Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Taking Post-Christendom Seriously

I spent my sabbatical visiting and seeing and listening to what other people do in their worship, especially people who are on the supposed front end of the new wave sweeping the church. Some of the places I visited were indeed forward thinkers. Others were simply providing the same old wine in new wineskins, a reverse on the saying of Jesus. The packaging may look really shiny and new, but the product is the same old thing.
During the past four months, I have worshiped in Georgia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Ohio, and Indiana. I spent a weekend with The Simple Way in Philadelphia, worshiped in Brian McLaren’s home church, ate Mexican food and worshiped with Stephanie Spellers and the folks at the Crossing in the Cathedral in Boston, and stayed a night with the Common Friars, a working farm/commune/new monastic community/household—no one quite knows what to call them—in Athens, Ohio
I’ve been welcomed by a Megachurch right here in Greensboro, listened to a Seventh Day Adventist pastor rail against Westboro Baptist Church’s notion that God could hate anybody, and seen Episcopalians who have figured out a way to use a projector and screen without destroying the sense of liturgical space or forcing everyone to spend the service looking up. I’ve also watched a pastor on a Jumbotron down a individual shot glass of wine during communion. (Note to a/v folk everywhere: This is time to switch the picture to the band even if they are not doing anything.)
On Pentecost, I visited the local Lutheran Church and saw the 9:00am contemporary service, which, like most 9:00am contemporary services is just shorter with guitars and good for accommodating families with small children, not reaching anyone outside of the church. In Pittsburgh, I visited a Methodist/ Presbyterian hybrid known as Hot Metal Bridge, where the ratio of tattoo to worshiper was about the highest I have ever seen, and the band played a combination of bluegrass and punk. I actually liked them a lot.
Oh, and if that was not enough, I was a deputy at the Episcopal Church’s General Convention too, where I watched my bishop take over the place with one 18 minute sermon—look for Michael Curry and General Convention on YouTube if you want to see it; it’s worth listening to his call to go out and be some crazy Christians, And, in the midst of all this, I was attending committee meetings of the Nominating Committee for our new Suffragan Bishop (That’s like an assistant bishop for you non-Episcopalians), reading applications, watching videos of sermons, and interviewing candidates via Skype. This person will be among other things, my de facto boss, so I have a definite investment in s/he being tuned to students and young adults.
I have come to realize that having coffee available before the service does not mean that you are solving the problem of how to welcome newcomers; it just means you have given us something to do with our hands. Placing a greeting time at the beginning of worship does not help either, especially if everyone greets their friends and ignores the visitors; that happened to me more than once. Surprisingly, it was the mainline denominations that responded best to visitors.
I have also learned that a forty five minute message does not beat a twelve minute sermon, especially for those of us who are not audio learners. Most of those long messages were a lot of filler with little actually being preached, and anyway, this overloads the emphasis on the individual preacher as the focus of worship, once again taking away from the sacramental.
Which leads to another learning I had. Evangelicals moving into emerging settings have not yet discovered liturgical forms to make the Eucharist seem as significant as the Word. "Okay, now it's time for communion." does not convey sacred mystery; it reduces sacrament to ordinary. Rewrite The Book of Common Prayer (I mean the Episcopal one, not the very good but misappropriated Title from Shane Claiborne and friends), but find some language that retains a greater sense of the holy, please.
Some of the details about my journey are in previous blog postings, though I have few more that I did not get around to writing up, especially the last trips before General Convention.
The toughest question I have been asked so far has been, “So what have you learned?” It has been hard to put into words, and I suspect it will be my next set of blogs that will flesh that out. But some things are coming clear to me, and one thing kept coming to me with each visit I made.
This is a message that cannot be repeated enough to the Church: it’s a different world out there! The end of Christendom is not happening now; it already occurred while we were sitting in our stained glass rooms paying no attention to what people were saying and thinking. While we have been functioning as if nothing has happened, all the while wondering why we are losing numbers, the world became a new place.
I was not just looking at liturgical practices and the types of messages being preach. I was also spending time with people in these congregations (when they would talk to me at least) and communities. I was finding out who attends the worships and why. What draws them to that space? What if anything, makes them different from us?
Now, at this point, it would be tempting to say that my own community is a wonderful example of responding to the rejection of church as usual, what with all the things we have done to welcome all sorts and conditions of people. Certainly, we have been on the forefront of the issues that are important to younger people, that we are the kind of place that should be attractive to anyone who wishes to think and question and explore. We pride ourselves on not being your typical worshiping community.
Well, I am sad to say that we are more a part of the past than we like to think. We are the past because we still live as though the Church matters to people. And for all intents and purposes, that is no longer true, or, put a better, way, the Church can no longer assume that anyone thinks it matters.
Take, for example, the recent flap around Chik-Fil-A. At first, I thought that we should all be embarrassed that this is the primary reason most people even thought about the church that week. Then I realized that that is exactly the problem. Millions of people, maybe a majority of Americans, saw that incident as being indicative of the value of the Church in their lives and in the world. Conservative Christians think they won a great victory by flooding chicken shops; in reality, they showed the rest of the country just how irrelevant we are. And the rest of the Church got swept up in the tide.
Of course, the liberal Christian response to such events is to show how they are not the conservatives to prove there is another way of looking at the issue du jour. In so doing, they tie their response forever to the conservatives. In fact they give legitimacy to this silliness by being so caught up in it. In the meantime, millions of people are looking at all of us and saying, “Why should I be a part of that group?” and we’re not giving them a very good answer, are we?
In chapter four of Ephesians, the author says “We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming.” Remember, he’s talking to the Christians with this statement, not to the victims—I mean audience—who happen to hear what we have to say. In bending once more to the winds, we have given people one more reason to ignore us and no reason to care what we have to say.
That’s because we have forgotten that most people are not attracted to causes unless they are personally affected. The rest of us are attracted to a sense of place, living with a deep desire to belong, to have a community of acceptance, not only for ourselves, but for our friends and family who may not always think, act, and believe as we do.
In her newest book, Christianity after Religion, Dianna Butler Bass describes the process of joining churches during Christendom as the three Bs, belief, behavior, and belonging. One accepted a core set of doctrine, then took on the practices of the community and thus gained a sense of belonging.
In the post-Christendom age, she argues, the order is reversed. People now seek belonging first, a belonging that includes being accepted for whatever beliefs they bring with them. The welcoming church will be the one that makes room for the seeker first and foremost. That acceptance will be followed by the seeker learning how this community lives out its life through their behavior, and finally through those behaviors will discover and begin to adopt the community’s beliefs.
I believe she is right, and that is a profound shift in thinking which demands an equally profound shift in the behavior of most worshiping communities. The days when a community could, for example, say that gays are welcome and assume that statement would attract a certain group of people are gone. Those churches are all over the country now (I personally met two openly gay pastors in nice, small, Midwest country congregations), but so are plenty of other nonreligious communities that do not have the baggage on those issues that we do.
All of this could sound depressing, but I see it very much as hopeful. It is hopeful because we have something to offer a world where people have 1500 Facebook friends and no one to be with on a Friday night. We have something to offer people who think in 140 characters or less, people whose most cherished symbol and strongest theology can be found inked on their biceps.
And what is it that we have? We have Jesus. We have the one who came to say we can have a life of abundance. We have a model of the Kingdom of God lived to the fullest. We have the promise of a different way of life, a community of caring, a place of new beginning and radical friendships, and most importantly, a place of hope in a world that is short on hope. We have Jesus.
We have the Jesus who is bread, not just for our meal today, but the bread of life. We have Jesus, who comes together with us each week in our celebration of bread and wine, the living out of the new Kingdom in sign and in coming together in shared lives. We have God’s table, where space is made for everyone, rich, poor, Black White, Yellow, Brown and Red, gay and straight, conservative and liberal, a table where the only label that has real meaning is beloved child of God and it is applied to all equally because there are no half loved children here.
That’s about all I have at this point. No great plan for the renewal of the church, just some thoughts about the disconnect between the world we live in and what we are doing in the church. In the upcoming months, I will be asking two questions: “Why are we doing the things we are doing?” and “What are we missing?”
Ministry today has become about shedding the baggage we have dragged along for too long and walking the road of the one who says “Behold, I make all things new.” But Christians should stick around to see what happens next. There’s a great big world out there that wants to know the living Christ through us. There are some dos and don’ts I have picked up along the way, but we really have to pave the road to where we are going as we travel. Fortunately, we have Christ’s footsteps to follow. Let’s get out there and see this new world together.