Years ago in my little town, there was a restaurant that was known not for the quality of its food (above average), the ambiance of its surroundings (cheap chic), or the professionalism of its staff (non-existent). It was famous, and wildly successful, for the way it abused its clientele.
From one week to the next, customers never knew what they would be charged for — at the manager’s whim, butter pads cost 15 cents extra, and then they didn’t. Coffee refills were endless — oh no, that was last week; now it’s one refill, grudgingly allotted.
One customer, who frequented the place daily for more than 25 years, ordered two slices of toast every morning, sometimes being charged for butter and jam, other times just for the jam. Because the toast consisted of yesterday’s leftovers, every day’s breakfast looked different: one day her “two” slices of toast was one piece, cut in half. Frequently it was burnt.
To get it, she had to listen closely, because the staff yelled out, “Hey, Emily! Your toast is ready!”
This Business Model Works
Such was the business model, and judging by the way the mismatched tables and rickety chairs were filled to capacity, people loved it. The worse they were treated, the more they flocked in.
I can’t help but think of many churches when I remember this restaurant, now mercifully closed, and while I saw, and avoided, the flaws in the restaurant, I confess to spending all too long being abused on a spiritual level. It’s normal somehow, maybe even chic, to be scolded from the pulpit into how we allocate our giving; channeled like sheep through a chute into a Sunday School class we’re not really interested in, but have no alternative to attending (that is, if we want to see people that day); politely ignored when we offer a suggestion; passed over for spiritual promotion to the coveted deacon or deaconess status because our attendance rate — especially at that Sunday School class — isn’t stellar.
Week after week, we sit in the pew and passively accept yesterday’s toast, cut in half, possibly burnt, rushing up to the front to get it when someone yells out, “Hey, You — Toast’s ready!”
It’s Not Quirky — It’s Wrong
It’s a funny thing, but when certain people get relaxed enough to talk about their church, they frequently complain, which is what we did one day to a visiting friend. We thought we were just discussing quirky, odd aspects of our weekly foray into the brick building, but she heard it differently:
“Why do you subject yourself to this type of abuse — and it is abuse — every week? If you can’t change things, and no one listens to anything that you say, why don’t you leave?”
We weren’t ready to hear that, and after all, she didn’t attend church at all so what would she know? but her word, “abuse,” resonated in our minds when we stood in the unheated stairwell, talking to a woman whose sister had just died, because all of the heated rooms — a cavernous sanctuary and an entire basement — were devoted to 20 adults in two Sunday School classes, and 25 children downstairs. There was no place allotted for unsupervised fellowship.
Another time, we remembered the word “abuse” when the Norwegian Artist and I took a walk (no problem there) in a snowstorm, because our two younger kids actually wanted to stay for Sunday School (if they memorized the book of James, they earned a free trip to the Fun Park; when we suggested doing something like this for adults, the pastor looked deep into our eyes, nodded warmly, and said, “That’s a GREAT idea!” which stopped, right there). The only option for parents awaiting their children was the sheep chute into one of the two adult Sunday School classes.
Small Things Are Big Issues
These seem like such small, unimportant details, don’t they? But a series of small, unimportant details — over organization, micro managing, leaders standing aloof, poorly concealed control mechanisms, charging for a pad of butter — add up, to the point that one wonders,
“Why am I doing this? I know it’s not all about me, me, me, but isn’t there supposed to be a point — and a good one — in assembling together? Don’t we attend church because we believers need each other’s — and not just the leadership’s — support, fellowship (unstructured), and time?”
“That’s what small groups are for!” we were told. “In the middle of the week, we sit in a circle in someone’s house, and you get to listen to an approved leader read the lesson out of a four-color magazine published by our denomination!
“Or better yet, we’ll discuss the latest book, The Missional and Purposeful Life of the Driven and Manipulated Christian Drone!”
Oops. My humanity is showing.
But that’s what church is, or is supposed to be, full of that raw humanity represented by a group of very imperfect believers who assemble together because we need each other, not programs, not pop-Christian books, not supervised fellowship activities in line with proper group dynamics. And this church is supposed to belong to us — the individual believers, who should have some say in how it is run without being conversant in Robert’s Rules of Order. It’s worth wanting something worthwhile, demanding it, seeking it, and, if we can’t find it where we are, taking the small narrow path that we keep finding in front of our feet.
“Hey, you! Your toast is ready!”
Thank you for joining me at Commonsense Christianity, where I try to “go out quickly to the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.” (Luke 14: 21)
That’s you, my friend, and it’s I as well. Who more to care about the disenfranchised and unimportant of the world than those who are ordinary nothing people themselves? Please, please stop looking to big names and loud leaders to tell you how to live your lives in Christ. Please, please look to Christ Himself.
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The Misfit Christian (my book for those people who are honest enough with themselves to admit that they feel left out, and being left out doesn’t mean that you’re a loser. No one will know if you buy it, go ahead and cover it with a brown wrapping so no one can see that you’re reading it — but if you feel like an outside zebra, do something about it, for goodness’ sake. And the first thing you do about it is admit the truth to yourself.)