Billy Davis Column

Published 12:00 am Friday, March 21, 2008

Interesting mix found in churches this Sunday

This commentary represents the standard Easter Sunday column, concluding with theaclosing declaration that our hope is found in an empty tomb and Christ’s triumphant power over the grave. Before we get to that paragraph, however, let’s first tackle why that history-jolting event even occurred.

It occurred, first, because He wanted it to happen. The reason He wanted it to happen was you and me, which if you really think about it really came before His own wishes. It’s sort of like a man buying an engagement ring, not because one day he simply chose to get married but because he just couldn’t help himself.

When it came to you and me, God just couldn’t help Himself.  

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A great irony of Christianity is that God chose human beings to model His billboard, a flawed advertisement to reflect perfection. In one sense that’s like choosing a homeless man with four teeth to peddle tooth paste during a Super Bowl commercial. But if you think about it, it’s really a smart move; the message is, I know I’m not what you expected, but if it weren’t for this toothpaste, I’d be nothing but gums.

This Sunday, the traditional Easter crowd will pack the church pews to hear about the resurrection. I’ve wondered if sociologists have grasped this annual phenomenon in which the twice-a-year crowd, represented by Mr. Unchurched, mingles with Mr. Churchgoer and the devoted congregation.

As the service begins, I picture Mr. Churchgoer sneering over his hymnal at Mr. Unchurched. I heard what he did at his sister’s wedding, the sorry drunk. I hope he listens today. He needs to know how pathetic he is. Why did he come here? Why didn’t he go somewhere else? Who is he trying to fool?

Mr. Unchurched, meanwhile, is trying to blend in to the church crowd, which at the moment means mouthing the first stanza of “He Lives.” But what he’s really doing is playing a game of “Count the Hypocrites.” I saw that guy argue with his wife at the bank… I saw that guy curse the waitress… I saw that lady order three martinis and flirt with the bartender; she’s the pianist? Who are these people trying to fool?

The lesson for Mr. Churchgoer is this: unless you’ve ever struggled with an addiction, then don’t judge the person who lives for the next taste of liquor, the puff of a pipe, or a peek at an adult Web site. If you yourself have overcome an addiction, Mr. Churchgoer, then you should be the first person to wrap your arm around that Easter morning drunk and show him your four rescued teeth.

But that rarely happens. After spending more than two decades on a church pew, I’ve observed that the people who are most judgmental are almost always hiding worse flaws than the object of their scorn.

Mr. Unchurched has a lesson to learn, too, about the purpose of a church. The local church is designed as a spiritual hospital, a safe haven for hurting souls, such as that arguing husband and wife, to find healing through the Great Physician. Unless the arguing couple claims they never fight, then attending church does not make them a hypocrite. It makes them wise for visiting the hospital.  

If Mr. Unchurched attended church on more than Easter Sunday, he would eventually see the most pressing problem in many of our churches is not hypocrisy. The problem is that too many churches refuse to confront real-life issues that affect the church body: marriage and divorce, addictions, emotional struggles, family strife, financial problems, and many, many others. Declaring from the pulpit that divorce is wrong and beer is bad is not confronting the issues.

What Mr. Unchurched sees as hypocrisy on Easter morning is really The Lie, the weekly ritual of putting on a Happy Mask. That’s not hypocrisy, Mr. Unchurched. It’s just part of the game.

The modern church seems to be stuck in a time warp. The church of today is little different than Easter Sunday, circa 1950, but fifty years ago there was no crack cocaine and crystal meth, no Internet pornography, no working mothers struggling between tears to balance work and home. Fifty years ago the divorce rate in churches was not humming along at 50 percent.

In Panola County, the Southern Baptist churches that dominate our landscape, that will enjoy the largest Easter Sunday crowds, and that could impact the most people, are falling behind. Statistics from the Mississippi Baptist Convention Board show the county’s Baptist churches together averaged 2,901 Sunday morning worshippers in 1998. In 2007 the churches averaged 2,372, a loss of 529 people.

The Sunday morning average bounced up and down since 1998 but never one bounced back to 2,900. Averaged out, the number totaled 2,628 attendees, still 300 fewer people attending church a decade later.

The statistics also show the Baptist churches have fewer members, fewer baptisms, fewer Sunday school members, and fewer discipleship-training members than a decade ago.

What’s happening in today’s church? I believe the church is acting like a lazy emergency room doctor, rustled from his sleep by a frantic nurse.

“What’s going on?” he asks the nurse between yawns. “I was having a good nap.”

“Ten-car pileup on the interstate,” she tells him. “We’ve counted 30 victims and we’re triaging them now. The paramedics had to stack them up to bring them here. It’s a mess. We’re calling in five other doctors and five nurses, but right now it’s just you. The most critical are waiting on you, Doctor.”

The doctor wipes his eyes and stretches, and lazily asks, “Well, what do you want me to do? Call a meeting? Form a committee? Start the coffee pot?”

No, Doc, peek inside the empty tomb and figure it out for yourself. It’s empty for a reason.