When I was a kid travelling back and forth between Northern California and the Bay Area with my parents we often stopped at a restaurant on Highway 80 called “The Milk Farm.” It wasn’t anything special, just an affordable cafeteria-style comfort food eatery. The thing I remember most was the 100-foot sign that loomed high over the hedges along freeway. The restaurant is long gone, but the sign that showcases a cow leaping over a crescent of moon remains to this day.
I passed that way a while ago. Driving by the unremarkable community of Dixon I took the exit called, “Milk Farm Road,” expecting to fill up at least on childhood memories, if not on something deep fried. I followed the frontage road toward the several story high sign and pulled up to an empty plot of little more than weeds and rubble atop the old landmark’s concrete foundation. My disappointment was like learning all over again that Santa isn’t as real as they’d said.
Later I read that the restaurant had closed in 1986 after its roof blew off in a violent windstorm. The owners hoped to repair it, but after years of delays, falling into disrepair, and being invaded by crack heads, it was decided that the rotting structure would be demolished. The old timers in the community made an unsuccessful bid to keep it, for nostalgic sake, as a historical monument but in the end all they could convince the city to do was to let the sign stay.
When drive there now there’s no “there” there anymore––just some abandoned concrete pads, chain-link fences, and tall weeds. On top of the surviving sign the cow still jumps over the moon, but there’s no place to gather with your friends and fill up on chicken and chocolate shakes. That place languishes in obscurity and exists only in the memories of Dixon residents and the millions of former passersby.
I got to thinking of about the similarities between the defunct restaurant with its imposing sign and Christians and their churches that, somewhere along the line, misplaced their vitality and lost their legitimacy. They keep the title, the sign that says, “Come on in and be fed for your journey,” but when people go down that road, there’s no “there” there. They see the impressive sign, take the exit, but when they arrive there’s no actual Jesus there. There’s singing and preaching and offerings taken, but the King has left the building! The congregants don’t smoke, cuss or chew or kiss girls who do. They don’t do too much bad in the world, but they don’t do much good either.
Maybe for the hundredth time people see our sign and finally decide to check us out and see if there’s anything there for them. Their spirit is faint with hunger as they take the exit that promises food for the soul. They finally come to terms that they’ve lost their way and our Christian sign inspires hope for a home, instead, when they arrive, their hopes are dashed when what they encounter is obsolete religion and vacant remnants of what once swarmed with life.
I am lobbying for a revitalization of our lives and our churches; not so much for our sakes or so we can “feel the Spirit” again, but for the travellers who see our sign and take the exit. It’s not fair to them to waste their time on a religious detour only to be disappointed with what they experience (or don’t experience) when they get there. I wonder if we should take down the sign and change the name of the road?
You probably noticed that our world is in some deep *$%#&^ these days (particularly The Divided States of America). The stakes are higher than they used to be for us who call our selves Christians to actually act like the One we claim to follow and for our churches to be more than historical landmarks of a bygone day.
You can get by with almost anything if you front it with eloquent talk about God and his law. The line from Scripture, “It’s because of you … that the outsiders are down on God,” shows it’s an old problem that isn’t going to go away. Romans 2:24 (The Message)
I encounter tons of post-moderns who reject an obsolete Christianity and its Church, and I don’t blame them. I’m personally proud to identify as a follower of Jesus and I love attending church gatherings. The singing and teaching and the fellowshipping usually make for a tasty and nourishing meal. I very much love Jesus and his Bride, so I speak as an insider, one who is pretty worried that when people see the sign and finally decide to take the exit they’ll find very little of what Jesus intended us to be. I’m worried that we have a big sign with very little substance. The lights are out and the kitchen is closed.
In many cases we’ve traded substance for relevance of the pop-culture sort. Henri Nouwen wrote, “Too often I look at being relevant, popular, and powerful as ingredients of an effective ministry. The truth, however, is that these are not vocations but temptations.” Simone Weil said “to be always relevant, you have to say things which are eternal.” I suspect much of what we say, in pursuit of relevance, is more temporal than eternal.
Relevance is not about the preacher wearing jeans or holding our Bible Studies at a brewery. It’s not about having a nice logo on our website or impressive stage lighting. It’s about what––no, Who––people encounter when they encounter us in our neighborhoods, in our workplaces, or find their way into our worship gatherings. We’re irrelevant if we don’t have what they need for spiritual, emotional, and physical survival.
When Francis of Assisi heard God asking him to rebuild his church that had fallen into disrepair, he understood the divine directive to refer to the literal church building in which he was praying. Dutifully he began gathering bricks and stacking them on top of each other.
Later he realized that it wasn’t the physical building, but the spiritual Body of Christ that he was called to repair. He spent the rest of his life devoted to that task.
Sprucing up the sign that leads to a deserted, weed-filled lot is the equivalent of Francis’ mistaken call to repair a building. We gotta have something for hungry travellers when they see our sign and take our exit. Let’s turn the lights back on, get the kitchen up and running again, and open up for business!