Monday, February 25 2019 by Matt Horan
[Scene: An empty stage, filmed in black and white. There is a microphone on a stand illuminated by spotlights. Footsteps echo as Pastor Christian steps into the light from stage left, stopping at the microphone, hands folded behind his back. A brief whine of feedback is heard, then fades.]
Pastor Christian: Confession is bad for your reputation, but it’s good for your soul. I guess everyone has to weigh which one is more important to them sometimes. Today, I’m going to err on the side of my soul and offer a confession, and so here it is: People try to avoid guys like me.
You know the kind I mean. The one you’re afraid of winding up next to on an airplane, on a bus, or in an elevator. The one you hope doesn’t marry into your family. The one you hope doesn’t come knocking on your door, or hand you a pamphlet in the mall. The one you hope doesn’t get assigned to the cubicle next to you.
I confess I’ve been the evangelism guy. You might even say that I have proselytized.
[Fast footsteps can be heard. A man in a suit, trenchcoat, and hat speed walks into the spotlight carrying a briefcase. He takes off his hat, whispers in Pastor Christian’s ear, and then walks away as quickly as he arrived.]
Oh, um, scratch that last thing. My attorney says that might be against the law. He’s gonna get back to me on that.
Still, I have started conversations with strangers with the sole hope of convincing them to embrace something whose popularity probably polls about as high as colonoscopies or cockroaches. Yes–I have tried to get people into…
[Pastor Christian faces away from the microphone and puts a fist to his mouth while he takes a deep breath. He then returns to the microphone, hand returning behind his back. He pauses, allowing his gaze to pan across the dimly lit audience assembled before him.]
[A collective gasp rises from the audience.]
Voice from the Audience: [shouting] No!
[The camera shakes as it pans out for a wider view of the room. Someone loses control of the spotlight, and it quickly sweeps across the audience to reveal flashes of faces twisted in horror. A baby cries. Someone screams. Someone else faints.]
Another Voice from the Audience: Is there a doctor in the house?
[Finally, a chorus of footsteps erupts as people stampede for the doors. As the last footsteps die away, the camera and spotlight return to their original positions, and Pastor Christian puts a hand over his eyes in an attempt to see if anyone is still left in the audience. He can’t tell, so he shrugs, and continues on as if there were.]
Pastor Christian: So I guess I don’t have to tell you that there aren’t many people in the market for organized religion these days.
[Fast footsteps are heard again, and the attorney walks in from stage left behind Pastor Christian. He stops, looks at Pastor Christian with disgust, puts his hat back on, and continues on out of the spotligh. The footsteps get farther away, until the sound of a door closing can be heard from stage right. Pastor Christian turns back to the microphone.]
See what I mean?
I tried to make it fun. I tried to tell everybody how nice heaven is, and how bad hell is, and how all you had to do to punch your ticket for heaven was to pray a prayer and tell God that you were accepting Jesus Christ as your savior. Then you come to church and hang out with others who had prayed the same prayer, and you learn more about Jesus and you do fun things together and sometimes you do mission trips where you do nice things for people so that they’ll listen to us tell them about how they can go to heaven too. Organized religion can be fun. There are good speakers that tell stories and jokes and help inspire us to tell more people about Jesus. We have bands and choirs and church organs and other kinds of music. Sometimes there’s skits and videos. And we go on youth ski trips and have lock-ins and other fun stuff too.
Sure, there are times when it’s not fun, and you’d rather do something else, but that’s when it helps to remember that everybody who isn’t a part of our organized religion is probably going to hell, so if you care about them, you’ll keep on going and keep on telling people about it.
It worked sometimes. It worked often enough, actually, that I started to think I was pretty good at it. So I went to school–seminary–so that I could get a job as an actual organizer of religion.
While I was there, though, I started noticing something. When people stop going to churches where the organized religion happens, it’s harder to get people to give money to keep them going. You can’t hire as many people as you used to. You can’t buy as many of the books Christians like, or as much of the music Christians like as you used to. You can’t build any more of the buildings Christians like, or buy as much church furniture or sound and video equipment for them as you used to. You also can’t find as many places to work as an organizer of religion as you used to either. Organized religion starts going out of business.
So we started talking about how to keep churches from closing, and how to get more people to come so more churches could stay open so we could keep the buildings Christians like open and the staff members that ran programs that Christians like going. And even though we kept saying that we were doing all of this because we care about people’s souls, it seemed like we talk way more about how we missed the way the church used to be when there were more people in them, and how expensive it is to repair and operate the big fancy buildings we built back when there were more people there giving more money. We talked about all that more than we talked souls. Way more.
I started to not like organized religion, even though I was in school to learn how to organize it.
Fortunately, while I was in seminary I also learned about Jesus. I was struck by how little time he spent keeping people who were already in organized religion entertained. I was struck by how little time he spent thinking about how to keep things the way they were. I was struck by his imagination, and how he talked about what we could create here on Earth if we became people who loved God and loved our neighbor. I was struck by how rarely he seemed to be concerned with getting people to heaven when they die, and how often he seemed concerned with getting people to help others experience heaven while we’re still alive.
Jesus’ imagination began to make me imagine too. What would be possible if we organized our religion so that it cared about the things Jesus cared about? How much time would we spend thinking about how to put on a good enough show to draw a crowd of paying customers so we could keep the place open? Hardly any. How much time would we spend thinking about how to get people into heaven when they die? Hardly any.
What would be possible if we organized religion to create heaven right here in our neighborhood? What would it be like to live in a place of love, kindness, grace, charity, encouragement, service, and hope? As I finished seminary I found myself gaining new hope and new excitement for the purpose and possibilities for organized religion—for the church—but first, another confession is in order. Here it is:
[Pastor Christian again puts his hand above his eyes to see if there’s anyone in the audience, but he still can’t tell. He sighs as his arms fall to his sides, assuming that the room is probably empty.]
You don’t need the church.
It’s actually the other way around. You don’t need the church—the church needs you. It’s not supposed to get people away from earth and on to Heaven. The church is supposed to try and create heaven right here on earth, and it can’t do it without you. If we succeed, it’ll have nothing to do with you “going” to church. The only chance we have for success is if you become the church.
[He pauses thoughtfully for a long while. He’s convinced that he’s by himself, and doesn’t worry about the awkwardness of the silence.]
And maybe the only chance of you becoming the church is if we admit what we did and apologize… if we apologize for all of the things we’ve done that made organized religion seem worse than a colonoscopy or a cockroach.
[Another pause ensues, as if the pauses are therapeutic, allowing him to sort out his thoughts.]
I’m sorry for corruption. I’m sorry for the Crusades. I’m sorry for all the pastors and church staff members who have assumed their sacred role, only to use it as a means to embezzle money, sexually assault kids, cheat on their wives, and manipulate people to give money to fund self-serving lifestyles.
I’m sorry for how we said that slavery was Biblical. By saying that for so long we’ve made it so that one of the last remnants of segregation happens in churches across America every Sunday morning. How does it not bother us that we still have “black churches” and “white churches”? How is it that the integration of the churches of Jesus Christ lags 50-60 years after the integration of water fountains? I’m so sorry.
I’m sorry for being angry at you. I’m sorry for blaming you for the decline of organized religion. I’m sorry for our Christian bumper stickers that insult you for not being a part of our organized religion. I’m sorry for how I chuckled at you condescendingly when you wished me “Happy Holidays.”
I’m sorry for the jokes I made during our Christmas and Easter services about how “we do this every Sunday,” because I should have simply been thankful that you kept those days special and came to church.
I’m sorry for claiming to know what God’s going to do with your soul after you die. It’s pretentious to think that I will stand in eternity someday and say “Hah! Look at that. It’s just like I predicted.” I will humbly fall on my face before the Lord on that day, just like Isaiah when he saw the Lord, and everything that happens will obliterate my expectations. It is my privilege to walk beside you now and work together to bring heaven to earth today, trusting in God to handle eternal things that I cannot understand.
I’m sorry for trying to get laws passed to make you act like someone involved in organized religion when you weren’t, rather than trying to inspire you to want to become a part of organized religion on your own.
I’m sorry for believing that I’m better than you. I’m sorry for taking credit for my relationship with Jesus Christ when it is only there because of the infinite grace of God.
I’m sorry for arguing with you about evolution and creation. The Creation story was written by Moses to set the Israelites free, who lived in Egypt for 400 years with no training in astronomy, geology, or biology; from the Egyptian culture around them that taught there were gods like Yahweh everywhere—the sun, moon, river, desert, and even Pharaoh himself. They needed to understand that these were all merely things that came from Yahweh. I’m sorry for treating it like a book about science when it’s actually a book filled with stories written to shape character and foster a relationship between God and humankind. I’m sorry for arguing that it’s literally true, when its real power is unleashed when we trust it like a compass—keeping our course ahead steady and true.
I’m sorry for wanting you to change to make me more comfortable, rather than sacrificing of my own comfort to help you feel at home among the participants in organized religion. I’m sorry for expecting you to show up without ever offering you an invitation personally. I’m sorry for getting angry at you for that day you came to try the church while wearing a hat.
I’m sure I’m forgetting something. Whatever it is that I’ve done to make you think so little of organized religion—whatever I’ve done or said to make you feel like you don’t belong—I sincerely apologize, I am terribly sorry. I need your help, your involvement, your service, and your leadership. I hope you can forgive me.
[He puts his hand up to shield his eyes one more time and look around, then looks up at the ceiling, closes his eyes, and smiles. He takes a deep cleansing breath, and speaks quietly to himself, though the microphone catches it.]
Whaddya know? It is good for the soul.
[Pastor Christian puts his hands in his pockets, and walks off, stage left. Footsteps fade until silent. After a few seconds of silence, a seat in the audience creaks from someone standing up. A pair of footsteps walk to the back door, which opens. A streetlight outside causes the silhouette of someone in the doorway to project on the back curtain of the stage. They stop, turn and look back toward the stage, and then exit. The light from outside shrinks as the door swings toward closing. The light disappears, and the sound of the door closing echoes through the empty room for a moment, and then falls silent.]
[Scene: Church Parlor during staff meeting, with the staff seated around a table, staring at a TV. Pastor Christian stands with a remote control.]
Pastor Christian: Well? [A long, increasingly awkward silence passes.] What did you think?
[Staff members gaze back and forth from the screen to each other, avoiding looking at Pastor Christian.]
Ms. Youth: Wow.
Ms. Also a Pastor: That was… [she pauses, searching for a word]
Mr. Choir: Dramatic?
Mr. Adults: It was really something.
Ms. Kids: Who’s going to see this, exactly?
Pastor Christian: Anybody. Everybody. I’m excited about it.
Mr. Organ: People are gonna hate that.
Pastor Christian: You think?
Ms. Missions: You don’t?
Pastor Christian: I don’t know. It made me feel pretty good. Unburdened.
Mr. PR: Yeah, you definitely can’t show that. To anybody.
Pastor Christian: [Pauses, arms crossed, thinking briefly, then sighs] Yeah, I guess you’re right.
Ms. Kids: Don’t get me wrong. I loved it.
[Mumbles of agreement murmur around the room.]
Mr. Band: I thought it was great. I just don’t think we’re ready for that quite yet.
Pastor Christian: All right. [He puts the remote control down in front of the TV, and takes his seat at the table.] Where are we? What’s next?
Mr. PR: We need to decide when you’re going to start your next Bible study so we can get it in the bulletin this week.
[Audio begins to fade, camera slowly zooms out as the staff meeting continues.]
Ms. Kids: The nursery’s being painted next Wednesday and Thursday, so I suggest starting after that if you need childcare.
[Fade to black. End scene.]