This past week I attended the Youth Specialties National Youth Workers Convention (NYWC) in Atlanta, Georgia. There people worshipped, talked about the joys and perils of youth ministry and waxed philosophically/theologically. It all seemed great… that is until I was reminded that in many ways the modern church that I belong to is a fraud.
If you haven’t been, the way that the NYWC works is that there are a bunch of seminars, workshops and lectures and then – in between those times – everyone, the hundreds, maybe thousands of participants that attend annually, gather together in the “Big Room” for worship etc. This year the event in Atlanta was mostly held in the Atlanta Marriott Marquis, an unbelievable structure that housed just about everything except the big room group which was held in the Atlanta Civic Theater. So to go to the big room event, hundreds of followers proceeded like lemmings a couple of blocks down the street to worship, and in the process I saw them, and myself fall off of the proverbial cliff of practical theology.
This happened in essence when this huge mob of Christians (myself included) walked right on by a homeless man curled up in the fetal position on edge of the sidewalk along the way. He wasn’t begging, he was just there and it was in that stark reality that I saw the paradox of the modern American Christian believer. We talk a good God game but in many ways we are our own problem- because when faced with a tangible long-term need –we fail to provide for it. Literally hundreds if not thousands of Christians walked by that man – and either nobody else noticed, or like me, nobody else cared enough to try and do something about it.
That’s right I just said that I didn’t care enough. People who care take action. Those who don’t – they do nothing, complain, or in this case, they ignore the problem.
Maybe, most folks walked by because they are Youth Workers, or volunteer youth workers who lack needed training… But, even if that is the case (which I highly doubt) then what is my excuse? I am a pastor by vocation. I have two advanced degrees in Ministry/Theology and I am working on a third. Simply put there is no excuse, I just have to face the fact that I am a hypocrite, plain and simple.
Not that that is really news to anyone. Any Christian who has an ounce of humility would admit the same, but for some reason this instance particularly stung. Maybe it was because it was so blatant. Here, the leaders of the church universal are supposed to be getting equipped to go out and teach future generations how to live out the Gospel and smack dab in the middle of that training we are faced with the reality that not one among us could provide adequate options for this man.
My personal dilemma in this particular instance was that, thinking through the problem, I couldn’t think of a long-term solution to this man’s situation. What could I do? I guess I could offer to put him up in a hotel but eventually I would be unable to financially support him. I suppose I could have asked him to come live with us but that’s a culture shock for anyone. I live in another state, on an island, in a gated community, in a rent house where we pay extra for everything even our cats (we’ve adopted three). I’m pretty sure that long-term guests are frowned upon and probably cost more – thus again more practical constraints/excuses. But still, I could have at least, in the short term, met a temporary need – food, clothing – I could have prayed with him.
The sad thing is, I’m not even sure that the man would have been open to any of these ideas anyway. The fact is that I don’t know if the man wanted or needed anything at all because I didn’t even take the time to ask. And this is what I mean when I say that in many ways the modern American church is a fraud. How can we say that we abide by the teachings of Jesus or how can we call ourselves Christ followers, if we can’t even follow the basic command to love our neighbor? We constantly claim we are too busy, that there isn’t enough time in the day, that we are too tired to help. But what did I have to do that was more important that day? I wasn’t too busy. I didn’t have to be to the ‘Big Room” on time. Heck, when I came out of the session, someone even gave me a free Red-Bull – so, so much for my energy excuse. The truth is – I have no excuse… I failed. Period.
If we as American Christians want to follow Christ we’ve got to begin to find ways to live out our faith when opportunities presents themselves – and this doesn’t just mean the homeless that we may encounter (although I think that those situations are some of the hardest ethically). This means that at every turn, at every opportunity we must yearn, seek, and long to share and live out the gospel. We must meet the felt needs of others and offer the love of Jesus persistently, fervently or we are not worthy of the title of being “the people of the Way”.
How many people do we pass each day without even asking one of them how we can bless them today? Our inaction makes us frauds. The amazing thing is that, in each of us, we know what we should do – it’s just that many times we can’t seem to muster the courage to actually do what we are called to do.
Thank God for His Grace. Without it, I’d be lost.