Here’s what I know for sure. Merely complaining about it online without taking direct action is a waste of time. Trust me, I’ve done it way more than you have.
Leaders take people where they would otherwise not go on their own.
I’m thankful for these young leaders, agentes de cambio, who are bringing to attention a problem in my neighborhood.
One place the Good News needs to prevail is helping to reshape our neighborhoods.
We, as a culture, obey the rule of affinity in our lives. Who we gather with, who we have as friends, where we go to worship… our entire place in this world is governed by affinity.
We do stuff we like. We are friends with people we like. And we worship with people we like. We eat what we like, we wear what we like, we shop where we like, it never ends.
We’ve liked the life out of ourselves.
Doing stuff we don’t like. Well, that’s yucky.
Affinity’s Impact on the Church
Do you remember that kid in your neighborhood who would get ticked off because things weren’t going his way? He’d get all huffy, take his ball, and go home. Every kid in the neighborhood hated that guy. He was a brat. But we were friends with him because he had a nice basketball.
That’s pretty much the story of the protestant faith. Affinity– gathering by what we like– is the weakness of our religious DNA. Taking our ball and going elsewhere has been a tradition since the Reformation. How many protestant denominations were started because of disagreements going back to… “Well, we want to baptize people this way and you don’t, so we’re going to start another church across the street.” Pretty much all of them.
Don’t you hate church history? It reveals so much truth!
The result of this DNA weakness is what we see now. People go to the church that they go to because they like it. They’ll drive 45 minutes to go somewhere they like…. passing dozens of perfectly good churches along the way. Consequently, churches who have something for everyone to like tend to grow.
And this has been the unspoken narrative of church people for a long, long time. We go to a church ultimately because we like something about it. We like the kids program or the music or the pastor or what they do in the community or because we grew up in that faith tradition and it feels comfortable or because of an affinity-based conviction.
I’m not trying to cheapen these things. I am 100% guilty as charged. All I’m trying to do is raise awareness of this inborn propensity we have to gather by affinity.
Here’s where it plays out…
This morning a friend posted on his Facebook wall something like, “I’m tired of my pastor friends getting hurt because families leave. Why can’t they just work out their differences and stay?” The answer is affinity. For generations we, collectively as protestant church leaders, have told (in acts and/or deeds) people that they ought to gather together and worship based on shared affinities. (Again, not cheapening values/traditions/theological differences.)
The Problem with Building Church Around Affinity
The problem is affinity is cheap. Affinity is fickle. By telling people they should worship with people they like in spaces they like and attend churches that meet their needs is that that stuff all changes all the time. We live in a society that changes fast. And our churches pride themselves on moving slowly. So you are always caught in a cycle of being 5-10 years behind what culture wants! (This is something I call depreciating returns. It’s not 1-2 things that have killed the mojo in a church, it’s lots of things which have resulted in a gradual slow down.)
So, while it hurts we can’t be frustrated when people go to what they want because that’s what we’ve taught them… “Worship Jesus how it works best for you and your family.” So they do. That makes church consumeristic. That makes it transient. That makes it, in some ways, cheap.
It’s Romans 7 lived out in church leadership. We do the thing that hurts the most and we don’t know why but we keep right on doing it. And as a result, Satan gets a stronger and stronger foothold in our society.
Proximity is the Long-Term Answer
The Good News of Jesus isn’t an affinity thing, it’s a proximity thing. Christian people from the same community, empowered by the Holy Spirit can overcome the rule of affinity. (We can/should/must look to our Catholic brethren. The parish model is a beautiful thing!)
People of all walks of life really can and should worship together. They should recognize and celebrate differences of opinion, they should love that the church reflects their neighborhood, they should see power in willfully worshipping with people with different needs, people whom they might not be comfortable with. If you watched the vice-presidential debate you heard Joe Biden and Paul Ryan, two faithful Catholic men, express two wildly different viewpoints on their Catholic faith. Their differences were not a weakness at all, it was a demonstration of the strength of the Gospel! Two people who truly see things from different vantage points can and willfully do share one communion cup. That’s the Gospel lived out in proximity in full denial of the rule of affinity!
Proximity is how you bring Good News to the Neighborhood. Proximity is how you build lifelong, grace-filled, messy, overcoming relationships.
But to get away from affinity and towards proximity, we all need to repent of our personal preference sin. And confession and repentance, well… we don’t like that.
That’s a familiar slogan, isn’t it? If you live in the United States chances are good that I just put that jingle in your head. But have you ever stopped to think about the meaning of this song?
What is State Farm saying? It’s an insurance company reminding you that your neighbors stink. But if you pay them a premium they’ll be like a good neighbor to you.
“All we did was show up and smile.” That’s usually the honest reflection for teenagers who are serving on a mission trip. The lead-up to the trip elevated their expectations that doing mission work was somehow extraordinary. But when you sit in a circle with a group debriefing a day of service someone in the circle will always say that they didn’t do anything particularly special. There’s a little ounce of disappointment that handing a homeless person a sandwich or painting the classroom of a school didn’t feel more special.
Yet, there is power in that reflection. Often times loving a neighbor isn’t a big thing. Something doesn’t have to be large or especially memorable to be meaningful.
In fact, becoming Good News in your Neighborhood is often so free that you begin doing it without any intentionality. I recently sat down with a denominational leader who shared with me just that. He left a parish ministry to accept a position at the denominations offices, and in doing so he left his parsonage garden behind and began living in a condo. Several months later he noticed that a small common area of his complex was getting overgrown and he approached the property manager about turning it into a little vegetable garden. He admits, his desire to do this was very selfish. He missed gardening and saw an opportunity to do something he loved. But as time went on neighbors began to ask him questions about what he was growing. Of course, he shared some of his crop. And the next thing you know everyone in his complex knows his name, about his garden, is helping with “their” garden, and looks forward to seeing him.
I’ll give you one guess where a couple of families are now going to church…