Saturday, January 14, 2006

And who will write love songs for you....?

I've been wanting to post an intelligent response to this comment ever since it was made, but I'm beginning to doubt my ability to do that.

In either case, a change of heart can only come after a period of reflection and self-awareness. But I wonder if there is a "middle way" between the two approaches. If we reflect on our brokenness and express a will to change, does God perhaps meet us halfway?

What is the role of a church in this?

So this will be as close as I can get.

I've been asking a variation of this question since seminary. Is church a place of spiritual seekers? Or a "club," a gathering of like-minded persons, or more likely loosely associated (if not related, as tends to be the culture of old E&R churches, which are more extended family than not) persons who are pursuing a similar end: a tolerable place to do what they've always done, without paying much in the way of dues, until they are duly carried out feet first in a ceremony worthy of their passing?

In other words: Christians? or baptized heathens?

That already puts the matter too starkly. Clearly a church is not a monastery, not a "religious community" in the sense of a committed body of "religious" (nuns, monks, oblates). But what is it, then?

There are, I think, two answers: the episcopal, and the congregational. Or, more to the point, the Catholic/Orthodox, and the Protestant.

Pastordan noted this article, from the Washington Post. It presents, it seems to me, a sharp contrast between the religious cultures. I have a hard time imagining any Protestant denomination reacting this way to the death of even a significant church leader:

The elaborate funeral Mass and memorial service unfolded over nearly 10 hours at Debre Selam Kidist Mariam Church, an Ethiopian Orthodox congregation that worships in a converted parking garage on Buchanan Street NW in 16th Street Heights.

Men and women -- many wearing traditional, gauzy robes over Western-style attire -- wept as clerics chanted the liturgy, sang hymns and recited eulogies in praise of the man whom many consider the father of Orthodox Christianity in the Ethiopian diaspora.

"He was the one who really started this church. He would come here from New York and give us service," recalled Sergout Workue, the church secretary, who immigrated to the United States 28 years ago.
And I think the difference is in the culture. Where the more formally episcopal churches (Catholic, Orthodox, Episcopalian) tend to carry their culture with them (even the Protestant Episcopal church carries on many Anglican traditions, such as parish schools), Protestant churches tend to be much more a product of their culture. Seen that way, the "mega-church" that preaches the gospel of wealth is not an aberration or a decline of the authority of the "mainline" church: it is the logical progression of Protestantism.

Which reflects, of course, its decline.

It isn't, in other words, a matter of "devolved power structure" or of a wrong turn somewhere in recent denominational history. This is the inevitability of hitching one's wagon to the dominant culture, rather than to an ecclesiastical culture. Catholicism dominated Europe, but "Rome" always built and ruled the cities. Even Augustine only compared the "City of God" to a human one; it was Calvin who tried to operate the two as one realm. And ever since then, Protestantism has, in one way or another, imagined itself to be that "shining city on the hill." Or certainly to be coming closer and closer to it, if only the right laws could be passed, the right people forced into or out of the right neighborhoods.

I can see I'll have trouble defending this thesis, and that may indicate its paucity of support or validity. But Protestantism was always about the kingdom of God being available in the right structuring of the whole community; it was always a bit more temporal than eternal, a bit more concerned with "progress" and "improvement" than with living in and among and alongside the "clouds of witness."

And I think that may prove to be its undoing. Because, more and more, I find the question "What is church for?" a peculiarly Protestant one. And more and more I find that, unless I can answer that question apart from a dependency on the dominant secular culture, I can't answer it at all. More and more I find the answer depends on whether the church serves God, or whether it serves the culture and the people. Because the dominant Protestant model of church is of church as spiritual "filling station," where I come to get "charged up" to face the next week. But that is church that prepares me to live in the world, as it is.

How can that church teach me to change that world, or call others away from that world? And if I call them away, where do we go?

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