Monday, June 11, 2012

Graduating: When the Church Acts Like High School

We all remember high school. Some of us remember it fondly, others cruelly or with relief that it is over. The cliques, posturing, gossiping, achieving (or lack of achieving), stereotyping, pigeon-holing, bullying, match-making, one-upping, and brutal social caste system of high school is such a unique atmosphere. Most adults laugh at the memory of what they deemed important in high school as having any real importance in "the real world." People who look back at the best years of their life as the glory years are often scoffed at.

Honestly, if I decided to start wearing around my high school letter jacket now that I'm in my 30's I would just plain thought of as crazy (or perhaps poverty-stricken).

High school, however, was a formative time in all of our lives. Adolescence, that time in life where we begin to realize our own identity and fitting in with the world, is in full force. Our bodies and minds are both developing at a rate that moves us to independence and inter-dependence. We are asking that question of who are we, and who do I fit with? There are the jocks, geeks, cool kids, cheerleaders, FFA clubbers (I went to a small school in farming country), slackers, and of course gangs, more clubs, and even the religious youth groups. What groups do you remember in your school? No wonder high school is such a common setting for movies...it's easy to have the stereotypical characters developed into a coming-of-age tale!

Personally, I enjoyed some aspects of high school while also being fully aware that I was headed out into a much bigger world and so I didn't get too wrapped up in trying to fit in. I realize that my experience is not the norm. Peer-pressure had some effect, I'm sure, but honestly it in no way shape or form lead me to act certain ways. I didn't try to keep up with the latest fads or music. In many ways, I do feel that I defied stereotypes, but perhaps we all do when we think of our own experience. I played (excelled at) sports, but was not a jock. I did well in school as well. I participated in both yearbook and FFA. I attended church and youth group. But this post isn't about me. My friends that I continue to talk to today, like Nathan Helms and Adam Zoll, had their own backgrounds and affinities but enough common that we moved on from high school and put many of these activities in our past, while holding to others for career or hobbies. We each went our own way and grew to appreciate our friendship. We laugh, or commiserate, about high school reminiscences.

But high school was not reality. Truth did not exist in the cliques, gangs, or posturing to pick up girls/guys for homecoming dance, did it? Being cool really wasn't all it was made out to be. Because the world is the great equalizer, allowing each and every person to move out and make a name for themselves.

Which leads to today's thought: At what point did the church become high school?

At what point did affinity mean more in the church than a body of all believers? When did relevancy devolve into being cool? 

This is what I see in churches all across the spectrum. If you go to one of the large nationwide church conferences, you will be able to see the "uniform" of a up-and-coming, hip church. True religion (or other fancy) jeans, hip shirt (tees or button down doesn't matter...right now plaid is in!), and casual shoes or flip flops. Oh, and of course the current stylish glasses. Now, I'm not dissing any one of these clothing items, but its exactly like high school. If you want to fit in, you dress like everyone else (this can even go back to the suits & ties).

When I lived in Colorado Springs, I remember a church plant that actually named itself "The Cool Church."

Within a church, people are broken down and grouped up just like high school - the worship band team, volunteers, youth workers, involved participants, staff, and involved/uninvolved members and attenders. I'm not even picking on one particular church, I've seen it many places. While it is true that like-attracts-like, should we adapt and only pursue such a concept? Should a church exist solely for those that like a certain type, or time, of worship? How about hobby, or church program?

If I'm really honest, I have seen some people who were perhaps never the cool kid in high school that now that they are a pastor, are soaking in cool kid status within their community. Time and energy is only spent with the people who are "in" enough that they promote the programs of that particular church vision. If you have other ideas, you are marginalized. This scares me; should anyone ever feel marginalized in the church?

Perhaps, part of this is the baseness of our human condition. Perhaps we are wired to categorize and group people together, to feel drawn to some people and not others. Maybe we have not yet fully understood how to step outside of our own expectations of others to adapt and live the same way that we live. Perhaps we just don't know how to connect with people that aren't like us.

But is this redeeming, hopeful, or reconciling? Consumer church, affinity-driven church, is not whole if there are those that are the "in-crowd" or "rock stars" or "cool," and those that are "marginalized" or even too recent of sinners. That single mother that just got a divorce at age 40 and is trying to find some purpose and hope that life isn't lost...where does she fit in? That guy that is a hundred pounds overweight and sweats profusely, but wants to volunteer as a greeter (and is in fact very good at greeting) does he fit the mold?

I'm tired of churches that seem to break down into a high school caste system all over again. The letter of James, in the second chapter, warns against partiality. Even in the Old Testament Torah, in Leviticus 19:15, justice is not to be perverted by showing partiality to the "great" or against the poor.

We need to move beyond stereotypes, labels, cliques, posturing, or trying to build power or persona within the church. 

We are all at the foot of the cross.

We are all humans beloved by God.

None of us are better than anyone else. None of our standards matter at all.

The church needs to reflect upon the God who loves and reigns over all people. He sends rain on the just and the unjust. His justice, and grace!, is poured out on all people by his action alone.

God loves us. Each and every one. In this love is redemption.

Just as in the high school comedy that follows a protagonist that sees the injustice and stupidity in the high school and overcomes it with kindness and barrier breaking (pick your movie), so too we must see the church as a place where all people can come to the table.

We are all equally worthy (or unworthy). There should be no marginalized in the church. This is why in Acts we see the church taking care of the widows and orphans, those that were the most marginalized. We saw Jesus interacting with all castes of his day, from the Priests of the Sanhedrin to tax collectors, to fishermen, to prostitutes, sinners, and worse.

Because there are definitely some churches, in glimpses, that understand that they transcend boundaries created by man to divide ourselves.


But we all need the reminder.


We need to check our own affinities for the sake of love. 

For the sake of redemption, and the sacredness of the unique and universal love of God for all his creation, we need to embrace those who are different.

We need to break boundaries, not allowing ourselves, or the church, to be labeled a particular stereotype.

We definitely are not cool.

In fact, the only label that we carry is a name: Jesus.

We are Christians, lovers of God and of others, followers of Jesus, and Citizens of the Kingdom of God. 


And all are welcome here.

4 comments:

  1. I love this Rob. And I could totally relate. I briefly attended a church where the pastor was almost treated like a rock star and trying to get connected and meet people was like being the new kid in a brand new school and realizing your shoes are from Kmart and everyone else is wearing Nikes. Church should not be that difficult, you know?

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    1. Thanks Tracy! I know it is one of those things that can be hard to break through...but I really believe that if there is one place that we can "come as we are" it should be the church. Its one of those things that a lot of places get in some respects, yet we also may not even realize how partial we may become in the name of "busyness" and convenience!

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  2. Good thoughts Rob. Thanks for sharing and for the healthy push-back.

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    1. Thanks Steve...and for the record I love the community and environment you have faithfully pastored and Amanda & I can call our church home! May the Lord continue to bless, develop, guide, and lead each of us closer to God and each other! Keep up the faithful, God honoring work! I know I am honored to be a part of Emmaus Road!

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