Challenges with Dallas Church Culture

Dallas Church Culture:

Y’all remember The Matrix? The whole robot apocalypse thing? Remember how the machines grew human bodies and used them for fuel? Creepy stuff.

That’s kind of what it feels like to live in this city: To be a body for someone else’s fuel.

A theme I see in Dallas:

Those operating from an emotional surplus use the bodies of those operating from an emotional deficit. Those in power use the bodies of those without power. Use them financially. Use them spiritually. Sometimes even physically. In work. In dating. In church–Oh, lord, yes, in church.

Can I just be vulnerable? About church? I think I’ve finally got the energy to say it.

I’ve gone to around 10 churches in the last 5 or 6 years, and visited a number of others. I haven’t found a single one where I felt like I was allowed to BE. Where I made a permanent connection with a BODY of believers. Still trying. Still trying.

I’m talking about me. The guy going to seminary. The guy who works out the middle ground in conversations. Tries to get everybody to see every angle of the thing. The guy who mentally checks out of conversations and enters my own, internal processing space anytime I have a question about what’s RIGHT–because I was taught, and still believe, that what God thinks of my heart is more important than what people think. The guy who’s been living that way, consciously and deliberately since he was seven years old doesn’t belong in church anymore.

Church-going Christians, let me talk to you for a second. There are so many hoops to jump through just to make a connection in your congregation. Just to make a friend. I’m a pretty chill dude. Tired. But chill. Heck, I’m even white. So if that’s true for me….

Churches are overwhelmingly segregated. Leadership at large churches is almost always white, upper middle class (at least), and totally out of touch with the space that most of this city inhabits. There is a terribly poor understanding of mental health issues. There are warped views of sexuality that elevate marriage as a social graduation present and view singleness as a chance to “serve more.” There’s an unwillingness to step into lament–to enter the space of those who are grieving and mourn with them. There’s a strong tendency to detach from vicarious pain, even at the expense of amplifying the pain in someone else.

Or worse, there’s a tendency to treat relationships as hierarchical. You like getting to “serve people” so that you can be “used by God” to “minister to them.” Another person’s mind, heart, and body become subject to you. Your friendship becomes a pursuit toward your own agency and self-actualization.

Gross.

You’re super proud of your church’s infrastructure. You think you’re keeping away “consumer Christians.” You think people church-hop and stay uncommitted because they want the “perfect congregation.” That they’re selfish. That they’re unwilling to do the hard work of being family.

They’re not selfish. They’re not consumers. They’re just TIRED. Maybe you’ve been there–burned out by life–and you’re not anymore. You’re ready to move on and enjoy life now. But maybe you just have never been there. Maybe you do not understand what the word “weary” means.

So let me frame it this way. Your worst day at work last year? That’s normal for me. That’s the average. In fact, if you have a flexible household income, if you have a loving family, if you have a job doing something you love–in other words, if your stress is manageable–your most stressful day is probably the average day for most of this city. Nope, not being dramatic.

You just have to try to understand. This is the whole town, man.

(P.S. It’s probably average for a lot of your pastoral and ministry staff, too–because ministry is an unforgiving financial and emotional vortex whose “true value is in the lives you change” even while you’re a 34-year-old eating ramen, saddled with over a 100 grand in student loans, and barely holding on to your sanity. And if that’s you, you’re not who this is for–your senior pastors and elders are the ones who need to hear this. Systemic change and culture change start at the top.)

Sometimes it’s not intentional, but the wavelength you’re on is so dissonant from where everyone else is that some of the things you say, some of the things you do cause much more grief than you realize. If somebody drops below a certain emotional threshold, things just CHANGE. You have to understand that. Things change in your brain, and the old normal is not normal anymore.

You’re keeping out people who simply do not have the energy to push through your bubble. There are unspoken rules in your congregation that nobody has the time or cognitive resources to process. Except people who are already in the clique. Church is a chance for the “haves” to surround themselves with “haves”–for power to validate power. To reinforce a white, wealthy, “American dream” idea of normal.

THIS is why people DON’T COME TO CHURCH. Evangelical “ministry culture” lives in a completely separate world, with different rules and different norms that have less to do with being “set apart” for God and more to do with protecting our “normal.”

If you think I’m off base, check your prayer request cards. Check your emails. Check your correspondence. If you have some way to get feedback from your congregations–and more tellingly, your visitors who come and go–start paying attention to the number of people who are asking for fellowship. And start paying attention to how many of them actually get it. Some of you in leadership have been deliberately turning a blind eye to this. I’ve watched it.

And really, really try to internalize this: most of the people who feel this way are not even emotionally capable of verbalizing it. It’s way too abstract, it’s very personal, and that’s why you don’t hear anybody lay it all out like this. But it’s most of this city.

So here’s the deal–I’ve got plenty of friends who feel the same way. Tons, in fact. Most of them don’t go to church. Most of them are also very devout Christians. There’s maybe one or two at each of the churches I’ve visited, even, and they’re toughing it out for now. Trying to be a change in a system of thinking that just will not budge.

They are scattered all over this Metroplex, and I wish I could bring them all together so they didn’t have to be alone, but I don’t know how to do that.

So here’s the deal. Between race, finances, job-related stress, relationship stress, marital problems, loneliness, depression, other mental illness, and a general lack of emotional synchronicity with your people . . . you’re looking at maybe 75-80% of this city that you’re not set up to reach. I think I’m being generous.

YOU have to be the ones to do something about your church’s culture. You’re the haves. You’re the ones sitting in your small groups, with everyone else looking at you to see if you approve of the social dynamic. So the answer is: Somebody new comes in and acts nervous, you approve. Somebody comes in, and they’re black, and they embody black cultural norms–you approve. Somebody doesn’t fit your idea of gender stereotypes–you approve. Somebody says a joke with a massively delayed punch line–you figure out a way to normalize it. Of course you approve of this new person–genuinely and unironically, and you will make sure your entire community understands this.

Because choosing not just to love, but to LIKE people and to INTEGRATE people is the calling of Christ. Period. If it’s an inconvenience for you, you’re wrong.

Besides, it’s nowhere remotely close to the energy expenditure you’re asking the people visiting your church to give. The risks you’re asking them to take.

You do like them. And you will work tirelessly for everyone in your circle to fully know them. You will regard them as family-to-be until they agree that they’re part of your family. You will not reach out for three weeks and then stop because they don’t easily slide into your social dynamic. You will be there for them when they need you. You will not view it as an inconvenience. Because you have plenty of energy to do that–and they do not have plenty of energy to jump through your obstacle course. Because you’re a Christian, and you should have counted the cost before you signed up.

Be the Body. And for goodness’ sake, ask somebody to lunch with you this Sunday. We live in Texas.

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