Tuesday, April 02, 2013

A state of the church report

I recently completed the forms required to seek a new call in my denomination. I included this statement, giving my overview of the church after nearly 30 years of parish ministry. I haven't posted in awhile so I thought I would share this as a brief summary of my current thinking.

When I was ordained, American Lutheranism had endured a decade of membership loss. At the seminary and around the church, there was much talk about mission and outreach. As a parish pastor, my in-box received a steady stream of congregational renewal programs. Fast-forward to today and that decline has now lasted a generation.

The specifics of the crisis in the ELCA are well known and repeated to varying degrees in all American denominations. Congregational membership is getting older and smaller. Each year more churches close than new ones are started. Denominational income has been dropping steadily, resulting in repeated cycles of program cuts, reorganizations, and staff layoffs. 

All social institutions today are being rocked by unprecedented social upheaval. And like many of them, in response the church has often been its own worst enemy. For well over a century, theologians and biblical scholars have been attempting to cast a modern critical eye on church tradition. Where not rejected outright, their work has mostly languished in academic circles and little-read books. The church has not wanted to hear or face the fact that the ancient world of Christianity’s origins no longer exists and is not coming back. 

Formed in the ancient world, church language has become largely meaningless to modern ears; its doctrines, theology, and liturgy are an esoteric conversation incomprehensible to outsiders. Basic concepts like sin and salvation, heaven and hell, while still familiar words, have little or no modern content. Even such bedrock ideas as eternal life and God flounder in foggy vagueness within today’s science based worldview. There is no place for them in the modern universe: heaven has become homeless and God unemployed.

Ironically, it was Luther’s Reformation which launched the modern revolution. Luther had breathed in the Renaissance spirit. Its human-centric viewpoint made the church’s institutional corruption and its distortion of Christian teaching evident to all but it was Luther who sounded the alarm. His Bible study led him to rediscover Jesus’ belief in God’s love for all people and in the value of the individual. Yet Luther was a transition figure; his consciousness was still primarily medieval. He was unprepared for the social explosion that followed his words and vehemently repudiated it.

In the following centuries the world has moved from a theo-centric to a human-centric viewpoint in virtually every arena of life. During the Renaissance and Enlightenment, and then the scientific and industrial revolutions, God and religion became increasingly marginalized, their influence confined to ever shrinking domains. So for example, while the Bible and devotional tracts had been the primary popular reading material, suddenly in the late 18th century they were displaced by a new form of literature, the novel. People’s reading interest shifted from the lives of saints to lives of ordinary people: Abraham and Sarah gave way to Elizabeth and Darcy, Peter and Paul to Tom and Huck.The secular culture of the modern world came to be guided and inspired by stories and images from novels, theater, movies, radio, TV--and now video games. Today, people’s world views are not shaped by ancient myths and stories like those in the Bible, but by meta-stories of the sciences like natural history, astronomy, physics, and psychology.

Modernity has now penetrated every continent, creating at least the framework of a single global culture. High-speed transportation and communication really have shrunk the planet. Movies, TV shows, and music may have specific countries of origin, yet they can be found and enjoyed everywhere. Popular musicians regularly have global concert tours. All major corporations create products and services with international appeal. Cities and urban life especially have become much the same the world-over. Young people everywhere wear a uniform of t-shirts, jeans, and athletic shoes. They listen to the same music, watch the same TV shows and movies, use the same electronic devices, and engage each other via the same social media.

Given all this, the decline of religion can hardly be surprising. Around the world, urban young adults especially are increasingly absent from organized religion of any kind. In the US, recent surveys document the dramatic growth of “the nones,” people claiming no religious affiliation, especially among those under 40. A grim picture? Yes, for religion and Christianity as they are now. Yet the great religions, including Christianity, have all been able to adapt themselves to changing times and places. 

What then is the value of ancient religious traditions for people today? The greatest obstacle to answering that question is our difficulty in accepting that the world of the Bible and the medieval church is gone. As attached as we are to its romantic simplicity, the Bible’s pre-modern worldview simply must be given up. It is the primary obstacle preventing the church from playing a vital role in modern people’s lives.

For even in the modern world, religious and spiritual needs remain. Addressing those needs and the fundamental questions of life is central to what it means to be human. Modern biblical study has revealed a Jesus whose view of the intrinsic value of human life here and now, and of the centrality of compassion in human relationship, makes his voice still relevant and still radical. Making that voice heard again is the starting point for the church’s new life.

For that to happen, congregations must be open to a critical exploration of the Bible and of church history, engaging in a serious conversation about the meaning and relevance of Christian traditions for contemporary life. They must be willing to cast a wide net, welcoming and partnering with anyone willing to join in making the world a better place: promoting compassion, equality, and understanding among all people, and developing a deep appreciation for this life and this world as our greatest gifts, and their stewardship as our greatest responsibility.