When the Church wears the emperor’s clothes


“We must change the method but not the message.” This has been the aim of recent generations of Christian leaders. Desiring to “reach the lost for Christ,” we developed radio, television and now social media ministries. We wear skinny jeans and tattoos. We want to meet them where they are but also dress like our future and fellow members.

We have replaced the cross with stage lighting, pews with theater-style seating, traded Sunday school for small groups and sanctuaries for coffee houses. Our argument is that the Church is not a building but us, and while we are getting older, we don’t want to show our age. Adding gyms and exercise studios to our sacred spaces, we want to keep up. Thousands of years old, the Church attempts to be young and hip.

Like our parents who try to speak to our friends using the latest slang, it can be embarrassing. If this interaction is not timed just right, and if it goes beyond introductions, we may lose our friend forever. Our sigh is a signal to be interpreted, “Go and talk to someone your own age.” Why don’t our parents know that they have reached the point of no return, that we are not peers but represent different roles in our family? If only in our heads, we whisper a prayer, “Please act your age.”

The Church’s need to translate the Ancient of Days for postmodern times has often created awkward positions and silence in moments that called for sound, for lament in the street, for the protest of marching feet, for the declaration of God’s presence in the earth and with us all. Wanting to be a part of the conversation, we ended up embarrassing ourselves. When we do not know our role or act our age, it is possible to give mere lip-service to God and those we are in conversation with. We walk away proud of ourselves, unaware of how we look to either.

Written in 1837, Hans Christian Andersen’s tale, “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” still speaks today. Translated into many languages and across cultures, it is the tale of two swindlers pretending to be weavers who promise the emperor a garment that reveals the suitability of its wearer. If the person is ignorant or incompetent, they won’t be able to see the clothing. Only the person unworthy of the office will be blind to its reality.

The emperor has a keen fashion sense and a need to be voted best dressed every day. The swindlers play on his superficiality, asking for expensive fabric that they keep for themselves. They pretend to be working long hours and the emperor sends persons into their workspace to gauge their progress. The new attire is sight unseen but wanting to keep their jobs, these persons in leadership pretend to see the emperor’s new clothes. They are complimenting the swindlers on their work, still revealing their ignorance and incompetence.

Leadership is not about repeating after others or saying things to keep the emperor happy. Leaders don’t see what is not there and say whatever is necessary to keep their jobs. Leaders don’t “go along to get along.”

When the final product is ready, the emperor doesn’t see the clothes either. But not wanting to be judged unfit for his position, he goes along with the ruse. The emperor has no clothes on but he pretends to see the garment’s exquisite patterns and brilliant colors. He is naked and exposed but no one will tell him. Worse still, he won’t admit it.

The people around him let him go out into the street and parade himself in front of the people. He pretends to be well-dressed, the envy of all those who behold him. Because of his position, the people keep their corrections to themselves.

The emperor does not know that his own vanity has undone him. His pride has made a fool of him; ironically, only a child will tell him the truth. “The Emperor doesn’t have anything on!” And the emperor knew that the child was right, but he kept right on pretending and his leadership went through the motions of carrying his invisible train.

His story ends there but his actions continue in us. This political season has exposed us all. None of us are clothed.

While it could be argued that this narrative could be applied to President-elect Donald Trump and those around him, who refuse to correct him and attempt to normalize his bigotry, racism, sexism, and xenophobia, I would argue that the Church is guilty of the same arrogance and pride. So, caught up in how we appear to others, we have tried on just about everything. We can see that it doesn’t fit but will put on anything to fit in.

First dividing ourselves into black and white churches, now Democrat and Republican or liberal, moderate and conservative, we have identified ourselves with politicians. We have made the results of an election cycle the message of God’s eternal kingdom. And it is too late to wash our hands of it now, to fire the swindlers, to admit that we do not see this new clothing.

We don’t want to lose our position of authority or disappoint the people who have gathered to look at us. The parade route has been mapped out and we have invested too much. Cold, we clench our teeth. Naked and too far out to run back to our sanctuaries, we wave and smile.

* This post first appeared at Baptist News Global and was published on January 19, 2017.

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Seeking to lead words and people to their highest and most authentic expression, I am the principal architect of a race/less world.

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