A few weeks back Rob and I set up a table at TaylorFest, an ASU Downtown event meant to introduce incoming freshmen to the Downtown Phoenix community. There were restaurants, coffee shops, , music venues, and of course, churches represented there. We took a sign and some business cards and, in a last ditch effort to come up with something to differentiate us from other churches, a six foot chalkboard I made for use in worship.
See, when you’re trying hard not to be a soundbite church, it’s hard to say who you are when you only have a soundbite’s worth of time with a person. “We’re not like other churches,” or, “we’re relevant for a younger generation,” ring hollow to a generation of young people who have grown up hearing these mantras. On the other hand, “we’re a faith community striving to recognize where God is already at work in the creative, diverse, emerging community of Downtown Phoenix, honor that work among believers and non-believers alike, and invite all people within the community into an intentional spiritual journey to become more and more who God created us to be,” just doesn’t capture the imagination of college freshmen living away from home for the first time and rushing between hip vendors vying for their attention and tables giving out free goodies.
So, a chalk board. It allowed interaction, an opportunity for students to voice their own opinions, and a chance to move beyond words into creativity. We wrote, “God Looks Like…” at the top of the board and invited folk to draw, write, or express in anyway they cared to what God looked like to them. We got some good responses, but the folk who opted in were by and large folk who were already comfortable with “God” talk. “Jesus” was the first answer put on the board and, while I can appreciate that response, it most likely came from someone comfortable with church. Sandwiched between the new mega church in town and the campus evangelical group, we were talking to the same insiders churches always talk to at public events like this. We knew we had to do something different.
When the board was filled we took a pic, erased it, and replaced the prompt at the top with, “Church Sucks Because…”. We immediately sensed a shift. The mega church to our right wasn’t sure how to react. Students who had been avoiding the “church row” area of the event began taking notice, stopping to read comments or just pointing the prompt out to their friends. Some folk made a B-line for the chalk and began writing their thoughts while several others stood back, contemplating the question. When people asked us who we were or what this was all about we told them that we were a new faith community in town looking for honest conversation about church and how we might strip away the institutional barriers between our community and the work of Christ in the world. Some folk hated it and let us know. Some thanked us for our honesty, for allowing them a voice, and for creating space for a conversation they were having in their heads or with their friends that seemed to separate them from the churches they grew up in.
And that’s it. That’s the point. Some folk are happy with their church just the way it is and that’s great! We’re glad they’ve found a place that offers them the salvific love and grace of Jesus Christ. But some folk have not and they don’t know how to tell us that. Some folk desperately want a connection to God but are no longer willing to check their brains, or creativity, or discerning pallets, or friends at the door. Others have given up the notion that there might be a place in a church or even in the kin(g)dom of God for them because they can’t accept the teachings, are bored in worship, or feel that people are disingenuous in the churches they grew up in. These folk are our neighbors, our friends, our family, and they’re having these conversation whether we’re a part of them or not.
So let’s take away the stigma. Church doesn’t always suck, but sometimes it does and no one should be surprised by that. Let’s not make other people say it first. Let’s not let our institutions become such idols that we put their reverence above offering God’s grace and love to the world.
Because that would suck.