Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Would you like fries with your theology?

A couple of weeks ago I was in a Lowe’s Home Improvement store.  I was looking for a specific item, which I thought they had.  Alas, they did not.  However, while sitting in the store looking on my phone, I discovered that another Lowe’s location did in fact have the item I needed.  So I called to verify this information.  They put me on hold while they went to check the shelves.  The hold music was “1000 Miles” by Vanessa Carlton.  I started tapping my foot.  And then I realized it.  The hold music.  It was...exactly the same as the music playing in the store I was sitting in.  Synchronized to exactly the same moment in the song.  No delay whatsoever.  I’m not even sure how they did that.
You know me.  I started thinking.  This song must be playing at this exact moment in every Lowe’s in the United States.  Every caller on hold.  Everyone standing in front of the toilet display trying to decide if they need a round bowl or an elongated bowl.  Everyone agonizing over cabinet hinges and window treatments and grill accessories.  Everyone who’s trying to figure out what kelvin temperature they want for their LED lighting and everyone who’s trying to figure out the difference between eggshell and satin finish...and which would look the best in the sunroom they’re trying to spruce up before they have guests in for the weekend.  They were all listening to the same song at the same time.  That’s heavy.
Why do you suppose that is?  It probably saves costs somehow.  But also, and this is even more important than that, it’s an attempt to ensure that the customer experience at any given Lowe’s is consistent.
It’s like McDonald’s.  Those guys don’t think for a minute they have the best cheeseburger in the world.  But they’re pretty sure that no matter what McDonald’s you walk into you’re going to get that exact mediocre “cheeseburger” you’re expecting.  They spend a lot of time training folks to make sure that’s the case.  And heck, if you’re me, sometimes that’s exactly what you want.  “I don’t want a cheeseburger.  I want a McDonald’s cheeseburger.  They aren’t the same thing.”
To one degree or another church denominations seem to work the same way.  Some person or some council says what we’re supposed to believe, and everyone in the denomination is supposed to believe whatever they say.  The Catholic church has ecumenical councils and the Pope.  The Episcopalians have the General Convention.  The Methodists have the...the...the (it almost pains me to say it) General Conference.  Cue ominous music and thunderclap sound effect.
The General Conference produces the Book of Discipline.  This is a book that tells us how Methodists are supposed to be in the world.  What do we believe?  How do we practice our faith?  It’s all written right there.  Like a Zaxby’s manual that tells you how to toss the chicken fingerz correctly or a Wendy’s manual that tells you the proper way to mess up someone’s order (It has to be on purpose, folks.  It’s always messed up so you can’t figure it out without emptying the whole bag.  They’ve elevated it to an art.)  It’s all there in black and white.
Except the world doesn’t work in black and white.  The Discipline exists in a dynamic world.  That’s why it changes.  Slowly, yes, but surely.  It is affected by social and cultural norms.  To borrow from Paul, it is not only in the world, but to some degree it is of the world.  And because it is of the world, it will never quite measure up to what we experience when we earnestly seek to live the life of Christ.
The difference between what the highest level of our Methodist polity dictates and what I experience every day in the local church creates cognitive dissonance for me.  What do I believe?  Is it all some kind of a sham, what with me peddling one product in Decatur while a very different product is packaged in Portland?  What would happen if the big boss came down to my particular corner and didn’t like how I was tossing my chicken fingerz?!
I don’t know.  But I do know this: the gospel call on my life is to love everyone, and I serve a local church in which I can answer that call fully.  I can answer that call right alongside someone who disagrees with me...who can also answer the gospel call on his life or her life.  Fully.  After all, the work of Jesus isn’t done at a conference center in some random city every four years.  It’s done by our hands in our own community every day.


  1. The church as franchise is a helpful metaphor, but only to a certain extent. From the very beginning, variety and diversity were built into Christian congregations (see Paul's letters). So I totally agree with your conclusions. And maybe we can take our Book of Discipline with a grain of salt - like Roman Catholics take the Church's many teachings.

    1. I agree with you completely. I hope and believe that the metaphor does break down because of the inherent diversity from the beginning. And sometimes I wonder if our attempts to codify the faith have the unintended consequence (or the intended consequence) of favoring unity over personal discipleship.