The Sanctimoniousness of Ministry

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sanctimoniousI once remarked during a sermon that farts are funny. They just are. Even seeing the word typed out makes me giggle almost as much as I did the first time I ever read the word booger. I always thought it was spelled b-u-g-e-r but “booger” just looks way funnier. And it seems to be that the only people who aren’t willing to admit that farts are funny are old people and church people. I’ve said “fart” in a couple sermons and people always seem astonished and it has led to more than one conversation about what’s “appropriate” and what’s not.

I don’t go to many conferences or conventions since they are expensive and small churches like mine have difficulty paying for them. However, the last one I went to (I won’t mention any names) I just kind of sat there thinking, “Someone needs to say that farts are funny from up there on stage.” I mean, the conference was fine and I felt that it was worthwhile going to, but I was surprised at how seldom people laughed. How uptight they all were. There was a smattering of small groups of people who all seemed to know each other and were engaged in pleasantries with one another all the while smiling and laughing. But the joviality of those groups still seemed limited to the confines of the distinguished and genteel. It’s more likely that they were laughing about puns and their most recent trips out of the country than talk of bodily functions.

If you haven’t noticed already, I have a bit of a rebellious streak in me, but that’s not really what this is about. This isn’t about being crass for the sake of a cheap laugh. (Although I should warn you up front, this article will probably test your tolerance for crassness.) I realize that I stand at the other end of the spectrum when it comes to potty humor and what is or isn’t appropriate (like I said – farts are funny), but I think that I’ve got something worthwhile to say on this matter, so if you can plug your nose and watch your step, I’d like to throw something a little different out there at you.

It’s always interesting when I tell people that I’m a pastor. I always try my best to withhold that little bit of information for as long as possible, and the way that people react couldn’t vary more widely. For some, it instantly creates a sense of camaraderie. Those conversations usually begin with: “REALLY! I go to church down at so-and-so and I love my pastor, do you know him . . . and . . and . . . and . . .” For others, it brings up immediate guilt and goes something like this: “Oh, yeah, I really have been meaning to get back to church – when is your service? I’d like to check that out sometime,” I never hold my breath awaiting their arrival. Inevitably, there are those who are instantly turned off. It’s almost as though I can see the discomfort set in as the vomit rises in their throats slightly. They are almost always polite, but they try to get away from me as quickly as if I had Ebola.

There’s a lot of ways I could describe these people and there are a lot of things I could say about them, but I think that a good way to look at it is this: those folks think that farts are funny, but they don’t think that I think they are funny (got that?).

Our church owns a rental property. We recently rented it out to a new family – a young man, his significant other, and their child. We never asked, but just assumed they were husband and wife. One of our elders went over to do some work on the house and in talking with him he (the renter) referred to his significant other as his wife. Turns out, they aren’t married. The point isn’t that they aren’t married, it’s just that he felt uncomfortable admitting that they weren’t married to a “church-going-guy.” In other words, he didn’t feel like he could be himself. Now, this elder just happens to be one of the most perceptive people that I know, and so what he said next made me smile. The elder told me, “Yeah, I was sure to use a cuss word when I was talking to him next, so he knew he could be himself.”

This story illustrates the point I’m trying to (rather strangely) make. I’m afraid that there’s been a very significant side effect of the growing professionalization of ministry in our church culture. Church people just aren’t very good at hanging out. We “host small groups;” we plan events and activities; but it just all seems so contrived. The overwhelming majority of ministers that I talk to seem to be wearing some huge protective shield around them that makes it very difficult to get to know them. And it’s becoming indicative of the broader church culture that they help lead.

In a nutshell, we’ve got to stop taking ourselves so seriously. Too many of us spend way too much time perfecting our sermons and classes to be sure that we say things just the right way – the stakes are high: heaven and hell, right! But come on – we’ve got to get over ourselves. Working with teenagers helped teach me this lesson. There have been times when I just really seemed to have a group of teenagers right in my hand purveying my vast wisdom for the sake of their future. As they all sit there in the palm of my hand, with me about to make my life changing climactic point, and someone in the back row rips a huge fart and all is lost. Or is it? Can’t we learn to laugh? Even at ourselves?

There are certainly times that call for seriousness and solemnity, and undoubtedly our young people need help in discerning the preciousness of these times. At the same time, we mustn’t think that solemnity is the only godly posture. I am convinced that the church would see amazing and sweeping changes if we were somehow able to stop taking ourselves so seriously. God has called us to be different – not weird.

I’m convinced that once we stop taking ourselves so seriously, others will start paying more attention. There’s a crass idiom my parents used to have for people who thought that they were better than everyone – they didn’t think that their farts stink. I’m afraid that that’s exactly the impression too many of us are giving off. We need to begin to ask ourselves – have we lost the ability to talk with real, everyday people? Do people feel comfortable talking to us about anything and everything? I bet even Jesus laughed at a fart or two in his day – don’t you think that that might just make people think differently about the people who claim his name? If taking ourselves too seriously is an obstacle to the gospel, then it is important enough for us to consider a better approach. It doesn’t mean you have to take the approach given in this article but it does mean we have permission to lighten up and be real with people.

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