I've done a certain exercise with a few different groups as I've had opportunities to teach. I ask everyone to list several qualities that they believe their "unchurched" or unbelieving friends would say about church. I've done this in two different states and a handful of different groups, and the response is always the same. Negative, overwhelmingly negative. Then, I ask them to list several qualities that they believe the crowds -- not the Twelve -- said (or would likely have said) about Jesus. Overwhelmingly positive and usually includes qualities like confident or powerful as well as humble and loving. Now while I know that there are many churches that must overcome the harm done by others, this exercise demonstrates a significant tension. The very definition of being a Christian is to be a Christ-follower, and yet a disproportionate number of our Christian institutions don't appear to look or feel very much like Jesus.
Last thursday I was sitting in a park on University Avenue in the Bronx. As I sat on a park bench waiting to see if some of the kids that I sometimes meet there were going to show up, I overheard another conversation on the next bench. Two teens began talking about another girl that had just walked away after an exchange of typical insults and counter-measures. "Words hurt," the girl said to her friend. Then, she followed up with another comment, "She needs to go back to church." At that point the conversation shifted gears. It took me just a few moments for me to realize the new theme of their talk. I wish I had caught everything they said (I wish even more that I had taken advantage of the opportunity this could have been before they got up & walked away!!), but they started sharing a discussion about church. The girl asked the young man, "Do you ever go to church?" He answered, "I used to go with my aunt, but not for a long time. I'd usually fall asleep." The girl then stated, "I went once with my grandmother to her church. Never again!" And the conversation ended.
Today, I went and attended a rally that took place across from the United Nations in support of ending the violence in Darfur, Sudan. The crowd was overwhelmingly young people -- probably college aged mostly. One of the many statements that stuck in my head from the speeches given by Sudanese, Rwandans, and social justice & anti-genocide advocates was this. A young American girl in a video said, "We look at what has happened in the past, and we ask, where were the people that could have done something to stop it. But now we are becoming those people." (I was on the edge of weeping during nearly every speech as I thought about the heart-wrenching pain that comes from the evil of human injustice.) One rabbi from an anti-genocide commission stood up and explained that in a week in the liturgy of synagogues across the country the prophet Isaiah would call us to account for the unjust suffering in our world. As Christians, don't we also read this as a word to the church? ....concerning injustice in our world, but also about everything we are called to be?
It seems that if we have any hope of reaching those kids sitting in the park and so many others like them, "church" might have to be re-thought and probably done a little differently. But more than that, we need to invite Kingdom into our lives, families, and churches. To me, all of our decisions concerning church structure, ministry, outreach, etc. needs to beg the question: Is this going to push us to look more like Jesus? Think about it. Is that really how we typically make ministry decisions? Aren't we more often grounded in pragmatics? That is, what works. What if what "works" isn't exactly the same as what is faithful? What if what inspires us or comforts us is the exact thing that keeps us from being courageous? What if we are simply too often on an adventure in missing the point?
I suppose I've tried here to string together a few fairly different experiences, but are they so different at the core? I suppose the more we imitate God, the more we are going to be sick to our stomach to remain silent while rape and murder continues unchecked. I suppose that the more church becomes family rather than a stiff institution, the better our chances (not that all soil is guaranteed to be receptive) to reach kids that visit a church and then say "Never again!" It's all connected, and there is an axis where all of my thoughts connect here: Are we willing to risk enough to look like Jesus?