I have been spending more time in the kitchen lately – voluntarily by the way. I used to cook a bit: grilled cheese, toast, cereal, coffee, bacon, barbecued anything – you know, the essentials. (Warm canned beans on toast with mustard on top was my creation in case you were wondering…) Lately I’ve been tackling a wider variety of foods and experimenting with techniques, flavours, spices, heat, etc. There is even a learning curve to using the various kitchen gadgets stashed in our cupboards (that Vitamix looks really intimidating).
But one skill I mastered long ago was how to use a funnel. Now, for those who have never poured liquid into a dispenser or gasoline into a lawnmower, a funnel is a hollow gadget with a large opening on one end and a smaller opening on the other. It is a funny looking, cross-platform tool that safely captures a poorly controlled volume of material in one end and safely dispenses it into a controlled environment at the other. That’s what a funnel does.
My audience here is a pretty even mix of churched, unchurched, and formerly churched people so some of these discussions can get complicated. It’s not my intention for this blog to get too churchy but please take what you find meaningful from the following.
For those who are less familiar, evangelicals by definition prioritize being ‘born again’ and evangelizing (announcing; advocating) the Good News that is Jesus Christ. However, one of the things that has saddened me in my journey has been how often I have observed the upside down practices that the church often uses to accomplish this.
To put it another way, it’s not uncommon for Christians to prefer nice, comfortable, obedient citizens to the dirty, opinionated, independent sinners that populate much of our culture. They want to funnel people into their church but much of the population either gets caught in the narrows of the funnel or miss it completely.
Or on another level, some churches turn the funnel upside down and deflect challenging people before they even get close. Churches that broadcast words like Bible-believing or pro-life or pro-marriage or six-day-creationist, end times or politically conservative are basically turning people away. Sermons on how to talk, how to dress, how to act, liberalism, music, politics, Israel, alcohol, etc. and finger pointing criticisms are simply a platform for narrow, angry opinion. Not the Gospel. Stay away.
If you don’t believe me, consider that in most churches the music, the teaching (or preaching as some call it), the liturgy, etc. is familiar and beliefs are nicely packaged. All are comfortable with the others in their tribe on Sunday morning and they agree as they talk the talk.
But what if a foul-smelling street person came in one Sunday and sat in the second pew on the right side of the aisle? Or a large family of unruly children arrived ten minutes late and landed somewhere in the middle rows? Or a gay couple looking for a place to worship? Or a person who has lost their job and have nowhere to go for help? Or an enquiring thinker who questions the pastor’s interpretation of a Bible passage? Okay to smoke in the parking lot?
How are guests supposed to feel when everyone talks together in familiar cliques or they don’t know the songs or when the collection plate publicly passes them or they are met by a designated greeter with a wide smile and a job to do?
Or consider that churches aren’t welcoming places for introverts who find crowds and public interaction uncomfortable. And our beliefs aren’t welcoming places for people whose thought processes move more cautiously, scientifically or deeply.
Polls on the subject continue to indicate that people are walking away from church.* Secular people see Christians as narrow, rule enforcing, holier-than-thou-nesses. And there’s now another group gathering notable momentum: ‘Dones’ are people who have been core church attenders/leaders for years but are leaving church because they are tired of the busy programming, narrow doctrine and shallow teaching. By the millions.
If you’re a church person (and you’re still reading), I understand I am making lots of blanket statements that may not apply to your setting. This is not intended to be a criticism of everybody but rather a loving warning about what the church should be.
Sometimes the funnelling is intentional but often it’s unintentional – invisible, thoughtless screening; the gentle but real cold shoulder when someone doesn’t fit in or agree. Or let me say it another way: churches have significantly more requirements for membership than God does for his kingdom. Worse, if a person doesn’t fit through the funnel, we might even withhold a person’s access to the powerful act of Eucharist or Communion, as if it’s our place to judge their heart.
The idol of funnelling.
But that isn’t Jesus’ way. No funnels. His invitation is wide open to any opinion, hurt, lifestyle or sin, just look at the life and sayings of Jesus. I hesitate to use a fashionable word that often gets twisted, but Jesus was demonstrably inclusive in his relationships. He shocked and angered the religious leaders with his willingness to party and eat with sinners. As I discussed last post he unpopularity had women as his most trusted friends. He spent most of his time traveling dusty roads and teaching on hillsides with people who were left empty by the religious teachers. In Jesus’ economy, time spent around a table discussing life was much more valuable than a sanitized, well funnelled gathering of the religious.
‘The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!” – Luke 7:34
‘And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, ‘This man receives sinners and eats with them.” – Luke 15:2
That’s not to say Jesus doesn’t expect something from us in return. Words like truth, humility, sacrifice, peace, forgiveness, faithfulness, love are in the life he desires for us. In some ways it is more demanding, which is why most people, religious or otherwise, would rather just funnel into the comfortable rules of their own tribe.
I’m not down on churches: find yourself one that is warm and deep. But if you’re a church person, get real – church is a foreign and even dangerous place for most. The real invitation to life happens outside your doors in the real world.
If you’re not a church person, get real. Find somebody whose life and faith you trust and begin to talk around a table about the things that matter.
From my experience funnelling doesn’t work. However, caring conversations about the important things in life, whether around a table or across a room, are the best holy fun I can have.
* from PEW Research. U.S. statistics.