Sunday, March 25, 2007

Ecclesiology 101

I do love Pastor Dan, if only because he gives me material to post about. Like this, for example:

These results coincide with a unique book released this week by Tyndale House Publishers, entitled Jim and Casper Go to Church. That book describes the experience of a former pastor and an avowed atheist who together visited a dozen significant churches across the nation. Jim Henderson, who has been a pastor of small and large churches, interviewed the atheist (Matt Casper) during and after each church service they attended to gain insights into what it’s like for an outsider to attend such churches. Among the congregations visited were well-known ministries such as Willow Creek (pastored by Bill Hybels), Saddleback (led by Rick Warren), Lakeside (featuring Joel Osteen), and The Potter’s House (home of T.D. Jakes).

Many of the insights drawn from the experiences of "Jim and Casper" parallel the findings of Barna Group studies among the unchurched. Some of the critical discoveries were the relative indifference of most churched Christians to unchurched people; the overt emphasis upon a personal rather than communal faith journey; the tendency of congregations to perform rituals and exercise talents rather than invite and experience the presence of God; the absence of a compelling call to action given to those who attend; and the failure to listen to dissident voices and spiritual guidance to dig deeper in one’s faith.
"Unchurched," to begin with, is a tricky term. I've known whole churches full of "unchurched" people, so I don't reserve it just for those who haven't attended in six months (as Pastor Dan points out, a lot of "Christians" show up only at Christmas and Easter). To me "unchurched" means the description in the findings of this report. And that, not coincidentally, put me in mind of these words by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:

I have heard numerous southern religious leaders admonish their worshipers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers declare: "Follow this decree because integration is morally right and because the Negro is your brother." In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: "Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern." And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, on Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.

I have traveled the length and breadth of Alabama, Mississippi and all the other southern states. On sweltering summer days and crisp autumn mornings I have looked at the South's beautiful churches with their lofty spires pointing heavenward. I have beheld the impressive outlines of her massive religious-education buildings. Over and over I have found myself asking: "What kind of people worship here? Who is their God? Where were their voices when the lips of Governor Barnett dripped with words of interposition and nullification? Where were they when Governor Wallace gave a clarion call for defiance and hatred? Where were their voices of support when bruised and weary Negro men and women decided to rise from the dark dungeons of complacency to the bright hills of creative protest?"

Yes, these questions are still in my mind. In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the church. But be assured that my tears have been tears of love. There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love. Yes, I love the church. How could I do otherwise? l am in the rather unique position of being the son, the grandson and the great-grandson of preachers. Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists.

There was a time when the church was very powerful in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being "disturbers of the peace" and "outside agitators"' But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were "a colony of heaven," called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God intoxicated to be "astronomically intimidated." By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide. and gladiatorial contests.

Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church's silent and often even vocal sanction of things as they are.

But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today's church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it vi lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.
I still contend we love Martin Luther King because we don't remember a damned thing he said beyond: "I have a dream!" We love dreams. We don't like prophets. Read those words again. Imagine how they apply to the mega-churches mentioned in that study; or to any church at all. The Episcopal Church is agitated today, not because of conditions in Nigeria, but because of a gay bishop in America; not because children are starving in America, but because a woman is the Presiding Bishop. And does such an accusation point at those opposed to Bishop Robinson, at those disturbed by the gender of Presiding Bishop Jefferts Schori? Or does it point equally to those who decry the assault on Bishop Robinson, the attempts at schism because of PB Schori? "Every day I meet young people who disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust." Is that disappointmet assuaged because we are fighting among ourselves? How does that fight not reflect: "...the relative indifference of most churched Christians to unchurched people; the overt emphasis upon a personal rather than communal faith journey; the tendency of congregations to perform rituals and exercise talents rather than invite and experience the presence of God; the absence of a compelling call to action given to those who attend; and the failure to listen to dissident voices and spiritual guidance to dig deeper in one’s faith." You can't do those things by proclaiming yourself superior to those you disagree with. You can't do those things by defending your position against all who disagree with you, by arguing over the arcana of polity and procedure and who's in charge.

I can lob bombs at the mega-churches all day long, agreeing with the one quote from this report. I can produce examples from my own experience, my own reading, my own thinking until the cows come home. And what is the purpose of it? To prove I'm better than they are? More thoughtful, more considerate, wiser? Or is it simply to distinquish myself?

There are unchurched people in this country, and almost as many of them are in church as are outside of it. That's not a condemnation, simply an observation. Dr. King was right, 40 years ago. The Barna Group study is right, too. And the people I refer to are unchurched in precisely the ways that report describes: the solitary conviction that this church is for you!; the conviction that "we have always done it this way!" is reason enough to become ever more exclusive and insular as a way of experiencing the presence of comfort, if not exactly God; the absolute rejection of any call to action that requires doing one thing beyond showing up on time on Sunday morning, and being released within the hour; and the abject rejection of anything like "spiritual guidance" because it is simply to disturbing to our personal status quo. I speak especially harshly because "unchurched" is an especially harsh term. Do I describe every church with these words? No, not at all. But I describe the tendency of every church, of every human institution. Are all equally guilty? No, but all are equally subject to such guilt, and all are equally called on to avoid such error, such sin, if you will. And how do we do that, except by being "churched" instead of "unchurched;" except by listening constantly, not for the comforting word of God, but for the mysterium tremendum that shakes our confidence and shatters our assurances and leaves us:

holding one end of a love, when your father drops, and your mother; when a land is lost, or a time, and your friend blotted out, gone, your brother's body spoiled, and cold, your infant dead, and you dying: you reel out love's long line alone, stripped like a live wire loosing its sparks to a cloud, like a live wire loosed in space to longing and grief everlasting.
And then what? Rail against this existential nightmare, and retreat to our tents, telling Moses to speak to God for us, because the presence of God makes us so afraid? Or quit our tents, as Annie Dillard advised, and pray without ceasing?

As ever, the question is never about who's right: the question is, what are we going to do about it? Maybe look to the lessons of Paul, or the lessons of Christ. Maybe look to lessons of hospitality; if that mention isn't too self-serving. But we have to do something; and complaining about the situation gets nothing done.

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