Tuesday, June 09, 2009

A meeting of magical thinking (Sunday Reflections for June 14, 2009)

I attended one day of the synod’s day-and-a-half long annual assembly meeting. The synod assembly has been shortened in recent years to save money and because of the difficulty in getting people to attend. Being so brief it’s hard to really accomplish much. It would be tempting to blame these bare-bones meetings as a cause of the fraying of church life but it is almost certainly more of a symptom.

On this occasion, the main event I was interested in was the report of our bishop. I especially wanted to hear what he would say about his proposal to reverse the decline of synod congregations, called the "Turnaround Synod Initiative" or TSI. (You can find my earlier thoughts about this in the Reflections columns for May 17 and May 31.)

Predictably, the language was traditional and tired. For reasons that completely escaped me, the bishop tried to invoke a kind of “old time religion” mentality. He consciously used the evangelical term “testimony” to declare that we should be telling our neighbors about our experiences with God and the church. Then he shifted to more recent language in talking about “sharing our story”. But recent doesn’t mean new. Nearly thirty years ago, the LCA (a predecessor church to the ELCA) produced a combined Bible study and evangelism program called Word and Witness which emphasized this. I can still picture its Venn diagram of “your story, my story, and God’s story”. In seminary we often joked about “sharing our story” and the intervening decades haven’t improved its value.

All of which is to say that the bishop was simply re-plowing old ground. His language often betrayed awareness that there really wasn’t anything new here. One of his more unfortunate tacks was to try to revive a church-world, us-them dichotomy. “The world is thirsty. We must believe we have something the world needs.” And so on. All we needed was a tent and some saw dust. In fact, to top it off, we closed by singing that 19th century evangelical warhorse, “I love to tell the story”. It is fun in a nostalgic way but it left no doubt that the hope really being proposed here was to turn back the clock.

As I listened to this revival of “tell what God’s done for you” style of evangelism (which Lutherans have never been good at), I wondered just how real it ever was. Do we know it even works? In other words, are people really drawn into the church by hearing about other peoples’ religious experiences? In the New Testament, especially in Paul’s letters and in Acts, the emphasis is on telling the Jesus story, i.e. the gospel. From what I can tell, it’s really not until the rise of post-Reformation pietism and evangelicalism that this “testimonial” style of evangelism takes hold. It parallels, of course, the modern era’s rise of individualism. But I wonder if it doesn’t also parallel the fading of the power of the Jesus story, the traditional message about incarnation and redemption. “I don’t really care what happened to somebody named Jesus umpteen centuries ago. I want something to happen to me.”

I also paid a brief visit to a “workshop” about TSI. I didn’t stay long because the presenter was basically repeating what was in the printed brochure everyone had received earlier. As I listened I was reminded again of the contradictions throughout this plan. On the one hand we are told that this is not a top-down program because only people in the congregations can really know what’s needed. Then we are told that a variety of outside consultants, coaches, experts and resources will be made available. It’s hard to see how both of these can be true—and actually neither is.

The first assertion is mostly politics. Congregations (presumably) don’t want to be told what to do by church authorities above them. The second promise is just wishful thinking. “Surely there is someone out there who knows what to do!” Yet there is no evidence that is the case. Obviously, if congregations themselves knew what they needed to do to “turn around” they would be doing it. As for the outside experts and resources: who/what are they and where are they coming from? The church’s decline in the US is happening in congregations of all types and across the denominational spectrum.

Despite all the seminars and how-to books available there is nothing to indicate anyone has figured out how to keep the existing church model going. Here in the ELCA, there are not more than a handful of congregations that are growing and which are not also in growing communities (usually with lots of young families). When hearing about learning from coaches and consultants who all come from within the church establishment, it’s hard not to think of Jesus’ warning about “the blind leading the blind”.

A question and a phrase keep coming to mind as I think about all this. The question is: Why is this so hard? It’s a rhetorical question really because it obviously shouldn’t be this hard. Religious fervor spreads like an infection. Everybody catches it. That’s how it starts and grows. Then when things settle down a religion is maintained by being built into the culture. It’s what everybody does. Now, neither of those is the case. Christianity has lost its fervor and lost the support of the surrounding culture. Which of these is coming back?

The phrase I keep remembering is from the title of Joan Didion’s recent book, The Year of Magical Thinking. In it she tells of her grief-induced craziness as she tried to cope with the sudden death of her husband of forty years. “Magical thinking” describes what I keep hearing from church leaders responding to the current crisis. And grief may well be what’s behind all these fruitless rescue efforts. The church’s heyday in the US was barely a generation ago, in the 1950s and 60s. It’s what I grew up with and I am stunned at how quickly the church has declined since then. We in the church are grieving the loss of that earlier time: the filled pews, overflowing Sunday schools, constant stream of baptisms, confirmations and weddings. Now suddenly that’s gone and as with the death of a loved one, we are all prone to “magical thinking”. Surely he/she/it is coming back? Well, no, but everyone’s too polite or embarrassed to say so.

The experts have taught us about the stages of grief. It follows a natural progression which shouldn’t be rushed. Yet it’s also true that people sometimes get stuck in their grief, preventing them from returning to a normal and productive life. I am not sure whether the church is still in “normal” grief or if we’ve gotten stuck somewhere. Institutions aren’t people and I assume different rules would apply. All I know is that American mainline churches, at least, have been in decline for forty years. If we’re not stuck then we must be pretty close. In any case, it certainly seems time to put away the magic and start dealing with reality.

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