I once met an aspiring mega church pastor in a downtown coffee shop where it seemed liked everyone but me was hoping for a walk on role at Urban Outfitters. I think I had my shirt tucked in. Over the course of our time together, he revealed to me that “the most unreached people group” in our (my) community were successful white businessmen. He even showed me a map of my town with parts where these successful white businessmen lived and worked highlighted in red so that I could clearly understand that where I live is not filled with these unreached people who, according to my new friend, are the keys not only to extended family networks, but whole communities because of the influence and power they wield.
To his defense he neither knew where I lived nor my name, which became clear about halfway through our coffee date as he kept calling me “brother,” and making earnest eye contact, almost willing me to not notice. Science has proven that when people you’re just meeting keep calling you “man,” “dude,” “buddy,” or in this case “brother,” they weren’t listening when you introduced yourself and now they’re covering their tracks.
He also had incredible skin and the deepest V-neck shirt I’ve seen in the wild sense (probably) my last encounter with a mega church pastor in the “arts district” of downtown Los Angeles. A pastor who, when my friend introduced himself as a “huge fan,” signed his Bible on one of the first 2-3 pages where authors typically pen a personal note to you after waiting in line for their autograph. I’ve often wondered how Jesus handles fan mail, because in the Bible he keeps “going off by himself” no doubt, based on my brief experience with celebrity people of faith, looking for a green room and a not-Subway* to spend his lunch per diem.
(*NOTE: A “not-Subway” is a typical turn of phrase employed consistently on road trips in response to someone asking “so what food is everyone in the mood for?”)
What I’m saying is that it was a really great meeting where I definitely felt positive feelings about spending an inordinate amount of my time on earth studying history, theology, philosophy, and “effective small group ministry models” in graduate school while living with my wife in a studio apartment where our bedroom/office/living-room smelled like onions for three days anytime we made chili.* All undertaken, of course, for the privilege of working in aging congregations where parishioners would inevitably ask why our church isn't booming like that of the personal trainer passionately yelling his sermons at audiences of enthralled young families in the movie theatre downtown.
(*NOTE: We stopped making chili.)
That meeting was probably 5 years ago, and when we fast forward to today his church has like a 1000 people now, and I work part-time for a church where I’m not allowed to serve communion because I haven’t passed all of the tests yet. Obviously, I’m crushing it and totally not at all jealous of someone who looks even younger than I remember, and who has more Instagram followers than my monthly income. While the no-longer-up-and-coming-mega-church-pastor may not have a masters degree* in dealing with weighty and important topics that smaller and smaller numbers of people talk about in high-ceilinged rooms with stained glass, what he does have is a car that doesn’t shake violently when he exceeds 45 mph on the interstate, and the realization that if his dreams for Christian stardom don’t ever materialize he can always go back to modeling for exercise equipment.
(*NOTE: He told me within 10 minutes of hearing I had been to professional Christian graduate school that his supernatural calling did not “require such things”.)
Perhaps this is obvious from my perch at the bottom of the ecclesial food pyramid, but I’m just realizing that I’ve never known what it means to “make it” in the religion business. When I compare it to people breaking into the entertainment industry things seems eerily similar: from the head shots,* to the criteria audiences (I mean churches) use to determine our viability: speech, dress, parental lineage, demeanor, level of attractiveness, and ability to adapt pre-existing intellectual property for modern audiences that wrap up nicely in 22 minutes, I don’t know that I perceive a great deal of difference between the call of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and that of a plodding sitcom on CBS.
(*NOTE: We actually take those, usually while holding a Bible to our chests and wearing a blue blazer or smart blouse, it’s 2018 y'all #feminism)
Even the way we professionals talk to one another about our work reeks of this ongoing confusion about what it means to be successful at being a person who is paid to believe in God on behalf of other people. These intra-clergy conversations typically devolve into pastors complaining about the pay, or the size of the crowds, or where our seats are on the dais at the denominational conference, or how we can’t believe that one guy we went to grad school with got a book deal. Its really rather depressing, and desperate, and for most of us, tax deductible. What's worse is that I got so tired of this I even tried to quit being a pastor and become a therapist instead, but it didn't work, I'm still here in church, awaiting my big break.
I wish I had better advice about how to become a best selling author, or a successful speaker to large and small groups, or an incurable optimist imparting a worldview of positive thinking to the world one sold out arena at a time. But, most of the time I'm just trying to make it through a 24 hour period without wishing I owned a boat, or a house in a historic district about whose lack of granite countertops and small closets I could complain endlessly.*
(*NOTE: I watch a lot of House Hunters, and am brimming with regret.)
Instead, when using most of the metrics that determine human worth in Western, industrialized societies, I am a miserable failure, and not only that, I am a miserable failure at living with my miserable failure.* Which, in a way, makes me an expert, of sorts. Now, not one who is able to compellingly communicate my bonafides in a 600 word article written in Oprah font, but an expert who knows what failure looks like, and smells like, and the weird thing it makes your chest and your brain do in the middle of the night.
(*NOTE: for further evidence please consult my wife.)
Not to toot my own horn, but by the looks of things on Earth, it seems we might actually need a fair bit more people, and podcasts, and TED talks, and sermons, and books from people who know how to survive in a world where fewer and fewer of us do actually make it. From catastrophic wealth inequality, to that hollowed out feeling accompanying another White House policy announcement via Twitter, to the “gig economy,” to the fact that the second largest health insurer in America is Go Fund Me, and to the realization that unless you specialize in using words like “dividend” while moving money you didn’t earn from one account into another, the likelihood any of us will “make it” seems incredibly slim. You could say, 5 years after meeting a local Christian celebrity before he went viral, that the most unreached people group in America are actually miserable failures.
At the least, perhaps us failures should all band together and start a union, or a podcast, or a revolution, or a religion, whichever comes first. And, if I'm recollecting things about Jesus' life and death correctly, that last one may have already happened.