I do regularly yell at them when I am home. But when we are out with others, especially Christians, I make sure I don’t yell at them. If I am not careful I can communicate, subconsciously or otherwise, that I don’t yell ever at them. This is not being authentic. Authenticity is about being transparent as to where you are. So some pointers:
• Be honest about your issues. For me it was, and still is, difficult for me to drop the pretence of great mental health and tell people that I have depression. (There is a time and place for everything; this is not an excuse to tell everyone you meet your life story and troubles. Also be wary that you don’t put your pearls before swine). Over time you should become more honest with those who are around you as they earn that trust.
• Don’t be quick to quote scripture – actually listen. Christians know the right answers are written in the Bible, so when we meet someone with a problem we are quick to tell them. Take note that Job’s friends were rebuked by God when they took this line. People don’t want to be talked at and told what to do. They want someone to listen, to care, to empathise. If you can’t relate to the pain, don’t provide an answer – it will be a clanging bell.
• Answer with exploring questions, such as, how do you think you will move forward? Or, have you talked to someone who has overcome this issue? Have you found reading the Bible helpful? Questions instead of answers help people grapple with their issues without “preaching” at them.
• Teach from your own life. When someone has an issue, you can say, I had a similar issue and what I found was ... do you think that this would be helpful?
• Tell stories about your own struggles. Unpack how you overcame them. Make these serious issues, issues you struggled with. I have yet to meet someone who hasn’t had seriously traumatic events occur in our lives. We live in a fallen world and we have all experienced that pain. So let’s use this pain to help relate to others in painful situations.
Do your best. Become excellent in your ministry. Have excellent programs and fantastic services. But don’t sugar coat it. Don’t stop being real. Life sucks sometimes. As much as we logically know that God works all things for good, don’t tell this to the mum whose child has just died. Sit in the pain with her. Speak about your pain while you are going through it, talk about your struggles.
The world is crying out for authenticity. If they find this in you, in your church, in your god, they will find the rest that they seek.