by Donald Hanna
I remember years ago, I was teaching a confirmation class at a church where I worked. Some of the kids in the class began talking about “the church.” They went on and on about how the church was close-minded, how it was judgmental, how it was hypocritical, and how it was homophobic.
After they got it all out, I asked where they saw that in their church. They became pretty defensive: No, not our church. Our church is loving. Our church is welcoming and hospitable. Our church is open to new ideas. Our church is out in the world. Our church… is not the church!
It is funny to me now to watch my own eleven-year-old son. He seems to be going through some of that same kind of wrestling these days. As his pre-teen sense of cynicism and satire come on line he makes frequent little snarky pokes at the church. Yet at the same time, when given the option to stay home from the Maundy Thursday service yesterday (it was actually easier for us not to have to arrange extra transportation), he practically begged to get to go. He wanted to help set up for the service. He is working on learning violin and asks about when he can play for church. He loves joining us when we go and serve the meal at our local homeless shelter. He is a little church buddy if ever there was one!
And as I think about all of this I realize that perhaps some of the attitude of these young people really isn’t just a reflection of the feelings that a lot of us hold. We see ourselves as disciples. We see that following Jesus is the way. We are committed to our churches, trying to live out our lives in our communities as the Body of Christ. We recognize that we don’t always live up to the task, but we try.
And then we look out at what seems to be the church. It’s as if every time the church is in the news, it is for something that hurts. It makes us cringe. We want to distance ourselves from it – turn on our heels and run in the opposite direction! It seems to be all those things my confirmands brought up – close-minded, judgmental, hypocritical, homophobic…
And as I observe my own reaction, my own language around the church, I wonder if I’m doing my own children, and the other young people, let alone the church any favors. Half the time I preach I find myself saying something along the lines of, “but we’re not like that…” I find myself taking a pretty defensive posture.
Maybe I’ve let those voices, who aren’t (in my mind) living out the love, compassion, and concern for the world that Jesus was all about, take the mantel of the church too easily. Maybe my response to my son, and myself, really, should be something more like, “that church is not the Church.” I recently saw a quote that went something like, “If it doesn’t look like Jesus, then it isn’t the church.” And honestly that feels like the only real measure for what should count as the church.
I guess the thing to do is to go ahead and let my kids make their snarky comments, but with the caveat to just remember that those comments aren’t being directed at the church, but at people who are failing to be the church. (And perhaps also a little reminder that it is easy to count ourselves as part of that crowd.) But also to let that natural snark that wants to call out people who say one thing and then act another way to act as a voice in their head that drives them to be loving, forgiving, accepting, gracious, peaceful, a reminder to follow Jesus; I guess, in short, a reminder to be the Church.
Donald Hanna serves as pastor of Alamosa Presbyterian Church in Alamosa, Colorado.