Monday, November 30, 2009

Don't Give Up on the Church -- Transforming Christian Theology -- ch. 8

Transforming Theology Project
Philip Clayton, Transforming Christian Theology, Fortress Press, 2010.

Don’t Give Up on the Church
Chapter 8

Are you ready to say: “I give up!?” Many a pastor, and many a church member, has said just that. The ranks of the formerly churched are swelling – joining with the never churched folk, many of whom are the children of the formerly churched! I’m not ready to give up, just yet!

With chapter 8, Philip Clayton (with his trusty assistant Tripp Fuller) begin a new section entitled: “Theologies that can transform the Church.” This section follows one that introduced us to the changing dynamics of our culture and context, pointing out that not only are churches in decline, but they are not connecting with their context. Now, in this section, we begin looking at ways that the church can be transformed for action. While many think that the church is not going to be the appropriate vehicle for this effort, Clayton disagrees. He thinks there is a future for the church. It just has to be reborn.

If we’re going to put ourselves into position to be transformed, we’ll need to face a couple of facts. First of all – people don’t believe that church attendance has any social value/necessity. It used to be, and perhaps still is in some areas of the country, socially necessary to be in a church. That’s where you found your contacts, made friends, etc. Okay, so it doesn’t have social value, but there’s another, more disturbing, trend – people no longer believe that church attendance is the best way for establishing and maintaining a connection with God. Of course, churches aren’t alone in losing relevance. Scouts, service organizations, and fraternal organizations are all losing market share – of course that’s the premise of Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone, (Simon and Schuster, 2000).

Now, that we’ve gotten those three items out of the way – what else should we know? Unfortunately, Clayton isn’t finished. There are other issues to be faced, beginning with the way the church communicates – through sermons and hymns. Imagery (now in the form of Power Point) has an importance it hasn’t had since the birth of the age of print. There are generational fissures, constant mobility (we no longer get baptized, married, and buried in the same church as our parents). There are diversity issues and pastors no longer have moral authority in the community. Finally, we’re “no longer blending powerful theologies with transformative ministries in the world.” That is, we’re no longer able to provide a strong theological rationale for our social justice ministries that people find compelling. Clayton concludes this litany of challenges with this statement:
In short, the social beliefs and networks that once motivated church attendance and involvement are now under attack, and many institutions are crumbling. Effective answers to the current situation will require us either to breathe new life into existing institutions or invent radically new forms of Christian community (p. 59).
My sense is that this is not an either/or statement. We will need to breathe new life into existing institutions, along with releasing new ventures that can effectively connect with what is going on in the world of today.

Although the challenges are many, there are signs of hope. They begin in what would seem like a rather odd place for institutions, but here is the observation. You know all of those “spiritual but not religious folk?” They may not be heading into our churches, but they do represent a strong cohort of spiritual seekers. Clayton suggests that one hope for our communities is the reality that eventually deep spiritual practice requires community support. The question is – are we elastic enough to welcome and sustain those seeking God? The second sign of hope is based on the first, the individualistic division between visible and invisible church is untenable.
The church is the incarnation of the Spirit of Christ in any given age, the body of Christ when Jesus no longer walks the earth. For better or worse, in its various communal manifestations it becomes his representative on earth (pp. 59-60).

There is, he says, no true church that is ultimately separate from the visible church. Structures can get in the way and regularly need reformation, but we can’t just leave them behind. Finally, he says that if we try to transform the church, we may just succeed. If we don’t try, then, well, we will fail simply for the lack of trying. Now, we’ll likely need to experiment and try new and even risky things, but if we’re willing to step out there is the possibility of success.

And so we continue the journey toward transformation.

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