Blessed are the Losers



"We must be careful about what we pretend to be"-Kurt Vonnegut



This last fall an Evangelical church in Oregon found themselves in a bit of trouble for instituting a prohibition against fat people from joining the worship team.
We  want  the  worship  team  to  look  the  best  they can,” read the Worship Team Guidelines for New Creation Church in Hillsboro, “Remember  that  the  way we  look  is  of  utmost  importance. We  are the  first  thing  the  congregation  sees. People  do  judge  by  appearance. We  never  get  a  second  chance  to  make  that first  impression.” So in addition to rules such as no “sloppy hairdos,” no visible tattoos, and a strangely specific insistence on deodorant and breath mints (that you just know was a rule made for one specific person that no one wanted to confront), the church also insists on “no excessive weight.”


Now I know that such actions rightfully offend a lot of the Jesus folk out there and I know you will insist that this isn’t a fair representation of Christianity or Jesus folk in general. And I hear you. I am not lumping you all together.
But really though, let’s none of us act all that surprised. Anyone who has spent time in an Evangelical church has seen this kind of attitude.
Really, the only thing that is surprising about any of this is that a church actually had the audacity to put the unspoken rules of what a successful church "looks like" into print.


Some time ago, I had coffee with a friend who used to work at a very successful mega-church. He told me how they always scouted the ranks of young adults for the talented and charismatic; the “natural leaders” to be in charge of small groups or be on the worship team. And indeed, when you look up on a stage on Sunday mornings you see a lot of very talented—and usually very attractive—people. The best singer leads the band. The best speaker gives the word. Words like talented and charismatic and beautiful are synonymous with words like anointed, spirit-filled, and holy.


One of the biggest problems I have with the American Church is that it is...well, so very blatantly American.
It is big and flashy and affluent and polished. It is purpose driven with the heart of a champion, living its very best life now. It is the story of Christ as filtered through Norman Rockwell paintings and late-night infomercials. Christian culture too often projects this image of wholesome and flawless victory. Come to Jesus and your life will look like it belongs in an L.L. Bean catalog.


Before we move forward, we must acknowledge that as a beatnik writer living in a shabby apartment in a hipster-fied neighborhood, a lot of my gripes are purely aesthetic.
I don't trust pretty and polished people. I don’t like beige. The suburbs make me feel paranoid and claustrophobic. And the Evangelical church is really all about that whole middle-class family lifestyle. There's a total SUV with a stick figure family bumper stickers vibe to it. And that's never going to be something I am into.
So I will probably never be comfortable with a church that is roughly the size of an IKEA. No matter what work the Holy Spirit might eventually do on my heart, I am probably never going to think Kirk Cameron is a good actor or enjoy the peppy three chord pop songs that make up a Sunday morning church service, no matter how tastefully ripped the worship leader's jeans are.

And the hip urban church isn't all that much better. The services might take place in a dilapidated movie theater in a not-yet-gentrified-but-soon-to-be-trendy neighborhood, the music might sound like the better parts of Alanis Morissette's Unplugged Album, and the pastor might say "damn" from the pulpit and confess to a certain love for IPAs, it is still the exact same church. But instead of being custom built for young families, this one is designed for the sensibilities of the young professional married couple.
Some buy their clothes at Aeropostale while others only shop at Hot Topic, but they are all still shopping at the mall. There is always an air of consumerism and aspirational affluence at almost every church I've been to.


But my complaints here are more than just the grousing of a dude who is clearly way cooler than you (I listen to jazz! I have a beard! I know what kombucha is!); I promise I have a point.


Because that fixation on a clean and wholesome image is not just skin deep. We are sad but not shocked when we see a church enforce a no fat people policy, I wonder if we are even less surprised that the same church also insists that “speaking against the leadership will not be tolerated;” “If  you do not  agree  with  the  way  things  are  handled, pray  about  it, don’t  talk  about it;” and worst of all, “ongoing family problems are not acceptable.” This is where I see a real problem.


First is the sort of glaring problem that placing such prominence on surface level features like looks, musical talent, and speaking ability all seem to be kind of exactly the opposite of what Jesus was about.


I don’t know if the Bible is true, but I do like the stories. And the Gospels are pretty consistent with Jesus being about the outcast, the poor, the marginalized, the ugly, the left out, the sick and the dirty. Jesus constantly picks out the losers as the ones that are actually important.


But the church keeps appointing tall and handsome Saul as their king, overlooking the young shepherd David because he doesn’t have the right look.


And I am bothered by this because it is just one example of the church conforming to our culture instead of transforming it. The church is very different from the mainstream secular culture in a lot of significant ways, but from what I have seen, Christians lay their laurels at the feet of the beautiful and talented just like the rest of the world.


And I wonder how much that affects the church’s greater mission.
A friend was just telling me this morning about how his family’s “Sunday best” was never quite as good as some of the other families in the church, and how embarrassed he was by that, and how it made him feel that his family was doing something wrong spiritually.
And think about that Sunday morning stage with the perfect lighting and perfect people with perfect Joel Osteen() smiles and perfect lives that never have ongoing family problems or depression or financial stress or bad eating habits. What if that actually discourages all of those who don’t have their lives figured out (i.e. everyone) from being real and open about the very real stuff they are going through?
What if Brennan Manning was right when he said: “we even refuse to be our true self with God—and then wonder why we lack intimacy with him.”
What if—in a totally made-up scenario that is not at all my actual personal story—someone is suicidally depressed but just keeps going to church every Sunday for years without ever telling a single soul what he is going through because he is so ashamed that he is not as spiritually (and emotionally and financially) victorious as everyone else? Isn’t the church the very place where a person like that is supposed to feel most safe? Why is church so often one of the most plastic and sterile and insincere places a person can go?


Since I have left the church, I have fallen more and more in love with authenticity. I find that as I open up and reveal my (many) weaknesses and neuroses and heartbreak to my community of friends, they open up themselves to me with their story. And that feels good and is freeing and allows us to support each other and help each other grow and become stronger and better and kinder people.  
And I choose that over a great sound system and a cool singles ministry and a hip pastor that uses movie clips in his sermons. It’s not about being “edgy” or polished or big or sounding just like the cd or any of the other things that churches pour their resources and energy into creating.
Being real is what attracts me; I feel it is what attracts most people. If you aren’t willing and able to be genuine with me in all of your screwed up, messy, crying, eating ice cream in your underwear, stressed out, doubtful, full-fledged humanity, then I am not really sure I am interested in hearing how your God is going to make my life better.


The theologian Mike Yaconelli once wrote, I’m unfinished. Im unfixed. And the reality is that’s where God meets me, in the mess of my life, in the unfixedness, in the brokenness. I thought he did the opposite, he got rid of all that stuff. But if you read the Bible, if you look at it at all, constantly he was showing up in people’s lives at the worst possible time of their life.”

Showing up in people’s worst times is one of the things I really like about the story of Jesus. I am grateful for the people that have shown up during my worst times, who encouraged me to cry big fat ugly tears and sob on their shoulder until it ruined their shirt. Those people saved my life.


Loving the lovable is easy, but that's not what we are here to do. Pretending to be lovable is hard, and it isn't what we are here to do either.
I think we can all stand to be a little more weird and a little more raw and a lot more true to ourselves. You will be surprised by how many people meet you there.

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