Friday, February 19, 2010

Holy crap

The chorus is growing of those calling for major rethinking and restructuring of the American church. I’m not aware yet of people within denominational structures issuing such calls but they surely must be hearing and reading them. Those calls must be hard to hear, though, since the conclusion of many is that such denominational structures need to experience some of the most radical transformation and downsizing.

One recent essay comes from Walter Russell Mead, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is also the son of Loren Mead, an Episcopal priest and founder of the Alban Institute. For many years Alban has provided critical reflection on the deteriorating state of mainline Christianity in the US.

In “The Holy Crap Must Go” Walter Mead argues for a drastic downsizing of congregational and denominational facilities, structures and staffs. He parallels this with Luther and the reformers’ campaign against (among other things) the ridiculous accumulation of holy relics around the church and the absurd understanding of Christianity they facilitated.

Mead makes the now obvious case that churches simply cannot afford the parish buildings, professional clergy, seminaries and regional and national church bureaucracies that mainline Christianity (and others) have built up over the past century and more. The world has changed but churches have not kept up:

[T]hey are in trouble because they are trying to address the problems of the twenty first century with a business model and a set of tools that date from the middle of the twentieth. The mainline churches in particular are organized like General Motors was organized in the 1950s: they have cost structures and operating procedures that simply don’t work today.

This is an important observation and Mead is right that many/most institutions in society are struggling with these changes. In his brief description of a downsized church, however, he seems to be making a virtue of necessity. It just isn’t clear that after clearing away all the “crap” there will be much left to the church that will be of real interest to many people. Laity-led house churches will appeal to some (as they do now) but somehow it seems this is just acknowledging a trajectory already well established. “Church” will just be one of countless options people have providing opportunities for socializing, spirituality, service to others, and personal support. How well will church compete with the heath club, yoga class, 12-step meeting, or book group? How well does it now? It’s not hard to imagine future historians seeing this as the time that “the church” came to an end, even if Christianity somehow continues perhaps as a life-stance not unlike Buddhism.

Mark Christianson responds to Mead at his blog, Theological Oddments, that the church is having an “identity crisis, not [a] structural crisis.” I think he is right in putting the emphasis on identity but I am not sure the two are ultimately that different. I don’t think he or Mead realize how much of mainline Christianity’s identity is tied up in its structure, or to what degree that structure was created to support that identity. This is more obvious with Roman Catholicism but Protestantism is not nearly as different as it might present itself to be.

Christianson is commendably honest in admitting he doesn’t have an answer to the church identity question. In that admission, however, he points to why church leaders have been so reluctant to take it up: they don’t have an answer either. The result, as both Christianson and Mead realize, is a church that spins out endless programs, projects, experts and layers of administration, all to ensure that “things happen.” (When I questioned my bishop recently about a new synod congregational renewal program which has little if any prospect for success, he responded, “Well, we have to do something, don’t we?”) There is no basis for evaluating them or for promoting some while getting rid of others. Chaos results when the money runs out, as is the case now.

The reality is that over a century of critical biblical scholarship and theological reflection have chiseled away virtually all of the church’s pre-modern identity, and no modern or post-modern reconstruction has emerged as a convincing replacement. On top of this, dramatic cultural changes have eliminated or provided alternatives for most of the social needs met by religious communities, regardless of theology. The unspoken fear of church leaders is that if we get rid of the “holy crap,” there may not be anything left.

The bottom line is that Americans by the tens of millions have voted with their feet. Church is now something a majority of people simply don’t need or want, at least on any frequent basis. And the church cannot make the case, with real honesty or enthusiasm, why they should.


Jan Erickson said...

At some point I'll start sounding like Janey one note but among the other things required of the church in this period of transiiton is a sincere spirit of humility and repentance. And to back up words with real behavioral changes.

Thanks for pointing us (me) to this good analysis, Doug. You're definitely onto something and I'm glad you keep bringing it up!

Doug said...

Unfortunately I think the prevailing spirit is more one of confusion bordering on panic. If you have been doing things one way your whole life, it's hard to even imagine any alternative.

Kelly Fryer said...

You're exactly right, Doug, to make the connection between identity and structure. That's why every church growth program, like the one in your area, will end up feeling (and appearing to our neighbors) like nothing more than a desperate attempt to prop up the institution, fund the pension plan, and protect the roster. I'm so over it.

It's time for a whole new way of doing church - and life! – together. These days the only thing I'm interested in is helping people be who they are and see what they have for the sake of doing what matters to God. I not only won't promise to grow your church; I'll tell you I don't think that's the point. This has made the heads of some denominational leaders spin.


Doug said...

Yes, Kelly, I can imagine that's scoring you lots of points on Higgins Rd and elsewhere--keep up the good work!