Friday, May 29, 2009

Finding wind for the church's sails (Sunday Reflections for May 31, 2009)

Earlier this month I wrote to Metropolitan Chicago Synod Bishop Wayne Miller to express my doubts and even dismay about a new church renewal program he had announced, called the Turnaround Synod Initiative (TSI). I published that letter two weeks ago as my Reflections column for May 17. Since then Bishop Miller and I have had a brief email exchange and, as promised, I’ll share the gist of it with you here.

Bishop Miller did not dispute my assessment of the church’s predicament, saying he is “much more realistic about the plight of the church” than I might think. Nonetheless, he remains convinced that “the truth of the cross is a matter of life and death for the cosmos”. Therefore, the church must be revitalized but not in a way that simply keeps old institutions alive. “This is not about institution building for me. I am not the least bit interested in clinging to dead forms…. What I am suggesting is that resignation, apathy and passivity in the face of the challenge will absolutely guarantee death.”

In his second email he added, “I find that in the climate of this synod there is so much discouragement that it takes enormous personal energy to try to find some way to put some wind back in the sails.” Most of that energy will have to come from below (“up from the earth”), of course, but he believes he has “a modest role to play in calling that energy up and then giving it a bit of shape and significance.”

Whenever you are the head of an institution in crisis, it’s inevitable that many people will expect you to be the “answer man” and I know that is occurring in our synod and across the church. As I said in my letter, the urge “to do something” is understandable. But the questions remain, “Do what? And to what end?”

As I read and listen to what others are saying, more and more agree that there is no going back. The church of the future will not and cannot look like the church of even the recent past. And so Bishop Miller says he is not interested in “clinging to dead forms”. Yet, while more and more are agreeing it can’t be done, it is hard to see how TSI and other recent proposals are really trying to do anything other than prop up our existing churches and ways of doing things. I am afraid that even as we say our intention is not to preserve “dead forms”, when those forms are all we have known it’s hard to imagine what the alternative might be.

I have said before that the church’s dilemma is very similar to that of the automobile and newspaper industries. Young people, especially, don’t buy American cars, don’t read newspapers, and don’t go to church. Those aren’t coincidences but are part of a much broader phenomenon which is affecting our society, and indeed the whole planet. And that is probably the single most significant change, which is that we are in the beginning stages of the creation of a genuinely global culture.

Dramatic improvements in education, communication and material prosperity around the world are suddenly thrusting us all together with dizzying speed. The forces of this transformation are pulling apart the bonds of traditional religion from multiple directions—and that is true not just here in the US, nor is it true only for Christianity. People’s lives are changing the world over, and one of those changes is that increasingly they find that they don’t need organized religion, at least as it has traditionally existed.

Like Bishop Miller’s passionate belief that “the truth of the cross is a matter of life and death”, I often hear it said that there is something the church has that is essential to people’s and the world’s wellbeing. This is why the church and its mission “must go on”. Yet in reality, not only do people outside the church not believe this, fewer and fewer people inside the church really think this way. Much more common is the attitude that religious involvement is a matter of personal preference. Just because it’s good for me, I don’t assume it will be equally good for you, let alone essential. Even fundamentalist churches have pulled way back on their “believe in Jesus or you’re going to hell” rhetoric, though that may still be part of their official doctrine.

Bishop Miller accurately points to the difficulty of energizing the church—putting “wind in its sails”. But the reason we aren’t raising the sails is because we don’t know where we want to go. If we aren’t saving souls from hell, and we aren’t trying to preserve religious institutions (those “dead forms”), then what are we supposed to be doing? This is another one of those elephants in the room, the awkward reality everyone knows is there but no one wants to talk about. The church’s lack of energy is really a loss of purpose and most of our movement now is momentum leftover from our past which is rapidly running out.

My suspicion about TSI and similar efforts (like the Book of Faith Initiative) is that their real purpose is to help us avoid talking about these awkward subjects. TSI proposes to re-energize the church to carry out its mission when the real problem is that the church doesn’t know anymore what its mission is supposed to be. For similar reasons engineers at Chrysler and GM debate what the next season’s hot colors will be when the problem is that too many people don’t want their cars whatever colors they come in.

We don’t discuss the church’s purpose because we are afraid that there isn’t one anymore. That’s our bogeyman—if we don’t think about it maybe it will go away. We all know how well that works. I say, what have we got to lose? I had been hoping that perhaps the church was near enough to desperation to finally start asking the tough questions. When I read about TSI I (admittedly) went into orbit because it was yet one more round of “let’s pretend”. Let’s pretend we really know what we’re trying to do and that the problem is that we just need to do it better.

People everywhere continue to have spiritual needs. People continue to search for meaning for their lives and struggle to accept and deal with life’s inevitable limitations: time, randomness and death. And in various ways, people continue to want to come together to meet those spiritual needs with others as a community. But the more a person is connected to our expanding globalized, post-modern culture, the less likely are they to find traditional Christianity or any of the other ancient world religions a satisfactory place to pursue that spiritual quest.

The church won’t disappear but the radical transformation it must undergo won’t come from its official leadership or from programs like TSI. Rather, to use Bishop Miller’s phrase, it must come “from the earth”. And it will.


D.C. Cramer said...

Great to have you as part of CC Blogs. Look forward to reading your work. Welcome!

Anonymous said...

Hey just wanted to welcome you to the CC Blogs fellowship. I look forward to join in the conversation here.

Doug said...

Thanks for the welcome!