Since I retired from parish ministry, I have had some time to reflect on church life. I have been asking myself: What makes a church worthwhile to people and what makes it worthwhile to God?
Why do people attend or why do they choose not to attend? There is no simple one-size-fits-all answer. There are many reasons and many ways of expressing it.
But as I thought about it, I remember some words of wisdom from my childhood. In polite society, one does not talk about politics, religion or money. All of these subjects are open to unpleasant conflict and disagreement.
And I also learned that church above all, is polite society.
Therefore there has been a trend over the last hundred years or so to not address openly and plainly issues that may divide people and cause unpleasant conflict.
We have learned from experience that if we cross that border, we risk losing people and we can’t have that. After all, in American society we measure results by numbers and the more you have the better—people, money, power, prestige.
How does that square up with Jesus and His teaching? People were always walking away from Jesus. They walked away from Him whenever he talked about politics, pointing out the hypocrisy of the temple leaders speaking of God but ignoring God’s most sacred commandments to advocate for justice for the helpless and marginalized in society.
He argued against the idea of Roman exceptionalism that held that might makes right.
When He told people to give up their grasping and clinging to material wealth (money) and use it instead to help the downcast and outcast, they walked away.
When He talked about a political system that used violence as a means of persuasion, comparing it to God’s very different vision of His Kingdom on earth, they walked away.
It almost seems that whenever Jesus taught God’s vision of a just, equitable world, people walked away. Jesus was not very polite. He talked about controversial subjects that threatened to change the way people thought and that the powers of this world could not tolerate. In fact one could easily argue that Jesus only talked about three subjects—politics, religion, and money.
We have to keep in mind that the Romans, along with the acquiescence of the religious leaders of the then established institution, did not execute Jesus because He was a good, loyal, and obedient servant of the empire. They executed Him precisely because He was not!
That brings us to a challenge of the institutional church today, what some call organized religion, (which from experience I know is not the case).
What all too often happens to a preacher when he or she steps into the pulpit and speaks to the moral issues involved in politics, religion or wealth possession?
What happens to a preacher who points out that the public expenditure of money has moral ramifications that affect the marginalized in our culture, the poor, the sick, the elderly, the young, the minorities in or midst, the ones Jesus loved?
What happens to them especially when they point out that what we do with tax policy and public administration is not what Jesus taught?
What happens when they challenge American nationalism as unpatriotic and against God’s teaching? What happens when they point out that punitive justice including capital punishment is against Jesus’ teaching of restorative justice which required the healing of those who have erred.
We make a big deal out of worshiping Jesus, but how often do we obey Him? How often do we use our “religion” to divide out God’s other children as less than us?
It’s really much easier to create large numbers of people coming together to attend our churches if we can give them an opponent that already suits their preconceived notions of who is good and who is not, who should we be against and who we should be for.
When the church teaches that we should be against people who have differing sexual orientations, we attract homophobes and condone their hatred.
When we preach that wealth is God’s reward, we not only attract those who are lusting after wealth but we declare Christ and His disciples complete failures because of their poverty.
When we declare that our country has a special and superior blessing from God and our errors in the way we treat others of God’s creation are forgiven and even excused, we declare God’s love for His creation is not equal and that He only loves all some of the time and only a few all of the time.
I suspect that church could become more relevant to God’s Kingdom by denying the world’s Empire its ways. Of course that means people will walk away. They walked away from Jesus then and they still do.
Yet God’s law must win out or in a nuclear age we will all perish.