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Shorting the Church

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I just got done reading the book, “The Big Short.” You may be more familiar with the Academy Award winning movie of the same name, which I think I have seen five times. What can I say, I really like the story. Basically, it’s about a small handful of Wall Street misfits and outsiders who stumbled upon the shocking realization that the American housing market was grossly inflated and predicated on …fraudulent practices. These same misfits and outsiders decided to short (which means to bet against) the subprime mortgage bond market, something that was seen as insane by their peers and bosses at the time because it was assumed that the U.S. housing market was invincible. Yet when millions of home owners began defaulting on their mortgages in 2008, one by one the big banks failed (Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, Morgan Stanley, etc.) and these guys made millions. It was a huge gamble. Those renegades who shorted the housing market stood to lose everything. And yet, they didn’t because they were right and everyone else was wrong.

They were right about two things primarily. One, millions of people had mortgages they couldn’t afford because the banks had lured them into loans with teaser rates and other nefarious incentives. And two, the mortgage bond market, on which the entire U.S. economy stood, not only didn’t understand this but, amazingly, believed that it didn’t matter if people could afford their homes. The average bond trader in Manhattan lived in a make-believe world of numbers, symbols, and jargon that seemed to have little or nothing to do with what was happening in middle-American neighborhoods. They made million dollar deals every day regardless if John Doe in Omaha paid his home loan. The convoluted world of Wall Street was totally disconnected from Main Street and in 2008 it all came crashing down. However, again, not for those who saw the disaster coming and positioned accordingly.

The reason why I like this story so much, tragic as it is, is because I see so much correlation to what’s going on in the American church. Pastors are like the Wall Street bankers, living in a bubble detached from reality. They speak and think in esoteric jargon that few others understand like: atonement, justification, sanctification, salvation, sin, trinity, biblical inerrancy. They see themselves as special brokers between God and humanity, making high level trades on people’s souls. But what I find most compelling about the correlation is this – what drove the housing crisis is the same thing that’s driving the crisis in the church. Everybody wants instant gratification and satisfaction. Everyone is willing to delude themselves into thinking they can have things they can’t because the desire to be comfortable and fulfilled is too strong. Whether we’re purchasing a home or purchasing God, the motivation is often the same, we want security, comfort, and fulfillment. The only problem is that nothing provides it, not even God. That’s why I, and a few other misfits in progressive Christianity, are shorting the church.

As a pastor in what’s called the “radical theology” tradition, I have positioned myself and my church in such a way to capitalize on the failure of main stream Christianity. As recent research shows, the nones/non-affiliated are on the rise and places like Central are giving them a home. These nones are leaving their churches because they cannot tolerate any longer the patriarchy, homophobia, tribalism, and anti-science bias. But I would argue their reasons for leaving run deeper than that. They suspect the system itself is fraudulent.

They question any sermon that promises health and wealth in exchange for right belief and practice. They question promises of meaning, fulfillment, and satisfaction for having the right theology. They question salvation formulas. They question the motivation of pastors and churches that say, “Our way or the highway.” They question the entire divine economy of rewards and punishments. They question almost everything they’ve been taught because they feel defrauded. I would argue that this is the real reason why many are leaving the church today and it’s why I’m short.

I have no idea what my returns will be on this risky investment. Many people from my past think I’m crazy to make such a bet. And to be frank, I may lose big. My church may die and I might have to find another job. That’s not happening soon because we’re doing pretty good and have grown over the last seven years. More and more people are coming out of traditional churches and looking for progressive communities like Central that still embrace the core tenants of Christianity (radical love, justice, honesty, hope). To be clear, I don’t think fundamentalism will completely die off. I think it’s here to stay. It provides too much of a “benefit” to people, like heroine. But I’m betting that more and more people will want to buy into a healthy expression of Christianity like the one we provide. Time will tell but I’m committed, no matter what, to shorting the church.

 

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