“I would love to see a major shift in the Wesleyan/Methodist family from information-driven small groups to a transformational approach to small groups. I have spoken with many pastors and lay leaders who have a similar desire to see a cultural shift occur, where the expectations in a congregation move from an acceptance of nominal Christianity that is not doing a whole lot of work in most people’s lives to expecting God’s grace to be manifest in amazing and life-altering ways.” - Kevin M. Watson, in his book The Class Meeting: Reclaiming a Forgotten (and Essential) Small Group Experience
I am struggling to come up with a purpose for church these days. Don’t get me wrong, I have a well-formed and theologically defensible doctrine of church. I know we are supposed to be the Body of Christ in the world. I get that. But my struggle is rousing this breathing body (sustained by the breath of the Holy Spirit) and pointing it in a good direction. This is a periodic spiritual crisis for me as a leader.
Right now, I am trying to decide both how we direct our resources and how we integrate into people’s lives. For a few years, my focus has been on arming people with content. I had, and continue to have, good reason for this. We have reached a level of biblical illiteracy probably not experienced since either the advent of the printing press or the introduction of the public school system. Somewhere in the past 30-50 years, the church either took for granted that everyone knows the Bible, or decided not to teach the more difficult parts of the Bible (most of it) in favor of keeping their congregations happy, or both, and now we have generations who don’t know more than simple basics of the Bible. Then, add to that the growing number of people who have never been to church in the first place, and the marginalization of the Bible in our culture (or the mythologization of it in pop culture, which blends it with a myriad of other sources) and we have no assumed basic understanding of the Bible culturally. So there is still an argument for content.
Here is the thing, though. If people want content, they can get it. As I told one of my worship services this Sunday, you have all you need to know (and some stuff you don’t need to know) about the Bible on the phone in your back pocket. Not only that, you can watch better preachers than me on that same technology. I have to admit, I want to control your use of that content. I know there are deadly dangerous ideas about the Bible out there, and I want to steer you away from that. But Pandora’s box is open. There is no controlling what you have access to anymore.
If I am honest, though, the reality is less that my people are getting their hands on illicit biblical content. It is more likely that they are not interested in, or even know to look for, the content that is out there. In other words, I think I am trying to shovel food into stomachs that don’t even know they are hungry. Or worse, maybe I am stuffing biblical bread down the throats of people who have, for all intents and purposes, a gluten allergy. So I am starting to think that the purpose of church is to expose the hunger, and then offer the nourishment. Even then, though, I do not think the hunger is for the Bible. The hunger is for Jesus. Not the Jesus that hangs in a picture on Grandma’s wall and looks vaguely like all the people we are related to. The Jesus that stirs our souls and breaks our hearts and puts us back together again. The Jesus that loves us, walks with us, nourishes us for life’s journey. The only way to expose that hunger, then, is to show them what they are missing.
I think the best entry point to exposing that hunger is to appeal to something that they know they are hungry for already: connection. It is funny that the very technology that makes content readily available to everyone also sells a false narrative of connection. It is true that I know more about the details of obscure friends’ and relatives’ lives than I used to. But I also use that same technology to provide excuses for not staying intimately involved with others as well. My brother called me out on it when I posted happy birthday to his Facebook account instead of calling him. I admit that I have felt lonelier since the advent of social media than I did before I had it. I cannot be alone in that reality. I need people still. I always will. When I isolate myself from them, I forget how to love. When I forget how to love, I forget how to be in relationship with God. My faith withers on the vine.
All these ideas have me of a mind that where I need to spend my energy as a leader in the church is not so much in providing content. Oh, there will still be plenty of that. Sermons will still have content. This blog will have content. The classes I teach will have content, and I will continue to teach often because that is actually where my evident gifts are. Through those efforts I will try to stem the tide of crazy out there. But I will also spend my time connecting people to each other, and showing them how to find Jesus in the midst of that connection. Look, Jesus drives me crazy with how often he shows up in my life. Only today, he made me drop a glass of sweet tea, and then later clean up someone’s spilled lunch even though it made me mildly sick. A few days ago, he showed up in that Coldplay/Chainsmokers song I wrote about. Sometimes I wish he would not be so insistent. But then I also realize that I have this amazing love affair going on in my life that makes my life worth living, and I am really happy he shows up as often as he does (and then I want him to show up more).
I am coming to realize that church, which has been content driven so long (even when that content has lacked depth), is acting like a dusty Encyclopedia Britannica in a Google world. It is not my job as a spiritual leader to bring data to the masses. It is my job to help them truly know and love Jesus. That is where the hunger lies. That is why we are starving now. We need the Bread of Life, the Cup of Salvation. We need Jesus – living, breathing, and insistently showing up to be in real relationship with us.