The Muddy Church

A few years ago, my daughters and I participated in our first mud run. Over hay bales, under nets, and through water hazards, we discovered quickly that the adjective “mud” was not hyperbole. We were mud caked, head to toe. The hair took a few washings, and I’m not sure the shoes ever recovered.

Since then, we’ve done more of those as well as a color run—which leaves you looking like you just participated in Holi (the Hindu festival of colors).

Every week, in fact, I’m invited to some run or other, and they all involve something more than actual, simple running. Dirt, bubbles, dye, dancing, whatever.

This is not a bad explanation of the Millennial generation outlook when it comes to life, or church. The photos of us at the mud runs show people willing to get very, very messy for a cause.

This is it. This is a key concept about Millennials we dare not miss. They are willing to get very, very messy. But it is not solely for the purpose of messing things up, as the older generations tend to think. It is for a cause. Understand the cause, and you come closer to understanding the method.

Recent Christian writing trends toward portraying real life, honest mistakes, and a blatant admission that life is messy and sometimes knowing God is hard, never five easy steps. The Christian life, or life in general, is often slogging through mud, not the sunny “happy in Jesus” portrait we older writers painted for so long.

We who have lived most of our lives in the modernist mindset of finding logical steps and offering answers are offended by the overriding ethos today that no one knows what they’re doing, but we’re in this together. The inherent criticism in that doesn’t sit well with older generations.

We (rightfully) believe the messiness trend allows Christians to shrug off serious sin and bad judgment. We wrongly believe its only purpose is to criticize Christians and create loopholes.

Yet before we judge their criticism, think about the difference in the way young people have grown up seeing the church and the way we Boomers did. We saw an institution that held communities together, created a safety net for families in trouble, and held a position of, if not power, trust. The church of our youth never made the news for bad behavior.

Not exactly the case now. From the Catholic child abuse coverup to the southern church lady’s “bless her heart” (which means anything but), church has been the last place young people could feel like they would see people without masks and hear stories without spin.

So that cause they’re willing to get messy for? To make church, and the world of Jesus people in general, a place where we can see, hear, and tell the truth. That’s the goal of messy.

We live in an artificial world where social interactions are staged and filtered. We choreograph and curate out stories, showing the public only what we want them to see. Millennials, immersed more in the social media world than anyone, know this. They swim in this world. They are drowning in it.

They crave a place to take off mask and be with people who are real.

They want someone to say it’s OK to make mistakes. They’ve been hovered over all their lives and cushioned from harm, and the result is that they’re terrified of failure. A safe place for all that would necessarily be messy. But it would also be a sanctuary.

Older people, when we walk into a sanctuary on Sunday, is it? Or is it simply another place where we have to photoshop our lives? Are we going to be so worried that embracing messy could lead to condoning sin that we preach a false gospel, one where our lives must already be great before we come to God? One where we live in continual victory, despite worldwide evidence to the contrary?

If so, we run up against the real gospel—“Apart form me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). Not to mention this hard truth—“If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8).

Jesus embraced messy. He sat with it, ate with it, let it touch his feet, and even called it off the beach of a dark sea to follow him. He didn’t present following him as five easy steps; on the contrary, he told his followers that it would be the hardest thing they ever did, and those who would turn back when it got messy need not apply (Matthew 16:24-25, Luke 9:57-62).

So why do we have such a hard time allowing it full admittance to following him now? Why would we keep it from sitting at his feet and crying tears of understanding?

Yes, messy can lead to accepting continued sin as status quo. It can also lead us to understanding together our deep need for wholeness and restoration. It can lead us to compassion for a world where people suffer because entire systems are messy and broken, and it can lead us to weep at Jesus’ feet for that reality. Then, our stories of coming out of messes, true stories only the experienced can tell, can lead all of us to doing something about that mess.

Jill Richardson
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