Once or twice a year, I take off to a small working class suburb of Indianapolis to study prayer and community with a bunch of Benedictine nuns, all of them beautiful and quirky in their own way.
One of the nuns, Sister Mary Margaret Funk, who usually just goes by Meg, has written a series of books on lessons from the early Christian church, including the desert fathers. Things like prayer, thoughts, and all the Christian-y things that have gotten lost along our sacred highway in last two thousand years since Jesus tried to teach us a thing or two and the first churches began.
Sister Meg became Executive Director of Monastic Interreligious Dialogue Board in 1994 and so began her run with the world’s religious big-wigs, including the Dalai Lama. One day, the Dalai Lama said to Sister Meg, “It’s not that we Buddhists mind having former Christians join us, but it seems to me that they might remain Christians if you did a better job of teaching your faith.” Mahatma Ghandi said if it weren’t for the Christians, he’d be one.
Those who read this column probably are aware of the recent published studies reporting that mainline religions are bleeding members. In other words, fewer and fewer people identify themselves with the institutional church, much less a particular denomination. The institutional church is out, and “spirituality” seems to be the new black.
When church leaders hear this, panic sets in, or at least a droning anxiety and creeping sense of dread. What do we do? All sorts of answers have been proposed. Just last month, a church in Alabama decided to set aside the whole month of March to do a sermon series on sex. Some church leaders argue that we need to make the bible more relevant. Others believe in making worship more entertaining. I think if you’re going to go that route, go with the sex. Church Facebook pages are popping up quicker than you can say “Jesus saves.” After all, the thinking goes, if you replace the altar with a drum set, won’t the kids flock in?
But maybe we should listen to the Dalai Lama. Maybe he’s right about Christianity. Maybe the problem isn’t to make the gospel of grace in Christ more relevant. Maybe the Dalai Lama is on target when he jokes with Sister Meg that Christians should be telling the story with more confidence simply because we’re free to do it. The story is heartbreakingly beautiful, and even some people outside the faith know it.
Maybe we can speak with clarity and confidence because the church and its message doesn’t belong to us anyway, so let’s not fret so much about its survival; it belongs to God and God has given it to us as a gift. A story as a gift where Christ comes to invite us into this crazy love of the Trinity that constantly overflows to create and redeem.
And in return, all God asks us to do is pretty simple: just tell my story. So, go around baptizing, whether the promise comes with water or fire or word, go around saying that God is ‘for you’ because God is; God has fallen hopelessly in love. Sure, the story involves that icky part about dying, that letting go of this life, that surrender of ‘self’, but God has already said ‘yes’ in Christ to all our ‘no thank you’s.’ We’re fed before we find ourselves hungry. We’re home before we recognize it as such; we’ve already been given all we need.
You don’t need to sell a gift, or market it, or make it relevant, or more entertaining. The story is who God is in love and that message alone is enough.