We posted something on this blog earlier in the week – and put a link to it on our church Facebook, Twitter and Google + sites. We solicited opinions regarding our church sign – what would you think if, while walking up South Winooski Avenue you happened to glance over at our church. And there, on the sign, you read:
“Theology for a Non-Religious Place”
(What the hell do we believe?)
Before we put something like that on the church sign, we thought we might actually get more reaction by blogging about it, and linking the blog to our social media. The response: Very, very quiet. Forty-one folks “saw” the post on Facebook, but few responded. Of the several who did reply, one suggested a different topic. (“Orthodoxy.” In some circles, I suppose, that may come off as a ‘bad word’.)
One pastor who is getting lots of “saw” these days is Nadia Bolz-Weber. Rev. Bolz-Weber started a church in Denver, Colorado that has grown both in size locally and in influence nationally. In a recent sermon, Bolz-Weber said: “When this church started, what I thought I wanted was for it to be small and alternative. But what I was really seeking was authentic community, and an expression of the gospel untethered to churchy convention.”
And what exactly is “churchy convention”? Is it folks who clean up their act once a week for an hour or two? As a member of the clergy, I represent “churchy convention”, and the way I know this is from personal experience. When serving a small country church with a quintessential “country store” as the place where we bought our half gallon of milk (or for some – not me – a six-pack of beer), any time I walked into that store the tenor of the conversation immediately changed. Every once in a while my presence wouldn’t make itself known until I had heard a few phrases in the vernacular. After the apologies (“Oh … Sorry Reverend. I didn’t see you there…“), the whole tone of the conversation would change. There was a lot less laughter. In fact, I seemed to be the incarnation of whatever it was that can immediately dampen the party and suppress people’s spirits. Is that what Nadia was referring to when she spoke of ‘churchy convention’?
I remember one time when I was helping my Dad with some project. I was in middle school, and Dad passed some gas. He said: “Excuse me.” Then he looked at me, and with an expression that suggested he was going to tell me some important, unknown secret, he said to me, “You know, Mark, when I was a kid, we used to call that a ‘fart’.” Dad is a good Christian man, and I could count on one hand the times I heard him say “damn”. I can count on one finger the times I heard him say “fart”. But as a seventh grader working with him that day, if my father thought he was saying a word I’d never heard before – or used with a high level of proficiency among my peers – he was mistaken.
When I’m on Church Street I hear the f— bomb all over the place, and I often think to myself that someone needs to help expand the vocabulary of these folks. I never hear the word “god” except in a manner suggesting not faith, but anger at someone. But when I’m in church, the most ‘colorful’ word I hear is “ass” – and that’s mostly around the Christmas season, and always tethered to the word “ox”.
I’m not going to suggest that we spice up the liturgy and throw in a few ‘off-color’ phrases just to get a rise out of folks. I don’t see myself doing a sermon riff on George Carlin’s “Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television”. But I do wonder if sometimes our church language isn’t too good to be true. Jesus was never impressed by folks who tried to maintain that image. He knew better. After all, he was the son of a carpenter, and I’ve never known a carpenter who wasn’t inspired by the slip of the saw or the hammer hitting the wrong nail to suddenly, without malice aforethought, let loose a string of … shall we say, pithy phrases.
The word “hell” on a church sign isn’t likely to conjure up a congregation. But religion is a lot like a sales pitch – if it’s too good to be true, it probably isn’t. If I read the gospel right, “Truth” isn’t about being – or appearing to be ‘good’. It’s about setting us free. Whatever the hell else I believe, I do believe that.
To read the post referred to on the church sign, click HERE.
Listen to a recent sermon by Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber – click HERE.