Tag Archives: bible study

Part Nine! We Are Not A Nice Church

“I hope we never become a nice church.” One of our people told me during a class one Wednesday evening.

“Why do you say that?” I responded.

“Well,” he said, “I don’t like nice churches.”

“Oh really?” I asked.

“Yeah.”

“Why not?”

“Nice seems so superficial. Nice people ask ‘How are you doing?’, but don’t want to know the answer. Nice people will say, ‘I hope you feel better,’ but won’t offer to help. You can’t swear in nice churches. You can’t cry in nice churches. You can’t be screwed up in nice churches. I don’t want us to be a nice church.”

“Yeah”, I said, jokingly, “We should put that up on a billboard. The Vine: We Are Not a Nice Church!”

“Yeah!” he said, with unselfconscious enthusiasm, “We should!”

(We didn’t put up that billboard. Maybe we should have.)

It became one of our unoffical slogans for the next couple years.

The Vine: We Are Not A Nice Church.

We’ve made a cult out of nice in the church.

We’ve come to believe that following Jesus means being a nice person.

The problem is that Jesus was not a nice person.

Seriously. Read the Gospels. The guy could come across as a real asshole.

He turned over tables in the temple when he didn’t like what the merchants were selling.

He called the good church people of his days a bunch of whitewashed tombs.

He said that his generation was a group of spoiled children who just wanted a nice religious song and dance.

He realized that the world did not need another nice person.

Our world doesn’t need more nice churches.

Often, behind the often kitschy, sometimes cute, proper niceness of our communities lies nothing that is particularly interesting or life changing.

What the world does need is more loving churches.

Churches that will speak up against injustice, especially the injustice that they practice in their own lives, before they point fingers at anyone else.

Churches that will accept horribly messed up, broken people, just as they are, and then treat them like brothers and sisters.

Churches that will speak honestly about the doubt, disappointment, and messiness that is life.

Churches that will stop worrying more about their carpets than the people who walk on them.

Churches that will care more about feeding the hungry than what hymns they sing.

Churches that will be more concerned with loving people first than fixing their theology first.

Say, for instance, a formerly homeless man walks into a typical church one Sunday. He talks about how much he loves Jesus. He talks a lot about how much he loves Jesus. Not like a little ‘a lot’, but a lot ‘a lot’, flooding the whole group with Jesus-themed, conversational sewage that leaves everyone else gasping for space like a bunch of flopping fish.

What do nice churches do? They listen to him. Generally impatiently. They let him hijack conversations with his bazooka made of words, they let him destroy their well made small groups, kidnap prayer time (your joys and concerns will only be returned to you if you’re willing to listen to my story about this person I met on the street this last week and also applaud my newly composed rap about Jesus, which is so new I’m only now making it up on the spot!), and hijack sermons with long-form answers to unasked questions. Finally, under a veneer of tremendous niceness, they will no longer be available to give him a ride to church, will stop going to the Bible Study that he has happily commandeered, and steer as far away from his conversational miasma as possible during coffee hour.

This is what I did for the first four months after John joined our community.

I tried every polite, demi-passive aggressive trick for moderating him. I would ask him small yes or no questions. I would ask people to raise their hands if they wanted to chime in and would not call on John unless I was scraping the bottom of the conversational barrel. I would wait, like a tiger in the grass, to spring upon the first pause in his conversation, so I could cut him off and call on someone else. (Much to my frustration, it always seemed like he could talk for minutes without taking a single breath.)

I used all my small group leader magic on the other members of the group. I talked about how good it was that we accepted pople like John. I talked about how good we were at welcoming everyone, no matter how screwed up they were, (or how much they screwed up our discussion). But, sometime after our conversation about loving-not-nice, I realized that not only was letting John run his mouth bad for the group, it was bad for him as well.

We were treating him like a nuisance rather than as a brother.

One January night, one of our members finally cut him off during one of his long responses, saying, “John, it’s my turn to talk now.”

Much to my surprise, he stopped talking.

And thus began a long (and still incomplete) process of transformation.

The group served as John’s personal moderator. They would tell him to be quiet when he talked too long. They would ask him follow up questions when it seemed like he was onto something important. They would pray for him when he was struggling. They would wake him up when he fell asleep in his chair after dinner (at least sometimes, at other points, the group decided that a little twenty minute John vacation would be best for everyone).

He became more real. Little bits of real talk – real questions – real experiences occasionally unearthed themselves in the midst of his conversation. And, if he still was not a model of group process, if he would occasionally burst out in a stream of language that sounded parroted from a particularly obnoxious religious pamphlet, if he would regularly very inappropriately invite people to the Vine when it was clear they were not interested, he was growing in a way that was meaningful for him.

He didn’t stick around forever. But I rather think that someone telling him to be quiet was, if not the nicest, then perhaps the most loving thing anyone had done for him in a long time

What Do You Think?

Where do you need to work on being loving-not-nice?

Next Week: Part Ten! Stumbling Into Success

Part Three: Running With the Bulls

Our R-rated Bible Study was the best Bible study I’ve ever led.

It was great.

It was great in the same way that:

A) Digging for diamonds in a septic tank is great.

B Directing a three ring circus is great; if you’re the only worker, the rest of the cast is lions, and you manage to escape with only one limb slightly gnawed.

C) Running with the bulls down the streets of Pamplona is great.

I ran with the bulls for the better part of a year and a half.

Some nights, I strolled home, stunned by the goodness of God and the goodness of the people God had placed in my life.

Some nights, I staggered home, shoving my metaphorical intestines back in their proper place, while dusting off the hoof tracks.

Sometimes, I was too tired or was on auto-pilot, and the night ended up a frustrating failure.

Those were the nights when I forgot to give the group a smoke break, and just as our conversation was getting deep, everyone simply got up and left for the back staircase.

Those were the nights when someone started talking about their problems, and I was too polite to tell them to shut it and let someone else take up all the oxygen in the room for a change, and the group devolved into a competition as to whose life sucked the most.

Those were the nights that I fought with the devilish little telephonic banes of every good small group experience: cell phones. I alternated between pausing passive- aggressively mid-sentence when someone checked their phone and aggressively telling people to put their phones down. Finally, I set down a blanket turn-off-your-damn-cell-phones-at-the-beginning-of-Bible-Study-the-world-won’t-end-in-the-next-ninety-minutes-but-if-it-does-you-won’t-need-a-cell-phone-to-know-about-it policy.

Those were the nights when I literally said to the group “Stick with me! We only have a few minutes left!” (Naked pleas for attention, as it turns out, are not a particularly effective leadership strategy.)

Sometimes, I took a potential disaster and danced with it like a pro.

Those were the nights when I started leading a minute of silent centering at the start of group, which turned our chaotic beginnings into deep focus almost instantly.

Those were the nights when someone said, “Why does my life suck so much?” and I responded, “Let’s pray for you.”

There was the night we studied the Book of Jonah and everyone complained about how much they hated Haverhill. I was able to say “Aren’t you being just like Jonah: wishing for destruction of the city rather than its welfare?” and people actually listened and we started doing service projects together.

Sometimes, it didn’t matter either way.

When we started the group, one of our first members was Kate, who was an ex-addict, ex-internet porn-star. (After about a year, I finally realized what she was doing a few of the times she was texting during Bible study. I can guarantee you that they don’t tell you about how to deal with that in seminary). She was trying out Jesus with the same enthusiasm with which she had tried out everything else: full of boundary-less enthusiasm that did not involve even one drop of discretion.

I asked people to invite their friends to our group. Kate was excited. She told me that she was going to invite all her friends.

“Great.” I said.

I had heard this before.

Everyone, once they got excited about the Vine, said they were going to invite all their friends to it.

Despite their best intentions, I learned quickly that people:

A) Didn’t have as many friends as they thought.

B) If they did, that most of them weren’t particularly interested in Jesus.

C) If they were, that inviting them required a lot more courage than most would-be evangelists currently possessed.

For all the “all my friends” promises I had received before, I think a total of four people had shown up to something we did.

Next week rolled around, and I was hopeful by everyone inviting all their friends, we might grow the group from four to six.

Then, Kate’s friends showed up.

Twenty four of them.

You don’t host Bible study when twenty four people unexpectedly show up at your house. You just pray that they don’t tear the house apart.

I called my wife and our friends.

They graciously talked to guests, picked up dishes, and took care of the children.

Fifteen minutes before we were supposed to end, I sat down with all the adults,  shared about who we were, and opened the Bible.

It was then that I learned something very important.

None of them realized that they had been invited to a Bible study.

It was a very awkward fifteen minutes.

(I asked Kate later about this. She said, “Yeah! None of my friends would go to a Bible study! So, I just told them they were coming over to a friend’s house for a free dinner! Isn’t that great?”  She winked and laughed. “I fooled them!”)

Do you know how many of those newly invited, unintentionally bait-and-switch surprise guests made it back next week?

Not one.

One week and twenty four people worth of chaos later, and it was back to four of us sitting around my dining room table.

There are days it doesn’t matter how good you are at running with the bulls.

You’re just going to get run over anyway.

What Do You Think?

1) How do you deal with situations that simply go sideways?

2) What does it mean that messes are so often beautiful? (And beauty is so often messy?)

Coming Thursday! Part Four: A Beautiful Mess

Part Two: R-Rated Bible Study

“I need to tell you something,” I said, as I leaned over to my Bible study leader one cold evening in February.

“What’s that?”

“I’m going to drop the f-bomb tonight.”

I was co-leading a Bible study in a ratty little apartment on Normand Street, one of the tiny spots of hell in our city. The group was, in the words of one of its members, the island of misfit toys: a collection bin for all the people who were a little too screwed up or crazy for “normal” church. We had addicts cycling through some stage of recovery (or non-recovery), the mentally ill, and demi-street people, everyone so rough around the edges they could be used for sandpaper.

I had noted something odd. These people, who would un-selfconsciously turn the air blue when when they didn’t know I was listening, behaved like a bunch of old ladies at a tea party when they were in Bible study. As if by magic, their profanity was transmuted into a series of religious aphorisms like “God’s got a plan” or “That’s why I love Jesus” that must have had been ripped from a particularly milquetoast tract.

It was very nice.

It was also complete bullshit.

I knew it was bullshit when one guy, who had come to our group once and used stunningly pious language, saw me a couple months later on the street. He clearly did not recognize me as The Pastor Who He Had Done Bible Study With, and so, in the course of a three minute conversation, managed to squeeze in the better part of four dozen expletives and a dozen sexual references before genially walking away, obviously having no clue that this was the same man who he had spoken to in old-lady Jesus language just a little while ago.

Incidentally, this is one of the things that I hate the most about being a pastor.

When people are around me, they think that it’s their responsibility to be nice. If anyone says, “shit”, “damn”, or even “crap” while in my presence, I get a stream of obnoxiously obsequious apologies, for having been so rude around them. None of this language bothers me at all. For many in my generation, these words are not laden with the emotional content that they were for previous generations of people.

Ironically, this same group of very nice people will have no problem gossiping, complaining, or denigrating people based on their gender, income, sexual orientation, or ethnicity to me.

That, incidentally, I find very offensive.

(It was the same phenomenon I experienced once when we were pastoring a traditional church and wanted to go to a slightly seedy club in the downtown on a Friday night.

“You can’t do that!” said one of our church ladies.

“I hear they do drugs down there! We don’t want people to hear that our pastor is going to places like that.”

This, of course, was taken directly from the example of Jesus, who, as anyone knows, always made sure to check with his old church ladies before hanging out with anyone who might be considered inappropriate.)

I realized that our Bible study was filled to the brim with people who were trying really hard to be nice church people.

It was horrific.

They were so concerned about being nice that they weren’t able to talk honestly about their lives. And so, that February evening, during a conversation about the Sermon on the Mount, which is such a brutally practical document that it can’t help but incite charged conversation, I dropped the f-bomb at my first opportunity.

There was a pause.

Nice church people don’t say words like fuck.

Nice pastors definitely don’t say words like fuck.

There was a slight shocked pause, as the group of disreputable, poor, demi-addicted, high school dropouts took in my breach of social etiquette.

And then, as if by magic, the conversation opened up.

It was beautiful.

The group came alive.

I discovered stories about people that I had never heard in the previous six months I had known them.

People argued.

They talked about where they disagreed with what Jesus was saying.

They asked good questions.

They shared deeply about their struggles.

They prayed together.

They took smoke breaks. (This was the inviolable rule of Bible study. I had to call a smoke break 45 minutes in, or else three quarters of the group would simply get up and leave in ones or twos, feeling at their pockets for a lighter.)

It was the best Bible study I’ve ever been in.

Once they knew that it was okay to bring their actual lives to the scriptures, they poured out wells of wisdom, honesty, and insight that put most of my seminary classmates to shame (including me.)

I knew that we were getting real with each other, when our group leader, during closing prayer, asked God to whack John’s ding-dong so he could overcome his lust.

I know we were in the right place when one of the residents of the apartment had a psychotic break and we had to grab the kids and hustle down the stairs while the police hustled up them.

I knew we were hanging out with the right people when someone’s highly dysfunctional boyfriend came one night. He responded to the question, “How do you know that Jesus is real and not just bull shit?” by saying, “Well, I’m here!”

I knew God’s Spirit was at work when one person spent her last twenty dollars to buy four Little Caesar’s pizzas for the group’s dinner. At the end of the night, the group passed a hat around to support her, (many people giving the last dollars out of their pockets), and she ended up with fifty.

We became known as the R-Rated Bible Study: the place where we ate good food, (mostly meat, soda, and chips), connected with one another, and studied scripture using language that would make good church people (and a lot of other people) very uncomfortable.

Some of the churchier people in our sphere visited the R-Rated Bible Study because, they said, “it sounds interesting!”, but really because we happened to be the most interesting ecclesial exhibit at the zoo.

It was just a moment. After a couple years, the group blew apart due to a combination of re-activated addictions and lack of people skills.

That was okay. It was a beautiful moment, nonetheless.

What do you think?

What gets in the way of people being real in your community?

Profanity? When might it be okay to swear in a religious context? (Or is it ever?)

Coming Tuesday: Part Three: Running With The Bulls