Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Dead Christians Society

While we were out and about running errands the other day, Kai and I stopped in at the local Christian book store. Not so much because I enjoy torturing myself psychologically, but because I knew that in the back of the store they keep a DVD of VeggieTales on some kind of möbius loop playback to hypnotize unruly children. Did I mention I had a four year old with me? Who had slept rather poorly the night before and was in a mood that could frighten starving hyenas? Yeah.

After depositing him into one of the built-to-preschooler-scale couches they have in the back, I took a walk around the store - to see what was humorously called a "Best Seller," to see how many versions of WWJD iPhone covers they have, and to see if I could find any recoil-inducing greeting cards to mail some of my friends. Having probably already confused the staff of the store by my wearing a Doctor Who tshirt and cargo shorts instead of the requisite dad attire all the other fathers had on of a polo shirt and pleated khakis, I went to the back to go sit with Kai while his pupils dilated to the talking CGI vegetables. But in the midst of my smirking at the plaques to hang on walls, tracts to hand to the lost, and disproportionate number of faith-based patriotic items for sale, one singular thought hit me once I let my guard down for a minute:

I kinda miss some parts of this culture.


My all-too-brief stints as Youth or College Pastor, to say nothing of the number of times I have stood behind a pulpit to speak, have changed me. And I have loved the ways in which they have changed me NOW as opposed to how they could have changed me at an earlier age.

For as long as I can recall, I've felt a call to ministry. And were you to ask my wife or any of the students I've worked with, they will all attest that I've got the heart, mentality, and manic energy level for it. I don't make this statement out of ego, but instead out of experience. Kai has seen me working at and speaking in church for about half of his life (thus far), and I love that he sees a consistent, constant dad between the two places.

But for as much as I love working in ministry and helping others as we navigate our spiritual paths, I've never really...gelled...with other ministers. Granted, there are beautiful exceptions to this rule, but for the most part, I've not exactly gotten along with those in positions of authority in the churches I have served in. Part of this is due to the mixed message I receive of how while they love that I'm not a branded seminarian who comes with pre-programmed ideas of how things should be run, in the same breath they express they wish I was a branded seminarian, because then I might understand how things are supposed to be done.

While I do miss the youth retreats, the midnight conversations, and the sparks in the eyes of those who recognize that our shared faith is more about grace and less about being right, I don't miss in the least bit the jockeying among certain ministers within a staff to position their program, their outreach as the most important, the most critical, the most in need of paying attention to - and by association, said minister in charge of program being the most important person or the one to pay attention to. I don't miss in the least bit not being able to speak my mind or heart or dare to say "no" to something for fear of offending an ego or rocking the boat. I had enough of that in my years of working in higher education administration. I mistakenly believed I might find a more altruistic nature among the people who worked in a church.

I believe that my disconnect within the upper echelon of many pastors boils down to not just my lack of a processed, Velveeta-like MDiv degree, but also that years of working in education have shaped, molded, and formed how I engage with people. Add into the mix that I'm now a parent (two times over) and I weigh what I'm trying to teach my boys, and it's not really all that shocking that working or worshipping in a paint-by-numbers church and faith runs counter to the culture I try to inspire, form, and teach.

Stand on a Desk, Stand on a Pew

Dead Poets Society is one of those movies that, were I stranded on a desert island, I'd want to have with me (along with a BluRay player, HDTV, and satellite phone; but I digress). Having first watched this film when I was in high school, it left an indelible mark on me and warped in a positive way the heart and ideology I used when I found myself in the field of education. Imparting the skills of critical thinking and not being afraid of questions was not the easiest notion to hammer into the relatively thick skulls of college students - but many of them got it. They understood the need to look beyond just repeating that "correct" answer to me.

One scene in the movie particularly highlights the struggle inherent in not just education, but in many churches as well. I won't set the scene (don't worry - I'm not about to spoil anything), because the words convey their meaning quite well:

Mr. Keating:
That was an exercise to prove a point. The dangers of conformity.

Mr. Nolan:
Well, John, the curriculum here is set. It's proven. It works. If you question it, what's to prevent them from doing the same?

Mr. Keating:
I always thought the idea of education was to learn to think for yourself.

Mr. Nolan:
At these boys' age? Not on your life. Tradition, John. Discipline.

Funny how a movie made almost 25 years ago contains echoes of conversations still being held in classrooms - and churches - today. And while I passionately desire to lead others in the charge of sounding their barbaric YAWP, there are those who still cling to the ghost of the past - because that's what worked and should still work.

Baby Jesus in the Bathwater

I'd be a hypocrite were I to say that 100% of what I have said, written, or spoken on is original content. I try my best to cite credit where credit is due, especially if it's a bit of wisdom spoken by a friend. And much like when I was working in higher education, there's an almost-unstated rule that we liberally borrow from presentations, programs, or talks we hear, adapting it to the needs of the people we serve.

Scattered among the vast sea of books, literature, study guides, tomes on theology, concordances, and the like are some true bits of wisdom. Many are written from sincere, intelligent, and passionate individuals who truly desire for the betterment of our understanding of our faith and are willing to serve as a guide through sharing their experiences. And I would gleefully spend hours researching, emailing, reading, and dissecting these books.

But the study guides which were "recommended" to me, the ones which we were to read a chapter, answer the questions at the end of said chapter, and then break into small groups to further discuss the questions in the chapter of the book we were jointly studying, because that worked at Church X? Again - I read, studied, and researched these books...

...and then might have used about 30% of what was "recommended" to use.

The teaching and methodology used in the majority of modern churches parallels one of the largest condemnations levied against the modern education system today: we teach to the test. We begin in Kids Ministry teaching them a formulaic pat answer to questions; we coddle and pacify teenagers by not daring to take them deeper into spirituality instead choosing to focus on sex and topics of polarizing controversy; and as adults we are told week after week to just come as we are after a 20 minute teaching on the depravity of our country or of the depravity of our own souls, laced with a need to tithe.

Through T-shirts, bumper stickers, and coffee mugs, we are taught and told to parrot the closed response that "Jesus is the Answer," all the while the questions remain open ended. We fear using the words "I don't know" out of a terror of seeming ill-prepared to respond to someone's pain. The soul is important, yes, but how are we able to convince someone that all will be well in eternity when all they can see and respond to is the pain in their soul in the here and now?

I love that months, years after I have moved on and in some cases states away from the students I have worked with that they still email me. Text me. Send their questions to me. Some of them talk about missing the days of our deep conversations or my lunacy on Sundays (Floyd the Cabbage reference), while some vent about their lack of being able to find a decent church or small group, or of the lack of depth in their teachings in church.

They've learned how to move. How to question. How to be.

That's what I miss.

Those moments when we stand in unity on our desks.



Alise Wright said...

Powerful, my friend. I'm so grateful that you are a person to whom these folks can turn to - not for answers, but simply as a person to LISTEN to the questions. That is so important, and so often missing.

Cannot wait to hug your neck in a couple of weeks.

Matt Appling said...

Awesome, Sonny. You already are a great minister, and the best kind, because you don't have all the trappings of "ministry" that make you competitive with others.

Michael Hadley said...

Great post! I think ministry is to some degree simpler than we make it. I know what you mean about christian "culture" too. I find it odd that the church drove culture (for better or for worse) for quite sometime. The early church got the best painters, sculptors, composers and got them to do work for the church. Which is why we have so many masterpieces. But now we've boiled and strained it down to copying trendy logos and saying and "christianizing" them. Maybe our looks are less important than our actions. Great ideas, Thank you for writing!

Sonny Lemmons said...

It's the questions - and the willingness to ask them as well as for them to be heard - that in many ways shape and deifne us.

And let's be honest - are you going to put down Kai & Eli long enough to hug anyone else? :)

Sonny Lemmons said...

It's those other trappings that - sadly - many look at as valid measurements of if one is a minister.

Me? I'm just going to sit down with Jesus and write in the dirt for a while.

Sonny Lemmons said...

Personally, I hope our looks are FAR less important than our actions. Moreso than just because hey, I know looks aren't everything (thanks for telling me that, mirror). ;) And thanks for reading, dude. I appreciate it.

Nick Christian said...

Reminds me of the question "What small, has a fuzzy tail, and eats nuts?" If you're at church, the answer must by Jesus. Tradition can be good, but not for the sake of tradition. You have to know your "why" and be able to articulate it. It sounds like you created a safe environment for teens to ask the hard questions without getting the squirrel answer. Thanks for this post!

Sonny Lemmons said...

I'm totally going to use the squirrel illustration at least three times today. I've seriously never heard that - but it's hilarious. Thanks for reading, mate.

Alise Wright said...

Seriously?!?!? In my family growing up, we used to call those kinds of "Jesus" answers "squirrel-y" answers. Any time it was a pat answer, we'd call squirrel on one another.

Miles O'Neal said...

So well said. Cookie Cutter Christianity is hardly Christianity at all. Thank you. (I know every one of those scenarios.)