Confession is good for the soul: I finally quit caring about being cool...

For most of my life I have worried about - and wanted to be - cool. Mostly that title has eluded me. In fourth grade I was the geeky guy who listened to both Saint Saens AND The Four Seasons (along with some smokin' girl groups, too like the Jaynettes the Shirelles, Little Eva and the Shangra Las.) For a short time - sixth grade - my weight wasn't out of control, but all throughout what we once called junior high and then high school I was the fat kid who played bass guitar. I was at times witty - I had a wicked sense for good tunes - and could dance like a white kid who listened to a LOT of James Brown (and Frank Zappa and the Beatles!) But I had no illusions: I was never cool.
In time, I found my niche as an oddball musical intellectual who loved Jesus. And children. And poetry and movies and dogs. That is still mostly true all these years later. The reason I am confessing that I recently quit caring about being cool is that over the past year I've seen articles and books talking about this or that gimmick to bring more people back into the church. For most of my 30 years I've read almost EVERY recommended theological and tactical prescription for reaching out and making the church relevant. 

And, sadly, I've tried a lot of them in my quest to be successful as a cool pastor. I've done praise bands. I learned all about digital worship. I worked at creating small groups. And youth ministries. And lay led mission and compassion teams. I've led marriage enrichment retreats and spiritual life retreats, too. I've been active in social justice networks, food coops and tactical outreach to young families and senior citizens. 

Tonight, however, when I saw two postings on Facebook advocating yet another gimmick for making the church more authentic - and by implication, more interesting and satisfying for today's consumers - I said out loud: that's it - enough bullshit - I don't care anymore about being cool. Maybe that's been true for me for about 10 years, yes? I am a slow learner, so maybe I can only now give expression to something I have known to be true for the last decade. In my experience, there are essentially only three reasons why people go to church and remain connected:

+ First, the community is grounded in the living Spirit and presence of Jesus. It can be contemporary or traditional, liturgical or low church, it can be Protestant, Catholic, Anglican or Orthodox. The style doesn't matter. All that matters is that the leadership and a deep core of the community knows, trusts and follows Jesus. Christ is all we have to share with the world anyway - not better lattes or cinema or music or childcare - for like God's Holy Spirit said to the disciples on the mountain after the Lord's transfiguration:  this is my beloved Son - listen to him - and when the smoke cleared there was Jesus only. That is the key: Jesus only. Now please don't misunderstand me: I am NOT saying that Jesus is the only way to God's grace; nor am I suggesting that only Christians will be welcomed into God's eternal love. I am just saying that without Jesus the church is just a gimmick - and all people, especially young people, have excellent bullshit detectors and that is why more and more stay away.

+ Second, there comes a moment in some of our lives when we realize that we don't know what is really important in life. It might happen after an illness - or a divorce - or getting sober - or a car accident. It might happen when our first child is born. Or we look out upon the Grand Canyon and are filled with an awe we neither understand nor can control. It might hit you while standing in the Tate Modern gazing in meditation upon the Rothko paintings. Or at a U2 or Springsteen or Lady Gaga or Arvo Paart concert. Whatever the catalyst, you sense that there is something greater and more beautiful to life than you have ever known before - and you want to encounter this awe at a deeper level. So you go on a quest - and maybe you'll find a church that can help you. Not every church is equipped to do this. Many of our contemporary congregations are mostly interested in either the prosperity gospel or helping you manage your time and money better. They don't really know very much about the care and cure of the soul. But some do... and those are the churches that have something to offer souls who are on fire. And when people find such congregations, they usually end up staying, too.
+ Third, when we start to grow up and settle in to a spiritual commitment, we realize we can't make it all by ourselves. We need help and encouragement and correction and sustenance. Nobody can live into the counter-cultural truth of the Sermon on the Mount all by themselves. Nobody can stay grounded and humble and focused on joy given the hassles of real life. Nobody can find their way through the haze of a dark night of the soul without support. In a word, people need to be in community to go deeper. This takes a while to grasp. It isn't the first reason people stay in church. But it becomes a key reason as women and men mature. We simply aren't wise enough, bright enough, loving enough, strong enough or faithful enough to do live into the way of Christ all by ourselves. We need help. And some churches offer a little help along the way.

Jesus - awe and humility - and community are the three things that both attract authentic seekers to a church - and keep them grounded. Not gimmicks. Not alcohol and hymns. Not earrings and rock and roll. Or jazz or hip hop or tattoos or the best coffee in town. Just Jesus - his awesome and humbling grace - and a community of encouragement. And none of that is cool. It is just real - and soul healing. And that's a freakin' wonderful truth from my perspective tonight.

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