by Pastor Doug Kings

Last month I pulled a largish postcard mass mailer out of our mailbox. It was from a local church inviting “me” to worship there. It had a cute picture of a preschool boy looking through a pair of binoculars the size of his head below the message, “Looking for a place to worship?” A large QR code added a hint of technological sophistication.

That question provided an immediate clue who this invitation was for. Most religiously unaffiliated people are decidedly NOT looking for a place to worship. Often missed in the conversation about dropping religious involvement is that this behavior is essentially a rejection of worship, the church’s primary activity. Which is why it’s unremarkable that many people who are not church members nonetheless say they still believe in God.

This church mailer then was aimed at people who already have some church connection, now or in their past. That could be people who had recently moved here, those alienated from their present church for some reason, or those who had been church members, and are looking to come back.

This also explains the content of the mailer, which is boilerplate evangelical religious talk. The church is described as “Bible Believing & God Honoring” with “Traditional Worship with Hymns & Chorus Singing, Friendly People that Love God.” On the reverse side was a box with text in small print, detailing “ETERNAL GOOD NEWS FOR YOU.”

It began with questions: “Do You know for certain that Heaven is Your Future Home? Do You know if Your sins and faults are forgiven before God? Would You like to know these things from God’s Word?” There followed an assortment of short Bible verses, with commentary, that presumably answered these questions. This section concluded with, “To learn more, attend a Bible believing Church.”

That last statement implies there are non-Bible-believing churches, and I suspect that, in the estimation of the writer of this mailer, ours would fall into that category. Which just highlights how the label “Christian” has become almost meaningless when churches and individuals can be so far apart in their beliefs and practice. I know people who have stopped identifying themselves that way, especially to strangers, believing it only creates confusion. Most won’t both to ask, “What KIND of Christian are you?”

Nonetheless, this mailer illustrates a problem that churches have, even those considered progressive: Christians mostly talk to themselves. That is, we use language and imagery out of our own tradition which, if you’re not familiar with that tradition, make little or no sense: heaven, hell, sin, grace, judgment, resurrection, salvation, etc. Even more moderate mainline churches, which now view most Christian symbols and concepts metaphorically, still use them in their worship, scripture, liturgical calendars, etc. What, really, are we trying to say?

In one of his more popular quotes, the late Episcopal bishop and theologian, John Shelby Spong, said:

My mission as a Christian is not “to convert the heathen” as we once asserted. It is rather to assist in the task of helping all people to live fully, love wastefully, and to be all that they are capable of being.

Is that it? To be honest, and this was Spong’s point, that simple “mission statement” does sound a lot like the historical Jesus. The summary of Jesus’ message at the beginning of Mark, the earliest of the gospels, is as basic as it can be. Paraphrasing, he says, “God is within and all around us! Change your thinking and your hearts, and believe this good news!” And in John, Jesus says, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”

Jesus’ ministry does indeed seem to be about helping people simply be the best human beings they can be. Our fundamental problem is not that something incurable called “sin” is in our DNA, but that we don’t realize that from birth God is in our DNA. The fundamental problem isn’t misbehavior but mistaken identity.

I believe Spong had it right: that IS it. The challenge for the church is to figure out how to say it clearly, and then shape its life as if it really believes it.

Blessings in your life and ministry.