Before church yesterday I picked up a book off one of the shelves before worship and read a few pages. The book was written in the early 1960s by Ronald Osborn, then the Dean at Christian Theological Seminary and a member of the Consultation on Church Union. The book titled A Church for These Times was designed to be an open letter to American Christians, at least Protestant Christians, suggesting that COCU offered a way forward. I want to share a paragraph written fifty years ago, but which could be written today (at least much of it). He writes:
Inwardly, in the realm of the spirit, the church has become deaf to the gospel. In eras of the church's power, elation at the good news of God is its dynamic force. Joy in the everlasting mercy charges the atmosphere of worship and weaves bonds of fellowship among all the believers; eagerness to proclaim the divine love turns the church outward in mission and in service. But when the gospel is muted, for whatever reason, the church degenerates into an institution for worthy purposes, a society for the cultivation of serenity, an organization of the "nice people." One when the realization of God's love for us stirs us to our depths can we be saved from introversion. That is why a crucial section of this book deals with the gospel. The church must be transfigured. [A Church for these Times, Abindon Press, 1965, p. 16].
What is the church? An institution for worthy purposes." It is a club.
We hear often that young people are fleeing the church, finding it irrelevant to their world. Clergy find themselves demoralized. Osborn noted the same problems facing the church at a time when the church was experiencing supposed success. Thus, prior to the paragraph I just quoted Osborn wrote:
Despite the outward signs of institutional success and material prosperity, the suspicion nags that nothing really crucial is happening. A friend of mine wryly expressed his uneasiness when I first visited the new church to which he had come to minister. "Welcome to the club," he said. (p. 16)
It was thought be some that COCU might be the key to moving beyond these doldrums, but the denominations involved could never get beyond the inner politics of their competition. We don't know what might have happened. But perhaps the seeds of what is happening in American Protestantism was already being sown then. As I read this I thought about what I've been reading these past few years -- including from people like Diana Butler Bass and Christian Piatt, among others. The question is -- can we move out of our introversion and embrace the good news that God is moving in our midst?
- For more information on the Consultation on Church Union, I recommend reading Keith Watkins's book The American Church that Might Have Been (Pickwick, 2014).