I've mentioned a time
before, that the Church is dying
. And because of the research presented in books like unChristian
by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, we know a lot of the reasons for it.
While some people in the Church like to point to the economy as the chief reason reason for struggling churches, it's time to get real and just admit that while it really is terribly convenient to be able to say, "Really it's not us; it's that gosh, darned economy," it's just not true. Sure the economy necessarily effects most churches, but our problems have been going on much longer than that. And we are the root of our problem.
As Kinnaman points out, there are several problems that keep most young people who consider themselves spiritual from darkening the door of a church, but the big one is hypocrisy. And like it or not, part of that hypocrisy is tied up in politics.
For decades now, the loudest voice in Christianity (or at least the most persistently visible) has been from politicians on the right. Let's face it, they have owned the national Christian voice. Touting Jesus as if they had been one of the original disciples, they have twisted the reality of the Gospels and God's biases for the oppressed, the marginalized and the undeserved into a pro-Americana doctrine that promotes the rights of the haves over the needs of the have-nots. They've actually figured out how to make it seem sinful to question war and capital punishment.
And the dominant part of the Church has, at best, sat idly by as the political right has used the name of Christ to take God's name in vain by marginalizing more and more people as they pass laws that make it more difficult to obtain basic human rights like health care, reasonable access to shelter and the ability to feed our families.
We need modern day prophets to walk in the footsteps of Isaiah, Amos, Micah, Jesus and, yes, even Dr. King. People to stand up to, and to stand over and against the status quo. Voices calling out into the modern day wildernesses of plutocracy, militarism, white privilege and so many other anti-Biblical movements that serve only to marginalize and hurt specific groups of people.
In this age of social media, it might be that the Voice In The Wilderness that the world so sorely needs, might just be Voices (with an 's') In The Wilderness. It might just be your voice, my voice, our voices in a collective cry saying, "Repent! God does not love straight people more than gay people. God does not love the wealthy more than the poor. God does require us to DO justice. Not to just say it is a good thing, but to insure that it is a reality for all people."
We must stand up to the Religious and Political Right who have been allowed to own the voice of Christianity for far too long and we must reclaim it.
The Church is burning down. It is a slow, smoldering burn to be sure, but it is burning down nonetheless. As it burns, those who belong have busied themselves painting over the soot stained walls, putting a new finish over the already depleted structure, in hopes that they will somehow protect the outdated construction that has strayed so far from the Architect's plan.
As the average attendance and membership of mainline protestant churches continue to slowly spiral down, we try to repaint the walls with new contemporary murals, dress up the sanctuary with artistic liturgical dressings and blast out slightly more modern music during the anthem and offertory. The hierarchical structure of the Church (both formal and informal) that sets up power dynamics which are antithetical to the teachings of Jesus? We leave them alone. The programs, groups and events of the church (from Sunday School to various long established women's or men's groups) that have been struggling, in some cases, for decades? We don't dare change them. The hypocritical judgment of anyone who isn't either one of us or like us? We simply ignore the log in our own eye.
We, those who have been part of the leadership of the Church, have been redecorating rather than putting out the fire. As we have done so, we have been fanning the flame. We should have been putting an end to the smoldering mess it has become and began renovating, restructuring and repurposing. We should be revisioning our future but instead we are busy decoupaging our church photo albums, not only remembering the “good old days” but insisting that we recreate the still lives we have created in our heads as way to fix the here and now.
The worst part is, we are so frightened of a new future (and the change needed to achieve it) that we continue to repeat this behavior over and over again receiving the same results every time (which is to say, receiving little to no results) and somehow, each time, we think that this time it will be different. We completely fail to realize that our system is perfectly designed to achieve the results we have – a slowly dying church. Burn baby, burn.
The good news is that no matter what happens, the Church will live. We can let it burn all the way down to the ground as we stand by watching while we embrace the memories in our photo album and the Church will go on – just without us.
Part 2 – Christian 'Heritage' and American Exceptionalism
It is not unusual to find that those who have incorrectly begun treating Christianity as a heritage also cling tightly to a modern, warped conceptualization of American exceptionalism. In the US, many people have conflated their religion and their patriotism in a way that makes it is hard to tell where one begins and where the other ends. For the Church, the body of Christ, this has created a very volatile and decidedly un-Christian environment.
Let's begin, though, with a look at American exceptionalism. What it has come to mean and what it is supposed to mean have drifted too far apart. American exceptionalism is supposed to point to the unique qualities of the formation of the United States. (Conservatives who use the term might also be surprised to find out that it was coined by the American Communist Party). It points to the way we were formed, the ideologies that influenced our formation and the uniqueness of the structure of government which developed out of those things.
What it has come to mean is something quite different. Exceptional has been made equivalent to superior. Many times those making a call to American exceptionalism are now really making an unfounded call to the superiority of America and its ways in comparison to all other ways.
As if that weren't problematic enough all on it's own, the converse of what I opened this article with is equally true: It is not unusual to find that those who cling tightly to this modern, warped conceptualization of American exceptionalism frequently are also those who have incorrectly begun treating Christianity as a heritage. They wrap crosses in American flags as if the two have always been together and through that imagery claim what amounts to an unholy union.
When the two are practiced this way, the blind faith that is necessary to practice Christianity as 'heritage' and the blind following of an unquestioning patriotism combine to make a group of people who are necessarily closed to outsiders and particularly opposed to anything that favors anyone other than themselves. The blindness of it all, the unquestioning devotion to what they perceive as the traditions of their Protestant Christian heritage and the unflappable support of all policies that come from 'their' representatives in name of patriotism, calls for them to practice either cognitive dissonance or willful ignorance any time the facts point to something other than what they want to believe.
This is a problem for the Church, the body of Christ, because that is not who Jesus taught us God calls us to be. We are told to care for the outsiders, particularly those who are marginalized and undeserved. The conflation of Christianity as a 'heritage' and American exceptionalism create communities where the exact opposite of that is practiced in order to maintain the purity of the group. The Bible tells us that God “moves about in a tent,” is “about to do a new thing,” and we see that Jesus constantly asked the people he met to change. The conflation of Christianity as a 'heritage' and American exceptionalism demands a steadfastness and rigid resistance to change of any type as well as an unquestioning devotion to the past. We also know that biblically, wisdom is that thing in which God delights daily, but the conflation of Christianity as a 'heritage' and American exceptionalism, as I have already noted, requires a constant denial of facts that negate what you want to be true.
The conflation of Christianity as a 'heritage' and American exceptionalism is killing the Church and trying to do the same for our nation. Those who are willing to confront these realities must begin working together to breakthrough the blind haze that has entrapped our communities. We do so by naming it out loud, by no longer sitting silently aside and shaking our heads in not only sad amusement but in our own self-serving form of superiority. We must trust that the truth will indeed set us free and stop being afraid to name the problems because of the negative backlash we might suffer in our places of worship and ministry, because those places are the the very places that need the truth to be prophetically proclaimed.
Part 1 of this series: The Pitfalls of Practicing Christianity as Heritage
With each generation in the United States, it becomes more and more difficult for some people to identify with their heritage. Some of this is because the cultural pieces of their heritage have not been practiced and passed along from generation to generation, and some because as families marry they bring in other heritages and the resulting generation sometimes have a more difficult time understanding exactly what their heritage is.
It occurs to me that a very interesting phenomenon has risen out of this. It is not new or unique (something like it has happened before in Great Britain), but it is a fairly new and unique way of understanding the divide within so many Christian churches in the US.
Most of my thoughts on this are based on observances. So I have to recognize that I am speaking primarily about the experience of white Americans. That is not to say this isn't also true of other races, it is just saying it is the one with which I am most familiar and therefore the primary source of my observation.
The observation is this: many white Americans, seem to be filling in the gap of our lack of a sense of heritage with Christianity and it is not only dangerous but it stands over and against what Jesus and then Paul told us that this movement, the following of The Way, was about.
Much like our religious relatives who actually have a Jewish heritage, there has been a silent claiming of the "heritage" of Christianity. The way this Christian heritage is practiced is, obviously, heavily weighted toward practices of heritage rather than practices of faith. That is to say, like some “non-practicing” Jews who still observe certain rituals for the sake of remembering their heritage and passing it on to the next generation, Christianity has an abundance of “non-practicing” Christians who still observe certain rituals for the sake of remembering their “heritage” and passing it on. The difference is non-practicing Christians do not recognize that they are passing on the heritage and not-so-much the faith.
One of the most regular rituals is the preparation for (including dressing up) and attendance of church on Sunday morning. The unbending steadfastness of many Christian to allow for more casual dress, a change in worship style, or time of worship, while passed off as a concern for respectfulness, appropriateness and respectability from a religiously pious point of view has much more to do with upholding their perceived heritage than it does with any biblically based concern. The same seems to be true for many of the other places of resistance to change in the church.
That is where those who are advocates for the change and those who are advocates for maintaining their perceived heritage meet an impasse. We each assume the other is there for the same reason we are (to maintain Christian heritage / to peruse biblical mandates). Because of this miscue, we find ourselves frequently at impasses that, without recognition of the difference, will not reach a lasting resolution if they achieve a resolution at all. Additionally, the relationship is complicated by the issues of American exceptionalism which is so frequently bound tightly to Christian heritage, the biblical issues of Christianity being a “heritage,” and the belief of both sides that they are the ones who are honoring the religion. (All three are likely to be future articles).
Now for the part that many people are not going to like. I am not putting forth the idea that recognition of this reality (at least as I see it), will solve the impasse or provide for a path forward together - quite the opposite really. I believe that recognition of this divide will be exactly that- a recognition of a divide. Theses two understandings of what it means to be Christian are not compatible and, as sad as it is, make it not only constantly contentious to move forward together, but also illogical.
My sermon for this Sunday
is helpful in understanding this (as a matter of fact, this article may become part of the message). I'm looking at Micah, where the prophet says, "What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness and walk humbly with your God?” Those who practice Christianity mostly as a heritage will see those things as requests (if not “nice things to say, but a naive way of living”) and those who practice it as a religion will see it as exactly what the prophet calls it - a requirement.
Followers of The Way, of the teachings of Jesus, will never settle on ritual repetition for the sake of heritage... because Jesus didn't either. The Church, as the body of Christ, must never allow itself to become a cultural heritage club, for when we do, we displace the centrality of the brother and sisterhood of all humanity with the exceptionalism and assumed privilege of a select group of people... and that's just not the way of Christ.
Part 2: Christian 'Heritage' and American Exceptionalism