This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations I serve.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Misfits.


            A pastor friend of mine reports that the members of her congregation refer to themselves as “the Island of misfit toys.”  The reference is to the stop-motion animation version of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” (the one with Burl Ives as the snowman/narrator) that has aired on TV every December since 1964.  In the film, the Island of Misfit Toys is an arctic sanctuary for toys that are inexplicably weird and hence unwanted by most children.  The population includes King Moonracer, a winged lion who acts as the island's ruler.  Then there are the misnamed Charlie-In-The-Box, a spotted elephant, a “Dolly for Sue" (who apparently has some psychological problems), a toy bird who swims instead of flies, a cowboy who rides an ostrich, a train with square wheels on its caboose, toy boat that sinks rather than floats, a squirt gun that shoots grape jelly, an airplane that cannot fly, and "a scooter for Jimmy," whose misfit issue is unidentified.
            That churches are now beginning to see themselves in this way, as a collection of misfits, rejects, losers, and inappropriately-abled people, is actually a good thing.  It means that we are more like the people Jesus himself actually attracted.  The original disciples were not successful, wealthy, powerful, beautiful, or even particularly healthy.  They were misfits: the people who met Jesus were sick, possessed, or disabled, they were prostitutes, tax-collectors, and menial laborers.  There were a handful of disciples who may have been well-off; but even these were unusual by their willingness to hang around with the rest of the motley assembly of losers who followed Jesus.
            As early as the first century, the church began attracting successful people.  But in the Letter of James we see that this demographic expansion was not necessarily seen as a positive development by the apostles.  James severely castigates rich Christians for bringing their secular values and hierarchies into the church (James 5:1-6).  But by the time Christianity became the established religion of the Roman Empire, this battle was largely lost.  And it largely stayed lost until now.  The church did always appeal to misfits; and throughout history movements like the Franciscans repeatedly upheld what is really the “Christian wing of Christianity,” (to paraphrase Howard Dean).  Jesus always had followers among society’s losers.  But since the religion was officially wedded to the government, this became a minority, secondary movement.  The mainstream of the church preferred to fawn over, embrace, and try to become rich, powerful people.
            I’ve been in churches where the recovering alcoholic or the disabled person who visits worship is ignored, while if a successful man with the beautiful family shows up, they have people falling all over themselves to welcome them and encourage them to join.  If you called a large, growing, successful, wealthy, multi-staffed congregation “the island of misfit toys” you would offend them and invite an argument… if it were not so ridiculous.  Would Jesus recognize a large sanctuary filled with well-dressed, prosperous, healthy, well-behaved, white families be recognizable to Jesus as disciples of his?
            If the church is going to be the church it has to be able to accept the designation as an “island of misfit toys.”  In other words, a church that does not welcome and include – indeed, that is not primarily made up of – the broken, the losers, the sick, the rejected and excluded, the poor, and the marginalized, is not the church of Jesus Christ.  Indeed, the church that is true to the Lord Jesus would be a veritable archipelago of misfit toys, stretching across the whole planet.
            The church that has spent the last 30 years in serious shrinkage, trading its upper-middle-class members for a smaller number of misfits and losers, may be a church that is actually becoming more faithful.  It may be transforming from a large country-club, to a smaller gathering of faithful disciples of Jesus.  It may actually be growing small enough to grow by reaching out to even more misfits and losers.
            There are far more misfits and losers out there in the world than there are successful, well-off, healthy, winners.  The church has to apply itself to reaching out to the misfits and losers, many of whom do not already relate to the church because of centuries of knowing themselves to be unwelcome. 
            That particular church whose pastor told me that the members define themselves as “the island of misfit toys” has another interesting characteristic.  Much of the current membership was “unchurched” before they joined.  Here is a church that has had more success in bringing people to Jesus Christ, than many churches with more a lot more members and money.
            In evangelism, therefore, we need to go out and actively look for the misfits and losers around us.  That is to whom God sends us.  That is with whom we are called to identify… because that’s who we are ourselves.  The disabled and the defeated, the failures and losers, the sick and marginalized, the poor and indebted, the unemployed and uninsured, the workers and the service-providers, the disaffected young and the forgotten aged… these are the people who comprise the field ready for harvest today.  The successful are still quite welcome in the churches, of course… but increasingly they will have to learn to be comfortable with and equal to the rest of us, the broken, humbled, needy people who are hungry to hear the good news as a promise of healing and empowerment.
            In the film, all the misfit toys are gathered and distributed to appreciative, loving children.  So in real life.  The Lord Jesus gathers his people to him, and sends them out as witnesses to his healing, restoring, welcoming power.  We may be misfit toys, but in Jesus Christ God declares us worthy, and connects us with exactly those people who most need to know God’s saving love.
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