Monday, June 25, 2012

The More Things Change Watch

This matter of recruiting a membership for the church is a real problem.  Even the churches which once believed a very definite conversion to be the sine qua non of entrance into the fellowship of the church are going in for "decision days" as they lose confidence in the traditional assumption that one can become a Christian only through a crisis experience.  But if one does not insist on that kind of an experience it is not so easy to set up tests of membership.  Most of these "personal evangelism" campaigns mean little more than an ordinary recruiting effort with church membership rather than the Christian life as the real objective.  They do not differ greatly from efforts of various clubs as they seek to expand their membership.

Of course we make "acceptance of Jesus as your savior" the real door into the fellowship of the church.  but the trouble is that this may mean everything or nothing.  I see no way of making the Christian fellowship unique by a series of tests which preceded admission.  The only possibility lies in a winnowing process through the instrumentality of the preaching and teaching function of the church.  Let them come in without great difficulty, but make it difficult for them to stay in.  The trouble with this plan is that it is always easy to load up your membership with very immature Christians who will finally set the standard and make it impossible to preach and to teach the gospel in its full implications.

--Reinhold Niebuhr, 1919


  1. And he hadn't even had to deal with the devastating effects of mass media yet.

    That mass media has so basically changed the environment that most people think and experience the world in which has real and fundamental effects on individuals and societies that most human institutions have been damaged, those making the most demands on attention, education, democracy, have been most damaged. Add the requirement of self-denial and self-sacrifice and it's clear many will be called by very few will choose to answer it in anything more than a superficial show.

    I've lost my faith in the extension of 18th century, enlightenment, scientistic piety based in what turns out to be an absurd optimism in the power of physical law to set things right. When freely presented with the possibilities for corruption, self-worship, that media uses to get a large audience share, sell junk and make money an effective majority of people will be corrupted and all of the benefits of the opposite, a decent community life, personal security, self-government by an idealistic, informed public, will all be sacrificed on the altar of materialism.

    I've been doing a little reading about Comte's silly Religion of Humanity. If it's any comfort, one person who visited the Temple in Paris said the caretaker said she'd never seen any worshipers in it. One suspects they're all watching TV or hating on religion online. And, as Marilynne Robinson pointed out, Comte's positivism was entirely more benevolent in intention than what it spawned.

    Positivism, humanism, scientism, the delusions of atheism, feed human depravity. I've come to believe that believing human beings are essentially fallen and in need of salvation from their depravity is vastly more realistic. I truly don't see any way out except by belief in God and consultation with the human record of dealing with that in scriptures. Time is too short to come up with an alternative and I doubt it is possible to do that, no matter how much time is given. Experience of life is the basis of my belief, not some personal cataclysm, though those have happened, as well.

  2. Scott the Obscure8:46 AM

    I'm not sure I follow the thinking. Is not the mission of the church (one of them, anyway) to ring the unchurched in, to encourage and nourish their growth into better Christians, rather than to serve entirely as an exclusive club of Real, True(tm) Christians, whether determined by their righteous works or their purity of doctrine? What happened to the whole "not a museum for saints, but a hospital for sinners" idea? Am I missing the point (not an uncommon occurance, as I'm not as smart as I think I am)?
    And this is topical, because the LCMS has been all a-tizzy in recent years when one subsection of the ELCA considered allowing GLBT folks to be members (not ordained, mind you, just communing from the pews), and has taken a harder right turn to avert this catasrophe befalling them...

  3. I should say that Comte's Religion of Humanity reminds me of nothing so much as the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard and stuff like Corliss Lamont's atheist funeral rite.

    They took in the spectacle and missed the substance. That's one of the keys to understanding atheists. The other big one, related to that, is the habit of practicing the false alternative fallacy. It's almost sacramental among atheists.

  4. Scott--

    Niebuhr is not addressing the problem of saints and sinners so much as "members" v. "believers." Or what, in modern parlance, pastors call "Christians" v. "Baptized heathens."

    The latter description goes right to the heart of Niebuhr's observation.

  5. Scott the Obscure4:57 PM

    Been turning that over in my brain... so then, is the Work of the Church(tm) to sift the wheat from the chaff, to keep in the Christians and send the Baptised Heathens to the outer court, or is it to find a way to help the "members" grow into "beleivers"?

    Or is this another both/and thing, and I'm lacking in understanding yet again? (still not unusual)

  6. Scott--

    I don't think Niebuhr is as exclusionary as you think he is. You're reading this as an absolute, an either/or: Christians, or not. And who, of course, decides who is Christian? As Niebuhr says:

    Of course we make "acceptance of Jesus as your savior" the real door into the fellowship of the church. but the trouble is that this may mean everything or nothing. I see no way of making the Christian fellowship unique by a series of tests which preceded admission.

    At what point, IOW, do "members" grow into "believers"? And who decides what they believe in? (I had a member at a church tell me he didn't believe in me preaching from the scriptures, because he'd read the Bible years ago, and that was enough. I left, eventually, he stayed. Who won?) And after admission? Then the "baptized heathens" get to make the rules, because whose church is it now? The pastors? Or theirs?

    Majority usually rules. And I'd point out this is the argument (the church=the people) often used to justify defiance of the RC hierarchy. Whose church is it? God's? And who interprets God's desires? One person? Or the majority of the community?

    Kinda hard to have a church when you insist everyone agree with you on everything. But how far the other way do you go before it's no longer a church, and just a social club seeking to expand it's membership?