Monday, July 16, 2012
Why do people still go to church? After all, Sunday mornings are a lot easier if you just get out the waffle iron to feed the kids, peruse the thick Sunday paper (if your neighbors don't steal if before you get up), and think languidly about an afternoon in the park.
A lot of people think this way, apparently, according to Ross Douthat's piece in Sunday's New York Times. He writes that, especially in liberal denominations, attendance is plummeting -- 23 percent in the Episcopal Church over the last 10 years, for example. However, the conservative wing of the faith is not doing so well either.
On the conservative side of the church, we have the Southern Baptists, who have taken the bizarre step of adding a homemaking curriculum to their seminaries, so that women will learn how to cook and sew for their husbands. Too many churches have substituted praise bands for choirs and replaced pulpits with tall stools, to make things more homey (not necessarily a bad thing), but they have also substituted messages about personal growth and prosperity for teaching about the parts of the New Testament that are a little hairier than the Easter and Christmas messages. (The Old Testament? We don't need that.)
On the liberal side of the church, over the past 50 years, the Episcopalians and their adherents have welcomed just about every type of theology and every trend that modern culture has brought along with it.
As a result, the distinctive message of Christianity is slowly vanishing. All you really need to understand the truth that is coming out of many churches -- emergent or not -- is a Nativity scene and a cross. The problem, of course, is that when these items become reduced to symbols, they are peers with every other symbol out there. Instead of piers that give us stability, they become trinkets.
Liberal theologian Gary Dorrien summarizes the crisis this way: "liberal theology has broken beyond its academic base only when it speaks with spiritual conviction about God's holy and gracious presence, the way of Christ, and the transformative mission of Christianity. In the past a spiritually vital evangelical liberalism sustained religious communities that supported the entire liberal movement. What would the social gospel movement have been without its gospel-centered preaching and theology? What would the Civil Rights movement have been without its gospel-centered belief in the sacredness of personality and the divine good? When the social gospelers spoke of the authority of Christian experience, they took for granted their own deep grounding in Bible study, family devotions, personal prayer, and worship."
But back to my earlier question. Why should we go to church? I can meet my friends in other places, at more convenient times. I can do volunteer work whenever I want. There has to be a pressing reason for me to roust the family, throw them into the car, and head to that building with a steeple on it.
We can make the Church emergent if we want. We can turn it into a network of coffee houses, or a giant megabuilding with huge parking lots, or a series of homes. But the venue won't matter if what happens inside isn't about the truth.
It can be relevant to our lives. It can make us feel better. It might even challenge us for 15 minutes, until the pastor gives us the answer. It might even warm our hearts.
Guess what? We can find all of that on television. We don't need the Church to do that.
Instead, we need the Church to teach us the way of Christ. We need the Church to show us the gospel. As we grow in the faith, we need to start teaching others these things.
This doesn't involve judgment, or dusty questions of arcane doctrine. Jesus didn't have much to say about postmillennial or premillenial tribulationism, or soteriology, as you might have noticed. He called people to live according to the truth -- and when people were around Him, they didn't have a hard time figuring out what that meant.
It does involve a set of distinctive ways of living, and of believing. When we lose that distinctiveness, we are no longer the Church. When we try to be like everyone else, we end up being like the Southern Baptists, who managed to hold decades of worship services without ever confronting the wrongs of slavery or Jim Crow. We end up being like the giant megachurches, who fill their seats regularly for the weekly motivational speech, without transforming many lives. We end up being like the Episcopalians, who have lost none of the pageantry of worship, but who seem to have lost all of the rationale.
If we want the Church to do these things for us, though, we have to be willing to do them for the Church, and in the Church. Because, in the final analysis, the Church isn't another movie theater or cable channel. It is what we make it, in our clumsy attempts to worship God.
And that is why we go.