I went swing dancing once. It didn't go well. My date/teacher (Lisa) was great at it, but I was just having so much trouble picking it up and I couldn't quite figure out why. To me, it sounded like the basic count was "One, Two, Rock-step," but when we actually started to dance it would be four separate steps, "One, Two, Rock, Step." I asked Lisa if "Rock" and "Step" were two different counts and she said, "Yes, of course..." so I reverted from a three-count to a four-count.
That made more sense, but something was still off and I figured it out immediately. The music was in a three count, meaning there were three beats for every measure-- but marching band songs were almost always in four, and the first beat of every measure the left foot hits the ground (unless you happen to march with the Cadets). Suddenly, I understood exactly why I was so horrible at swing dancing. Then I understood that it would take along time for me to get any good at it at all.
When I was a junior in high school marching band, we played a movement from Bernstein's Jeremiah Symphony (Profanation, the second movement). This song had changing meters-- 4/4 mostly, but also 5/8 (counted in one long beat and one short beat) and 7/8 (one long beat and two short beats). I'd estimate that in learning how to play the music and march correctly, we probably spent about 10 hours in preparation JUST working on that part of the show before it was ever performed, and then we continued to perfect it all year long. In fact, while I'm fairly certain I understood it by the end of the season, I must admit I was still far from automatic when it came to marching that part of the show correctly.
The point is this: sometimes it takes an awful lot of time and an awful lot of work to get out of the habits that we make for ourselves. To this day, I can't run while I'm listening to music because I always try to make my left foot hit on beat one of a measure, my pace changes with the tempo of the song, and that awkward period between songs almost always makes me stumble. Who knew that marching band would cause so many problems?
So often, I'm finding that my own method of doing things and my own preconceptions of how things "have to be done" gets in the way of effective ministry. For me, I wish I understood better how "the South" works, or at least what things I say and do might be seen as odd, awkward, or even offensive. Too many times, I want things done my way, rather than any other way... and most times I don't even think that there may BE another way than my way.
Confusing? Probably-- but perhaps it should be. I've gotta believe this is how outsiders of Christianity look at God. I was raised in the church. It has always been a very safe and familiar place in my life. It took me a long time to learn that other people didn't have the same experience. How much longer would it take someone outside the church, who has grown up with nothing resembling it to learn our customs, our language, our behaviors?
As the church, we need to do a better job of helping people through this process. It's not an easy one by any stretch of the imagination. I don't really feel like looking up the number right now, but there's a statistic that says somewhere in the area of 4 of every 5 new American Christians will not be attending church a year from the time that they start. That needs to get better.
If my series on Ruth taught me anything, it's this: Ruth was an extraordinary woman who was very devoted to her mother-in-law Naomi, and not to God at first. Just because she crossed over into Israel didn't mean that she automatically understood all of the Israelite customs, laws, religion, etc. It took time and people being patient with her, coming along side her, helping her to get out of her former habits and to adapt new ones.
It may have seemed like a lot of trouble, but ultimately, Ruth became one of the ancestors of Christ. I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that any new Christian will not have that honor anymore-- but we risk wasting so much potential if we do not help new Christians adapt to learning about God in a schedule that fits them, rather than us.