Church


To the best of my knowledge, I just made that second word up, and claim dibs on it. But it is on my mind these days as I progress through the dissertation, prepare for and teach my slate of classes, and becoming gradually – though inexorably – more involved in the church we have been attending since September.

In my academic work, I have discovered that I gravitate toward questions of identity and of community formation. Students are beginning to figure out that I can be sidetracked by an innocent question like “what motivated the early Christians to begin to congregate as individual communities?” or “why did the Qumran community feel it was necessary to remove themselves from Jerusalem to the Judean wilderness?” But as a Baptist – cum – Anglican, I find myself increasingly suspicious of grand claims of macro-level, galvanizing forces that link big categories and big metanarratives to small communities. In other words, we need to take the Qumran communities as representative only of themselves; we need to look at the ancient church of Lyons or Laodicea or Jerusalem as representative only of their own community. We can’t just assume that they were part of the “big narrative of XYZism or XYZianity.” Whatever major trends were blowing in the wind in first and second century Judaisms and Christianities, what we can be sure of is that individual communities adopted or rejected certain trends on the grounds of whether they were consonant with what these communities believed to be true and that helped foster the particular mission of each.

“Ecclesiography” is my term describing the contemporary movement of “writing about the church,” or perhaps even better, “writing to create the (new) church.” It includes blogging, publishing important new books, distributing scandalous new tracts, and so on and so forth. There is a lot of this going on, particularly by people I count among my friends and acquaintances.  People are eating this stuff up, particularly the ’40 and under’ crowd, as well we should be, because this new “ecclesiographical” writing, intended to inspire a new conception of what it means to “do church” or what it means to “be church” or even “do/be Christian.”  I am all for this, because, as ecclesiographers such as Donald Miller, Brian McLaren, Pete Rollins, and countless other writers and bloggers (including this one) have said repeatedly, the way we are “doing church” is just not working the way it once did. We need something new.

But we may justifiably ask whether or not ecclesiography is really giving it to us. (For the record: God, I hope so. Lord knows we need it.) Church communities have, throughout their histories, been galvanized by revolutionary, prophetic writing. This obviously includes Scripture, but it also includes other writings as well. It may be too early to tell. But it seems to me that ecclesiography is having strong impact on the personal, individual level, but much less so at the institutional level, either in the local individual parish or at the big denominational or megachurch levels. At the beginning of this decade, evangelical megachurches in the Syracuse area were swarming with memberships and regular attenders. While they still do well relative to the “non-megachurch” contingent, over the last 10 years these big churches have ALL seen dramatic dropoffs in attendance and memberships, in spite of being on the cutting edge of evangelical thinking. Mainline churches have fared a bit better only in that many of them have simply held steady, but there is a high degree of turnover while maintaining more or less the same overall numbers. And fundamentalist churches are in serious decline. Catholic churches are closing their doors and selling off their properties. At all levels, including my own church, parishes are in jeopardy of losing their pastors because they can’t pay them.  Just at the local Syracuse-area level, the numbers are affecting all three of these “big categories,” even though many of them are receptive to the ideas of McLaren, Rollins, Miller, and even me about revolutionizing the way we conceive of being Christian and being the ekklesia of God. I’ve yet to encounter a church of any denomination that is resistant, for example, to the current trend of becoming “missional” or building a “missional” church, a word that entered into the vocabulary of the churches in the late 90s as a result of McLaren’s popularizing of it from Lesslie Newbigin’s use.

But that’s part of the problem. As a result of its popularizing by many of these new gifted ecclesiographers, “missional” has already been denuded. What does it mean? My suspicion is that churches are not using the term in the same way from church to church. My friend the ultrarev, for example, just the other day posted a piece on his blog on the missional church and his desire to plant one somewhere. But they’re already everywhere, and they’re losing members like crazy, because we don’t know what it means! I can imagine Socrates, today, engaging in a dialogue with McLaren over “missional.” As much as I like Brian, I can’t help but feeling that even he, like Meno, would ultimately (good-naturedly, of course) accuse Socrates of being a sting-ray who has numbed his mind and have to recognize that, at the moment, the best we can do with “missional” is identify and describe its attributes better than we can actually define the quality that makes all churches that claim the title as “missional.” My suspicion is that we tend to use “missional” to describe our “ideal church,” meaning quite literally a church that embodies all the qualities that we believe are essential, necessary, good, and “true.”

As I see it, “missional” has become one of those “big categories” that is being coopted and, perhaps, inappropriately applied at a macro-level of Christianity that is itself largely a myth. This happened with “emergent” just recently, and I’m seeing it again here with “missional:” It’s turned into a Movement. This happens when readers of any new work or argument, like that of the Ecclesiographers, take their work and their arguments seriously and see themselves as becoming part of what they represent and attempt, with however limited success, to impart the wisdom of “missional Christianity” to their church community. But what has happened with “missional” is that it is, so far, showing itself to not be radical enough, which means that it can be adopted and coopted by those churches who really have no business employing it. It is becoming a more user-friendly and less-freighted term for “gospel-centered”, which is – or ought to be – synonymous with “evangelical.”  Which is to say that the use of “missional” is to cast into new terms what we have been doing all along…which isn’t working. The consequence of this lack of precise definition and “exacting control of context,” as Wendell Berry puts it in his masterful article “In Distrust of Movements,” is that the term can be preempted even by its enemies. Prepackaged, uncritical, consumerist versions of Christianity are now suddenly “The Biblical Church of our Missional Lord,” offering us what they have always offered, and the Movement fails. (Mr. Berry’s full article can be found in his collection of essays entitled Citizenship Papers.)

I hope that the Missional, Ecclesiographical writers that are now doing so much important work keep doing it and do not get discouraged. But in the meantime, what does this mean for the rest of us, who attend declining, failing churches that are both broken and broke? Simply labeling ourselves as “missional” or “emergent” or “postmodern” or anything else is not going to fix us as long as we identify our primary problems as a single-issue problem that can be addressed by a single-issue solution. What is needed – and what the eccesiographers are giving us! – is a full diagnosis, and enough people with knowledge, skills, motives and attitudes that are unique to the specific needs of each local church. The problem: Where is everyone?

We can read our ecclesiographers until we’re run out of material, and agree with every word they write, but until we actually start doing something and defining as precisely as we can what “missional” means in the context where it is needed or used we are going to continue to slide towards irrelevancy.

The harvest is long, but the laborers few.

The Divine Name YHWH Jehovah“Theos” is a crappy translation for yhwh or elohim. Thanks a lot, Septuagint.

Comment.

Last night I had a great evening talking with my friend the Ultrarev, and among other topics covered, the idea of Scripture came up. The Ultrarev actually blogged on the topic after he got home (here), and my mind kept turning on the topic too. A lot of the discussion revolved around the old standard evangelical categories on scripture: Is it infallible? Is it inerrant? Is it inspired or God-breathed?

These terms are, as I’ve argued in my classes and in job application letters (eek…) and elsewhere (I think even on this blog), modern terms.  For example:

For Christians, Scripture must be the plumbline, the norming norm that guides each individual and community of faith to the Kingdom. I believe that in the modern world, the technology of the word has contributed to an understanding of Scripture that provides Christians with an effective means of expressing the authority of the Bible for the life of the church and its role in the world. While terms such as “infallible” and “inerrant” are modern terms alien to Scripture, I believe that they are dynamic equivalents to ancient understandings of the power of the written word that permit the force of that power to be understood and appreciated by modern Christians.  Early Christians and the writers of the New Testament understood the Word to be the message and proclamation of the Gospel and the person of Christ, a point that I believe has largely become lost in contemporary fetishization of the Scriptures among many in the Church today. The written word is witness to the Living Word that is Christ, and provides the only model for the church that, through its pages, teaches us the model of Jesus and of living a Christian life within the Church committed to bringing the Kingdom of God among us. Scripture is the pneuma of God that gives life, the essence of the same breath or inspiration that gave life to Adam from the dust of the earth and that animated Christ, the second Adam, from the dust of the grave.

But for many, this isn’t enough; somehow God has to have his hand in it, even if it’s not a mechanical, “hands-on” approach to the formation of Scripture (and I regard “scripture” and “Bible” as two different categories).  Ultrarev and I were talking about Arminianism and evolution and a bit of process theology. Subscribing to the basic elements of each of these, to hold to a mechanical, dictation-model of God’s role in scripture is, to say the least, pretty contradictory. I suggest, then, that we think of God’s hand in scripture not like we think of our hands at a keyboard or with a block of wood and some tools, but as the hand of the priest who touches and blesses the elements of the Eucharist. Like the priest over the ordinary elements of bread and wine, God similarly blessed an ordinary book or, more precisely, a collection of books that advances his Kingdom.

The irony here is that in both the Jewish and Christian cases, the “kingdom” was a literal one; for the Torah, it was the Persian Empire and then the post-Maccabean Hasmonean Dynastic would-be empire; for Christians, while the process took a while, it was the post-Constantinian empire of Rome. I’m in full agreement with Ultrarev here; today’s Christians need to two two things with regard to our Bible and idea of Scripture. First, we have to come to terms with the truly imperial origins of it, and somehow come to terms with all the connotations of empire that have accreted to the Bible over the last 1600 years (specifically colonialism, industrialism, western superiority, and consumer capitalism). This is a daunting task. Secondly, we need to let go of the mechanistic model of inspiration and replace it with something along the idea of God’s blessing of the Bible in much the same way that the priest blesses the bread and wine, or the penitent, or the baptized; in every case, it is the common, the ordinary, and the transformed for God’s Kingdom work that is blessed, not the already holy.

More work needs to be done here. The obvious question is “Why?” I hope some discussion might bring some ideas on this.

It has come to my attention that there is, apparently, a new reason to stay with a church that doesn’t fulfill any real need in your spiritual, emotional, religious, psychological, of family life, and that may even harm those by staying on: guilt-psychology.

One thing that churches have always made a special mission of is assistance to parishioners and community members in need. I myself have benefited from this in the past; many churches have special funds for this, or collect “deacon’s offerings” specifically for helping out families in financial trouble, and so on. It’s commendable, and biblical besides.

But the church is not a bank, and neither is it a “social service agency,” although there’s nothing wrong with it filling those roles. And the church MUST KNOW that it absolutely cannot expect anything in return when it dispenses this kind of assistance to anyone, whether they attend the church or not. When the church fails to realize this, there’s trouble. When the church expects certain things from you in return, it is no longer a church.

Admittedly, it’s natural to feel some sense of obligation to a church or anyone else who helps you out when you’re hard up. But when a church fails to meet spiritual and emotional and religious needs, one should not feel obligated to “stick it out” simply because it gave you some help at some point. And just as importantly, the church should understand that, for any number of reasons, as people grow and mature in their spirituality, in their religious needs, in Scripture, in Christ, and so on, many will find that the church they go to (and received help from) no longer meets the needs of their spirit. It goes without saying here that not all churches recognize this last observation, believing themselves to be either just as good as anyone else on the one hand, or among those churches (usually fundamentalist in some way, shape, or form) who believe that if your needs are not being met, the fault lies with YOU, and not with them.  To prevent people from leaving, these kinds of churches will go on the power/authority trip and lay on a thick layer of guilt about “everything we’ve done for you, and this is how you show your gratitude, by leaving us.”  There’s no chance to even discuss the real issues when this kind of crap comes out.

As I see it, there are two options. The first is the easiest; just say “screw it,” wash your hands of the place, and move on, no matter how many phone calls you get or requests for a “meeting.”

The second option is the more difficult, and that’s to actually try to address all the reasons why you are in the process of leaving the parish you’ve been going to. It is difficult because it requires honest introspection on your part about all the reasons why you leave a place, and you may find that some of those reasons may not be very good. It is also difficult because you are putting yourself at risk of being taken advantage of by an “expert” (like the bent-out-of-shape pastor of the church) who is trained to make people feel guilty as part of his theological and psychological vocation. He’ll have an answer for every legitimate point you make about why you are leaving, and not many of us will be able to rebut him (or her), and even if we could, they would not take the rebuttals seriously because “they KNOW they know more” than you do. Big on theology, big on doctrine, small on sense, small on sensitivity, understanding, and compassion.

It’s a sad situation. But it’s time to go for sure. And hopefully the reasons for it are clear.

So the question is put to me, what’s so wrong with a denomination establishing criteria of doctrinal consent that are required for official ordained ministry within the denomination? It came up during a documentary that included discussion of the 5 fundamentals of early 20th century Presbyterianism and the resulting division in the church (and which paved the way for mid-twentieth century evangelical-liberal fear of each other in general).

My answer is that there’s basically nothing wrong with doing this, so long as it is recognized that this is not a universal absolute that has to be adhered to by everyone. In other words, if the denomination recognizes that this is essentially the “membership standard” in order to be part of the club of Denomination X and not membership requirements for determining who is “Christian” and who isn’t, fine.

More specifically, some denominations (such as the PCUSA) have historically been at the forefront of “updating” the Christian mission to reflect the needs of the age it finds itself in. 100 years ago, it was science and modernity, and the 5 fundamentals reflect the issues the church was faced with in how to do Christian work. In particular, colonialism, Darwinism, historical criticism, “progress,” scientific and psychoanalytic analysis, and so on, all hallmarks of modernity, were the major issues confronting the churches, and the Fundamentals themselves were completely modernist answers to a very modernist slate of issues. Absolute certainty in religion was the mirror image of absolute certainty in science and historical factuality.

As seminaries now are very clear that their mission is no longer “conversion” to Christianity, many conservatives and fundamentalists, I think, misunderstand what is going on with current Christian training. If it is truly Christian, as I’ve written on this blog in the past, there is but one essential, and that is the confession of Christ as Lord and Master. If a church’s work and mission stems from this, it is doing Christian work, Kingdom work, as I call it. Conversion may or may not be a part of this. What is happening with Seminaries and Churches and other institutions that are in the field of Christian vocations is they are cognizant of the fact that “conversion” is virtually synonymous with Colonialism, and specifically western colonialism. It recognizes that doing Kingdom work does not mean “making everyone a Christian.” But many conservatives and fundamentalists think this is exactly what it means to save the world: convert every last person to Christianity.

God save us, no!

The Church should have standards for its own governance, and it needs ways and means and an ethic of not being of the world even while it is in it. And those should be determined through much critical thought and excruciating prayer. But our mission is not to make everyone in the world “like us.” Confessing Christ’s lordship means not turning the world into a planet of Christians, let alone Presbyterians or Baptists or Methodists or Adventists or what-have-yous. Our mission is simply to bring the Kingdom of God to places where it is needed most. And these days, I daresay that the places it is most needed is in the institutional churches themselves. Getting all caught up in absolutes and certainties and doctrines and issues of “who’s in and who’s out” distracts us from our real work: to love our neighbors as ourselves, to love God with all our heart, strength, soul, and mind, to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God; and to preach Christ crucified, using words only when necessary.

And now this. Rev. Jay Scott Newman of Greenville S.C. has told his parishioners that if they voted for Barack Obama, they should not come forward for communion unless they’ve gone to confession first for participating in “intrinsic evil” by voting for a candidate who was pro-choice, “lest they eat and drink their own condemnation.”

Perhaps Rev. Newman didn’t see the debates; both candidates were (are) “pro-choice,” but they also distanced themselves from the old discourse on the issue. What to do? At least here, under Scott’s logic, this was “no-choice.” Communion, or the polls. If you voted for McCain, you also voted for a “pro-choice” candidate.

The fact of the matter is that both Obama and McCain deliberately tried to distance themselves from the issue, mostly because they knew that they were in substantial agreement on it. To wit: both said they won’t use Roe vs. Wade as the yardstick for determining justice appointments. They agreed with each other in that abortions are tragedies that are best dealt with by changing American cultural standards towards sex and pregnancy in general.

Obama: I think that abortion is a very difficult issue, and it is a moral issue and one that I think good people on both sides can disagree on…. This is an issue that — look, it divides us. And in some ways, it may be difficult to — to reconcile the two views. But there surely is some common ground when both those who believe in choice and those who are opposed to abortion can come together and say, “We should try to prevent unintended pregnancies by providing appropriate education to our youth, communicating that sexuality is sacred and that they should not be engaged in cavalier activity, and providing options for adoption, and helping single mothers if they want to choose to keep the baby.” Those are all things that we put in the Democratic platform for the first time this year, and I think that’s where we can find some common ground, because nobody’s pro-abortion. I think it’s always a tragic situation. We should try to reduce these circumstances.

McCain: We have to change the culture of America. Those of us who are proudly pro-life understand that. And it’s got to be courage and compassion that we show to a young woman who’s facing this terribly difficult decision. … But that does not mean that we will cease to protect the rights of the unborn. Of course, we have to come together. Of course, we have to work together, and, of course, it’s vital that we do so and help these young women who are facing such a difficult decision, with a compassion, that we’ll help them with the adoptive services, with the courage to bring that child into this world and we’ll help take care of it.

Abortion is a stump topic. In the past, candidates have lived (and died) on this issue with conservatives, especially evangelicals and catholics. But not a single candidate has, after being elected, even attempted to do anything about it. At least this time around it was a lot more marginal and got only about 15 or so minutes of time in one debate. By and large, I think Americans have moved on, because I think we’re coming to the realization that someone who is “pro-choice” is NOT “pro-death” or “anti-life.” I think we’re gradually realizing that the goal should be to reduce it and eliminate the need for it. I think we’re also realizing that “pro-life” ought to be a lot more encompassing than simply abortion. It should include, for example, the gulf war.

Which brings me back to Newman: The Church’s position on the War is as clear as it is on abortion. It is a moral evil and must be ended.

It is obviously difficult to really disentangle the relationship between Religion and State. But how one votes should not be determining church membership, whether one can take communion, or especially whether one will spend the rest of eternity in damnation.

obama-globe

My first reaction to the announcement that Senator John McCain called Barack Obama with his congratulations and concession was to let out a primal scream of joy. Until I realized that it’s a little after 11 pm here and the wife and kids are sleeping. So I figured I’d do it here.

I have already seen blog posts, facebook status updates, reader comments, and so on that have basically said “to hell with America, it deserves what it gets” or “God will judge us now worse than he did Israel” and the like. I find this abysmally sad. Make no mistake; Obama is not a messiah, nor is he bringing the kingdom of God. For which we can only be thankful. But to a nation that is consumed with fear, Barack Obama provides a beacon of hope. John McCain might have been able to do the same. But his campaign, intimidated by the popularity of Obama’s politics of hope over a Rovian politics of fear, could not answer appropriately.

The age of politics of fear should be over. (If that’s what you want, I refer you to James Dobson and the remnants of the Religions Right.) It may well be that President Obama is unable to deliver all of the goods. I personally feel that it is unreasonable to expect him to. But there is all the difference between “hope” and “expectation.” Obama has consistently delivered hope, not expectation. Indeed, the only expectations have come from his opponents, which is an expecation of worst-case scenarios designed to play on the fears of those who can only see their disagreements with Obama.

I have never been more proud to be an American than I am this night. I have also never been more proud to be a Christian, and an evangelical one at that.

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