Saturday, February 19, 2011

A script in need of a re-write (Sunday Reflections for January 30, 2011)

(What follows is my 2011 report for my congregation. This year it was a summary of my view of the state of Christianity and of the church in general.)

I’ve just finished one of the most satisfying and important books I’ve read in a long time. It’s by one of my favorite authors, the English theologian and philosopher Don Cupitt, and is titled A New Grand Story. I like Cupitt because he is incredibly insightful and honest. An Anglican priest now in his 70s, Cupitt long ago paid the career price for his honesty, being shuffled off to Cambridge University. Nonetheless his career has been distinguished, valuable and, most importantly, satisfying to him, even if not in limelight. I doubt you have ever heard of him.

What’s a new “grand story?” Over the centuries, religion’s primary purpose has been to help people understand themselves and the world they live in. Religions do this by telling stories—“grand stories”—about human origins, purpose, and destiny. These stories answer questions like: Who are we? Where did we come from? What should we do or not do? How do we live with each other and with those different from us? How will it all end? The biblical story, used and adapted by Jews, Christians and Muslims, is one of creation, suffering due to sin, and redemption.

As Don Cupitt has been saying and writing for many years, it is just this biblical grand story which no longer is meaningful, or even makes sense, to the majority of modern people— many of whom are still active in the religions which tell it. Hence this book, which is an attempt to shape a new story of human meaning and purpose for the 21st century and beyond. In it he attempts to show the relevance for what he believes was at the heart of Jesus’ message—a message obscured and even intentionally lost by the church which followed in is name. It is a call to live our lives freely, fully, creatively, and without holding back. I believe he makes a persuasive case.

In the mean time the ancient church stumbles on, as Cupitt well knows and understands. Christianity (like other religions) has hung on even after people stopped believing its story because it serves other purposes, as well. It provides us with an identity; the community of a congregation can be like a second family for us; and moved by the gospel message, the church is a means for us to serve people in need. In addition worship, liturgy, prayers, hymns, scripture, art and church architecture all provide us a vehicle for emotional expression and a spiritual connection with a reality greater than ourselves.

Without a believable, central “grand story,” however, the way the church meets these needs seems increasingly antique and artificial. To outsiders worship feels like a step back in time, like those “living history” re-enactments you see in parks. In Europe and elsewhere, it’s not uncommon for churches to exist wholly or in part as museums for the tourists. So the church rolls on but like a tire with a slow leak. How much further can it go?

Unfortunately, few church leaders want to acknowledge let alone talk about this reality. They can’t even begin to imagine what’s to be done. Those that are bureaucrats often can only focus on immediate issues of budget and personnel. Increasingly I hear the criticism that they really just want to hang on long enough to get to retirement. But honestly, I can’t judge them for that concern because, at my point in life, I understand the feeling all too well.

And frankly, it’s nearly impossible (as Cupitt has discovered) for those living in the church to honestly grasp what is occurring. Bluntly, Christianity as we have known it is slowly but surely coming to an end. And this is the case for all the world’s great ancient religions. Yes, people still claim traditional religious identities. And a significant, though much smaller number, are active members of congregations. Yet worshiping communities everywhere are getting smaller and older, year-by-year. Religion provides little if any creative fuel for contemporary culture’s fire.

Where the ancient religions do still possess energy, it is increasingly directed into conservative, and often violent, political movements. This is true of fundamentalist Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and sometimes even Buddhism. While appealing to some, this politically militant and extremist religion is increasingly alienating to most residents of modern countries and cities. This is especially the case for young adults, where recent surveys show that those in their 20s and 30s now more often view traditional religion as a source of division and conflict in the world, rather than a force for peace or spiritual growth.

I have written and spoken many times about the impact of these developments on our own congregation and our denomination, the ELCA. The past two years especially have been difficult and—literally—dark times for our denominational leaders. Past and present staff members have told me of large portions of the ELCA Higgins Road office tower virtually shut down due to staff layoffs and reductions. The lights have been turned off on thousands of square feet of cubicles and meeting rooms.

Locally, multiple synod congregations now close every year, especially in Chicago and the older suburbs. Most others are shrinking, with a growing number served by part-time or only pulpit supply pastors. As a synod staff member reported awhile back, the few congregations that are growing do so mostly by gaining the former members of other ELCA churches.

Inevitably for us in the church, these developments seem grim and depressing. As with all change, important things are being lost. Yet I am convinced that these movements in our society and world will ultimately prove to be for the better. Cupitt’s story is one of the human species on the move. While not always in a positive direction, humanity’s track over-all is towards freedom, understanding, and responsibility—in short, towards maturity.

For all its benefits, traditional religion has tended to keep people dependent and is suspicious of human freedom. For these and other reasons many people now view religion as holding them back, or at least largely irrelevant to their lives. Yet living as a free, independent and responsible human being remains an enormous challenge. It’s hard work, and we all need guidance and support in that journey.

People are looking for that help but often with very unsatisfactory results. A genuine need is there, and ultimately I believe the church will evolve into a community that is dedicated simply to helping people in this challenge we call life. We’re not there yet, however. We carry too much baggage. We can’t let go of our past, of our memories of what the church once was. As Lot’s wife learned and as Jesus admonished those holding the plow, if you’re looking back you can’t be moving forward.

My own understanding of all this continues to evolve. I understand well the appeal of just continuing to do and say all the same things as before. It feels so much safer, yet I’m convinced that way leads only to stagnation and death. The hope and promise of life is always the challenge and risk of going forward, even if into the unknown, into a fog where sometimes you can barely see a foot in front of you.

So in the coming year I will continue to try to strike the balance of offering the traditional services our church provides, yet at the same time exploring what new direction the Spirit is leading us. I thank all of you for your continued support of our work in a very challenging time. We are a community of good and deeply caring people. You are our church’s most important asset and your love and life are the most important gifts you have to offer. I hope you will join me in continuing to give all you can with joy, and without looking back.


Tom said...

Up front, I am unfamiliar with Cupitt's work which I hope soon to correct, but I am familiar with many of the current issues regarding "fundamental" religion and in particular the ELCA who's challenges I can not connect to the former.

The ELCA is an organization who's secular activities have simply overtaken its evangelical ones.

In a quick review of the ELCA website, I queried for the number of instances in which specific terms were used such as: Grace, Mission, Justice, Faith, Belief, Tithe, Scripture, Witness, Grace and many others. I did this as a means of seeking to understand what things were truly the most important to the ELCA, based on the belief that people write about what concerns them the most.

At the end of my survey, the top three were Justice, Advocacy and Grace. This stunned me.

The top three most used terms on the ELCA website did not include Salvation, or Repentance, or Redemption or even Acceptance which can be applied in many ways. No it was Justice, Advocacy and Grace; this is what the ELCA is about.

Put another way, the ELCA is about using Grace to Justify Advocacy; it's a social services organization like the United Way or March of Dimes.

This is the challenge with the ELCA that separates it from the other faith challenges facing other denominations. It isn't a stoic, "tradition first, faith later", though that is part of the problem, it's that the ELCA is operationally irrelevant to the local congregation; it's a union shop who's principle business is no longer needed; a union of employees, still holding union meetings regarding a business that is simply leaving them.

This is man made, ideology driven, fully secular with shameful arrogance eclipsed only by its growing irrelevance because it has chose a course contrary to faithfulness.


David said...

I'm happy to see you back Doug.

Doug said...

Thanks for reading and responding Tom. I am afraid, though, we are coming at this from very different perspectives. The ELCA's problems are paralleled in all the mainline denominations, as well as their related churches in Europe and elsewhere. (What I have found interesting, however, is that the Missouri Synod--the ELCA's much more conservative and evangelical cousins--has been declining just as rapidly.)

You make a common mistake of equating the ELCA with its churchwide bureaucracy and administration. The ELCA is primarily its congregations and that's where its decline has been most pronounced. The problems on Higgins Rd are much more a consequence of that than a cause.

Where I fault denominational leadership is in their being unwilling to acknowledge how dramatically culture and Christianity generally are being transformed. They still put their hopes in creating some kind of "evangelical lite" alternative to conservative Christianity but that's a chimera, a fantasy.

That you didn't find much mention of "salvation" or "repentence" on the ELCA website I actually take as a good sign. More seriously, I doubt you could find there any coherent or consistent message of what the ELCA is about. The church at all levels is adrift with no indication anyone has a new course to propose.

Doug said...

Thanks David!

Tom said...

Doug - Perhaps I expected more out of the ELCA. As a business person starting a new business for the second time, I would love to have 1/1000th the intellectual and financial resources the ELCA has at it's disposal, and seems to be squandering. By God's grace the Lutheran Church spoke to my heart because they didn't ignore my head. Lutheran pastors are educated, well prepared and highly respected, rightly so, but autistic when it comes to current culture.

The ex ELCA (now LCMC) church to which I belong, just recently finishing my final year as Council President, is worshiping nearly 800 a weekend, in four services, three of which are highly contemporary, 100% Lutheran in theology, we find that people find a new experience in Grace they have not had before. Sure, many may not know our traditional liturgy, but they experience God, the Sacraments and lots of love.

In my business career I've often come across companies (worked in one) who's attitude is: "if the customer doesn't like our product, it's the customers' fault", and every one is now either out of business or have been acquired and restructured.

I wonder which path will apply to the ELCA.

God bless you, Pastor, your work is so vital and I'm betting you don't hear that enough.

Doug said...

Thank you, Tom, and I wish you and your congregation all the best in your journey.

Michael_SC said...

Glad you're posting again Doug, this is the kind of post that makes me keep coming back.

Lately I'm impressed by the fact that all the categories, terminology, and concepts that the church has, derive from a pre-modern time. In other areas we've progressed to the germ theory of disease, and the non-flat world, to take two examples, but the assumption is that the old religous categories are above review or reinterpretation. I think people outside the church realize or sense the problem and are staying away in droves; inside the church we pretend it's still 1600 or 80 AD during the 11am-noon hour. When a few people dare to reinterpret, some call it secularization, but I think it is intellectual honesty. I am interested in what Christianity really means in 2011 and I value your continued writings on this.