I recently saw an article about The United Methodist Church. Among the details actually relevant to the story was some background info about the UMC, including the fact that we are the third largest denomination in the U.S. in terms of membership. A part of me felt a certain amount of pride in the size of the UMC, as though it mattered, I had anything to do with it, or the fact that I picked my denomination based on size and not things like theology and the fact that this was simply the church I was raised in. It felt good to be a part of the a "winning" team.
This week I have been reading the story from Genesis about the Tower of Babel. What struck me as I read the story this time was that the reason God scrambles the language of the people is for no other reason than they are being too successful. We are not told they are forgetting to worship God, or anything else, but a plain text reading seems to imply that the success itself is the problem. God has a problem with success.
Maybe the problem is that once more we are failing to measure success in the right way. We assume a civilization is successful when it is building huge buildings and displaying outward signs of progress. What if that is not the right measure of success? God might be worried that our focus on building bigger and better buildings might distract us from what really matters. Maybe God is scrambling our language, not as a punishment for success, or for some other sin, but simply to reroute us towards more important tasks, liking communicating with each other and building community.
If community is meant as our measure of success than the scrambling of languages forces us to work more on how we are going to get along together with people who are not like us. If we are all the same, community is easy. We can just see the challenges facing our government and our nation to know the challenges of creating community when we are different. To say nothing of the challenges of creating community across global cultures. To put it in video game terms, maybe God was just turning about the difficulty setting because clearly things were to easy for humanity.
To stir the pot one more time, what if the real problem is that success itself is a red herring. What if the problem is not we were focused on the wrong things, building structures instead of building community, but that we were focused on any measure of success. We don't just need to switch from counting money to counting Facebook friends to see who is most successful, we need to realize that the very concept of success itself is flawed. If we change how we measure success, we have reoriented ourselves to a new task, but we have still created the comparison between X and Y. Maybe Y is now better than X because of our new metric but there is still a comparison. What if God doesn't want the comparison at all. What if the problem with success is that we are doing that which we are not called to do, judge. We are creating a standard for what is good and what is not. Instead we need to return to the original standard of the good, that which is loved by God. God looked at creation and called it ALL good. We tend to look at ourselves and try and determine what is not good.
It does not matter if the UMC is the third largest denomination or not. The comparison itself is a flawed attempt to do what God has already done, judge. We are like fans, screaming at the television upset with the call of the umpire because we see things differently. Scream all we want about what is good and what is not. God has already passed judgement on us, maybe we need to learn to live with that.
Wednesday, May 8, 2013
I recently saw an article about how Abercrombie and Fitch specifically markets too cool people and away from those who are not cool. In particular it does not stock clothing in XL or XXL sizes for women since by their logic "cool/hot" cannot exist in those sizes. Men are allowed to be those sizes on the assumption that big athlete types might need larger sizes and we all know athletes are cool. On the one hand it seems like marketing genius ... cool people don't want to wear the clothes that uncool people are wearing so find ways to make sure only cool people can buy your stuff. It also seems a little flawed, after all, uncool people have money to burn too, and as we learned from the Dr. Seuss classic about the Snitches, selling coolness to the uncool is a great way to make a quick buck.
Coolness can rear its head in the church as well. The pressure to be cool, and to market to the cool kids of the world, has grown in the last few years as the overall decline of the church, and particular churches such as The United Methodist Church, means that we are starting to feel a little anxious things and looking for ways to grow. One of the obvious ways is to get more of those "cool" kids to come to worship. Cool is currently being behind in UMC (and probably most church circles) as young adult (ideally of the married, with kids, and maybe a steady source of income type). [Side bar ... I am aware I am trafficing in stereotypes and apologize, I think they reinforce my larger point even if they are far from being universally true] In an effort to attract "cool" a lot of churches have tried to figure out what we need to do to be cool. We have not yet resorted to the risque ads of A&F which is a good thing. We have however tried to figure out if changing our worship styles, sights, sounds, and even smells (coffee in worship anyone?) would help in making us more cool and thus more appealing. The customer is always right as I have often been reminded.
Where I think we fall off the rails on all of this is that following God has never really been about cool. In fact many would argue that some of the coolest moments to follow the church were potential some of our darkest (think Constantine and suburban 1950's). If we look at figures in the Bible we are generally struck with how uncool they were. Noah as considered kinda crazy by his peers (perhaps rightly so), Moses was only used by God AFTER he was an outcast, a murder, and forced to resort to shepherding. Abraham and his wife were ancient before they started a family and Sarah's days of tempting rival rulers were long behind her. Even Jesus lived the height of uncool, hanging out with tax-collectors and others of questionable moral character rather than being a good religious leader and only associating with others of an appropriate peer group.
Maybe it could better be said that to be a faithful Christian is to be uncool, to risk our coolness for the sake of Christ. After all, our main symbol, a cross was meant ultimately meant as a mockery, the worst and least cool way to die and yet that is what we claim for ourselves. Maybe what we need to focus on in the church is not what we can be doing to be more cool but what we can be doing to be less cool ... and more Christlike. It might not win us popularity, or more funds, or even more members ... but it would be faithful to God, and that has to count for something.