I follow a lot of churches on social media, and am friends with far more pastors and churchy people than the average person. When I check my Facebook and Twitter newsfeeds on Sunday mornings, about every other post reads like the end of a monologue given by a late-night television host.
“We are SO EXCITED about worship this Sunday morning!”
“We’ve got a great time planned at our church today!”
“Can’t wait to see you this morning in worship!”
I’ve got a secret for you: It’s a scientific fact that around 14% of all these posts are lies, or at least major exaggerations. No one is THAT excited about their church all the time, not even pastors. If honesty prevailed, at least some of these posts would say some variation of, “Hey, we’re going to do this again today. Worship is at 11:00. Hope you’ll come. But if not, we completely understand.” At least once a year it would read, “Hey, to be frank, if you are going to miss any Sunday this year, this would probably be the best day to do it. We haven’t really been on our A game lately, there’s some internal issues going on with us, and there’s an interesting story on CBS Sunday Morning that you don’t want to miss.”
Having been on the other side, responsible for the social media presence of UBC for a time, I get it. In a culture like Waco, TX, where there are numerous congregations for a Christian to choose from, church leaders want to put their best foot forward at all times. And church itself, at its most ideal, proclaims that life with God is more full and satisfying than life without God, and that in our gathering together to worship God we are placing ourselves in a better position to experience “life to the fullest.” If someone is going to view of snapshot of your church, this is the one you want them to see.
In editing the book I wrote last summer to share online, I have found this tension to be more acute than I expected. It doesn’t take a keen eye, though, to see that I have fallen more on the side of “honesty at all costs” than of “putting the best foot forward.” Most, (actually all,) of the feedback I have received so far has been from friends, acquaintances and strangers who are appreciative of this. I’ve been struck by how many people have written to say that my story at UBC, particularly with regards to frustration about how decisions were made, mirrors their stories at other churches. As “new” as we often tried to be, there is still nothing new under the sun.
Yet as a naturally anxious person, it’s hard for me to escape the feeing that there are others in the wings who are less-than-comfortable with the level of revelation I have shared. I expect to hear from them sooner or later, and that is ok. I know the risks of being an open book.
I was visiting with a good friend recently, a writer, who had some helpful insight for me. He said that in a group of people, particularly in a church, there is a level of intimacy that members want to be protective of. One of the tools we use to protect this intimacy is silence. But the result of silence is always that issues which need to be addressed don’t get addressed, and then they keep perpetuating themselves. (I think this has become clear in some of my story so far.) It’s a difficult balancing act.
As I move into the final third of the book, I imagine those who have appreciated my openness will continue to be so, and those with discomfort will continue to be uncomfortable. A couple of things have guided me as I have edited and made decisions about what to share.
First, if UBC were a tiny church on the “edge of empire,” as a friend of mine who pastors a small, rural church refers to his congregation, then I would have a lot more pause before being so open about my time there. Even if it were a large, downtown church known for stability and quiet faithfulness, there would probably not be a story for me to tell. But from the beginning and for many years after, UBC was a “movement church.” It’s pastors wrote books and recorded albums, speaking about the life of the church in interviews seen around the world. We spoke at conferences about the ways we “do church,” and articles were written about us. Money was made and reputations bolstered by telling our story. UBC wasn’t in the stratosphere of public recognition as Willow Creek, Saddleback or any of the numerous Mars Hills, but we were known. We were happy with being known, and had no problem with our virtues being broadcast to a wider audience. And there were many virtues that made us a church worth emulating. But no church is perfect, and as Derek Webb sings, “If you want my money, you gotta take my rent.”
Second, when I sat down last summer to write these stories, and as I’ve made decisions in the editing process about what and what not to share, I have been guided by a single question– “Is this my story to tell?” From the beginning of my time at UBC, there have been fascinating stories of people sharing life in this unique faith community. Stories that would wow you, sadden you and invigorate your faith. Some would make you laugh hysterically and some would leave you scratching your heads. Many of these stories would make a far more riveting book than the one I have written, but they are not my stories to tell.
But for the stories that are mine to tell, I’ve made the decision that I will not be silent.
Though it may not appear so at first glance, I believe I have written a love story about me and a church. In corresponding with a handful of folks who have written to express similarities between my stories and theirs, I have noted that difficulties between people and their churches must feel an awful lot like a separation or divorce between spouses who REALLY love each other, but are having a difficult time making things work. Outsiders only see the turmoil. Insiders see the affection as well.
My hope is that through the rest of this story, you will see both.