Years ago I was in a group of clergy who met weekly to share our experiences, our woes, our joys, and, in general, how it was with our soul. One of our members was a second career pastor whose first career was as a lawyer. I’ve never forgotten his assessment of the causes of dis-ease and decline found in many local congregations. “Res ipsa loquitur,” he said. Waiting for us to admit we had no idea what he was saying, he finally explained, “The thing speaks for itself…many local churches are, themselves, the reason for their decline.”
I went home and did some research on the legal principle of res ipsa loquitur and found most of the explanations used a situation similar to this:
Imagine you’ve recently had abdominal surgery. A few days after the surgery, you develop a pain in the site of the surgery. This is followed by signs of infection. You go to the doctor and an X-ray reveals a piece of metal in your abdomen which is exactly the size and shape of a surgical scalpel. More than likely, your malpractice suit will be based upon the legal premise of “res ipsa loquitur.” The presence of a metal, scalpel shaped object in your abdomen speaks for itself and to how it got there.
I have played with this analogy off and on for several years. The condition of the church speaks for itself. The cause of whatever “infection” that is afflicting and weakening many of our bodies, is within us. Like many clergy, I’ve done my share of blaming realities outside of the church building. I’ve belly-ached about sports leagues on Sunday morning, the explosion of child and youth activities, and the overall dismissive tone the “world” and the “media” use in describing organized religion in general and the Christian faith specifically. But, though true, are these factors really the cause of our dis-ease and decline?
To go back to the analogy of a medical lawsuit, many of us (I include myself) not only suffer from some spiritual infection that tends to weaken us and make us susceptible to a plethora of other spiritual conditions which only hasten this weakening, but also we are the ones who performed the surgery! Our own lack of spiritual purpose and increasing unwillingness to address the reality of our dis-ease are, themselves, the cause. Res ipsa loquitur.
My wife is also an ordained clergy in the United Methodist Church and experiences this dis-ease as well. She is also quick to add that she hates blogs, articles, sermons and speeches like this one because all it does is describe the dis-ease, it doesn’t offer any solution.
In an effort to keep things relatively quiet on the homefront, I do have some modest suggestions which, I believe, may heal our self-inflicted infections.
1. We need to rediscover the wonder of bending over and seeing an empty tomb. If the contemporary church was a journalist, it would be fired for “burying the lead.” We find it easier to tell stories about ourselves, our structures, our activities, our programs, our positions and our traditions than it is to talk about the story which gives purpose to all we do. The stories we tell shape us. If our story is mostly about us, then we shouldn’t be surprised that most folks outside our churches think we only care about ourselves. Can we tell a story in which we aren’t the main character but Christ is?
2. We need to quit worshiping the scalpel which we have planted in ourselves. Many church consultants will tell you that even when told a certain congregational tradition or behavior is off-putting to some members and most visitors, they will continue to do them because they are “sacred traditions.” Though the scalpel was necessary at one point to do the surgery, there is a point where it is no longer needed and its presence causes more harm than good. Can you say, “Let’s have all the visitors stand up and tell us about yourself while we slam this glow-in-the-dark ribbon on your chest identifying you as a VISITOR!” I admit, that was an easy one. But there are others: “We’re a hugging church!” (usually said after an unwelcomed hug), or keeping the front doors locked because everyone knows we use the side door on Sundays, or making visitors and newer members wait for a bulletin or assistance because we’re a friendly church whose ushers and long-time members speak in closed huddles until the service begins. Are we able to name and address the causes of our dis-ease?
3. We need to move away from all forms of rhetoric, leadership or structure which equate being a disciple with being a customer. Clergy and denominational leaders have become so fearful of losing more “customers,” that many churches operate out of a customer satisfaction mode and mindset. Can you do that and still faithfully proclaim the message of One who calls us to “take up our cross and follow?” Our call to discipleship is a call to serve, not be served. Ironically, obsession with customer satisfaction has led us to lower expectations and demands and instilled a certain level of distrust of an entity whose founder expected servanthood and self-denial but whose current management seeks success and self-fulfillment. Such a mindset has, according to Stanley Hauerwas, reduced the office of clergy to a “quivering mass of availability” (sorry, I do not have a direct source on this, but have heard Bishop Willimon quote him on several occasions).
If you have other suggestions that address this dis-ease, I’d love to hear from you.