As a recently ordained Deacon in the United Methodist Church, I can’t count the number of times in the past 4 or 5 years that I’ve been asked to share my “call story”…the narrative version of when and how I first sensed that God’s purpose for me was vocational ministry, and how I pursued that purpose.
In various interviews and written work during the course of my ordination process, I told the story over and over of how an invitation to chaperone a youth group weekend led, through a series of events, to a realization that ordained ministry was to be my new life’s work.
But there’s a part of that story I haven’t told…not because I wished to conceal it, but simply because I didn’t quite fully perceive it or have the right language for it.
An unChristian Discovery
That part of the story goes back to a book that was recommended to me by someone who I barely knew, who was in and out of a group of folks I was involved with for a very short period of time in the early 2000s, and whose name I can’t for the life of me remember.
That book—unChristian, written in 2007 by Gabe Lyons and David Kinnaman—got a lot of attention in church circles for a little while about a decade ago. Unpacking research data gathered by the Barna Group from 16-29-year-olds, unChristian revealed a generation of young Americans that found the church at the turn of the 21st Century to be untrustworthy, hypocritical, judgmental, homophobic, and hyper-political/partisan.
It was reading that book and studying its conclusions that led me to believe that Christianity (especially in the US) needed not just new thinking about the ways that much of the church has lost the way of Jesus, but whole new paradigms to connect with people who have not only lost faith, but trust, in our institutions.
And in that realization, a call to ministry was born.
We hear a lot about statistics that show Christianity on the decline in America, about shrinking congregations, about divisions along theological and doctrinal lines, about the explosion of the “nones”—those who claim no religious affiliation, especially among younger generations—and about the general secularization of Western culture and the growth of moral pluralism.
What Kinaman and Lyons pointed out in their book 12 years ago, and what much of the church still fails to realize today, is that the church itself bears much of the responsibility for these societal trends.
If people are losing faith and trust in the church, maybe it’s less because of anything they’re doing wrong than what we are.
Now before you jump my case for just being another in a long line of “church bashers,” you need to know that I firmly and fully believe that the church is, always has been, and always will be God’s plan for showing God’s love to the world.
But in many ways we’ve lost sight of our purpose.
Over the past two or three generations of American Christianity, much of the church came to believe that its purpose was to protect the faithful against the supposed evils of the rest of the world. That the whole point was to provide a sanctuary where people could not only segregate themselves from the unwashed masses, but actually celebrate that segregation.
And for a while, it worked.
Until one day we looked around and realized that our sons and daughters were no longer interested in being segregated from the world, but actually wanted to be involved in its redemption.
But rather than equip and empower them to be the light of the world, we either tried to turn them into recruiters for our failing models or blamed them for daring to call us on our bullshit.
Instead of asking them what we were missing, we kept feeding them bland platitudes, insipid hymnody, and twisted guilt trips.
Oh, sure, we tried freshening things up by creating light and laser rock-and-roll shows, putting our preachers in blue jeans and tight-fitting t-shirts, and watering down our Bible studies with heavy doses of celebrity pastors doing Christianity 101 videos.
We tried to make ourselves relevant by imitating the culture we perceived outside our doors.
But, to quote an old Appalachian proverb, it amounted little more than putting lipstick on a pig.
Rebuild, Retool, Reboot
As I said, though, I still believe the church to be God’s plan. And to be fair, the situation I’m describing is certainly not true of all of the church. I’m painting with broad strokes here.
There are certainly pockets where people are still getting it right, still following the way of Jesus, still pursuing God’s purpose of sharing God’s love with people who are hurting and need help.
But the old institution needs a major rebuild.
“Church” as we’ve come to know it for most of our lifetimes, needs to be reinvented. Reimagined.
Not as a sanctuary against the world, but as a community of people who are providing light in the midst of darkness.
And I believe that my own call to ministry is within that reimagining.
What I learned from a Goose
Fast forward to July 11-14 of this year when I found myself in the mountains of North Carolina at the annual Wild Goose Festival, which describes itself as “a 4-day Spirit, Justice, Music and Arts Festival” rooted in a progressive Christian tradition.
Through the speakers, group discussions, music, and authentic conversations—many with complete strangers—I found that original spark of calling being rekindled.
Over the course of the past 8 years, I’ve completed a seminary degree, served as a youth pastor at a wonderful Presbyterian church, pastored an amazing small-town United Methodist congregation, worked as a member of the West Virginia Conference staff as a communications specialist, completed 3 years of required ministry residency training, and become an ordained Deacon.
And throughout that time, I’ve been trying to just faithfully take the next step that God was putting in front of me and trying to keep that original vision in sight.
It’s not that I haven’t been living into my calling in all of those other things. It’s just that they were steps—necessary ones, I believe—to prepare me to be part of creating something new that, while keeping its roots firmly planted, will grow in new and unexpected directions.
Creating something new within an existing institution can be daunting. Especially when that institution finds itself in its own identity crisis.
But it also creates an amazing opportunity. It creates an openness to entrepreneurial experimentation…to breaking free of the confines of the structure in order to press forward into the mission.
And I’m inviting you into the journey.
If you’ve stuck with me past the 1,100-word mark, I’m guessing that what I’m saying here resonates with you in some way. And that you might be interested in being part of something new, something different, in re-opening the way of Jesus to folks who have been turned off, turned out, or turned away by the institutional church.
Welcome to the journey. Let’s take it together.