My latest column at Christian Week:
When I started pastoring almost twenty years ago, I put a lot of energy into making church better. My first church was small and homespun. I tried dressing it up, but it never worked. It reminded me of a family trying to behave for guests. You can tell something’s not right, and Uncle Ernie always manages to embarrass the family anyway.
I remember flying back from a megachurch after a conference. I was overwhelmed, and I returned to my little church with dreams and frustrations. It was hard to make connections between a church with a staff of hundreds and what happens in a little church with a few dozen people.
We eventually learned to be ourselves, but I then moved to a new church with more polish. This time I thought we had a chance to do church better. It didn’t work. Within a few years I realized that we were more like my first church than we were the megachurch at the conference. We were slightly more polished, which only meant we could pretend not to be homespun a little longer.
Around this time, I noticed others giving up on trying to do church better. Better music, parking, and programs are bad, but it was becoming clear that they’re not panaceas. Some in the church began to work through Reggie McNeal’s book The Present Future: Six Tough Questions for the Church. “You can build the perfect church, McNeal wrote, “and they still won’t come.”
To my surprise, people from my church agreed with McNeal. Doing church better is not the answer. We weren’t alone in this discovery. McNeal says that people used to ask him why he wrote the book. Then they started saying, “This is how I feel; I just didn’t know how to say it.” Now they ask, “How can we do this?”
That became our question: how can we do this? If we give up on merely doing church better, what do we do now? We didn’t want to become ingrown. We were looking for answers.
It took some time, but almost accidentally, perhaps out of desperation, we stopped focusing on our church so much. C.S. Lewis said that humility is not thinking less of ourselves; it’s thinking about ourselves less. If that’s true, maybe we’re beginning (I stress beginning) to learn humility. We’ve begun to get some perspective on our role, even though we still need frequent reminders.
Anglican bishop N.T. Wright talks about showing up early for an appointment with the head of an organization. He had met her once before, but he wasn’t sure he would remember what she looked like. A porter met him at the front door, and handed him to an assistant. The assistant took him up two grand flights of stairs and through an imposing door. There he met a well-dressed woman who walked up to him with a smile and outstretched hand. She wasn’t exactly what he remembered, but she looked familiar. He shook her hand and said, “How very good to see you again.” She looked surprised, walked across the room to an inner door, lightly tapped on it, and opened the door. There, in the middle of the room, was the woman he had some to see. Wright had mistaken a personal assistant for the head of an organization.
This is the problem with some of our approaches to church. We think we’re the main attraction. In reality, we’re like office staff. We’re porters and assistants, nothing more. We take people by the hand and introduce them to Jesus. We don’t keep people in the outer office to talk about ourselves. If we did that, we would be disloyal, and we’d be missing the point.
Reflecting on what happened, Wright says, “Our job is to make Jesus known, and then to keep out of the way, to make sure we don’t get in the light.” Maybe that’s what Paul meant when he said he didn’t preach himself, but Jesus as Lord. Our message isn’t what’s good about our church; our message is what is supreme about Jesus. And then our job is to get out of the way.