Monday, March 09, 2015

An Introverted Church?

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?    


John McCauslin said...

We'll be dealing with this in the Monday evening gathering. But I see an immediate concern arising out of the title to your reflection, "introversion." It seems to me that Christian Piatt's premises are clearly introversional at their core - responding to a culture that is leaving the church because the church doesn't have an attractive response to the the question: what is in this Christian Faith for me?

Previously culture pressured individuals to participate in institutional religion as a matter of communal responsibility. Today that pressure is completely gone. The church has to "market" itself and it has to do it while trying to avoid running afoul of the admonition not to turn the house of Jesus' Father into a marketplace.

So we must work on emulating the earliest church, finding ways to bring the message of the Kingdom to a culture consumed with empire, power, commerce and/or survival. And before we do that we must first turn inward and discover what the Kingdom means to each of us on a personal level. What is the 'still small voice' saying to us? Are we listening? Are we willing and able to share?

Robert Cornwall said...

John, the problem with turning inward is that we stay there. I don't think that Christian is suggesting that we turn inward, but that we listen to the culture without becoming overwhelmed by it. There is a delicate process of being incarnational. This is why I embrace being both spiritual and religious. Hope the conversation goes well tonight!

Danny Bradfield said...

I don't think "introversion" is the right word here. I am an introvert, which means I get energy from quiet time alone. I don't dislike being around people, I just find that, after while, I need a break in order to recharge.

Is this something I need to be "saved" from, as Osborn suggests?

As an introvert, I have made many connections in the community, volunteering, attending meetings, etc.

As pastor of a congregation that I have, in the past, described as "introverted," we as a faith community have made many connections in the community. We host a monthly litter pickup in the park next door. We participate in several ministries that feed the homeless. Our members advocate for local justice issues. We are the chartered organization of a boy scout troop that is the only local boy scout troop to be recognized year after year by the community for its service to the community. We do all this (and more) as an introverted congregation. Introverted, but not inward-focused.

The point made here by Osborn and you is good, I just think we need to distinguish between introverted and inward-focused.

Robert Cornwall said...

Danny, I think inward-focused is probably a better term. I think that is what Osborn is talking about. I too am by nature an INTJ -- getting my energy from being alone rather than from the crowd, but I spend a lot of time in public!!