By one of the monks of Unvirtuous Abbey
Back in 1998, I used to drink scotch on Sunday nights with the Roman Catholic Bishop of the Yukon. The priests had befriended me, and they would invite my Protestant self over for supper because they knew I lived alone. Bishop Tom traveled a lot by plane, and I remember asking him (one of the kindest and holiest people I’ve ever met), “What do you say when people ask you what you do for a living?” His reply was, “I just tell them that I’m in sales.”
There’s a reason why those of us who work in churches do that. There’s nothing like telling people what you do and no sooner are the words out of your mouth than you hear, “I used to go to church, but then…” and you’re stuck in the corner for an hour. Or, while in the middle of a celebration, you hear someone’s life story because, after all, that’s what you do, right? Or, more times than not, the person would be so freaked out by the fact that you were ‘religious’ that things just became awkward.
I started to get creative with this when I would go on vacation. I often said that I worked in public relations for an eastern firm, or that I was an investment banker. My favourite one, if I was in a pub, was, “Advance scout to the alien fleet.”
There’s another reason some of us do this. One that we are sad to admit: It’s because when you say you are part of a church, people have a perceived notion of what that means, and it’s not always good news.
Dan Clendenin, from Journey With Jesus, shared something that blew me away. He reviewed a book called “UnChristian” which did a study on how people outside the church perceive the church. From that study, here are the percentages of people outside the church who think that the following words describe present-day Christianity:
- antihomosexual 91%
- judgmental 87%
- hypocritical 85%
- old-fashioned 78%
- too political 75%
- out of touch with reality 72%
- insensitive to others 70%
- boring 68%
Even though I’d like to believe I’m not any of those things, by saying what I do and who I am, there’s a good chance people will slot me, and you, into some of those categories. Not to mention that churches use the old fashioned teaching tools of guilt and shame…
Christianity is definitely having a public relations problem now. So many churches are trying to market themselves in a different way. Sometimes they market themselves well, like the church in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where someone spray painted the words, “God is dead” on the side of the building, and the minister (rather than get angry) wrote above it, “Not so fast. Happy Easter!” And sometimes churches have marketing fails, like the church having their Worship, Teaching, and Friendship conference. (WTF?)
Some of our most popular prayers at Unvirtuous Abbey have to do with the disconnect between perception and reality. What is poignant for us is when we hear feedback to a prayer that has drawn someone closer to the holy in their lives.
Some of the more recent prayers that generated lots of comments are:
“For those who deny global warming yet think that human morality affects plate tectonics, we pray to the Lord.”
“Lord, you who told Lazarus to “Come out!”, we pray for religious leaders who tell people it’s wrong to do that. Amen.”
“For those who claim to be holy but burn others’ holy books, Lord have mercy.”
“For those who say ‘Everything happens for a reason’ because, honest to God, that’s a really dumb thing to say. Amen.”
“For those who insist on the literal inerrancy of something they’ve never really read, Lord hear our prayer.”
Sarah Doody, in an article about product story tellers, asks, “Do you know your product’s story? And perhaps more importantly, who creates your product story?”
From a theological point of view, those are excellent questions. A friend of mine in ministry once wondered if God had abandoned the church as a medium? Of course, God doesn’t abandon anything; however, given that people flock to the theatres, movies, performance halls and dance studios to experience emotion and to transcend the ordinary, has the church lost its ability to tell the story?
After all, isn’t it the story that we bring to anxiety-filled hospital beds; to curtains-closed living rooms; to those in need of a new narrative for life; and to a gathered community in grief or in celebration?
In some cases, churches are going so far to the theological right that people have to unplug their heads before they enter the building; and in other cases, churches are going so far to the left theologically in order to attract the masses, that they describe themselves as “post theistic”. In a way, they are offering what one person has called, “unicorn theology.” (And even though unicorn theology sounds kind of awesome, it may not have many practical applications, other than being awesome.)
We, the monks of Unvirtuous Abbey, believe that as Christians we are called to be keepers of the story, and tellers of it. We are encouragers of its sharing, and we are enablers of its hearing.
In her novel Ceremony, Leslie Marmon Silko writes,
“I will tell you something about stories. They aren’t just entertainment. Don’t be fooled. They are all we have, you see, all we have to fight off illness and death. You don’t have anything if you don’t have stories.”