August 7, 2017—Every once in a while I hear something in church that catches me by surprise. It’s usually not a good surprise, admittedly. More often than not the surprising comment reveals a disconnect between my perception or assumption of church and faith and people’s experience or interpretation of those. But they are helpful reminders that there often is a great divide between what clergy assume about church compared with where their members are in matters of faith, membership, beliefs, doctrine, or practice. As I say, “Things look different from the other side of the pew.”
Where I tend to be most caught by surprise is the pragmatist approach to faith many church members seem to hold. I remember one church member during a pastoral counseling session who expressed no qualms about lying in court if it meant it would keep her husband out of jail. Christianity and church membership is good as long as it works. And when it ceases to work, it’s no longer good.
Here is an excerpt from “What American Teenagers Believe: A Conversation with Christian Smith,” interview by Michael Cromartie, Books & Culture (Jan/Feb 2005) in which Smith describes well the pragmatic Christianity that often catches us by surprise.
The instrumental good has what you might call a public health justification. If I get my kid involved religiously, he will be less likely to do drugs, he’ll get better grades, and will wear his or her seat belt. And I think a lot of parents are very interested in that, quite understandably.
“In the United States we have a competitive religious economy. And I think a lot of religious organizations—consciously or unconsciously—make that instrumental pitch to families: we’ll be good for you. Now it’s an empirical fact that religious kids are doing better. There’s nothing wrong with celebrating that. But when that becomes the key legitimation of what religion is all about, then that’s a whole different matter.
“Based on our findings, I suggest that the de facto religious faith of the majority of American teens is “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.” God exists. God created the world. God set up some kind of moral structure. God wants me to be nice. He wants me to be pleasant, wants me to get along with people. That’s teen morality. The purpose of life is to be happy and feel good, and good people go to heaven. And nearly everyone’s good.”
Sometimes I’d like to be surprised for different reasons. For example, I’d like to be caught off guard overhearing…
10. Hey! It’s MY turn to sit on the front pew!
9. I was so enthralled, I never noticed your sermon went over time 25 minutes.
8. Personally, I find witnessing much more enjoyable than golf.
7. I’ve decided to give our church the $500.00 a month I used to send to TV evangelists.
6. I volunteer to be the permanent teacher for the Junior High Sunday School class.
5. Forget the denominational minimum salary: let’s pay our pastor so s/he can live like we do.
4. I love it when we sing hymns I’ve never heard before!
3. Since we’re all here, let’s start the worship service early!
2. Pastor, we’d like to send you to this Bible seminar in the Bahamas.
…. And the number one overheard comment that would really surprise me:
1. Nothing inspires me and strengthens my commitment like our annual stewardship campaign!
Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning at Columbia Theological Seminary. Formerly, he was Dean at the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. He is the author of the bestseller, The Hidden Lives of Congregations (Alban), Perspectives on Congregational Leadership (Educational Consultants), and A Family Genogram Workbook (Educational Consultants), with Elaine Boomer and Don Reagan.
His books on Christian education include Mastering the Art of Instruction,The Craft of Christian Teaching (Judson), How to be the Best Christian Study Group Leader (Judson), Planning for Christian Education Formation (Chalice), and A Christian Educator’s Book of Lists.
Galindo contributes to the Wabash Center’s blog for theological school deans.