This summer, I’m playing with the book of Mark every week. You can check out my original post about why I’m studying Mark, and my time in Mark 1 last week. And I’m glad you’re here! Let’s have fun in the earliest Gospel, y’all. Today I’m in Mark 2 – I’d encourage you to give it a skim first before we jump in together.
All the talking heads tell me that kids are leaving church these days because of goddamn avocado toast.
OK, so I’m mixing my Millennial Critiques. But everyone has a critique of my generation, and mostly people are real mad that we aren’t doing things like people did in the 50’s – buying houses, buying diamonds, having kids, and yeah, going to church. I’ve been lucky to be part of a church community that doesn’t spend a lot of time lecturing Kids These Days, but there’s always a stream of panicked articles about the decline of church attendance in the West, the rise of the Nones (people who check “None” on Religious Affiliation in a census) and the continued prevalence of “spiritual but not religious” folks.
There are two ways church people deal with this. First off, we can blame it on the Church for not being “relevant” enough or “trendy” enough or speaking the “language” of the youth or not being “authentic” enough or whatever other code word we use instead of just saying what it is: we’re trying to build a better “product” that people can “buy” – and advertise it well.
And then the second way we deal with church decline that seems to be particularly popular as a backlash to the consumer/advertising church culture – we say it’s not me, it’s you. “If they hate you, you’re doing something right,” we insist. If the Church is losing people, it’s because the church is doing stuff really well. Oh, also, it’s The Kids Fault. “Invest more in community. Also, your attention span is so short. Also, stop asking for church to Feed you and start asking how you can Feed others. Also, they hated Jesus first and so if no one wants to come to our church it’s probably because we’re super super like Jesus.”
So here’s what I noticed when I was reading Mark 2.
Y’all, people are hungry.
People are starving.
People keep following Jesus – the “crowds” are “many,” people smashing their way into houses where there isn’t room for them, gathering out by the ocean, gathering at dinner parties, cutting holes in the roof because they are so, so desperate for Jesus.
People hear about Jesus and they absolutely need to get closer. They’re desperate to get in there, so desperate that they won’t let anything stand in their way, including the scribes (who just keep asking why, four times in this chapter in fact. Why do you do this, Jesus, why do you do what isn’t lawful, why don’t you fast, why does “this fellow” speak in this way? and WHY, why why does this man eat with tax collectors and sinners?). They push past all the gatekeepers to get to Jesus. They don’t let anything stop them.
Our churches say that the reason people aren’t coming to church is their fault. People don’t have attention spans, people want to be entertained, people are caught in sexual sin, people won’t sit still for a sermon, people would rather go to brunch (probably to get avocado toast!), people’s own sin is the reason that they won’t come into our churches. If people hate us it’s their fault! If people won’t come to church it’s their fault! If people don’t like the Church it’s because they’re dirty rotten crummy sinners!
But if people don’t go to church because of their sin, why the hell couldn’t Jesus get away for 12 seconds without a crowd of sinful people trying to get as close to Him as they possibly could?
In high school I read a book¹ that noticed that the word “Bethlehem” means “house of bread” in Hebrew. The book of Ruth opens with Naomi and her husband leaving Bethlehem because there’s a famine in the land – because there is no bread in Bethlehem.
The house of bread had no bread.
The place that people should come to get fed, the place that people turn to when they’re starving, was out of bread.
And so here we are. The church. Losing people.
Here we are, supposed to be the spiritual nurturers, the place that people come when they’re hungry. And everyone is leaving Bethlehem because, inexplicably: They’re. Still. Hungry.
Why spend you money on what is not bread
and you labor on what does not satisfy
Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,
and delight yourselves in rich food.
– Isaiah 55
Some people have been spending their money on “the church” for a long, long time. Then one day, they looked down and realized that they have been spending money on what is not bread, their labor on what does not satisfy.
When the Church stops preaching Jesus, and starts relying on tradition, religion, practice, action at the expense of the Gospel, people are going to come in hungry and leave hungry.
Because Jesus is the thing that fills the hunger. Not anything else. Not ever.
I wonder if the scribes were jealous.
I wonder if they stood around, wondering why they hadn’t had any religious service attendance in years, why people weren’t coming to them in the same way that people came to Jesus.
“Cult of personality,” they must have whispered to each other. “No sound theology. All magic tricks and flashy moves. No spiritual disciplines like fasting. Poor Biblical interpretation, breaking the Sabbath.”
I wonder if the scribes were hungry, too, but just didn’t know it. I’m sure that they were. And that makes me so sad.
I think about Nicodemus in John’s Gospel, coming in the middle of the night because he was so, so hungry, and didn’t know how, didn’t dare, to come to Jesus in public. And Jesus – Jesus who smashes the scribes and religious leaders left and right, coming at them with sharp words and harsh condemnation and sometimes even cruelty – sits down with this hungry scribe at two in the morning to talk all night.
Jesus feeds every kind of person. The tax collectors. The sick. Yup, even you – even the scribes and the religious gatekeepers.
Come with the crowd! Come cutting holes in the roof. Come to dinner with the political elite and hookers. But if you can’t do that, then come in the middle of the night because you’re hungry but you aren’t really sure if you’re ready for anyone else to see you admit it.
When people encounter Jesus, when we encounter something besides rigidity of rules, theological dryness, and spiritual disciplines that point to nothing except back at ourselves – when we catch a whiff of Jesus, we crowd out the house and rip the roof off because we’re hungry and we’ve just got to get closer.
Church – gosh, I love you.
We’re hungry. Please feed us bread.
Please preach Jesus.
- “Revolution!” – teen spiritual growth book that I can’t even find on Amazon (thank God, it was pretty intense).