By Bill Mefford
I am not sure if this happens to everyone during this time, but for me, it was during my high school and college years that the basic structural units that are supposed to provide order and shape our personal identities failed me. It was during my teenage years that my family, my faith in the church, and my faith in the government essentially disintegrated.
I came to Christ when I was thirteen and it was not long afterwards that my parents divorced and I watched helplessly as my family was torn apart. I was, not surprisingly, the angry kid in our split family and I spent years trying to punish my dad for the wrongs I felt he had done. I have always hated seeing anyone get away with mistreating others so it was my attempt at creating justice though it was misplaced energy. I do want to say that my father and I now have a loving relationship – he is the best dad I know, but the fragmentation of my family hurt me deeply and created a bitterness and anger I felt deeply. Structural unit failure #1.
I also saw up-close the hypocrisy of the church. I saw it most keenly in, of all things, a part-time job I had at Braum’s, an ice-cream and hamburger place that I worked at during high school. Everyone who worked there hated – and I mean HATED – working on Wednesday and Sunday nights because those were church nights. Church folks would come to Braum’s after worship for burgers and ice-cream and they were honestly the biggest assholes on the face of the planet. It was embarrassing to see. I remember, as a sixteen year old, having 30 burgers on the grill, cooking them, dressing the buns (each of them different), cooking the fries, and even getting the drinks for each order, when one church lady comes up to the counter, slams down her burger, ¾ of which had been eaten, and demands that I cook her another one because she had wanted it cooked medium and hers was well-done. I wanted to take the big gold chain that had a big golden cross hanging around her neck and strangle her with it. I cooked her second burger, all the while praying it would give her uncontrollable dysentery. I left for college still believing in Jesus, but also experiencing firsthand the hypocrisy in so many Christians, confirming the worst aspects of our faith. Structural unit failure #2.
Lastly, my faith in the government was shaken as well during these years. I was greatly disturbed by the love affair the nation – especially my conservative Christian friends – had with Ronald Reagan even when I saw many of his policies have such detrimental impacts on the most vulnerable people, including the homeless, poor working families, Central American refugees, and others. Moreover, during the 1988 presidential campaign – the first one I could vote in and one in which I actively campaigned – my heart was broken as someone I truly believed in, Michael Dukakis, was defeated by George H. W. Bush, primarily because Bush made the name “liberal” treasonous and also because of a nasty ad campaign that used a prisoner named Willie Horton who was on furlough when he brutally raped and murdered a young couple which scared the racist hell out of White America. All of this disillusioned my belief in government being used as a source of caring for the welfare of people, particularly people in need. Government seemed more a weapon of the affluent and powerful to maintain an unjust status quo. Structural unit failure #3.
In this short period of time my belief in the basic structural units of society – the family, the church, and the government – had crumbled as I saw each of these elements become nonexistent or be used as a way to harm people. I struggled at that time to find new structures that could fulfill the same roles or, better yet, provide even greater significance in my life. However, in reflecting on this time I see that God’s grace did exactly that. I found new and innovative expressions for meaning and identity. Let me explain briefly and then share why this is important for where we are as a country and a church today.
When I went to college I quickly fell in with friends who ended up being the most genuine Christians I had ever met. I began to be discipled through small accountability groups with other Christians my age. There was no domineering institution mandating that we follow some specific curriculum. It was organic. We just met together, shared our struggles, our hopes, our dreams, our passions, and even our emerging visions for future ministry with one another. By the end of my time in college, these friends had become, in essence, my family and my church. They spurred me to follow Jesus passionately and to follow my call to serve God and serve the world. There has been no greater means of grace in my life than these kinds of small groups of people loving, edifying, and inspiring one another towards greater love and mission.
It was also during college that I was actively engaged in a campus chapter of Amnesty International. It was through Amnesty that I saw that I had a responsibility and a unique opportunity to use my position and privilege in society to advocate for justice for and with people who were being crushed by unjust societal systems like the death penalty in the United States or apartheid in South Africa. It was through this small group of radical activists, most of whom were atheist or agnostic, that I learned that political advocacy could be used redemptively and that collectively we could have an impact on this world. These were, for me, innovative manifestations of God’s grace, intended to shape me and impact the world around me.
Now, I share all of this to make this point: corporate trust in the basic structural units is at an all-time low in this country, but this presents the church with an opportunity that, in order to be seized upon, means that we must begin to do things in new, innovative, and organic ways.
Let’s briefly look at the structural units that I listed and how they are faring today.
- Many families are sadly experiencing the same heartache of divorce that mine did.
- The church, especially the United Methodist Church of which I am most familiar with, is so embroiled in internal battles that our missional resources are instead being used to fight one another. Conservative Methodists are intent on covering their rejection of LGBTQ people with a rigid commitment to doctrine while institutional liberals are equally zealous in protecting the top-heavy, arcane, bureaucracy from which they derive their identity. The many people who truly care about ministry to ALL people are left spiritually homeless in many cases.
- When it comes to trust in the government we need only watch this election season to see the polarized and entrenched anger directed at the government and a seemingly bizarre eagerness to undermine it if not outright destroy it. And this is being led by the Republican candidate himself whose unprecedented diatribes against the validity of the election results is fomenting violence and a breakdown of democracy. We have come to a point in this country that people feel so abandoned that they would rather burn everything down than see the “other side” win.
It is at this time that I am so profoundly reminded of God’s grace in my life. The structures that replaced those that had failed me came out of small groups of people – not programs created by established institutions – who shared their passions with one another and found ways to live those passions out and achieve goals for tangible change, both within ourselves individually and within society overall. I believe with every fiber of my being that what is needed now more than ever is for the Body of Christ to be the Body of Christ, but to do so in new wineskins with brand new expressions of our faithfulness.
It is time for new dreams, new connections and new leaders.
We must be creative and innovative, focusing on organic ways to include those who feel abandoned by the incessant failures of our institutions. It is far past time to lay aside the institutional church and to start anew. We can love people into the Kingdom and build movements among people with shared passion to make tangible change when we are incarnated among those directly impacted by injustice. The old wineskins of our institutions cannot hold the needed innovations and new dreams that are bursting forth. Let’s lay the old institution down and start again.
It is time for new dreams, new connections, and new leaders. Let’s start new expressions of the Body of Christ, small groups of people who love one another and who serve our communities faithfully. We need new connections among these innovative local expressions of faith communities so that local leaders, who are not ordained by massive institutions but rather by smaller networks who fully support their leaders, are able to learn from one another and grow together to build a wider movement to achieve tangible change.
Our new leaders will not come with fancy titles and big-ass offices. No, they will instead be people with a passion for God and for the world that is contagious; a passion that cannot be contained in one beating heart, but which finds and infects others with new dreams for what the Body of Christ can be.
This is what a revolution can look like. This is what Fig Tree Revolution is purposed to help create.
The world is nuts right now. That is true. But I believe the time is so ripe for us to throw off the shackles of institutional commitments that make us busy and perhaps even give us identity, but which also blur our vision and suck our passions dry, and for us to build a revolution. And this will be a revolution of invitation that eliminates marginalization, a revolution of shared plenty that overcomes greed and isolation, and a revolution of love that drives out fear. Thanks to Jesus, the revolution is here. We need only to live it out in shared spaces with others.