To many people unaffiliated with a church, and even to some who are, "church" means being among other people who are just like you: look like you, talk like you, think like you, work and play like you, and believe like you. It is part of foundational human behavior built into our DNA - we are inclined to form ourselves into groups ("tribes," as author Seth Rogen likes to call them). And we are inclined to do so based on some common shared characteristic. The problem for the church comes when we let this, and not the gospel, be what defines us.
I'm convinced, along with lots of other folks, that if the American church of the 21st century is going to flourish and live into its calling in the future, it must first clear this hurdle. And it's got to be more than simply opening our doors and saying a hearty, "Y'all come!" Instead, we're going to need to seek out those who are not like us and engage them on their own turf. It also means not allowing doctrine and dogma to supercede the relational nature of the body of Christ - as Paul said, and certainly got raked over the coals, we are all one in Christ Jesus. No single truth is as simple and as scandalous.
I don't know if it's reassuring or depressing that the same problems we face today in the church were faced by that Galatian church a mere 25 years after the end of Jesus' earthly life. I guess it depends on how you look at it. The thing is, if we're going to clear this hurdle, we have to intentionally put ourselves in those uncomfortable positions where we, ironically, are not the authority - for that is how we demonstrate to those on the outside of the church that it is not about us, it was never about us, but it was and is always about God. And we have to be creative in how we do it - not for creativity's sake, but to demonstrate in bold and convincing fashion that we are truly willing to move on from what has not worked and plunge head-first into the unknown and into what may actually work this time.
And that is why I will forever love the story told by author Don Miller in his book Blue Like Jazz, of the Confession Booth. If you aren't familiar with this story, I dare you to read it below and tell me on the other side that you're not changed. If you've heard it before, don't pass up an opportunity to read it again.
Each year at Reed College they have a festival called Ren Fayre. They shut down the campus so students can party. Security keeps the authorities away, and everybody gets pretty drunk and high. Some of the Christian students in our little group decided this was a pretty good place to let everybody know there were a few Christians on campus. I said we should build a confession booth in the middle of campus and paint a sign on it that said, CONFESS YOUR SINS. I said this because I knew a lot of people would be sinning, and Christian spiritually begins by confessing our sins and repenting. I also said it as a joke.
But Tony thought it was brilliant. He sat there on my couch with his mind in the clouds, and he was scaring me because I actually believed he wanted to do it.
“We are not going to do this,” I told him.
“Oh, we are, Don. We are going to build a confession booth!”
Nadine smiled. “They may very well burn it down,” she said.
“Okay you guys.” Tony gathered everybody's attention. “Here's the catch. We are not actually going to accept confessions.” We all looked at him in confusion. He continued. “We are going to confess to them. We are going to confess that, as followers of Jesus, we have not been very loving; we have been bitter, and for that we are sorry. We will apologize for the Crusades, we will apologize for those televangelists who steal people's money, we will apologize for neglecting the poor and the lonely, we will ask them to forgive us, and we will tell them that in our selfishness we have misrepresented Jesus on this campus. We will tell people who come into the booth that Jesus loves them.”
All of us sat there in silence because it was obvious that something beautiful and true had hit the table. We all thought it was a great idea. It would feel so good to apologize, to apologize for the Crusades, for Columbus and the genocide he committed in the Bahamas in the name of God. I wanted so desperately to apologize for the many ways I had misrepresented the Lord.
So we set to work on the confession booth throughout the beginning of Ren Fayre. And the further along we got on the booth, though, the more I began to wonder if our idea was such a hot one. As we began to put the finishing touches on it, someone opened up the curtain and walked in, saying they were our first customer.
“What's up, man?” Duder sat himself on the chair with a smile on his face. He said his name was Jake. “So, what is this? I'm supposed to tell you all of the juicy gossip I've done at Ren Fayre, right?”
“Okay, then what? What's the game?” he asked.
“Not really a game. More of a confession thing.”
“You want me to confess my sins, right?”
“No, that's not what we're doing, really.”
“What's the deal, man?”
“Well, we are a group of Christians here on campus, you know.”
“I see. Strange place for Christians, but I am listening.”
“Thanks,” I told him. He was being very patient and gracious. “Anyway, there is this group of us, just a few of us who were thinking about the way Christians have sort of wronged people over time. You know, the Crusades, all that stuff....”
“Well, I doubt you personally were involved in any of that.”
“No, I wasn't,” I told him. “But the thing is, we are followers of Jesus. And we believe he represented certain ideas that we have not done a good job at representing. He has asked us to represent Him well, and we've failed him in that.”
“I see,” Jake said.
“So there is this group of us on campus who wanted to confess to you.”
“You are confessing to me!” Jake said with a laugh.
“Yeah. We are confessing to you. I mean, I am confessing to you.”
“You're serious.” His laugh turned to something of a straight face.
I told him I was. He looked at me and told me I didn't have to. I told him I did, and I felt very strongly in that moment that I was supposed to tell Jake that I was sorry for everything.
“What are you confessing?” he asked.
“Well, there's a lot. I will keep it short. Jesus said to feed the poor and to heal the sick. I have never done very much about that. Jesus said to love those who persecute me. I tend to lash out, especially if I feel threatened. Jesus did not mix His spirituality with politics. I grew up doing that. I know all of this was wrong, and I know that a lot of people will not listen to the words of Christ because people like me, who know Him, carry our own agendas into the conversation rather than just relaying the message Christ wanted to get across. So I've not been a good follower of Jesus. There's a lot more, you know.”
“It's all right, man,” Jake said, very tenderly. His eyes were starting to water.
“Well,” I said, clearing my throat, “I am sorry for all of that.”
“I forgive you,” Jake said. And he meant it.
“Thanks,” I told him.
He sat there and looked at the floor, then into the fire of a candle. “It's really cool what you guys are doing,” he said. “A lot of people need to hear this.”
“I don't know whether to thank you for that or not,” I laughed. “I have to sit here and confess all my crap.”
He looked at me very seriously. “It's worth it,” he said. He shook my hand, and when he left the booth there was somebody else ready to get in. It went like that for a couple of hours. I talked to about thirty people, and Tony took confessions on a picnic table outside the booth. Many people wanted to hug me when we were done.
All of the people who visited the booth were grateful and gracious. I was being changed through the process. And I think those who came into the booth were being changed, too.
I'm not saying this single thing is the answer to all the church's woes (although part of me loves the idea of trying this out sometime). I'm simply suggesting that the thinking that led to this is what the church needs today - in order to remain faithful, relevant, true to its mission to transform lives and even the world.
So - what do you think? What new ideas does the church today need to put into action?