The times, they are a-changing
I was in a meeting with some colleagues recently where someone mentioned perhaps the worst word you can utter in church.
The conversation was predictable.
“People are afraid of change, but we need to change.”
“Times have changed, attitudes have changed, but the church doesn’t want to change.”
And my favorite:
“People are all for change until it effects them.”
Guardians of the Status Quo
I don’t know about you, but if you’ve been in or around some kind of church committee meeting anytime in the past, oh, 100 years or so, you’ve probably heard someone talk about the need for change.
Personally, I’ve been in literally hundreds of such meetings.
And you know what?
I’ve never heard anyone say, “No, we don’t need to change. We just need to keep things exactly where they are.”
So if everyone agrees that change needs to happen, why doesn’t it?
Style vs. Substance
To be fair, it’s obvious that some changes have been made, both in micro and macro contexts.
Many churches have added video screens, adopted “contemporary” music and liturgies, created hospitality spaces, improved their signage, etc.
But let’s be honest. Those are just changes in style, not substance.
And the results are obvious.
People are leaving the institutional church at a far greater rate than they are entering it.
Now, I know some of you out there will say we can’t change the substance. Meaning, of course, that “the gospel is the gospel is the gospel.”
But here’s the thing about that.
To quote Indigo Montoya in The Princess Bride, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
It’s not the medium people are turning away from.
It’s the message.
The slaveholder religion of the disembodied soul
Now, I want to be very clear what I mean when I say that.
Because a lot of you will read that and think there’s only one message to deliver, and that it has everything to do with what happens to us after we die, and that we have to tell people what to do so they end up in the right place.
Which, in my theological opinion, misses the point entirely.
Again, to be fair, it’s easy to see why that message has resonated with people for the past several hundred years.
When your entire life is spent under the specter of war, famine, disease, genocide, etc., it’s comforting to know your suffering will be relieved, if not in this world, then in the next.
Which is exactly why that type of gospel has been wielded by oppressors, exploiters, and colonizers for generations.
Make people believe they have a reward after their suffering, and you can convince them to suffer for your benefit.
It’s slaveholder religion, to paraphrase a term often attributed to Frederick Douglas.
Or, as my friend Brad Davis says, it’s the “company gospel” as promulgated in the central Appalachian coalfields.
So let’s dispense with the “pie in the sky when you die” theology.
If the gospel is good news, it’s not just a postmortem condition.
If it’s not good news for this world, it’s not good news at all.
Think about it. Does Jesus encounter people who need healing and just tell them to wait till they die for things to get better?
Of course not. He heals them. Right in the moment.
Liberation is the heart of the gospel message.
But it can’t just be liberation for suffering individuals. For the gospel to really mean something substantive, it has to mean liberation for suffering communities.
A suffering world.
What Would Jesus Do?
You want change in the church?
Don’t just play around with the carpet and the curtains.
Don’t waste time trying to accommodate people’s consumeristic tendencies.
Change the message.
Empower your faith communities to seek justice for all, not just for the privileged.
Encourage repentance away from oppressive systems and structures that leave people and whole communities on the margins of society.
Stand against economic and political policies that fail to care for the most vulnerable.
It’s what Jesus did.
And after all, isn’t the church supposed to be acting for Jesus in the world?
Change the church, and together we’ll change the world.
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