Thursday, May 14, 2009

How Can I Keep from Singing?

Getting away from the topic I can't do anything about (but be outraged) and back to the topic I also can't do anything about (but I actually know something about it): The church.

This is where I have to pause and confess that I get tired of left blogistan. We can't really do anything about anything, but we can by Gawd! get outraged about topics we have no control over. Obama decides not to release some photos, and we all have an opinion on how much like Bush this is (which is bad! It's bad! Except, of course, whenever Bush decided not to do something because Clinton would have done it, that was bad! It was bad!). And we get upset about what some group somewhere is saying about somebody else somewhere (I won't name names. It's pointless, and the examples so numerous you just have to think of one to know what I mean. They're everywhere.) And we tell ourselves our desperately important concerns are desperately important to everyone, and our opinions will change the world!.

And I'm as bad as anybody on the web, and I've complained about this once or twice before (and if I had a secretary and time to set up a system of tags I could mine the archives for the links; but I don't....), and I've just posted three different posts on torture, but that's different because.....well, because.

No, actually; it's not different at all. I really do need to get out more.

But, man! is it tedious. I'm so tired of the outrage I'm into faux outrage over the outrage. How PoMo of me, huh? How meta! How deconstructionist! (well, no, but nobody really knows that what means anyway, so why not misuse it?) So, I'm just going to respond to these comments from the earlier post, the one on something I actually know a (very) little about, and see if I can get my mind right, again.

When the churches were full, I wonder if a goodly portion of the folks were present more for cultural than religious reasons. Could it be that, in fact, not that many people are drawn to the practice of the faith, unless the pressure from the surrounding culture is high?

Grandmère Mimi
Yeah, I think so. It's certainly that, in a very large degree. Although the Catholic church was the culture for Europe for centuries, when the Protestant Reformation forced a split, the RC managed to maintain a culture which kept it in the world but not of the world far better (at least from the outside looking in) than the Protestants did. I understand the complaints against liturgical worship, but I've never seen the saving grace of the "revivalist" culture and the mega-churches and "Gospel of Wealth" it spawned. There was a virtue in the old German E&R "Du muss gehen!" (sorry, I can' muster the German double "s") that is sadly lacking today. Of course, it failed due to the rise of individualism as much as anything else; which is the worm in the heart of the rose of Protestantism, but that discussion ends up with us linking Blake to Derrida, so I won't go there.

But, as Kierkegaard diagnosed in 19th century Denmark, the world was too much with the church, late and soon. The problem, of course, has always been: how do you separate the world from the church? And the answer is: unless you insist the church resemble a monastery, you don't. They are inseparably bound, and the issue is: how do we make the best of this? For while God doesn't need the Church, the Church certainly needs God. But, as Pound said to Browning: "There can be but on 'Sordello;!/But 'Sordello', and my 'Sordello'?" So while we have to insist, we have to be careful what we insist on; because we just might get it.

Consider the situation of the two American political parties as a case study, and a metaphor: one thrives because it has a vision; it is lead by a leader both visionary and pragmatic, and so balanced, he succeeds (the great Christian mystics and church leaders have always achieved a similar balance, from Paul to the present day). The opposition party flounders because it is driven by purity and the need to ostracize all who are not of the body. Jesus famously said: "Those who are not against us are with us." Turn that phrase around, turn it to its usual meaning, and you have the very definition of the circular firing squad. One purifies the group; the other calls the group's very existence into question. When groups prefer the former, they begin to die. When they pursue the latter, they live always with the mysterium tremendums.

But this is what it means to recognize that the Church needs God. It is, indeed, a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

Part of it has to do with location. All of the urban churches I have attended have been very gray. However, Emmaus UCC in Vienna Virginia has many young parents and has a vibrant youth ministry.

Yes, yes it does; and we are right back to that question of culture and accomadation again, aren't we? Recognizing this reality, we are also condemned to live in it, to accept the tacit segregation of society by generations, to segregate our congregations by location and who lives where. But the newest developments are not always full of "young people", and the established neighborhoods are not always dominated by the elderly. Yet our churches are. And, as a new comment (at the end) notes, this may not long last. Are we doomed to this condition forever? To some degree, yes, human nature being what it is, the "laws" of sociology being what they are. To some degree, of course: no. We are free agents, not victims of fate or location, not prey to instincts immutable and unalterable. We preach a life-changing Gospel! Why don't we use it directly, to change our own lives? What would a church look like then, that did that?

one of the magic things about Facebook for me was finding members of my church youth group (midwestern suburban SBC) 20 years on, a sizable majority of which are still "churched" in some fashion, including me, the lesbian. Oddly enough though, those that I consider the most spiritual (as opposed to religious, if I can make that distinction) are those not particularly invested in a particular congregation, even as they reconnected to the old peers.

My particular cohort was pretty active in softball, choirs, councils, summer mission trips; intensely socialized, with a lot of individual tolerance and support.

As entwined as protestantism and dominant american culture have become, it may be interesting to think about that time when christianity was viewed as a threat to the dominant culture, primarily because it provided support and encouragement for the oppressed in that society.

Does christianity seem to be adrift for lack of vocabulary, or lack of moral focus? If church means softball games and centuries-old songs, when what you need is a community where you can share baby-sitting and learn how to live on a monthly budget that's half of what you expected, where are you going to go?

Cowboy Diva
Vocabulary is very much an issue in this for me. One of the more spastic efforts of this blog is to establish a functional vocabulary of Christianity which can be used in public (i.e., among non-believers and non-church goers) as easily as the language of the evangelicals and fundamentalists is used (hint: there are many, many more forms of "salvation" and "grace" than are preached of by Pat Robertson or the late Jerry Falwell, or Joel Osteen.). Christianity once was the vocabulary of the public square: see, e.g., the Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri. Of course that was then, this is now, but it was well into the 19th century that theology was the mother of all the sciences. This was no coincidence: Augustine as well as Aquinas, to name two of the greatest pillars, borrowed their language from the world (mostly the Hellenes) consciously and deliberately, much as Paul mixed his Hebraisms with ideas Gentiles were more familiar with (it's noteworthy that the "Letter to the Hebrews" is the only one addressed directly to the community Jesus was born, lived, and died in). Theology has always been a mixed enterprise, taking its language to best convey its ideas to its target audience. In that sense, it is itself the very product of Pentecost.

Is that flame dying now? If so, why? Is there nothing we can do to fan it? Can we not even try, and perhaps do a bit better job than accepting the vocabulary of the world as foundational, accepting the Enlightenment argument that this discussion of "spirit" and "metaphysics" is mostly bunk? The current enterprise in philosophy of religion circles is to craft a religion without metaphysics, perhaps without religion at all. Do we really need to accept the failed experiment of the "God is Dead" movement? Can't we do better than that?

When wilt thou save the people
O God of mercy when?
The people, Lord, the people
Not thrones and crowns but men?
Flowers of thy heart, O God, are they
Let them not pass like weeds away
Their heritage, a sunless day
God save the people

Shall crime bring crime forever
Strength aiding still the strong?
Is it thy will, oh Father
That men shall toil for wrong?
No say thy mountains, no say thy skies
Men's clouded sun shall brightly rise
And songs be heard instead of sighs
God save the people

When wilt thou save the people...
God save the people, for thine they are
Thy children as thy angels fair
God save the people from despair
God save the people - Oh, God save the people (4x)

When wilt thou save the people...
God save the people - save us! - for thine they are - thine they are
Thy children as thy angels fair - Oh, God save the people
God save the people - God save the people - from despair - God save the people
God save the people - Oh, God save the people (3x)

God save the people (3x)

Cowboy Diva, as I see it, if the churches are doing their jobs, they should always be a threat to the dominant culture. Until we look around and see no one trampled underfoot, no one with not enough, no one excluded or oppressed, then the church must be counter-cultural.

Grandmère Mimi
Yes, yes, yes! I would only say: depends entirely on who we are threatening, and with what. The kergyma of the Church should be the Gospel, and the kerygma of the Gospel is the basileia tou theou. That, to my mind, is the only kerygma and source of salvation and purpose of the Church. And that's breathtakingly counter-cultural and affirming, all at once.

I wrote this before reading the thread, other people had some similar ideas.

You are right, that the emptying of the mainline churches is not due, entirely, to the virtual black listing of them and, even more so, their ideas, in the mass media. Like may complex phenomena there is no one cause. But to overlook the potency of the mass media on the minds it increasingly forms isn’t going to get you farther. When I say that the mass media forms the minds of young people now, it’s a continuing and horrifying lesson the extent to which that is true. I see it in my nieces who have been studiously sheltered from most of it. Mass media is inseparable from mass marketing and the experimentally manipulative methods it buys in order to manipulate. Though saturation marketing could explain most of that success.

And if the younger cohort won't attend church because they see nothing in it for them (for any number of reasons), how does the church continue?

As a congregation large enough to support a building and a pastor, it’s a really big problem. I don’t know if a lot of them can without becoming show biz venues, which is what a lot of them become. From what I’ve seen, whoever they serve, it’s not the gospel that Jesus taught or the line of Jewish prophets and teachers who he relied on so heavily.

The protestant churches I respect the most, whose disappearance would be a cultural disaster are those who do what the gospels say they should, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick, visit the prisoner, love God with all their heart, soul, strength and mind and their neighbor as themselves. Those who follow the line of advice from Hillel onward to not do to another that which is hateful to themselves. Those who forgive their enemies and pray for them. Those who help individuals form their characters and lives towards those ends.

Those practices aren’t without an effect in the turbulence of society, politics and commerce. You do those things and they’ll try to kill you or to ignore you. In Chris Hedges book “I Don’t Believe in Atheists” he points out that in Aldous Huxley’s dystopia, the control wasn’t through book burning, it was through making it increasingly less desired to read books. It was through pleasuring people out of being human. I’m increasingly impressed with that Huxley’s insights as an important warning.

In the popular and academic cultures, where some see the death of God, I see a concurrent death of the human. As developed in a long blog brawl I had last week, it is the increasing and casually held view of people as objects without any inner light, soul or anything. I do think a large part of that is in the mistaken notion that science, which I never have to stop reminding some people was ever only intended to study the material world, has found out that there is nothing but a large mass of chemical reactions and the physical structures that contain them. Without any more than that to people, there isn’t any obligation to consider them as anything else. Certainly not those that any individual chooses to consider in that way. Without the moral restriction on seeing and considering other people as possessing inherent rights, people will tend to become their own god. A mono-theistic god, who can cast privileges to subject beings at their whim and to withhold their concern on a blanket or selective basis. Many of the people I’ve seen who are the product of the culture we have today are these kinds of ignorant gods, sitting at the center of a wired universe.

The brilliance of much of modern Christian theology, the poetry of a lot of it, hasn’t worked to convince people, it hasn’t kept the families of those who used to come. Maybe it would work better to remember what motivated it all in the first place. Just one observation, it won’t be welcomed by a lot of those who will be inconvenienced by it. There were a few warnings of where the really hard cases would be in the gospels.

I don’t know if it would break through the crust of consumer distraction or to re-spark the deadened tinder in their damaged minds but if the churches made their purpose that of fulfilling the gospels they exist to make manifest in the world, it might work better than adopting the trappings of the very culture that is killing them. It might not work but they’d die doing what they are supposed to be living for. They might find it easier to do if they didn’t have a building to maintain, though some of those would certainly be a useful place to do it from. Jesus wasn’t a building based minister, it was when he came into contact with that big one that real trouble started.

Anthony McCarthy
Some of these need no further comment from me; especially as we move down the comments, and they begin to reflect, like the Bible itself (a collection of books, after all; not a single volume. "Bible" simply means "Books." It's a title we gave it, not God or some prophet. How soon we forget that.) The whole purpose of comments on a blog is summed up in observations like these:

Grandmère Mimi,
You are absolutely right; the kingdom of god is meant to be countercultural. Without that focus on justice and mercy, the church becomes just so much background noise.
Cowboy Diva
And this one comes in just as I am preparing this post, and perfectly captures what I was trying to say:

This post really hit home. We are returning to the US this summer after 4 years in the UK where we attend the local C of E church. In our early 40's we are frequently the youngest at the service, and our kids were the only ones in the Sunday school. I sing in the choir where I am age of the children of the other singers. I finally stopped forcing my oldest two to attend Sunday school, they complained at there being no one else and having to discuss religion with people the age of their grandparents. Once a month we get a family crowd at a "family" service where the readings, prayers, etc. are all conducted by the youth of the congregation. Otherwise the youth and their parents don't exist. If we return in 10 years it would be very hard to beleive there will be any congregation at all. This church actually has 3 members that have joined the ministry after retiring from other professions, and the last two pastors joined the ministry in their 50's. Yes it is good that people can join the ministry with a lifetime of experience to bring to the task, but also sad that we have the same age group talking to only the sage age group.

Our ELCA church in the US has had a different path. Sunday attendance has been flat for over 10 years, but our Sunday school has almost tripled. A steady trickle of families with children has replaced the aging congregation. But it points out the missing group, those between high school and their first children. People come back to church when their kids hit 4 or 5. Otherwise if single or childless, they don't exist. Those returning are returning, they were raised going to church. The unchurched are not attracted. The other smaller group that have joined are older couples moving closer to their grandkids. In a few cases, joining our church because that is where their children and grandchildren attend. I like to think we had some great program that worked, but the ability to stay constant in attendance and add to our Sunday school appears to be mere chance. (We also got a few members back when we decided to write and speak with every member on the rolls, they started attending again because they felt invited back.)

My apologies for the length, but the short point is the mainline churches are not reaching those between 18-35, the childless, and the unchurched. Fewer and fewer are attending for their own religious experience and growth but to provide that for their children or grandchildren.

Peace be with you.

Expat in UK
And also with you; and with you all. This goes to my original impetus which is also, as D2 wisely reminded us at the outset, is the weakness of any one vision: we know only what we know. I am concerned about the "unchurched" and the ability of the church to reach out to those who don't know it and don't need it. But then, we've been there before, haven't we? It may be we all, especially those of us ordained and called into the particular ministry that follows in the footsteps of Peter and Paul, have to take up the mantle of such itineracy again. I am very concerned at the costs a full-time pastor imposes on a church; and the sense of identity a "proper" church gives people. The history of the church, even the recent history, is littered with small groups and small churches that couldn't buck the trend, the expectations, the assumptions of both the culture and the society (and even sociology). But I also know, from my own experience, of exceptions to the rule. There are always exceptions to the rule, and they prove that God is working in the church, as opposed to the church working to do the work of God. (We too easily get that equation backwards.) Certainly the trend seems to be what expat identifies. Some congregations, as D2 reminds us, are reaching the young, the 18-35. But what can the Church do about it? What should the Church do about it?

That is the ecclesiological question today.

No comments:

Post a Comment