A few years ago an old friend of mine shared an article on Facebook, written by an atheist organization, which advocated for the removal of the tax exemption status that religious institutions enjoy. I was a bit hurt that my friend did this, in part because she knows I am a pastor serving one of those tax-dodging religious institutions. I commented on the article and said that if churches had to pay property taxes, most would close, and all those community groups that use our buildings for free or significantly reduced rents- 12 Step groups, non-profits, neighborhood associations, preschools – would have a hard time finding somewhere else to go. She quickly apologized and said she was trying to make a different point. It still stings a little.
In the last year I’ve had several experiences of people who identify as spiritual but not religious, or even just plain atheist, asking to use the church. Some were services of some sort – a wedding, a memorial – actually, not a memorial; a celebration of life. I’ve negotiated with families and couples in how many times we can say “God” and if we can refer to “Jesus” and whether or not there has to a reading from the Bible.
I’m just about done with the accommodating. I don’t want to throw Jesus out with the proverbial bathwater.
I think if you come to church for a wedding or a memorial, you should not be surprised if the pastor mentions God or Jesus. That’s part of the deal. I will no longer officiate at a non-religious wedding; a friend can get an online certificate or a justice of the peace can perform the ceremony. I’ve got to have a little integrity about my call as a pastor.
I know that Christendom is in transition. I know we must find new ways not only to tell the old story but more importantly to live out the old story. I know many judge the church as outdated and irrelevant and self-absorbed, and that is often a fair critique. But I also think that much of the judgment comes from ignorance, from people simply not taking the time to learn about what churches and people in churches do to contribute to a healthy neighborhood and society.
When did Jesus become the bad guy? Maybe when the followers of Jesus strayed too far from his teachings. Maybe when Constantine made Christianity the religion of the state. Blame bad Christian music. Blame really bad Christian art. Blame us getting so caught up in the business of the church that we forgot about the call of the church.
Go. Feed. Pray. Listen. Study. Hope. Dream. Risk. Heal. Lament. Proclaim. Share. Believe. Repent. Forgive. Teach. Live. Die. Live again.