This week Anne Rice posted a comment on Facebook that prompted me to think about the state of the church in post-modern America.  She announced that, although she is still committed to Christ, she is fed up with Christian culture, with the church, etc.  She is still a believer, but she follows Christ rather than His followers.  She has renounced the label “Christian” because it is bound to so much baggage, but she remains a follower of Christ.  She simply cannot stomach what so many other Christians I know also cannot stomach:  the rhetoric of hatred, the public conflation of politics and religion, the anti-this and anti-that agendas.  Christianity in America has become a faith that is defined more by what it is not than what it is.  It has become a faith that pledges its allegiance to a divine list of do’s and don’ts rather than a living, loving Savior.
A slew of responses followed from her Facebook friends, who interpreted her comments as a return to atheism, as an attack on the church, as heroic.  I read her comment and thought of my own church (http://www.firstbaptistlawrence.com/) and how it truly feels like a loving family to me.  For me, church and family are synonymous, interchangeable terms.  I know not every church feels this way to its members, so I feel fortunate.
But I also look around and see sparsely populated pews and wonder:  How do we reach out to people who feel about the church as Anne Rice does?  How can we show love to the disenfranchised?  How can we make outsiders feel like insiders who genuinely belong to a family of loving believers?  Really, if we Christians are strangers and aliens in the world, we are all outsiders in a way.  To me, that is part of the beauty of the whole arrangement.  We can be outsiders together.
A few weeks ago a good man at our church passed on, and Becki and I were able to attend his memorial service.  It was really beautiful.  His name was Dick Wilson, and he survived brain cancer for over 20 months.  His wife JoAn is a sweetheart and has more or less adopted us as grandchildren.  At his service, the pews of our church were packed with people who cherished Dick Wilson.  He was one of the top 5 runners in the world as recent as 2005, and when he was on his deathbed one of his friends told him to “run to Jesus” once he was one the other side.  Dick was the embodiment of the running metaphors the Apostle Paul used to describe the course of a Christ-follower.  Our church was fully alive, and at a funeral of all times.  We celebrated Dick’s life and rejoiced that he had gone to be with the One who made him a runner.  It may sound odd, but visiting Dick and JoAn in the hospital only days before he passed on was the highlight of my week.  It was exciting to think he would soon be with his Creator.  On his deathbed, it was as if he was at some bus stop, waiting to be taken to his true home.
How can the church communicate the marvels of such things to the world outside?  Can it?  How can it get around the negative stereotypes that have been reinforced time and again by the voices of hatred that profess belief in Christ?  I think about these things and wonder how the church might be as alive as it was the day of Dick’s funeral. Regardless of logistics, I do believe that if we keep our eyes on Christ and follow Him rather than His followers – as Anne Rice says – we can find purpose and mission together, and love those around us to the best of our ability, and in His name.  If we are going to build a community, this is how it should be done.  But easier said than done.
Organized religion is indeed a dicey business.  I know that.  I am fortunate to be the son of a loving pastor who is authentic through and through in the way he loves God and his neighbors alike.  He has been a good model, as has my mother.  But what about those people who do not have good models for faith?  Going it alone as a Christ-follower sounds like an easy solution to avoiding the problems of the church.  But the church formed precisely because individual Christ-followers banded together out of their common allegiance to Christ, and frankly, it was a good idea.  Jesus said the gates of Hell would not prevail over the church, and they have not prevailed, but they have certainly had an influence on things.
I also wonder at what point we become so post-modern, so “meta,” so abstract in our approach to handling the faith with kid gloves that we completely fail to share the concrete hope we have in Christ, and communicate to others that they too can place their faith in Him.  We are afraid of running over other peoples’ beliefs and choices, but I think we can communicate in a loving manner rather than an obnoxious one.  It is a struggle though, as not everyone wants to hear about Jesus.  What use does the happy atheist have for Jesus when the sun is shining, the BBQ is smoking, and life is genuinely good?  What use does the agnostic have for Jesus when he or she genuinely does not know what to make of the world we live in?  How can we respect the disbelief of others and lovingly communicate our faith?
Finally, how can we attract people to the church?  While Bishop John Shelby Spong is far too radical for me, the title of his book “Why Christianity Must Change or Die” catches my attention.  I have not read it, but it seems to me that the body of believers must be about the business of reaching out loving to others, showing them the love of Christ, lest the church become an empty mausoleum for believers who once congregated together as members of a common, loving family.  I do not want the church to die.  There is still good in it.  Granted, the good is quieter and less sensational than the likes of Fred Phelps and Westboro Baptist Church, but that does not make it any less real or substantial.
What are believers to do in this day and age?  I would appreciate your thoughts.