I spend several weeks a year in places like Guatemala and Cambodia, places where poverty is urgent and the needs are..how should I say…biblical. This is probably the main reason why I’ve got little patience for the mundane disputes and, often, first world problems that consume congregations. I know that a local church debating the color of the fellowship hall curtains is a cliche but like every cliche it bears the residue of truth. I lived that (endless) debate at my first parish. I didn’t have any patience for it then and I don’t now- though I’ve gotten better at biting my lip.
I simply don’t care for debates about carpet color or the ingredients that make for a successful coffee hour. To some ‘this is how we’ve always done it’ sounds like a compelling point. To me, aware that mainline churches are preparing for the worst of a 50 year old decline, such a perspective only sounds like a recipe for continued, inconsequential mediocrity.
A church mired in such matters is very often a church that’s lost any sense of its mission.
That I’ve got no patience for such things is NOT to say such things surprise me.
I first cut my Christian teeth on Thomas Merton’s memoir, Seven Story Mountain. Besides the prose alone, I loved how Merton revealed the inside happenings and sheer ordinariness of a cloistered monastery. Even dedicated men of the cloth can be boring, petty and vindictive.
People are often surprised that Christian communities can be every bit as dysfunctional as any other group or family. Will Willimon says that it should be this way; after all, demons only make an appearance in scripture when Jesus is present. That sin makes an appearance in churches might be an indication that Jesus hasn’t completely jettisoned us yet.
The NY Times ran a story Sunday about the dysfunction in a lay Christian community in Washington. My only reaction to the article was one of wonderment. What did these people expect by living with other Christians? Haven’t they ever been part of a local church? Hadn’t they ever seen that episode of the X-Files where Scully and Mulder move into the planned community?