A former Lutheran pastor sharing thoughts on faith and life. Please join the conversation! I love your comments!

Monday, June 25, 2012

10 reasons the church is failing, part 2

The remaining five reasons I offer for the decline of Christianity in North America all center on the idea of relevance. Increasingly, Christianity as it is practiced in churches across America, is considered out of touch with reality, irrelevant in the life of the average American. How has this happened…..

#6. Making an idol of tradition
Our grandparents and parents may have been very good at the doing of religion, the how of faith, but, in their world, there was no need to engage the interior questions of meaning, the what and why of faith. Maybe their parents forgot to share the what and why with them. In an inherited familial culture, the what was assumed and the why was unnecessary. In a fractured individualist culture, there exist no compelling reasons to reenact familial vocations in work and prayer and many compelling reasons to depart from old ways.
- Diana Butler Bass (Christianity After Religion)

Not only do all of us really cherish tradition in our lives, we need it too. In the midst of a daily transforming life landscape, we need the security and comfort of our traditions. However, traditions have a lifecycle just like all of us do. When the two best justifications one can offer for maintaining a tradition are - “Because I like doing things this way” and/or “Because we’ve always done it that way,” it is a tradition past it’s prime. Too often churches make a golden calf out of tradition, considering sacred, practices that are peripheral to the core of faith. Hymns vs. praise music has kind of become the poster child for the tradition debate in the church, but that really only scratches the surface.

#7. Can’t see forest for trees - lost in details
So my question for those evangelicals leading the charge in the culture wars is this: Is it worth it? Is a political ‘victory’ really worth losing millions more young people to cynicism regarding the Church?
Is a political ‘victory’ worth further alienating people who identify as LGBT?
Is a political ‘victory’ worth perpetuating the idea that evangelical Christians are at war with gays and lesbians?
And is a political ‘victory’ worth drowning out that quiet but persistent internal voice that asks—what if we get this wrong?
Too many Christian leaders seem to think the answer to that question is ‘yes,’ and it's costing them.
Because young Christians are ready for peace.
We are ready to lay down our arms.
We are ready to stop waging war and start washing feet.
And if we cannot find that sort of peace within the Church, I fear we will look for it elsewhere.”
- Rachel Held Evans - speaker, author, blogger
(from blog post, How to win a culture war a lose a generation)
This point brings us to the truth in the stereotypes. Is Jesus’ Good News message so overwhelming in its scope that we cave to the temptation to adopt, as central instead, our own pet issues? Is this perhaps why we spend inordinate amounts of time, energy and money on topics like abortion, homosexuality, women in ministry, left vs. right, the environment? Not to say these aren’t deserving of our attention, but when an issue becomes front and center in our view, we lose sight of what should be the church’s sweeping and panoramic perspective.

#8. Keeping church in the building
Chorus: I am the Church. You are the Church. We are the Church together.
All of God’s people. All around the world. Yes, we’re the Church together!
The church is not a building. The church is not a steeple. The church is not a resting place. The church is a people. (Chorus)
We're many kinds of people, with many kinds of faces. All colors and all ages, too, from all times and places. (Chorus)
- lyrics to popular children’s Sunday School song
“What if people were invited to come tell what they already know of God instead of to learn what they are supposed to believe? What if they were blessed for what they are doing in the world instead of chastened for not doing more at church? What if church felt more like a way station than a destination? What if the church’s job were to move people out the door instead of trying to keep them in, by convincing them that God needed them more in the world than in the church?”
- Barbara Brown Taylor (Leaving Church)
I’m sad to say that it took me way too long to understand one of my friend’s concerns with the church today. He commented to me a number of times in my first several years of ministry how he wished the church would recognize and affirm more the ways in which we are church in other contexts throughout the week, away from the church building. He felt his job was a vocational calling and one he often didn’t enjoy a lot. But his time and efforts were redeemed by his understanding that when he did things right, he was a living embodiment of church in all the daily affairs of his job.

Part of the struggle within my congregation’s future conversation has been the surprising realization that, at least on a heart level, our building was very much wrapped up in our understanding of who we are as a church. A building offers a lot of possibility and potential for ministry, but so often it becomes another box we use to try and contain God and God’s work in our world.

#9. Understanding of church as merely social or socially obligatory
Some may shake their heads at this, wondering where character has gone or why young people are no longer loyal. But the loss of obligation is not only a religious phenomenon; it is a social phenomenon, as people now organize their lives by association and negotiation. By the mid-twentieth century, we developed a choice-based society, one driven by preference and desire instead of custom and obligation. Adulthood means picking--education career, partner, location, goods, political party, causes, beliefs, and faith….The economic social, and political world in which we live has opened up the possibility for eighty-two thousand choices at the coffee shop and probably about ten times that many when it comes to worshipping God and loving your neighbor. Some will choose well, others badly. Some will choose thoughtfully, others not so much. Some choose something new, others choose what they have always known. In the end, however, everybody chooses.
- Diana Butler Bass (Christianity After Religion)

One of the experiences I really enjoyed as a pastor in my first few years at Bergthal Mennonite, was to sit down with our most senior members, most of whom are no longer with us, and talk to them about what their experience of church was like back when our church was booming. I would have love to attend worship on a Sunday morning in the 1940’s, and witness the vibrance that brought this building to life. Interestingly, without exception, each person I visited in my early years as a pastor, spoke of belonging to this church as an intrinsic part of their social network. In the last few generations the pace of life has picked up considerably and as a whole, people are more socially engaged and committed than in earlier times. Therefore, if the primary motivation behind church attendance is social, than church simply can’t compete. Socializing will always be a beloved piece of being church together. We certainly engage socially with our church community. But church should be so much more than just one more social engagement. What so many people need now is a break in their week from social obligations.

Which leads me to my final point…..

#10. Too much talk, not enough action
Notice he did not say blessed are those who hear the word of God and believe it. Nor did he say blessed are those who hear the word of God and enshrine it as doctrine. Nor did he say blessed are those who hear the word of God and co-opt it for a particular religious or political agenda. He said blessed are those who hear the word of God and obey it.
- Robin Meyers (Saving Jesus from the Church)

To be a disciple now requires not the embrace of a particular ideology but the resolve necessary to live by a new ethic. Jesus certainly made this much clear: ritual observances are not to be confused with living faithfully. For Israel, the most important questions were never theological, but always ethical. How goes it in the land with the widow, the orphan, the stranger? What would a just society look like, and how would the earth’s resources be distributed? What does it matter if you keep every Sabbath law but neglect to care for your neighbor? It is not what you believe that matters ultimately, but what you do.
- Robin Meyers (Saving Jesus from the Church)

An evolved Christianity will not insist we believe the absurd, affirm the incredible, or support a theology that degrades humanity. It will be a friend of science, working joyfully alongside the best minds in the world on a common mission to embrace and enhance life. This Christianity will talk less and act more.
- Philip Gulley (The Evolution of Faith)

This is one that makes me cringe because I spend a lot of time most Sundays talking about what we should be doing, but not nearly enough time the other six days of the week practicing what I, quite literally, preach. What I’m referring too here is the tension between orthodoxy and orthopraxy; theology and ethics. Of course both are important. But the talk is supposed to better enable us to act. Instead, the church too often has such a great time talking it rarely gets around to the doing side of things. This point is directly related to the preceding one. Too many of our social commitments already require a lot of talk and not enough action. I’m thinking here of sitting on boards, attending committee meetings, watching our children or grandchildren’s sporting events while engaging in friendly conversation with neighbors in the bleachers. What is more difficult is to find ways in which we can actively make a difference in our world. I am often struck at a community’s generous outpouring of support and financial aid in the wake of a tornado or fire or untimely illness. I think many people are looking for opportunities to jump in and help their neighbor, whether near or far.  It seems to me this is what church should be all about - facilitating our desire to love our neighbors. Unfortunately, the more we talk, the more people grow dissatisfied and slip away.

There's my top ten, but this is by no means exhaustive.  What would you add to the tally?

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