Progressive Churching: On Receiving the Critic, Part I

(This post is a continuation of my Progressive Churching series;observations from the front-lines of curating a Progressive Christian Church)


A couple months ago I delivered a sermon that invited our church to reflect on their previous year and to journal things that came up for them. Dividing a page in to two columns, Grateful and Mindful, we wrote down all the things that we were grateful for in 2014 on one side, and populated the other side by listing those things that happened last year that were hard, hurtful, or tragic, that perhaps we weren't grateful for, but we wanted to remain mindful of. We want to acknowledge that they happened, and hold proper space for them.

It was an incredibly meaningful and moving service for a lot of people. Except for, well, let's call him Stan.

Stan is a wonderful human being who has the capacity to bring a burst of light to our church when he comes. Yet this particular day there wasn't much light flowing, at least not when I finally got to say hi to him, which was after the service.

I could tell from the look on his face that something wasn't quite right. He seemed, well, angry. Which was not an expression I was accustomed to seeing on Stan. When I said hi to him he replied by simply handing me his paper that he journaled on.

Expecting to see a list of Gratefuls and Mindfuls, in its place I saw a hastily written note made its way out of the seething pen of Stan and on to the paper I was now holding.

In a nut shell? Stan was not a fan of my sermon.

Listening to the Critic

"Esoteric nonsense," he said, if I recall his note correctly.

I turned to Stan, trying to be conscious about the expression my face was now wearing, and said something like, "so today didn't connect with you, did it?"

We proceeded to have a brief exchange where he emphasized that he comes to church expecting to hear the gospel preached every Sunday. He expects people to be given the chance to come to Jesus every Sunday and be saved from hellfire. He told me about how much of his life he spent running from God, and yet he finally surrendered to Jesus and now he wants everyone to have faith like he does.

Mostly I just listened. And focused on ensuring my face remained relatively polite. Inside I was, admittedly, a bit shaken by the encounter. Albeit much less so than in previous years (I'll explain that in the next post).

I finally entered the conversation when he made some comment about people needing to hear the Gospel and not this esoteric nonsense.

"Stan," I said, "I can see that clearly today's message didn't resonate with you. But please look around you," I waved my arm across the school auditorium at the group of people who were still recovering from the impact of the morning's service, "a lot of people really needed this morning. A lot of people seemed to have genuinely encountered God this morning. And I think that matters."

"But people need to hear the Gospel! And you're the Pastor! I come to this church because of you, to hear you, and you need to preach the Gospel!"

Ignoring his inference that I don't preach the Gospel (because it was clear to me that he and I likely had different views on what the Gospel is, and now wasn't the time to unpack that), and ignoring his reference to me as "the Pastor" (because I didn't sense that now was the moment to break down our Shared Leadership model at Sojourn), instead I just had to react to his last statement.

Putting my hand on his shoulder I said, "Stan, if I am the reason you come to this church, then I'm telling you right now that you will be disappointed. Because I am going to let you down. Obviously I have this morning, but I guarantee it will happen again. So I truly hope there is something else, something deeper, that brings you back on Sundays. Because I'm just a man, and if you come because of me, then that could prove to be problematic."

I don't recall what was said after that, but it wasn't much. He eventually made his exit, leaving me standing there with his note in my hand, wondering what the hell just happened.

Just moments before I had been enjoying a bit of a high from how beautiful the service had been. I could see that my message had really landed with people, and the ensuing time of worship and receiving the Bread and the Cup were tender and powerful.

But nothing rips you back down to earth quicker than someone calling your work "nonsense," and letting you know how much you let them down.

Part II: Reflections on my response to Stan and how it compares to Old Colby. Part III: The Power of the Critic and the Power of Supporters, plus an update.