May 30, 2014

The Flanders Phenomenon

The church has a problem. Some call it the Culture of Nice. I call it the Flanders Phenomenon.

You know Ned Flanders, right? He's the uber religious next door neighbor on The Simpsons. The earnest, Biblical literalist who uses such saccharine catch phrases as "Hey-diddly-ho!" and "okilly-dokkily!" The exceedingly nice pushover whose unfailing good mood can't be disturbed even by Homer Simpson's most egregious un-neighborly shenanigans.

Yes, Ned Flanders is an animated caricature. But he's also precisely what's slowly killing the church. He embodies the Culture of Nice that has become the hallmark of many Christian communities. We live in such fear of offending that we bend over backwards to the point of losing our spine.

Jesus wasn't Ned Flanders nice. He boldly called out religious hypocrisy and publicly shamed the self-satisfied for not helping those in need. Despite all the images of Jesus hugging sheep on dinner plates produced by the Franklin Mint, he wasn't all about being warm, fuzzy, and timid. You don't start a revolution by being meek and mild.

Flipping Tables at the Temple

Take the classic example of Jesus' interaction with the money changers at the Temple. The whole set-up was a convenient win-win for both travelers and those looking to profit from the system of sacrifice. But Jesus was not in the mood to “play nice” when he showed up that day. And if you asked one of those money changers who just had his table flipped over about Jesus, I guarantee the word “nice” would not cross his lips.

But, still, this incident is in precise keeping with who Jesus is and what he preached. Jesus didn’t just snap – he’s not an out-of-control hothead -- but he was angry. And he was angry because relationship with God was being sacrificed to the idol of worldly affairs. He wasn't angry at the people themselves but at their blindness and hardness of heart.

Yet through this very anger, Jesus was preaching the Gospel of love. And by flipping over some tables and raising his voice, Jesus shows us that it is acceptable to stand up publicly for truth and justice; to call people out when they aren't behaving appropriately. Not out of uncontrollable rage but out of deep conviction -- even if it’s not particularly nice.

So we see that Jesus was not Ned Flanders nice but passionate about breaking open the Kingdom of God on earth. Which sometimes meant trampling upon the culturally accepted superficialities of niceness.

Destroying the False Idol of Nice

The church will not thrive unless we give up the false idol of nice. But how? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Calling out parish bullies who hijack the church's mission through attention-getting measures.
  • Cutting through the usual banal coffee hour conversation to find out how it really goes with one another's souls. 
  • Not avoiding conflict but leaning into it and dealing with it before it festers.
  • Creating a culture where, yes, people are nice to one another but not at the expense of boldly proclaiming the gospel.
  • Forming leaders who are passionate about their faith and authentic in the ways they communicate it.
  • Reaching back into our tradition rather than going outside of it to engage innovation and change.
  • Being willing to skewer sacred cows if they're not consistent with the church's broader mission.
One reason the church isn't popular with young adults -- millennials -- is their highly attuned BS detector. There's nothing authentic about relationships where every one is continually, if metaphorically, saying "after you" to everyone they encounter. Real relationships are messy and the incarnate God in Christ knows this. After all, he wasn't born in a fancy palace or a sterile delivery room but in a stable and laid in a manger -- which is simply a poetic synonym for "feeding trough."

The sooner we leave the Flanders Phenomenon behind, the sooner we can get back to the real business of spreading the gospel of Christ with passion and conviction. And that's something that really would be "nice."