Can the Church get a Do Over?


When I was a little kid I was into war movies.  I loved to watch them and then act them out in the backyard with my brothers and sisters.  One of my favorite movies was “First Blood”, staring Sylvester Stallone.  “First Blood” was the story of a returned Vietnam war hero (John Rambo) and the difficulty he had in adjusting t a world that did not value him.  This world he returned to had no idea how to embrace him.  He was a down and out mental case as far as most of his encounters were concerned.

Rambo goes on a “rampage” in the forest against a local sheriffs office and is finally cornered in the local police station.  Surrounded and left with no other option Rambo prepares to go out in a blaze of glory.  Then enters an old friend, Colonel Samuel Trautman.  Trautman is the guy responsible for training, Rambo.

The end scene is one where Rambo goes on about the horrors of war and the difficulties of civilian life.  He recounts the gruesome details of war and losing people you love.  Rambo tears up and the emotions rise.  Then Rambo surrenders to Trautman and the movie ends.

I caught this film the other day on AMC.  I watched the end scene and made a connection that I never had before the disconnection from “then” and “now”, the anger, frustration and fear of “what now” seems to be present in the “church” today.  I have witnessed the ecclesial version of the end scene of “First Blood” in many conversations about a way forward for the church.

This past weekend I attended the Regional assembly for the Christian Church of Kentucky in Lexington.  It was a wonderful event.  We were to gather together in tables of 8-10 people and discuss a way forward for the region.  I joined one group and we began to speak.  The table was full of hurts, hope lost and certainty of a way forward.

Some folks openly mourned the loss of the grand old days when young people went to church and the church was the moral compass for all.  Others lamented the pain experienced in leaving a particular faith community due to financial problems.  Still others crossed their arms and spoke with conviction of how we need to bring in young people to take over the church and keep her going.

I sat there praying that I keep listening.  I became frustrated with the conversation.  I was the youngest one in the room by 30-40 years.  I am the “young people” they are talking about.  What if I do not want to saddle up to the table strapped by your dreams and hopes for the church you built?  Can I have Jesus without the bells and whistles?  These are some of the questions that flashed across my mind.  I asked them, “What would happen if we sought to engage young people in relationship instead of bringing them in?”

The room fell silent and folks looked at me.  One women said, “that’s the same thing.”  I told her that it was not.  I tried to explain the idea of church existing in a different context of today in a different manner is still the same church that she and others built in her glory days.  That church is a group of people gathered to be the arms and hearts of Jesus the Christ.  Like Rambo she was upset.  What about all the hard work, the sacrifices she made to keep this thing going?  She stopped talking.  You could see her heartbreak or at least burden beyond her ability to hope.

I stopped talking too and mourned with her and prayed that one day it will all make sense to us.  Her intentions are in the right place and her hopes are my hopes.  What is difficult is to be in two places at once.  I cannot be me and a fella in his 70’s or 80’s having experienced anything in its glory days.  She cannot be herself and a young woman just experiencing the beauty of faith and the challenges of trusting God.  I am me and she is thee.  She has a point.  We need young people to sustain a physical presence of the church.  I do not see bringing them in as the solution.  What would happen if we sought to engage young people in relationship instead of bringing them in?  What would happen if we opened our hearts and dared the Holy Spirit to deliver us to “them?”  I do not know for sure what would happen but is it not worth a shot?

By Ryan Kemp-Pappan

Ryan is a minister with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) at Douglass Blvd. Christian Church in Louisville, Kentucky. He has a B.A. in Religious Studies from California State University, Northridge and a M.Div. from Austin Seminary (TX). He delivers mad Esoteric Piracy. He likes to think of himself as a Royal Pain in the south end of a north bound donkey, Master of 3 of the 5 logical oceans, Beloved creation, 1985 Beer Chug Champion, Amateur Sock Puppeteer, Buckaroo, Reclaimer of lost treasures, Seeker of truth, Tamer of lions, Pugilist of toothless circus bears, Servant, & Tinker of convoluted ideas…

He blogs at The Fettered Heart. He is a host with HCX.  He secretly hopes that “Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs” is what heaven is really like.  He also believes there is a conspiracy going on with the seemingly limited supply of Coke Zero at church related functions.

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9 thoughts on “Can the Church get a Do Over?

  1. Established church (institutions, buildings, tradition, etc.) is both a burden and a resource. To give away the burden, I have to make it worth your while — but the resource can be an outright gift! Once treasured, it becomes incentive to accept the burden.

    Don’t we have a place to meet? Refreshments to serve? Good news to share? Those are the resources at hand, and we must learn to give them away — to “young people” in the current example, but to everyone we want to attract to our churches.

    Why does the master praise the dishonest manager in Luke 16? I think in part it is because he garnered goodwill for himself and his master by reducing the burden on debtors. If “young people” won’t pay the price of admission, we have to get smart with free admission and discount tickets.

    Keep the faith, Ryan. Rumors of our denominational demise have been greatly exaggerated.

    • Originally, the Disciples founders strenuously rejected the idea of creating a new denomination – and now, we know why.

      I do not want a conversation about denominational demise or ways to resurrect the 50s and 60s. I was there. I remember the packed sanctuaries. I remember the choirs and organs and additional instruments, even orchestras – the “high mass” holiday services. I remember the pervasive sense, not only of community, but that we were the community. There was no sense that the post-WWII era was an aberration that would prove to be more about being insular and having ritual consistency than about fostering spiritual growth and creating an expanding circle of inclusiveness and affirmation. We should have known that it would not last. But there was no way we could have predicted that it would die with the assassination of President Kennedy. There was no way we could have predicted that the next era would start the next February on the Ed Sullivan Show with the appearance of the Beatles. The Golden Era of mainstream Protestantism has ended – and, since it was a selfish aberration, it should not be revived.

      I do want a conversation about the appropriateness of the continued existence of denominations. I do want a conversation about the appropriateness of the amount of congregational and denominational structural investment. I do want a conversation about the current imbalance between too much institutionalism and the lesser weight of relationships that are created by the Good News and that bring the Kingdom of God into existence.

  2. It is time; indeed, it is past time for the Second Reformation.

    We are shamefully overdue for posting a new thesis on the doors of Wittenberg – and the front door of every Protestant and Catholic church in Europe and the western hemisphere.

    (here is a first attempt)

    We, the people of The Way, reject church, worship, and theology that involve or require hate, fear, exclusion, the placing of more importance on post-mortal existence than on mortal existence, and clerical authoritarianism – they are not the Good News, they are not the Kingdom of God.

    Both the community of believers and worship as community are more important than property or structure or mortgages.

    Largess is more important than largeness.

    Service is more important than being served or being uninvolved or being comfortably and minimally involved. Service requires partnership between server and served. Service requires server competence and server health.

    “Jesus is Lord” means that no other Lord – social or political or clerical – has dominion over our life. “Jesus is Lord” is a phrase of non-violent defiance that advocates a counter-cultural response to oppose the oppression and systemic injustice of empire and civic religion.

    We are ruled by the Good News: God is grace and love and always has been; justice requires healing, rehabilitation, and restoration – and seeks reconciliation, inclusion, and participation; at a minimum, service requires being generous and hospitable; the Kingdom of God is here and now and involves living non-violently without vengeance and with a cheerful fearlessness of death and worldly powers.

  3. Ryan,
    I want to hear more about offering relationship. That is the language I continue to use about why we invite people to come to the church–we offer them a way to have a relationship with God and others who follow Jesus. But that’s talking to those who are here.

    So, you have a vision of offering relationship rather than recruiting members, and I need to know what that looks like. It sounds like something that I want (and I’m 54). The young men in their 20s that worship with us were born and raised in the church and have no desire to be elsewhere, but they don’t feel that it is a place that they can offer to their friends. Neither can they tell me what would make it that place.

    I hope to learn more from you, Ryan.

    • Pamela,

      What makes a relationship attractive and therefore sustainable?

      To me I remain in relationships that are loving, trustworthy, challenging and rooted in an intimate desire to care for each other.

      You say, “we invite people to come to the church–we offer them a way to have a relationship with God and others who follow Jesus.” I have a secret to tell you and others that want to share Jesus with “them.” Jesus is already out there with them and in ways that form relationships of integrity and compassion. When will we cease demanding that “they” come to us and insisting that “they” will be the better for it when “they” come to us and hear the Word of God?

      I hope I am not coming off too harsh. I offer that we have much to learn about who God is and how Jesus lives in the lives of those we are trying to bring into our church. Those we seek to present our vision of God and our way of being with Jesus already maintain a relationship with God and follow Jesus in various ways. No amount of begging or pleading will get “them” into our doors.

      It is a matter of relationship and we [the church] need to swallow our pride and go outside of our comfort zone and in to the world to be with “them’ without trying to get “them” to realize the errors of their ways and practice the right formula of faith.

      My vision for this relationship includes us institution of church to lift up and walk with young leaders that have stayed in church or are returning to church. As a young leader I need the wisdom of those that have gone before me as much as those with the wisdom need my youth and energy. We need each other in relationship. Dismissing me or others due to our youth exasperates the situation and encourages me to walk away from the situation.

      I encourage you to ask these young men why it is not a place that they can offer their friends. Perhaps you could support these young men in being ministers to their friends where they are and not worrying about bring them in to the church at all.

      We must start somewhere. Most GenXers or Millennials I know are not ready for the conversation of faith and Jesus and if tested or prodded by this conversation will future abandon it and become more guarded to it in the future. We must provide a geography for conversation that involve faith, Jesus and life’s ultimate questions to happen without us seeking to manipulate or control it. God is bigger than the faith any of us are selling. The path to God does not solely pass through us. When we can let this go and be still and at peace we are ready to be in relationship with “them” and truly love “them” where they are at.

      Blessings, Ryan

  4. If we’re ecumenical, our churches should be an oasis for all Christians and seekers. Talk of membership and local church loyalty does not resonate with some people. In our day and locale, changing churches is as easy ad flipping channels. A person can “join the church” and never come back, or they can never “join” and still return week after week for friendship, fellowship and comfort. The former is formality; the latter reveals a relationship.

  5. For more about relationship as youth ministry, see “Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry: From a Strategy of Influence to a Theology of Incarnation” and “Relationships Unfiltered”, both by Andrew Root, asst prof of youth and family ministry, Luther Seminary.

    Andrew Root will be the resource leader for the 4th annual Disciples Youth Ministry Network retreat which will be a post-General Assembly event, July 14-15, 2011, at Montgomery Bell State Park west of Nashville, Tennessee.

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