Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

The Church Has Left the Building

About a year and a half ago, the leadership of the church where I “church-gig” decided we needed a renewed focus.

It’s fine to put up lovely Sunday morning services, and it’s even fine to hold lots of activities at church during the week. And it’s just as fine to provide helpful organizations like Al-Anon and our local Savoyards group (which donates its profits to the United Methodist Committee on Relief, specifically to fight hunger in the world) with a place to hold their meetings.

But, said our senior pastor, we need to get out of our building.

Partly this was because, as our Social Principles document suggests, we properly demonstrate our faith not just by talking about it but by doing good works. And, whew!, there’s so much work to be done out there in the big world. All kinds of people need all kinds of help; and if we can be of help, we ought to be of help. Bring food to food pantries. Send supplies and helpers when natural disasters strike. All that good stuff. We call it “outreach”.

Also, the Methodist owner’s manual suggests that we ought to try and bring folks into our fold. In another post in this space, I described briefly how happy I am that when you look up “acquiring new members” in the Methodist rule book, it does not say “put up large billboards” or “get in people’s faces and demand that they repent on the spot”. We prefer a style that some might call more passive-aggressive, but I would just call more considerate.

Acquiring new members – or, “making new disciples,” as the Social Principles more elegantly put it – may require a bit more effort than just having a church building and pointing to it and saying, “…come join? … We’re nice?”

So, our leadership created a gently descriptive slogan for our new efforts, 18 months ago or so: “The Church Has Left the Building.”

On the Sunday we kicked off this campaign, we worshipped out in front of our church building … so that passing motorists might notice, and who knows who might remember that and come by again later? And afterward, some of us went across town to help build some picnic tables for a local school’s play yard; while others of us went around the corner to sing and play tunes for the residents of an assisted-living community … and there were a couple of other project destinations, as well, which escape me at the moment. You could look at it as advertising; we preferred to think of it as a prelude, hopefully, to further interaction.

The effort reminded me of a conversation I had with one of my high school band students, early in my teaching career. Probably ninety-percent-jokingly, he chuckled, “oh, we don’t like freshmen.” I suggested that perhaps this might not be the best philosophy ever; and my student actually nodded as I was saying it. “Yeah, I don’t think I mean that, really.” Right, I said, because if we don’t get new freshmen each year … eventually we die.

Certainly, a very similar conversation happens within the leadership of most denominations nowadays. Fewer and fewer people, when polled, are indicating that they are regular members of any religious organization. Our senior pastor reported that in pastor circles, those people are nicknamed “Nones”.


So, last night, after spending quite a bit of time watching the television news coverage of yesterday’s Boston Marathon bombing, I did what any journalism-fatigued soul would do: went online and started observing the Internet’s coverage. Obviously.

And in short order, I spied the first two indications that this event had turned the corner, going from “horrible disastrous event that affected a state, a nation and the whole world” to “hey! an opportunity to hitch my wagon to this star”.

The first indication was when a radio talk show host supposed that the blasts in Boston had been a government plot from the beginning (so within a couple hours, we had “Marathon Truthers”, I guess). Talkers gonna talk… If you have a three-hour show every day, ya gotta fill it with some damn thing, I guess.

The second indication, I suppose, should not have surprised me.

The Westboro Baptist Church weighed in.


These people from Topeka, Kansas, hold simply hateful views and appear to have been deprived of parental attention as toddlers. The WBC has made a name for itself by holding demonstrations outside public events like football games, music concerts, and funerals. An average of six every single day, by their own estimates. For a long time, they’ve seemed to me to be a pack of Johnny-One-Notes: their whole raison d’picket is that they believe some event has something to do with that nasty ol’ gay agenda thingy. Their favorite slogan suggests that God hates gay persons, although they express it using instead that word that starts with “F” and in England also means cigarettes and in Italian musical scores happens to be the abbreviation for “bassoon”, as the word originally meant “pile of sticks”, and let’s face it, a bassoon looks like a tree-trunk with a mouthpiece.

Sorry. Digression. But you now know what word they use, which I won’t use, since it’s an epithet and I don’t do epithets, unless they’re creative, such as Shakespeare used to invent.

In fact, the URL of the WBC’s website is … well … it’s “that slogan”-dot-com. Seriously. They don’t shy away from it. They’ve linked plenty of picketable events to the scourge of The Gay, events you’d hardly expect to have anything to do with it. Notably, one of those events was the funeral of a member of the US military, killed in Afghanistan. Hmmm. Mysterious. And another of those notable events was a Kansas City Chiefs football game. Hmmm. Doubly, triply mysterious. The NFL? Really? Really?

(Y’all read the papers?)

So, they’re focused – and their church Has Left The Building. I’ll give them that.


I’ll also give them this – a gentle thought or two:

I don’t espouse violence, and certainly the past day has been one to decry violence; it’s no civilized way to make a point.

I don’t espouse shouting people down, because that’s no way for people to come to an understanding either.

I don’t even really think counter-demonstrations are helpful (satisfying, yes) – even though I understand other people’s need to carry out counter-demonstrations – the need to try to demonstrate to you just how heartless and cruel your First-Amendment-protected expressions appear, to everybody but you. All that does is bring out the journalists to cover the point-counterpoint, and regardless of what transpires after that, in the end that only gets you the attention you obviously so desperately crave, and cements in your mind how right you are to do what you do.

What makes this country great, or at least admirable, is that our system of government’s guiding document protects your right to say things. And it protects everybody else’s right to respond. Implicitly, it supports both those rights so long as the sentiments are not irresponsible or do not endanger other people. I’ll leave it to other people in other spaces to decide whether the WBC expressions always meet this standard.

So I would hate to ban the WBC from even being able to express itself, no matter how awful I think their expressions are. Don’t want a Constitutional crisis. Don’t want that particular slippery slope.

But how you can be a member of an organization that reportedly spends a quarter-million dollars a year on this picketing effort (how many hungry people would that money feed, I wonder?) … how you can be a member of an organization that suggests that God hates anybody (again, isolated bits of the Old Testament aside, that’s not the God that I learned about in Sunday School) … how you can be a member of an organization that thanks its particular God for acts of violence and claims that those acts were perpetrated to demonstrate how right it is to hold their particular views … and still call yourself a member of a church?

You’re just foolin’ yourselves.

That’s no church that I was ever taught about in Sunday School.

And your church has left more than just its building, I think.


Again, let me be clear. My Sunday School lessons included plenty about turning the other cheek … about loving other people as you love yourself … and I have ever held fast to those tenets. I do not – do NOT – support the use of violence. As the illuminated Martin Luther King Jr. quote in New York City said last night, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that.”

But if you have the guts to issue a press release less than a day after bombs kill three people and injure and maim more than 170 others … a press release that praises God for sending that violent act, regardless of what reason you think s/he sent it …

and then if you have the guts to hold your usual kind of demonstration outside the funeral of an innocent eight-year-old kid from Dorchester, Massachusetts – who was at the Marathon not because he cared a toot about gay marriage but because he wanted to cheer on his dad as he finished running a 26-mile road race – and whose only mistake was standing in the wrong place at the wrong time, right in front of that first bomb …

Amazingly … somehow, because s/he is capable of it where arguably no one else on Earth is capable of it … the God that I was brought up to believe in will still love you.

I can’t speak for the residents of that little kid’s Dorchester neighborhood though.

I dunno. You all may have chosen a very poor bear to poke, this time.


April 16, 2013 - Posted by | civil rights, current events, journalism, media, news, politics, religion, social media, SUMC | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


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