I recently attended a national gathering of Baptists that was a stark reminder to me of the desperate need for congregational and clergy health. Some things I saw there troubled me. It wasn’t so much that this group is any less healthy or healthier than other shades of Baptists or other denominations.
What caused my heartburn about the state of health among those gathered was what came to me when observing another group was also meeting at the same large convention hotel and complex. This crowd had gathered for a bodybuilding competition. The juxtaposition of the two groups could not have been more revealing. Let’s just say, they didn’t look very much like most of the Baptist ministers and laity. There wasn’t much chance of confusing the two groups.
So, I have to say that some of the bodybuilders were so over-the-top with their devotion to fitness that they bordered on the surreal. More than a few times I caught myself gawking, not gazing, at the physiques on the elevator or in the lobby. Even in civilian clothing, some of these physical specimens were arresting.
I had some interesting conversations with them. Several recounted for me the strenuous exercise regimen they employed. Others described for me a diet that sounded decidedly unappetizing. Their vocabulary was filled with scientific, nutritional and slang phrases and words that I had trouble following. I watched one day as several dozen of them passed by a mirrored wall in the lobby. All of them took time to check out their reflection…some more than once. All of them spoke of their devotion to fitness with a tone and attitude that bordered on religious fanaticism.
Over the years, I have had opportunities to pastor those devoted to competitive weight lifting and bodybuilding. I have colleagues in ministry and family members who are devoted to the sport. I have no doubt that those gathered for this competition are fine people and dealing with the same issues and challenges as anyone else. However, I found them to be such a tight-knit community that many were unapproachable and somewhat condescending to those not “in the club”. Most seemed unaware of the effect their image has upon others.
In other words, they are very much like the other group of religious devotees who had gathered at the same hotel. While our Baptist bodies were no match for theirs, and our diets were in stark opposition to theirs, and our clothing a bit less revealing, we suffer from the same tendencies.
Insider lingo, off-putting attitudes, self-absorbed narcissism, unbridled competition, clergy and congregational drama, caricatures that have some basis in reality and the lack of authentic self-reflection too often describe how we come across to those outside the church.
I wonder how the bodybuilders talked about meeting in the same hotel with a thousand Baptists. I suspect they had something of the same experience of us that we had of them.
Healthy congregations and clergy are always monitoring such things. They recognize that the face we turn toward our community, friends and neighbors needs to be a regular topic of conversation. Part of what we often ask congregations to do is try and see your church through the eyes of the “not yets”; those who have not yet met you or come into your fellowship. When we don’t know what we don’t know, we cannot do and be all that Christ has called us to.
So, here are some questions rattling around my head on the heels of my Bodybuilders/Baptists meeting.
- Do we reflect the very best of the Gospel of Jesus, or are we slipping into the lure of institutionalism and isolationism?
- Do we actually know our neighbors?
- Do we love our city as Jesus loved Jerusalem?
- Do we honestly care about the needs and lives of those outside the church?
- How do we welcome the stranger, and those very different than us? Are we aware of how unapproachable or otherworldly we appear to others?
- Do we recognize that, unless we convince them otherwise, our culture identifies us with the grotesque aberrations of Christianity that the media panders to?
- How have we allowed the political culture, rather than the Gospel, to shape us?
In the midst of our meeting, the numbing news of the massacre at Charleston arrived. All of us, bodybuilders and Baptists alike, were stunned and horrified by what we saw and heard. One day, about a dozen of us, from all walks of life, stood in the hotel lobby watching a news report that featured members of Emanuel AME church extending forgiveness and grace in unmerited fashion to the accused killer during his arraignment. We were transfixed by their courage and faith. One bodybuilder simply said aloud: “Now, those people are REAL Christians.”
O God, help them to say that about us.