In “It’s Really All About God: Reflections of a Muslim Atheist Jewish Christian,” author Samir Selmanovic tells about an experience he had on the morning of Sept. 11, 2002. One of the Christian family radio networks had lined him up for an interview. He was mentally prepared to tell about the many ways they had learned to love the city and its people in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks over the previous 12 months.
But while he was waiting to go on the air, he heard the two co-hosts boasting about Christianity, literally patronizing the world. A bit disoriented by what he heard, he realized that he was not ready for the interview at all. He had to quickly rethink what he was going to say because he knew what they were going to ask. And it came right on schedule: “Pastor, tell us, don’t you find people in New York more ready to receive the gospel after the tragedy? Aren’t they more receptive than ever to the message? Can we take this city for Jesus?”
Selmanovic paused and said, “No. New York is a great opportunity for us Christians to learn. Most of the people here feel that to see the world our way would be a step backward, morally. They see Christians as people not dedicated to following Jesus on earth but obsessed with their religion. They see us as people who are really not interested in the sufferings on earth like Jesus was but driven with the need to increase the number of those worshiping this Grand Jesus in heaven. They wonder why, of all people, we are the first to rush to solve the world’s problems with weapons instead of patience and humility. I learned,” he told his radio hosts, “that it is we who need to be converted after September 11 to the ways of Jesus.”
The radio personalities didn’t ask for clarification. They quickly changed the subject and cut the interview short, not even halfway through the time allotted. They obviously had no intention of even considering the possibility that their viewpoint could be wrong. “It is we Christians who need to be converted to the ways of Jesus,” says Selmanovic. That offers us a different perspective and opportunity for Christian mission, doesn’t it?
In reflecting on his experience, Selmanovic says, “I realized that it is our Christian superiority complex that makes us an inferior force in making the world a better place.” It’s true, isn’t it? We will not experience the transforming grace and love and beauty of God’s new creation unless we Christians become converted to the ways of Jesus.
The Jesus movement began as a Jewish reform movement outside of institutional Judaism. The Jewish establishment rejected Jesus, especially his practice of open table fellowship with “sinners” and his acceptance of people the establishment found unacceptable. The few within the religious establishment that were attracted to Jesus and his message were mostly too afraid of losing their place and power to publicly identify with Jesus and his disciples.
I suspect that if Jesus could somehow come into the midst of the Christian establishment today, the institutional church would mostly reject him the way the Jewish religious establishment rejected him. Institutional Christianity has basically abandoned the way of Jesus reflected so poignantly in the synoptic Gospels and settled for establishment versions that came into their own under Constantine when Christianity was made the official religion of the Roman Empire.
Renewing the institutional church that has settled for some lesser version of Christianity shaped by our Western/American sense of comfort and security, governed by rewards and punishments, fixated on getting beliefs correct, and oriented around feel-good, self-glorifying, God-wants-you-to-be-happy-and-prosperous teaching is a very difficult and slow process. Trying to get the institutional church to embrace a new vision and change even slightly is like trying to turn around an aircraft carrier. Do not expect any sudden shifts.
Those of us who are committed to the institutional church can easily lose hope, especially those who see the potential in all those resources if only, as Selmanovic says, we could be converted to the ways of Jesus – the ways of humility, nonviolence, inclusion, simplicity, unconditional acceptance and love, and the difficult path of forgiveness, peacemaking and reconciliation.
Maybe we institutional church pastors push too hard. The Quaker mystic Thomas Kelley has said that we do not have to save the world; God gives us our portion. I think it was Dallas Willard in his book, “The Divine Conspiracy,” who suggested starting with the few who are open, teachable and looking for the opportunity to invest their lives in that which is truly commendable.
We who are institutional church pastors must continue to care for the institution. We will marry and bury the young and the old. We will offer our insights on committee selections and budget planning. We will visit the sick and offer our prayers before surgeries. It’s all part of our day job. It’s not a bad job. We get paid for this; some of us even get paid more than we are worth. But let us, who have caught Jesus’ vision of an inclusive gospel, who have a vision of God’s peaceable kingdom, preach and teach and write with passion. We can seek out the teachable and teach them. Maybe the virus will spread; maybe others will get infected. But that’s not our worry. The seed will grow in its own time.