“Why aren’t you a pony?”
This was a question asked out of the blue one day by Lynne Truss of her then-boyfriend, in what must have been a moment of either great bewilderment or great clarity. (Truss is the best-selling author of Eats, Shoots & Leaves.)
I couldn’t help but identify with Truss’s confusion as I watched yet another distressingly awful Presbytery meeting this past week in which minister members begged to continue funding positions that may never have been effective and could no longer be afforded, on the ground that Christians are supposed to be “nice.” Is it just me, or must God, too (assuming that there is a God and that God has thoughts) occasionally look at the church and ask the bewildered divine equivalent of, “Why aren’t you a pony?”
Everywhere I look, I see well-intentioned people protecting their own particular version of “church,” regardless of whether their past experience continues to serve, or perhaps ever served, the purposes of God.
- Every congregation seems to have members who so desperately need the routines of a lifetime that they refuse to allow change, even when that change has been prayerfully discerned by their own friends and neighbors and is a necessary prelude to welcoming a generation of new but different believers.
- In exactly the same way, I hear young, recent seminary graduates insist that the three-year, on-campus seminary model they experienced must be maintained because of the camaraderie it afforded them, regardless of whether their beloved model will still be financially affordable or pedagogically effective for the next generation.
- Ministers of small congregations often insist that their positions are “full time,” even when the congregation’s size no longer justifies the claim and the members can no longer afford the cost, because the ministers still find ways to fill their time and are afraid to leave or change.
- In larger congregations with a different set of organizational needs, ministers resist learning about budgeting or supervision because they “went to seminary to help people,” and organizational skills are not their “gifts,” thus producing congregations without a meaningful vision or the organizational structure to achieve it.
- Denominational leaders, unable to envision a different future but unwilling to step aside, stay in place and sow dysfunction, hurting mostly the smaller congregations without the resources to discover for themselves a new way of being church.
One piece of the problem may be that we tend toward the rather simple theological presumption that God is at work in the life of the church and that God’s intentions will prevail. I grew up, like most children of the former Protestant Mainline, believing that the church was an expression of God’s intent for creation, that denominations were the inevitable expression of this intent, and that, in the general scheme of things, Presbyterians were a lot like Methodists (although ever so slightly better) and Catholics were different (but interesting). I thought going to church on Sunday and being rewarded with quarters for memorizing Bible verses was what everybody did. In other words, everything was as God had ordained that it should be.
Over the years, though, the church has made some disturbing turns as a result of believing that anything it did was, in some way, “of God.” I can still remember the seminary lecture in which I first learned that the building shape that I’d always associated with “church” – long center aisle, side aisles, clerestory windows – was the building of empire, the place for citizens of Rome to gather, before it was adopted by the religion newly claimed by Constantine. Eventually, stained glass was added, usually with romanticized images of a white Jesus, but the net effect was the same. No way to see out, no immediate connection with the world Jesus was sent to serve, no reminder that God’s primary concern, at least if Jesus’ words are to be believed, is with the poor, most of whom aren’t in the building.
And the problem isn’t just with the shape of our sacred space. Over millennia, churches have gone to untold expense erecting and maintaining buildings supposedly to the glory of God but with the clearly intended secondary effect of glorifying the generation that built them. And God forbid that subsequent generations should ever reconsider the wisdom of the founders’ architectural ambitions. Just think of the howl that goes up if an altar is changed or screens are added or some of the pews are removed.
The same kind of disturbing turn can be seen with regard to the church’s view of women. Early Christians learned that “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus,” but already within the formative period of the New Testament canon, male power and control had been reasserted and the role of women diminished. Two thousand years later, most Christians still won’t follow female leaders.
I want desperately to have a sense of humor about this. I want desperately to believe that God has a purpose and that there is a strong, clear current of divine intent running through the chaos. I want to believe that God’s vision for the church will prevail.
But I can’t help but wonder if we aren’t thwarting what God had in mind with Jesus. I can’t help but wonder if our behavior isn’t mostly about fear instead of faith. I can’t help but wonder if somehow our ecclesiology hasn’t become too reliant on the grace of God and not enough on business basics like clear purpose and competent execution. I can’t help but wonder if God (assuming that there is a God and that God has thoughts) isn’t looking with bewilderment at the church and asking the divine equivalent of “Why aren’t you a pony?
Sarai Rice is a Presbyterian minister and a retired non-profit executive. She consults with congregations on a variety of issues, including planning, staffing, and governance. Sarai loves to work with congregations that are exploring anew their role in the community as well as congregations seeking new energy in the face of decline. She has a deep commitment to the notion that human institutions should work well for the people they serve.