Thursday, April 28, 2011

Change or die? Are you sure we didn't die years ago?

As I tiptoe my way back into the world of churchy things (Back?  More on that later...), in between unsuccessful bouts with rental-hunting in Richmond, I can't help but notice a fairly steady drumbeat of concern for what might be called the state of the church.  Perhaps more pronounced in what used to be called the "mainline" denominations (but not, I gather, absent from other bodies), this concern notes the sometimes precipitous decline in membership numbers of these various denominations and requires a great deal of brow-furrowing and fretting over What Can Be Done.  My own denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), has certainly done its share of such worrying and wondering; every seminary to which I applied or even considered applying was at some point or other engaged in some sort of examination of the putative decline and fall of the mainline church.  This of course is followed by a mantra-like reiteration that The Church Must Change ("ommmm.....channnnnnge....ommmm").  Mind you, being academic institutions, the seminaries will have the class to use a greater variety of words--"transformation" is popular, I note--but "change" is a pretty constant theme.  I don't mean to be frivolous or to belittle the issue, but it can get a bit over-the-top (not to mention being of dubious recruitment value--"come be a pastor in a dying denomination!").
At the risk of seeming crazy (a forty-six-year-old man throwing away a perfectly pleasant academic career to plunge back into seminary, church politics, grad-student poverty...the "crazy" ship sailed a long time ago--note the title of the blog, folks!), I have to question the questioning, just a bit.
The academic in me seems to provoke a good deal of protest at the way this discussion seems to be going, or not going in some cases.  Voices from the past--high-school teachers, I think--are resurgent in my brain, demanding as they so often did then (and numerous teachers and professors have since) that I "define my terms!" before wandering off into too much more change-chanting.  So what terms do we need to define?
Well, let's start with the basics.  What constitutes a "healthy" church, or its presumed opposite, a "sick" church?  I may be a fool, but I'm not crazy--I know I don't have all the answers to these questions.  I do have some questions about the answers.
It has been my experience that some component of a healthy church is growth.  And yes, in most cases, that growth is at least partly intended to be numerical.  If a church is losing numbers, or even holding steady, it is presumed to be sick.
Far be it from me to question such definitions.  Still, there are bits of Christ's teaching from the Gospels that keep bothering me here.  Jesus was, it seems, not very good at holding on to followers sometimes.  I keep going back to John 6, in which he starts teaching some hard-to-follow, or hard-to-swallow truths with some fairly grisly metaphors attached.  Verses 53-55 (NRSV): "Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.  Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink."  One might suspect some listeners threw up in their mouths a little.  But Jesus keeps on with it, to the point that "many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him" (v. 66).  I'm fairly certain that one of the things I might learn in preaching classes at seminary is not to preach sermons that induce gagging or retching in the congregation.  To top that off, by the beginning of chapter seven, the Jews in Judea were already looking for an opportunity to kill Jesus, as John puts it.  Some sermon.  Half your congregation gets sick and the other half murderous.  And yet Jesus is undeterred.  Sometimes a preacher must tell unpleasant truths, yes?  Dare we flinch from it if Christ didn't?
Even Jesus seems to expect more people to turn away from The Way than to follow it, if you buy Matthew 7:13-14.  "There are few who find it," He says, in contrast to the many who take the easy road "that leads to destruction."  Now I'm not going to suggest that your local ten thousand-member megachurch is leading its members to Hell, but maybe we do have to be a little more thoughtful about how we use numbers to measure our health as a church or denomination.  Plenty of shrinking churches are going to be in the "sick" category, but not every small church is inherently unhealthy.  And shocking as it may be to contemplate, not every large church should automatically be considered spiritually healthy.  We might even have to consider the mind-twisting possibility that large churches might even be "sick" too.  (Yes, I know that's a foolish thought.  Blog title, people.)
Meantime, how about one more question that smarter people than I might care to answer?  Presuming we look at ourselves or our churches or our denominations and see ill health, it would seem logical to ask the question "how did we get this way?"  I don't necessarily hear this as much as would seem logical to me, but I'm sure there must be smart people out there thinking about this and trying to answer it.
I can't help but wonder, though, if point A and point B are going to turn out to be related.  The mainline denominations certainly had their day in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in terms of power and influence, it would seem.  Presbyterians in particular seem to be awfully fond of a time when the churches were packed, and all the important people belonged to them.  The denomination in its various predecessor forms certainly produced its share and more of judges, lawyers, professors, politicians, and a president or two.  Other denominations might well be able to say the same.
Is it possible, though, that this was not the high point it seems?  Is it possible that we had all this influence and squandered it on Sunday blue laws, cushy suburbs, and big buildings with tall pointy steeples?  Is it possible we made ourselves very comfortable in our positions of power and turned a blind eye to the rot festering just underneath?  Is it possible that, to twist a line from C.S. Lewis, we thought we had found our place in society when in fact society had found its place in us?  Is it possible that the sickness really kicked in long ago, and what we're now suffering is merely the advanced symptoms or maybe some kind of withdrawal pains from the drug of popularity and influence?
I don't know.  I'm just a fool.  But maybe smarter people than me can help figure this out.

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