A few ways in which the church cultivates irrelevance

Here’s something that worries me:

Every weekend kids all over the country get out on fields and courts and chase up and down and do something that makes them feel incandescently alive, and the response of much of the church is to worry not about whether these kids are having a formative experience, but whether holding youth sports on Sundays is cutting into our market share.

We just had an election which aroused both passions and fears in the hearts of people of all political persuasions, and the response of much of the church was to keep its distance from this process, or, worse, to turn up its nose and offer a service on election night that was represented in some quarters as a way of washing away the sin of giving a damn about politics.

Now we are on the cusp of the Christmas season, and folks are hustling around buying and baking and generally trying to make a nice holiday for their loved ones and the response of much of the church is to tell these people that they are ruining Advent.

We spend a lot of time telling people that their passions, hopes and fears are inappropriate, and the most exhilarating experiences of their lives consume time that could be better spent. Then we wonder why they don’t come to us to celebrate and mourn, why they don’t think of their church as a place to seek community or solace.

There isn’t anything prophetic or countercultural—and there’s certainly nothing Christian—about looking discreetly down one’s nose at the people we are asked to love and serve. If you aren’t willing to meet folks where they are, you have no chance of getting them to where you want them to go.

(Hat tip to recent articles by and conversations with Keith Anderson, Rebecca Wilson, David L. Hansen and Laura Everett.)

Comments (37)

Or, to take it a step further, we cut ourselves off from seeing how the Spirit is moving where others already are if we do not join them there, and we blind ourselves to seeing the possibility if we try to join them only to get them to go where we want them to go.

Sorry... this just strikes me as snarky and irrelevant... mimicking the very behavior it seeks to criticize. Would there be some substance to offer perhaps in answer to the worry?

Ronald Steed

Ronald, I think the next step after realizing that we do this is to figure out what people are seeking in enterprises like youth sports, political activism and shopping, and try to offer either support or alternatives. There are excellent motives behind much of this behavior, feelings and drives which the church should be able to approve and even celebrate. I'd like to see our faith communities reasoning their way toward a deeper understanding of what people are seeking in behaviors that some in the church find troubling.

No denomination has a corner on judgmentalism, and TEC has its own brand as you well describe. Most of your examples are examples are of open judgmentalism, though there is the line "looking discreetly down one’s nose at the people we are asked to love and serve."

We do it to those in the congregation, too. Although we may do it as a survival mechanism ultimately it, too, is corrosive.

About youth sports and starting Christmas in Advent, I do believe there is a legitimate issue. What comes after that exhilarating experience that makes one feel incandescently alive? (Or is that the relationship God wants with us?) What if that experience consumes you?

It's the old finding balance in your life and setting priorities -- including room for God. That's what we should be offering, no? To some extent we can't control how people react to that message.

While I agree in general with your sentiment that we need to meet people where they are, as Jesus did, I also believe that we have a role to challenge issues in contemporary culture that depart from the gospel, as Jesus also did.

For example, it may indeed be the case that youth sports are exhilarating, but is their new time slot on Sunday mornings because of that fact, or because we live in a culture of business and over-programming of children that allows no time for Sabbath rest?

Certainly it is true that the desire to give a gift at Christmas is laudable and positive in our society, but we also know that there is a significant rise in mental health issues right after Christmas Day. People try to cram so many expectations into that one day that it cannot possibly meet them and the inadequacy of the holiday leads to depression. The idea of watching and waiting during Advent, and then exploring the full twelve days of the Christmas season might perhaps be an antidote to some of this.

I do agree that we cannot simply dismiss the cultural norms that people have come to in the 21st century since that will only alienate them further from the Church, but I do believe that we are called to challenge them in some cases.

John, I would hope that as part of the exhilarating experience that makes one feel incandescently alive, one would be given a little instruction about the proper role of that experience in one's life. That is a context in which one might be open to such a message.

I am less concerned about people making harsh judgments of one another--although that obviously isn't good--than I am with the church assuming a default position that keeps in from entering into the lives of the average person in any meaningful way.

So, just to try to pile a little substance onto this thread, I think the work of the Protest Chaplins during Occupy Wall Street in Boston and NYC (and other places) was an excellent example of the church going where the people are and offing something they really needed. Rummage around that website a while and I think you'll see what I mean. Look especially at the section title "What We've Learned So Far".

How might this be done in a different setting, say a soccer field on Sunday or a shopping mall... what would we do? what would we say? Anyone done this?

Ronald Steed (added by ~ed.)

Jamie, I think you make excellent points. But I believe our ability to be taken seriously when we discuss the issue you raise is considerably enhanced if we have some appreciation of what the people with and to whom we minister are experiencing. And I am uncertain as to how widespread that it.

Ronald, I don't know that the tactics of Occupy--which I think were, in most instances, pretty intelligent in the situations in which they used them--would be effective on a soccer field, but I get what you are saying. I think in each of the instances I have mentioned you have to ask, what would people be open to hearing in this moment and how can I best communicate it to them. The soccer field probably isn't the place to a critique of the economic system, but it is a place for some of the issues that Jamie raised, or for promoting a kind of youth sports experience that is better for children than the experience that many of them may be having today.

Agreed, Jim. Again I would say we can look to Jesus in the gospels. He certainly challenged people's default positions but he always started out by meeting them where they were and loving them first.

Jamie, I think where it gets interesting is when the challenge to default positions necessitates some sort of political response. Because that is where churches tend to balk.

Jim, I agree with you, too.

Scolding people for ruining Advent (love that!) isn't going to encourage families to become part of our communities. People know when they are being dissed, either overtly or discreetly.

That doesn't mean that we cannot engage them (as part of our community, not shouting insults at them from the sidelines) in the larger questions about making room for God and neighbor and the joys of holy anticipation in Advent. The two are not mutually exclusive. This is not an either/or situation.

I've often heard older parishioners tell me (as the pastor to the families in our parish) that our families are doing all the wrong things. And then they wonder why we don't have more of them.

Penny Nash

re: soccer fields. Our church offers soccer skill building and games every Monday evening. All ages, all abilities encouraged. The coaches are from the congregation - and play in leagues around the county.

re: soccer fields. Our church offers soccer skill building and games every Monday evening. All ages, all abilities encouraged. The coaches are from the congregation - and play in leagues around the county.

YES! This kind of thing needs saying. You can't be complaining about declining ASA if you aren't adapting to real lives.

There is nothing new about Sunday sports. When our son was in competitive club soccer, he played all over Southern California every weekend. He adored playing, and was extremely good at it. To restrict him to a "schedule friendly" rec league just because of church services would have left him frustrated as an athlete, and resentful.

At the time, my wife was Roman Catholic--and a family friendly 5.30 pm service on Sunday evenings meant that she (and he) could still go to church. Both-And, not Either-Or.

Of course she's no longer Roman Catholic, and the boy is all grown up. But I'm sure other parents still find the same conflict, and perhaps TEC could take a lesson from this. Even if only offered monthly, a schedule-friendly alternative service may offer a way to keep people connected to the community--far more effective than being snarky about the scheduling of youth sports. (And in an era of youth obesity , participation in sports should be supported, not criticized.)

--Susan Forsburg

Sorry, Jim. I also find this snarky, and I think we should all just lay down our pointing fingers before we put someone's eye out.

Some parents and children do find great joy and passion in Sunday morning church ... yes, seriously, if church is done right, they do. But they are afraid their kids will be left out -- of soccer, birthday parties, etc. And they don't know how to navigate the conflict.

Our election night eucharist service was a holy space ... among the worshippers was a candidate for a local office who is NOT a churchgoer, but who came to pray prior to going to the post-election, learn-his-fate party. How amazing is it that a candidate should want a place for quiet prayer on election night???

And many people are not having happy holidays, they are going through the motions ... following divorce, death, depression ... Advent offers them the space to be out of that cultural pressure to be holly and jolly and ho ho ho.

Let's lay down our fingers. It's not black and white. I will admit you have some points, but I do protest at the huge broad brush you have used to paint this picture.

Kit, I can cite right back at you people who felt entirely abandoned by the church during this election season, and provide you with the links to the essays and facebook posts and tweets that made them feel that way. There are vulnerable people who felt strongly that one side in the struggle was out to get them, and felt compelled to do something about that. They didn't deserve to be made to feel as though they had done something wrong by getting out and knocking on doors and saying please vote for So and So because it means a lot to me.

If you are reading in this post an endorsement of the excessive of youth sports, I'd like you to show me the words that gave you that impression. I coached and ran coaching workshops for ten years, and covered college sports up close enough to see what an ugly industry it is. The fact remains that lots of families deliberately choose to do sports rather than church because they get something out of sports that they don't get out of church. We need to know what that is and what we can do to make sense of it.

Finally, you seem to have missed the space we've devoted to the issue of Blue Christmas on the blog and in our social media. We're pretty acutely aware that people have a tough time at the holidays.

I haven't pointed a finger at any perso but rather at practices. If we don't identify what we are doing wrong we can't fix it. One of the best ways to make sure these problems aren't fixed is to try to shame people for naming them. That's what you've don here. If there is a finger pointing at any individual in this thread, it's yours.

One of the major things that I read here that hasn't been named explicitly is priorities. My faith is one of my priorities and, based on the way that I understand that faith, attendance at Mass is necessarily one of my priorities.

And yes, that's challenging especially since we're in the run up to the Nutcracker and the girls and I have to be at rehearsal on Sunday morning...

I'd suggest that youth sports offer a tangible payout in terms of community building but also (in particular) resume building; going to Mass won't help you get into a good college--success on the sports field might. Do we try and compete with that do we offer alternatives that don't clash as directly with these more highly-held priorities or do we try and mount an argument as to why the church's priorities have a place over others? And, at some point, it really is a zero-sum game because there's only so much time to do things.

I'm not offering answers, just trying to cast light on an aspect of the problem...

Derek, I think the resume building point is an excellent one, and one that I don't know how we can overcome. I think Ann's contribution above can be helpful, but in the long run, being "excellent" at sports or the arts of something that has a tangible payout is going to trump being committed to the church. That definitely makes life tough for us.

Jim, my point was that it is not black and white.I felt your original post was shaming. So we both feel shamed. Yes, you have points. Yes, I have points. Let's lay down our fingers and live in the complicated world. It doesn't sort itself out so easily.

Kit,there are creative responses possible to the issues that I've raised here. But not if the self-appointed referees keep throwing the "tone" flag and asserting their authority to stop the conversation in its tracks.

Correct me if I'm wrong, Jim, but I assume that most of those hurt during the campaign that you're referring to supported a different presidential candidate than the one that most of my parishioners here in Alabama supported. I judged that the best way I could pastor them was to acknowledge their shock when the "wrong" candidate won, and gently help them rise above their shock and despair. You can read that effort at http://cecalbertville.org/?p=898. Many of them would have felt betrayed if I had endorsed the "other" candidate. It's not easy for us pastors to communicate as much truth to those we serve in a way that they will actually hear you and not shut their ears. I didn't have the time or energy to put together an Election Day Communion. But I wish I'd been able to, because too many where I live did commit the sin of giving way too much of a damn about politics. In my local context, the Election Day Communion movement was far from a cultivation of irrelevance.

As for Advent, I've heard a lot more in the past week about the criticism of Advent killjoys than actually killjoying. I would truly appreciate some examples of what you're talking about. Personally, I'm not guilt-tripping anybody for putting up a Christmas tree, or shopping. Heck, our parish is doing some shopping right now as part of our local Christmas Coalition for less fortunate children. In this area where Advent is a foreign word to most Christians, all I'm asking my parishioners to do is to see Sunday church as a place of quiet reflection amid the celebrations; and to consider what is broken, in our world and in our lives, as a way of preparing for fresh birth of Christ Jesus in our world and our hearts. Hopefully, my parishioners will appreciate our Advent worship and service as a preparation for the joy of Christ-mass, not just on December 25th, but for the twelve days afterward.

Yesterday, someone criticized us for announcing our "Advent Festival of Lessons and Carols" on the grounds that Advent is a penitential season and "festival" is liturgically incorrect.

Later in the day, we learned that one family won't be able to participate in our Family Christmas Eve service because their kids will be performing in the Nutcracker on Christmas Eve.

I'm wondering whether the whole Advent/Christmas debate is little more than the "War on Christmas" waged by progressive Christians and the liturgy police. To invite people to the observance of a "Holy Advent" ought to involve ways of connecting seasonal themes with personal journeys and with the celebration of Christmas (however secular that has become).

It's commonly said that the church should be counter-cultural, but as Anglicans we ought to be able to engage the culture and to engage those who seek to find meaningful life within the culture. Surely there are ways to do that without "looking down one's nose" on them. But perhaps we ought also to be calling ourselves and others to repentance and reflection on how we celebrate the season.

David, I think it may be easier for people to understand why someone who supported Obama would feel vulnerable than someone who supported Romney, but I think many people feared that the President would be re-elected and felt vulnerable as a result. I am talking less about the church having a side in the election than acknowledging that church members have sides, and for good moral reasons that they don't need to rise above. I am not denigrating election communion services, rather have taken issue with some of the ads produced for those services and some of the commentary from clergy and bishops that I've read in social and diocesan media.

Regarding Advent, we've had some lengthy conversations over the years on the blog about the often class-based criticisms of pre-Christmas shopping. More recently, I've had these conversations on social media with Revs. David Hansen and Laura Everett.

Jonathan, I think your illustration of the competing demands of the season gets right to the point. To the extent that we try to live in both worlds--and I don't know that we have much choice about that--we are going to run into these kind of situations. And the question is not only how do we make choices, but, as Christians, how do we make our choices sound sensible to those who might be interested in our faith.

Your comment also brings to mind a question that I am not sure I have quite formulated yet.

At a time when every point of view is also a market niche, what does it mean to be countercultural? The Catholic Church, which I think of as profoundly autocratic and repressive bills itself as counter-cultural, and I suppose to the extent that the culture is democratic and permissive, it is. But I don't think that's what we mean when we use the phrase. The culture is so broad and varied a thing that I don't know how to be "counter" it, although I think it is certainly possible to be in opposition to certain cultural expressions.

I'd be happy for help thinking this through.

Most of the discussion about youth sports in this thread seems to suggest that those activities offer experiences that compete with church but are inferior to it. I don't think that's our real problem.

I'm not worried about the resume-building potential of my son's fondness for baseball. And I live in a small Midwestern city where the schools don't let the league use the fields until 1 pm on Sundays. So we only have a Sunday morning conflict a couple of times each summer during tournament season.

But in the decade that I've been taking my son both to church and baseball, I've never been criticized for being a single mother or asked prying or prurient questions about our home life or finances at baseball. I've never shown up at the first game of a new team and sat silently while people ignored me and talked with their friends. I've never seen someone who is poor or a person of color or has behavioral difficulty pushed out of baseball. Unfortunately, I can't say the same for church.

The supportive, mutually respectful community that my son and I have through his baseball teams often rivals and sometimes exceeds the community we have at church. I don't think the church necessarily loses families to youth sports because they are more glamorous or beneficial in worldly ways. I fear that we lose families to youth sports because they provide the kind of sustaining community that the church advertises but too often fails to deliver.

Back twenty years ago when I was acolyte master at my parish, the sports on Sunday morning thing was starting to ramp up. The attitude was that the rest of the weekend was sacrosanct, with Sunday morning being the only free time left. And "left" is the important word here: our parish did try to have Saturday services but that time wasn't "free" either.

My kids never had significant interest in organized sports, so our household never had to fight this battle; all my sporting days were in the context of a church school which had only the most limited conflicts between church and game. But my impression is that the commitment to the team these days is pretty much held, by the teams themselves, as trumping everything else. Back in the days when a parish might itself field a team (I know a UCC church in Balto., for instance, that was built with a gym back in the 1930s) I cannot imagine that such a set of priorities would have met with societal approval. But we no longer have a society to push back with in the name of the churches.

About the election, I'm not sure what the other choice was other than to become the liberal or conservative scolds that are abundant on-line. But again, there's that broken society: nobody can push back against the political passions and rein them in.

C Wingate, it seems to me that there has to be a way to acknowledge that politics matter to people without becoming partisan. It's less an issue of choosing a side than acknowledging that people choose sides for the best of motives, that we honor these motives and that we value our democracy. I think we also want to acknowledge that people fear the outcomes of elections, and find ways to take these fears seriously, and see if anything can be done to calm them. I agree that it would be easy just to lapse into scolding, and that that would not be a good thing.

I understand that Advent has been a penitential time historically. But the reason it is penitential is to prepare for Christmas. Should not the focus be on the preparation part. In other words, if more people can understand the joy of the incarnation, then should we not ride that and transform the joy surrounding this into a focus on Christ rather then worrying about one aspect of the history of the Advent season.

Rob, that makes a lot of sense to me. If we think of Advent at least in part as preparation, it gives us a way of talking about things like shopping as part of Advent, which then gives us a non-scolding way to talk about make sure that that particular part of our preparation doesn't overwhelm others.

I've followed this thread with great interest, especially with respect to your Christmas-in-Advent comments and responses. I live in the openly religious South, where almost nobody knows Advent. That is a shame, and I don't apologize for thinking so. I'm content for my neighbors to pay Georgia Power for their lighting extravaganzas, and I consent to my Jewish medical partner's cranking out the secular Christmas music starting the day after Thanksgiving. I get it.Don't rain on the parade.
But, really, if we're forming Christians, is it wrong to gently add Advent meditation days and to suggest a season of preparation for the Feast of the Incarnation? What would you say if the Easter season started on Ash Wednesday?

Sorry, the above post was written by John Donnelly

John, I love Advent. I have no problem with talking about it, observing it, treasuring it. It is my favorite season of the liturgical year. I have a problem with people of comfortable economic circumstances deploring the economic behavior of people in much less comfortable circumstances. And I don't find it helpful to make people feel sheepish about the way they keep Christmas because this tends to be a deeply personal decision. I don't think you and I are in disagreement.

jesus was a political refugee as an infant. so being in solidarity at christmas and other times with the homeless or illegal aliens is being in solidarity with jesus and the holy innocents. a fine advent discipline

I went to the mall on the Saturday after Thanksgiving (horrors!) and found myself getting sniffy about Christmas carols being played when it wasn't even Advent yet. As I drove home, I was mentally composing a Facebook status: It is all right to play Frosty the Snowman, Winter Wonderland, etc. the Saturday after Thanksgiving, but you may not play O Come All Ye Faithful, Hark the Herald Angels Sing, or Silent Night until Christmas Eve. What a good Episcopalian I am! I know what's not appropriate in Advent!

But then I realized, those Christmas carols may be the only good news of Jesus some people ever hear. And whether or not they are paying attention as they ring up their charges at Target, they are hearing the good news: the angels are singing, a king is born. And something may remind them that Christ is present in the midst of their holiday stress. Who am I to get all sniffy and liturgically correct about the gospel being preached in Target during, gasp, Advent?

It made me think, we are fine with the good news when it is carefully scheduled and under our control, all decently and in order. But when the good news gets loose and threatens to impact real people in their real lives, we want to rein it in and put it in its proper place.

What if instead we were to find ways to proclaim the good news of Christ's presence to soccer leagues, shopping malls, election night parties, and all manner of things? That's the challenge that is before us now in the 21st century. I want to stop being sniffy about the gospel I want to control, and start bringing it out to the people. So many people are harried and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. They need to hear the good news of Jesus, whether it happens on Sunday morning according to the rubrics, or not.

"It's the old finding balance in your life and setting priorities -- including room for God."

In my experience, church people have the biggest problem with balance - for many, everything revolves around church to an unhealthy level.

Dear Susan,

What you said! If I knew where you lived, I'd bake you a pie.

- Mary

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