18 February 2017
No politics this week end. Just church-talk. Institutional religion in America (except for far-right evangelicals) is having a rough time. Membership numbers are still going down. Young people are turned off and have greatly dropped out, or never bothered joining up. Bishops are silent when they should be protesting. Angry old cardinals are undermining the pope. It is easy for people my age to find things to post and complain about on Facebook. I am not running away from reality. I have not lost my critical edge. I suggest however we can more effectively spend our time changing the conversation.
Conversation changes come from attitudinal changes and changed perspectives. This week end, I suggest we talk less about the institutional church and focus more on Christian community.
Let’s support genuine Christian communities where they exist, and strive to revive them in places where they are languishing or have died.
We can observe. We can talk. Now is the time to act.
Bigger is not always better. In my tradition parishes are disappearing and churches are being closed. Consolidation is becoming the Roman Catholic word. Smaller parishes are being closed, church buildings sold, and people are encouraged to join the remaining, consolidated big parishes. For older people, consolidation is bad news because they cannot always get to the bigger parish across town. For everyone it can be a real downer. Where people once had a sense of community with face-to-face parish friendships, feeling part of a neighborhood community with supportive relationships, they now find themselves more like observers in a larger but anonymous congregation.
If we change our perspective, we realize that the vitality of the church has always been based on the church as a genuine, warm-blooded community of believers in which people know one another, listen and talk to one another, and support one another. When we read the New Testament, and see the word that has often been incorrectly translated as “church,” we should more correctly see the word “community.”
Paul wrote, for example, to the COMMUNITY in Ephesus. His words have a special meaning for us today: “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” (Ephesians 4:4-6)
Buildings are institutional structures. They can come and go. People are the community of faith and always come first. If a church building costs too much to maintain, sell it but don’t destroy the sense and reality of community. Let people stay together. Small communities can meet in school halls, shared churches, neighborhood centers, or even a store front. A healthy community thrives on creativity. For several years, by way of example, my wife and I belonged to a Catholic community of faith (a diocesan approved “neighborhood church”) that used the local Methodist church for our services, adult faith sharing, youth catechetics program, and potluck suppers.
Yes! We need to put on our thinking caps, because we need to shift from large congregations to intimate small size communities. Large parishes can be divided into smaller neighborhood prayer groups and study groups. Mega churches have the energy of a football game; but small communities have the energy of the human heart. This is not downsizing but reconfiguring.
Too often big corporations and big institutional churches consider downsizing a virtue. In my RCC tradition right now, dioceses have big bills from sexual-abuse lawsuits. (They are not going to disappear next year, or the year thereafter…..) Downsizing and selling church real-estate can generate a lot of dollars, especially if the small churches you want to close and sell are in a place like Manhattan. But what about the people in those small communities? Maybe the cathedrals should be rented out periodically as meeting halls for management seminars, concerts, and university lectures? Perhaps then the small church buildings can be saved? Or provided by the Archbishop free of charge?
Young people are good at networking. People often criticize them and joke about them: always having their thumbs on smart phones and Ipads. What the critics don’t realize is that those same young people are networking. Thumbs on smart phones lead to studying together, partying together, or (yes) demonstrating together. We must shift our parish focus from buildings to networking with people. I know a young pastor who understands this completely. He is electronically connected with his parishioners of all ages. His parish is alive and dynamic. It is a warm and supportive community. A community of faith.
As we change our conversation, I suggest we stop talking about and longing for the good old days. We all have many happy memories. And some not so happy ones as well. I grew up in the 1950s and had a happy childhood. I also had just about every childhood disease imaginable and feared polio creeping around my neighborhood. I don’t want to live in the 1950s. Today I would not go to a physician anchored in a 1950’s cardiology. Why should we put up with a church leadership anchored in a 1950s theology? A 1950s understanding of human sexuality? A 1950’s understanding of “the woman’s place in society”? A 1950s Catholic conception of Protestantism as “a false religion”?
All recent sociological studies – and I read and reflect on a lot of them – speak about the Millennial generation and their perspectives on life, their hopes and expectations, and their questions about values and religion. Changing the conversation, means we stop talking ABOUT them and begin to engage WITH them. How can we creatively make a place for young people in our Christian communities? How about a place for them as voting members on the parish council, in the education commission, on the finance committee, on the Christian service committee?
Changing the conversation means as well that we courageously speak out and correct error and confusion. It means educating people about the Bible and our Christian tradition. It means calling nonsense nonsense. Yes, there are Christians today speaking a lot of pure nonsense. Changing the conversation does not mean that we denigrate and demean them. Paul, again in Ephesians 4, reminds us that we need to “speak the truth in love.” It is our Christian responsibility to offer the challenge of Christian correction.
Two days ago, on “The 700 Club,” the former Southern Baptist minister, Pat Robertson, argued that people who oppose President Trump are revolting against God. That is pure nonsense. Robertson is not giving Christian witness but propagandizing a politicized religion pretending to be Christian. Regardless whether one likes him or not (see: I said no politics this week end!) the current president of the United States is not a divinely appointed and supreme monarch. And the United States is not a theocracy.
In my own Christian tradition, Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke uttered his own religious nonsense last week, when he outlined his plans to keep Protestant theology from infiltrating the Roman Catholic Church. Burke, perhaps inspired by the severe screening of immigrants at airports, proposes a screening test for Protestant converts to the Catholicism. Burke may be knowledgeable about his field which is church law. When it comes to theology, however, he needs drastic remedial education. Like the clothes he wraps around his body, Cardinal Burke’s theology is late medieval.
As I write this, the sun is in my face. Spring is in the air. Hope is alive.