Thursday, May 10, 2012

Car Shopping and Church Shopping

So we went up to Anchorage to shop for a new car. Our old truck had been recalled and we weren't going to get it back. We had a pretty good idea what we wanted. But we were planning on visiting a few dealerships over the next couple of days. My wife was not looking forward to it. She hates to shop for cars. She knows what it is like and she has done this with me before. I get into the competitive side of car shopping. It is not a complete shopping experience unless you shake your head and walk out at least once. So we get to the first dealership at 8 am. Someone tells us the sales force usually does not come in until 9. As we were ready to head out for another cup of coffee, a man approached us. We had noticed him standing in the corner, baseball cap on his head and a newspaper under his arm. He was probably waiting for the service department. Can I help you, he asked. He was a salesman and as he led us into the showroom he wondered what we were looking for. 4 hours later we drove out with a new car. Most pleasant car buying experience I ever had. The salesman (let's call him Scott) was about our age (older) and had lived in Anchorage a long time and had worked at this dealership for over 10 years. He owned two of the kinds of cars we were looking at. In the course of the next four hours we talked cars, and families, and sports, and religion, and dogs and .... life. For a while it seemed the car buying was secondary! We drove cars and set in them. He steered us away from pricier options. He gave us his card and told us to call him anytime. As I thought about this later I realized he answered our questions but did not force any information on us we were not looking for. And there was no pressure.

When I got home and told a few people about this shopping experience, they said, he didn't have to do much, the car sells itself. Partially true, I thought, but that does not stop a lot of salesmen from, you know, doing what salespeople are known for.

Of course, I thought about what I do. Some people joke that pastors are in sales, too. Unfortunately, as far as that comparison goes, pastors can fit the stereotype of the car salesman. And so can our flock. We can be anxious when those people who are church shopping stop by. Did we make a good impression? Did they find what they were looking for? Do we need to change some things up to appeal to the church shopper? Did we successfully sell our product so they will come back and buy - join our church. Did we get to make our points - to seal the deal with hopefully not too much pressure. But there has to be some, doesn't there. After all we are dealing with eternal issues here.

But, what if we saw a person as a person with a life and we were interested in his or her life. Interested in getting to know them. Whether or not they joined the church was secondary. No pressure. We were not interested in them as potential church members but as persons. What if we were ok with just getting to know them. And letting them get to know us. What if we were confident enough in our "product" to let it sell itself (or Himself). What if we were sure we had found the best vehicle for life and if they hung around with us, they would want that vehicle, too. 

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Bad Religion

Ross Douthat (columnist for the NY Times) has written a thoughtful guide to American Christianity in the last 100 years or so. The book title is Bad Religion. It's like a guide book you might pick up if you were traveling to some unknown region of the country. You would want to know a bit of history, climatic patterns, interesting cultural nuances and the best places to see, the best restaurants at which to eat and places to hike or bike or do whatever you wanted to. Douthat's book is like this kind of guide book. If you are not familiar with what's been going on in American Christianity for the past century, it's a good place to start. You will learn about Niebuhr and Graham and Dr.King and Civil Rights and Viet Nam and the sex abuse scandals that rocked the Catholic Church. The highlights. Douthat's argument is that the Institutional Church was more effective and influential Back Then than it is Now. Today it is rife with heresies such as The Prosperity Gospel (Joel Osteen, and others), Nationalism and Political Partisanship, New Scholarship that Discredits the Gospels ( think of the so-called Gospel of Judas and popularizers like Dan Brown here) and Other Spiritualities (think Elizabeth Gilbert and Oprah here). There is a pervasive mistrust of Organized Religion and a superficiality to what Christianity is still around. Douthat, a Catholic, is pessimistic about what the future holds for Institutional,Orthodox Christianity in America. Today the Christianity he sees is politically compromised and polarized by political and cultural agendas so that it is hopelessly weak and ineffective in regard to it's mission.

It's a good tour guide. It hits the highlights. It gives you the big picture. It leaves you muddled and confused, as well. Even though at the end of his book he has half of one page that reads like an altar call - inviting the reader who may be a half - believer or non - believer to walk into a church and try it out for him or herself - it's a weak one. You may like what you find, he says, but you may not, too. This is actually the problem with the book (and I liked the book). We live in a commitment phobic age and commitment to the Church is way down, he says. His altar call is pretty weak, too. Commitment, you see. But, in the shortest chapter of the book which is the one on solutions (isn't that always the way with books that critique Christianity and are quite good pointing out the problems but are not nearly so good at suggesting solutions) Douthat does put his finger on something. He mentions something called The Benedict Option named after St Benedict of the medieval monastery movement. During the Roman Empire's slow collapse Benedict assumed Christianity must contract before it grew, with faithful believers forming communities that stand apart from the culture and inspire by example (280). What Douthat means is commitment. The most highly visible churches in America today have telegenic preachers who also write books. Their ideas are often about how to improve one's life with their ideas. But they do not ask for commitment. Churches that ask for commitment to Christ and to His Church do make a difference in their communities. But you don't necessarily see that or know that unless you join them and live with them for awhile. It's the difference between a tourist and a settler.

When you only tour the scene of American Christianity today it may be interesting but depressing. It looks fragmented, divisive, heretical and weak. It looks almost hopeless. But when you put down roots with one of those local expressions of the Body of Christ, you get another view altogether. Charles Williams wrote a book called The Descent of the Dove in which he traced the movement of the Holy Spirit in history. There were times when it seemed like the Holy Spirit was largely absent from the scene but Williams showed how the Holy Spirit was at work in other ways. The Holy Spirit is always at work Williams was saying. Today is a day like many other days in American History. If you take a tour it looks like Christianity is in retreat, compromised by secularism and stumbling over its own mistaken strategies to combat that secularism. But if you stop touring and put down your guide book and stay awhile - you might be surprised at what the Holy Spirit is doing right where you are.