By Patrick Scriven, Director of Communications & Young People’s Ministries
I live on the east side of Seattle in the community of Redmond, a suburb with a disproportionate number of professionals working in the tech industry. That being the case, there are quite a few churches that cater to a well-educated demographic that skews younger and more affluent than some other communities. Despite my wife’s profession as pastor of the United Methodist church in town, we managed to get on the mailing list for several of these larger, non-denominational churches.
[quote_box_right]Has God finally made a church filled with perfect people?[/quote_box_right]Recently, we received yet another well produced, slick, promotional mailer for one of those faith communities. This particular piece features an attractive, well-dressed, young couple texting on their phones with their backs to one another. The promo piece is hawking a new sermon series on relationships and the image suggests a discussion on how technology, designed to connect people, can have an opposite effect on relationships closer to home. It certainly is a relevant issue and one that I wish more churches would address.
Complimentary thoughts aside, I wanted to speak to something else that is communicated by these mailers. That young, attractive couple wasn’t the exception in their promotional material; I would daresay that they are the rule. The mailers are always careful to mention that the featured models are real people who attend their church and I have no reason to doubt that they are. With 12 months of mailers received, I can only conclude that this is a church filled with beautiful, young, well-dressed people.
So I wonder, has God finally made a church filled with perfect people?
Pews filled with perfect people (however you might define that) hasn’t been my experience in any of the smaller, more traditional, churches that I usually attend. Most have exhibited a surprising amount of diversity despite often being aware, and sometimes obsessed with, the diversity that was missing. These faith communities have included both young and old; typically with an extra helping or two of the more generously aged. They have welcomed people from all sorts of backgrounds and have been filled both with individuals who are deemed attractive and those who might be considered less so. Some have even taken great strides to welcome and include people with physical disabilities and those living in non-traditional relationships.
As Christians, we profess a God who stands with the people that find themselves on the fringes of society. The poor, the widow, and the orphan all find a place a God’s table. This counter-cultural value system was lived out in the ministry of Jesus, who, in contrast to the religious norms of his day, refused to lay blame upon those who didn’t meet accepted standards. Indeed, in God’s kin(g)dom, those with ‘much’ were asked to give up their privilege in order to be in relationship, while those with ‘little’ received the respect and agency absent in their everyday lives.
The question of how one ‘attracts’ people to a church filled with imperfect people (imperfect as defined by that culture) is ultimately a theological one. We have a responsibility, as the church, to not assimilate to the dominant cultural value structure of the day; a structure which equates perfection (and worth) with appearance and acclimation to its set of norms (ethnicity, age, clothing, social status, physical ability, sexuality, etc.).
[quote_box_right]”The perfection I teach, is perfect love…” – John Wesley[/quote_box_right]John Wesley did teach about perfection but it was of a different order. “The perfection I teach, is perfect love; loving God with all the heart, receiving Christ as Prophet, Priest, and King, to reign alone over all our thoughts, words and actions. That we are to expect it, not at death, but every moment; ‘that now is the accepted time, now is the day of this salvation.’” Our task as disciples of Christ then is to work toward perfection in our practice of love; not an inauthentic projection, or Photoshop fail, of something we are not.
Let me suggest that the church that remembers who it is, and to whom it is ultimately accountable, may find itself the beneficiary of a Gospel message of liberation. Just as Jesus’ message resonated with the masses who found themselves excluded by the meta-narrative of his day, we shouldn’t be surprised to find that people are struggling in their bondage to the expectations that our culture places upon us today. While we shouldn’t shy away from experiencing and creating things of ‘beauty’, we need to work to see and understand that beauty with God’s eyes as well.
As passionate as we should be about reaching new people, and in using the best tools and techniques available, we need to do so in ways that are in alignment with the communities we seek to create. As we do the work of communicating, counter-cultural messaging about perfection isn’t just an option; it might be what previous generations called faithfulness. So let’s send mailers, and advertise wherever we can, but let’s strive to do so with authenticity as we endeavor to share God’s perfect love with a world that truly needs it.
Image Credit: ”Miss Headhunter 2008” by Flickr user mugley.