Sunday, May 2, 2021

What to Do about the Church’s Demise, Part 2

Today I will conclude an essay that I began last week with an overview of studies that portend the demise of the church.  

When pressed, my response to studies proclaiming the decline of religion in general or Christianity in particular, including the latest one, is “Meh.” I even shock myself at times with that response, so what follows is my attempt to understand how one can be as invested in the Christian church as I am and still not be moved by another declaration that it is on life support. Again, I will confine my remarks to the Christianity that I know and love.


One reason for the “Meh” is that much of what is being lost is not Christianity but Christendom. The original Christian community was a minority group willing to risk life, livelihood, and reputation to declare fealty to someone who had been branded a blasphemer and a seditious criminal. There are ongoing arguments of whether the situation of being outside of power and popularity is simply a matter of historical accident or whether that is, in fact, how the church is meant to be. When church and state become comfortable with each other, at times hardly distinguishable, does it come at too great a cost of the church’s theological integrity? If the church had strictly opposed slavery would there still be streets in the south with church buildings on every corner? If the church refused military service would the Senate or military still have chaplains? If the church provided healing and health to anyone in need or lent without expecting repayment, would we still be tax exempt, get housing allowance privileges, or PPP loans? Can there actually be a “Christian nation” if the church put the kinship of the Reign of God above national allegiance? If nothing else the demise of Christendom may offer the church a route toward renewing ourselves in a way more befitting followers of the crucified Christ. 


But that path would be unpopular, which means loss of members and revenue, which means failure, according to our capitalistic manner of thinking. It is true that, in the book of Acts, the church’s faithfulness often resulted in the exultant note that many people were added to the church. But, that manner of measuring faithfulness goes away after the first few chapters, when the stories of persecution, martyrdom, diaspora, and internal discord begins to take over. And Paul’s extraordinary mission journeys end with Paul’s journey to Rome, to be imprisoned, tried, and possibly martyred. The myth of “success” – inscribed deeply into the church’s psyche by the Church Growth Movement – comes at a huge cost. Perhaps the question is not whether people are rejecting the church but whether people have actually ever seen the church. 


I think a question for hand-wringers is whether they are grieving the loss of a Christianity that is inherently connected to Jesus Christ, or a commodified version of it.  


On the other hand, the church has never been perfect, the relationship between followers of Christ and citizenship in the state has always been problematic, and despite it all there is still some very powerful, viable witness taking place in Christian circles. One thing churches are doing – which many external critics fail to recognize – is some powerful soul-searching. I wish my cousin would realize that Bishop Spong has already raised all of his objections about theism and, frankly, more insightfully and pointedly than he does. I wish my neighbor wouldn’t read an Op Ed by Bart Ehrman and imagine that the church has never heard of biblical criticism. And I wish my activist friends knew the economic analyses of Leonardo Boff, the womanist theology of Katie Geneva Cannon, and the eschatology of Barbara Rossing before they assume that all of the church is represented by the mansplaining likes of Franklin Graham and Tim LaHaye. 


So, what do I make of the latest reports alleging “the godlessness of America”? I say “Meh,” if the question is whether I am concerned about the institutional predominance of the Christian church in America. I think a church that simply digs in and tries to preach the same thing “more harder” is ignoring real questions. But, a deeper response would go two ways. First, I feel repentant because the church has such a beautiful call to proclaim the joy and justice of the gospel as we live in the spirit of Christ. To a large extent, we have failed to do that very thing. But, second, I feel some hope, because a chastened church, a church that is open to honest questions and genuine criticisms – that’s a community that I’m all in on cultivating. Let’s have predominantly White churches doing serious audits of our history and complicity in White Supremacy – with an eye toward transformation. Let’s have a church interrogate our historic patriarchy, with more than just pointing at more female denominational leaders. Let’s have a church that values integrity over preserving convention. And let’s have a church that continues to reject the easy answers that we’ve often offered to complex questions, particularly if the point of the answer is to shame the one asking the question in the first place. None of these ideas is a prescription for church growth, but with this kind of energy, we would be the kind of community that we’re called to be.  


Mark of St. Mark



Wednesday, April 21, 2021

What to Do about the Church’s Demise, Part 1

This week I’m going to begin an essay that I will conclude next week. I’ll begin with an overview as Part 1 and move toward a response in Part 2: 

It seems like every few years a study emerges which, once again, proclaims that the death of religion is right around the next corner. News of faith’s imminent demise has likely been an ongoing phenomenon for centuries, and, to be sure, there is some truth in each instance. In my time of service to the Christian church, there have been a few such notable moments, each of which was met with some hand-wringing, some calls for “change or die,” and some “I told you so” comments. The March 29 publication of a Gallup Poll showing that more than half of adults in the US do not belong to a religious congregation is the latest of such studies, threatening to make Christian churches, along with Jewish synagogues and Islamist mosques, irrelevant soon, if not extinct eventually. 

I’ll let other faiths speak for themselves, but for the Christian church I think it is important to note that the anxiety of our demise is rooted in what we have wrongly defined as our “success.” Christians commonly assume that a movement that began with the death of a fairly unknown Galilean then expanded to a global religion is all the proof we need that God is alive. Embedded in this story is an unspoken arrogance that those places and peoples where Christianity has historically been most influential are the leading lights of education and civilization throughout the world. But, that “success” story only sharpens the question of the moment. If the global expanse of the church was proof that Christianity had been fueled by God, then what does the decline of the church signify? 

The historical confidence that the globalization of the church seemed to show from a historical perspective became prescriptive during the Church Growth movement. The stagnant to falling numbers in so-called “mainline” denominations and the rising numbers in so-called “evangelical” churches caused some panic and reaction at every level among historic, mainline churches. The word “evangelism” was conjoined with the phrase “church growth,” making it a matter of faithfulness for the church to increase its rolls and worship attendance. Mega-churches became the leading lights and their pastors became the role models, book sellers, and plenary presenters at workshops. The more liberal edges of theology were trimmed, not by conviction, but in order to “reach more people.” Bible studies avoided critical interpretation in order to focus on “application.” Behind all of these changes was the assumption that the downward trend of the mainline and the upward trend of evangelicals meant that the real sniff test of whether the church is being faithful can be demonstrated numerically. 

Then, there was “Sheilaism,” the term offered by Robert Bellah and his collaborators in their book Habits of the Heart. The term was based on a woman named Sheila who seemed to show an alarming trend that threatened Christianity. Sheila was Christian enough, but also Buddhist in some ways, a bit of Jewish here and there, mostly choosing her meal not from the menu but à la carte. That kind of non-traditional religion was a threat to established religious movements of all kinds, because the ultimate arbiter of religious truth and meaning was … Sheila. Some churches dug into tradition as the better source of truth; others expanded the menu to offer yoga classes with a Christian mantra. Whether digging in or opening up, the primary motive still seemed to be that unless the church is growing numerically something is amiss. 

Alas, on came the “Nones,” those who marked surveys claiming no religious affiliation at all. Often, the rationale would be that the church is both hypercritical and hypocritical. Scandal-free, inclusive-minded congregations took hope that their challenge was simply to show that they were not the kind of church that the “Nones” and company rejected. But, it turned out that the “Nones” were more or less “None and Done.” And, there was a changing point of view that really challenged the church’s presumed centrality, as the question shifted from “Why don’t you go to church?” to “Why do you go to church?” I once led a congregation through a series of question about their relationship with the church and, by far, the number one reason the faithful, church-attending, active folk gave for going to church was “the feeling of community.” After years of sermons warning against the church becoming a social club, who knew clubbing would be the church’s strong suit? The “Nones,” “Dones,” and “Whatevers” seem to have largely realized that a feeling of community can be found in many places. So, they left. And now they seem to outnumber the religious folks. And that’s were we’ll leave it for this week. Next week, I’ll offer a response.

Mark of St. Mark

Monday, March 8, 2021

A Verse A Day (Day 20)

 A Verse A Day 


In the 84th Psalm, the psalmist makes this arresting claim: “I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than live in the tents of wickedness.” 


You know, those tents of wickedness are pretty enticing. Perhaps it is the wickedness that one can imagine going on inside, debauchery dressed up as progressiveness, excess, profanely shedding the stiff clothing of conventionality behind the curtains. Perhaps it is the sheer luxury of those tents, baths of asses milk, silk from the east, abundant wine from the finest vineyards, rich sweetmeats, a table spread with fresh fruits and nuts, the best musicians offering songs of delight, elegant everything. Perhaps it is the status, the pride, the hubris of ownership, the “it” factor, the joy of knowing that anyone who is someone wants to be you, the influencer of all influencers. 


And then there’s the doorkeeper. The doorkeeper doesn’t actually live in the house. It might be a fearsome guardian, who would take off the head of anyone who might try to meander in uninvited or by stealth. It might be an old sleepy fixture who has to be awakened to greet people properly as they enter. Nothing about this person says “me.” The uniform belongs to the house, the house belongs to the owner, the smile the greeting are all part of the script, an act, lending an air of dignity, while playing into the theater of owners who are too entitled to open their own door themselves. How many doorkeepers secretly loathe the person who calls them by their first name but who is always called with the utmost measure of respect? 


The psalmist is ultimately saying, “I’d rather debase myself for the Lord than luxuriate for myself.” That sentiment can only make sense if the owner of the house is worthy beyond one’s own self-worth. That’s what I am holding today. 

Wednesday, March 3, 2021

A Verse A Day (Day 15)

“The firmament proclaims God’s handiwork,” according to the 19th psalm. Here’s a shout out to the translators for choosing the word “handiwork.’ It’s a perfect term. Whether it refers to making paper cranes, intricate drawings, carving, doodling, swaddling, stitching, stirring, painting, braiding, tattooing, or designing – handiwork is what we do when we’re doing. 


So, if I imagine the firmament – the heavens, outer space, nebula, dark holes, galaxies, suns, stars, multiverses, and all that is therein – as God’s handiwork, what do I see? What if God is like Banksy – the incredible artist whose works take glimpses of the inner city and re-imagine them in ways that are truly revelatory? What if God’s is like Alice Walker, who uses ordinary language to convey extraordinary truth? What if God is like Leonardo, ambidextrous, inventive, and the master of form? And what if God is like that tinkerer who took the dissatisfaction with previous designs and modified them to become a zipper? Seeing God in these different ways might enable me to see the firmament and all creation in a different way. 


For me, a profound metaphor for God’s handiwork might be the Tibetan Buddhists that create the sand mandalas. It is intricate work. There is a melodic, constant humming that accompanies the concentrated silence. The artists are intensely focused on every grain of sand and how they create patterns, color, and meaning. It takes a long time of sustained effort. Then, when it is done and its beauty is fulfilled, they dismantle it, to reflect the transitory nature of life. The dismantling itself is a ritually deliberate process, before the sand is returned to the river and reabsorbed into the elements. 


What if that’s the kind of artist God is? What if God’s handiwork is to create a universe, which lasts for eons to us and mere billions of years to God, only to reabsorb it into the dark matter before another universe bursts into being? The heavens are telling the glory of God and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork – do I even have the capacity to hear and see? 


Monday, March 1, 2021

A Verse A Day (Day 13)

“The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork.” Psalm 19:1 


Firmament. What a strangely familiar/unfamiliar term. I remember it chiefly from this snatch of the 19th Psalm, and from a few measures of a song my college choir rehearsed and sang, when the tenors finally got to sing a high note in full voice. Even now when I read the word I hear it as an F with the dotted-eighth, sixteenth, and accented E quarter note rhythm. It feels much more majestic that way. 


The psalmist might be singing, but is also – literally and metaphorically – reaching for the stars. The great blue yonder, that dome above the earth, the heavens, the “there” that is “up there” but so far beyond our reach that we can only point to it and wonder. The real that is so unlike reality that we cannot describe it. Of course today we know that the firmament is not “up there” like a dome but “out there” from every perspective point of the globe. We have explored and probed and landed and fetched; we have sent moving telescopes out into the depths, only to be astounded anew at the abundance, the beginnings and endings, the constancy of change. 


The firmament. To those of us in the space age it seems like the final frontier, but the psalmist sees more. Even when we speak of the firmament as infinite, ever-expanding space, the psalmist has something to say: Beyond it all is something more, namely, God.  


I’m going to hold this claim, “the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork” all week long. 

Sunday, February 28, 2021

A Verse A Day (Day 12)

For the last five days, the daily psalm reading for Lent has been the latter part of Psalm 22. The beginning of Psalm 22 is the most familiar part, the painful lament that Jesus utters from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? … Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest.” “I am ... scorned by others, and despised by the people.” Those who scorn say, “Commit your cause to the Lord; let him deliver – let him rescue the one in whom he delights!” It’s easy to see how the gospel writers found the 22nd Psalm in the crucifixion. 


By the time we get to the end of it, this Psalm has traveled a long way. The psalmist has moved from lamenting God’s absence in a time of distress to giving God praise for not ignoring the afflictions of the afflicted; from “Why have you forsaken me?” to a God who “did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him.” 


The change of tone is curious. Did the psalmist lose nerve? Was the psalm written in retrospect, capturing both the angst of the moment and the composed reassurance of the aftermath? I have known folks whose perspectives have changed dramatically – sometimes as a result of a conscious or religious experience, and sometimes finding what Karl Rahner called “consolation without a cause.” Is that what’s happening here? Or, maybe this psalm is just a snapshot of life. 


Sometimes we live at the beginning of the psalm, when the most faithful thing one can do is to express doubts, anxieties, and questions. The rawness of the lament psalm is the liberty to howl that Western theology and culture have refined out of us. At other times we look back and see how far we have come, how many things we have been able to do, despite ourselves, and how patiently God has been at work among us. Perhaps then we need the liberty to rejoice without caution, without having to account for our earlier words. Maybe it is simply the case that sometimes we live in the hope of new life and sometimes we tremble with the prospect of death. What startles me about this psalm is how both are simply sewn together without hesitation or apology. 

Saturday, February 27, 2021

A Verse A Day (Day 11, I write other things on Fridays so I skipped day 10)

I’m still digesting the 22nd Psalm’s recognition of both the specific location of the psalmist – self-identifying as part of the people of Jacob/Israel – and the universal scope of the psalmist’s outlook – “all the ends of the earth,” “all the families of the nations.” Of course, the psalmist’s own location between the local and the global corresponds with the theology at play here. God is, for the psalmist, both “our God” before whom the “offspring of Jacob” stand in awe, and the God to whom dominion over the nations belongs. So universal in breadth is God that even the dead and the yet unborn will offer praise as part of the “great congregation.” 

If we can describe the life of faith as “us before God and God before us,” then there seem to be four quadrants at play in the life of faith. There is (1) the human in both the specific location; (2) the human in the general location; and there is (3) God as specifically perceived; and (4) God as universally perceived. 

(1) European idealists strove mightily to explore the specific location of the human identity, beginning with Descartes’ famous dictum, “I think, therefore I am.” 

(2) The African philosophical concept of Ubuntu offers a counterpoint to the extreme subjectivity of the European quest. Ubuntu means, “I am because we are.” 

(3) The existence of different religions, different sects or denominations within different religions, and the personalistic experiences of salvation, contemplation, prayer, commitment, and so on – all point to the possibility of God or the divine being experienced by and expressed from a specific perspective. 

(4) Almost every religious expression has a universal scope in view, either implicitly through its language regarding the divine or explicitly through its mission or witness to the world. 

Many things have been and can be said regarding these four quadrants, including questioning whether “quadrant” is the right term to express them. It strikes me that the 22nd Psalm does not presume to select one over the others, but struggles to live faithfully by fluidly moving in and out of each of them. That will be my thought throughout this day.