What I learned from the pit master
Michelle and I are not known for wild excursions. Because we make dates happen so infrequently we tend to stick to things we know we enjoy–hikes, movies, dinner. But deep down we both relish new experiences and finding hidden gems. So when Michelle told me she had purchased a Groupon for a BBQ class I was excited to try it out. The class descriptions said we would be learning the techniques of BBQ in a hands-on, interactive environment.
We rolled up to an old strip mall on Friday night at 4:45, ready to uncover the experiential treasure of Ruff’s BBQ class. The sign was half lit and the store where the class would take place seemed disheveled–all wonderfully setting the stage for a true hole-in-the-wall jackpot. We checked in with Ruff himself, settled into our seats, and waited. A few minutes later Ruff walked up onto a platform in front, and for the next hour and a half we sat in our seats while he and his assistant talked about BBQ. Mercifully we were given a break and invited to look at their inventory of BBQs outside, so we glanced at them and fled to the car. Then we went to dinner.
Despite the letdown, I did take a couple things away from that night. First, I did get an idea for how to turn my grill into a smoker. Second, it made me think about how people probably experience our church gatherings.
No one cares about insider quarrels.
In an attempt to be funny, Ruff’s assistant consistently made references to how she doesn’t talk to people because of their beliefs about BBQ or how differing opinions on methods cause she and her husband some marital strife. Sometimes I didn’t know what she was talking about. Even when I did, I just didn’t care. I have no personal investment in whether injecting meat makes you more or less of a BBQ master.
But as Christians we talk about all kinds of things that must seem like whether or not to inject meat to those who are new to the faith. We make inside jokes that people either don’t understand or just seem awkward. Not everyone grew up in church and gets the “church jokes.” This was a good reminder for me. Because my whole life has been spent in and around church I know I talk about things in ways that will mostly resonate with other long-time church people.
This doesn’t mean that the way we do communion or whether we are “missional” or whether we know how to bridge the sacred secular divide don’t matter. I’m sure that to truly master BBQ the things Ruff’s assistant was referencing mattered. But we need to be careful not to assume knowledge or investment by people who may not have it. And we need to be careful about the language we use lest we unnecessarily exclude people.
Not everyone cares.
I was truly interested in BBQ. I was looking forward to learning about it and having a good time with my wife trying to make it. I am not looking for a career in BBQ. I will not spend much time studying it or practicing to get better at it. I just don’t care. The most it would ever become is an occasional hobby.
Not everyone connected to churches cares about following Jesus. Some feel it’s an obligation. Some think it’s good for their kids. Some are a little interested. Some enjoy the show and the people. Some think it will help them make their lives better. There are many other reasons people connect to churches or show up at a gathering. For some it is unlikely to ever be more than a hobby.
I don’t think following Jesus at the level of hobby is a tenable position. At the same time, I think there is wisdom in understanding that this is the case as we live together in community. We won’t all have the same level of commitment. What we do with that is another question.
People don’t enjoy being treated like idiots.
At times the BBQ teachers spoke in inside jokes I didn’t get or didn’t care about, but much of the time the spoke like I didn’t know you could cook meat and put it in your mouth. There was needless repetition of simple concepts, making the presentation unnecessarily long. Oh, wait, certainly I’ve never done THAT with a sermon. There was demonstration of simple things like how to use a pair of tongs.
It made me think about how I speak to people. How often do I explain things that need no explanation? How often do I drone on about things people understood ten minutes ago? People may not have knowledge of insider language and concepts, but there are many things that are common sense that they get easily. I just need to learn to know the difference and act accordingly.
When people leave it’s not personal (or at least not always!).
As a pastor, I take it hard when people leave our church. I view church as family more than organization (though certainly there are elements of both). So when someone leaves it’s a bit like having a brother or mother or cousin say they never want to see you again. I also tend to think I just wasn’t good enough. That’s not right, but it’s my reaction at times.
When Michelle and I left the BBQ class it wasn’t because we didn’t like Ruff and his assistant. In fact, there were things we really appreciated about both of them–not least their passion for what they were teaching. We left because we’re not committed enough to BBQ to ride it out. We left because we didn’t have a relationship with anyone there. We knew we’d never see them again and no relationship was lost. We left because it wasn’t what we expected.
I don’t take leaving a church lightly. At the same time, people do it. I’ve done it. It happens for a variety of reasons–many bad ones and some good ones. And no matter how personal it feels, there’s a good chance it’s not.