April 24, 2006

Gratuitous Cranky Ecclesial Posting

I'm reading an article from the winter 2006 issue of Congregations Magazine by one Jay Voorhees for a church vestry meeting this evening. It's entitled "By the People, For the People: Seekers of Faith Increasingly Take "Church" into Their Own Hands" and it gives me the willies:

Some of what is happening within the church known as the "emerging church" represents the movement from the priesthood of the few to the priesthood of the believers, and not just the believers but anyone who is seeking after a sense of the holy in their lives. Through blogs, podcasts, e-mails, and small gatherings at pubs and coffeehouses around the world, men and women are gathering to think about faith in a serious way. As a whole, these people are not afraid to ask hard questions about biblical texts, church traditions or religious practices. The question of what to believe is no longer relevant. The conversation has moved to questions of why. ......

To be "emerging" or "postmodern" - or whatever descriptor you might come up with - is to recognize that the world is not a lowest-common-denominator kind of place. Life is complicated. We live in a continuum from beauty to tragedy and God is a part of it all. The questions that people....are asking are questions that reflect on the complexity of life, with the recognition that simple platitudes aren't enough in wrestling with those questions. Postmodern people want and need expressions of faith that are authentic to the world they live in, with all the inherent messiness that is a part of that world.

When I was growing up, we called such people Unitarian Universalists. And hippies.

The rest of the article sets up a straw-man comparison between the "simple platitudes" of established religion and the more "authentic" spirituality of boutique faith and argues that the Man had better recognize these choices and get out in front of them or risk being marginalized as archaic and totally square, dude.


And what to do?

This leads to a...response that has been embraced by many of the leaders in the emerging church movement: church planting. Denominations (if they are to survive) may need to focus less on supporting existing congregational structures that are out of step with the current reality of the world and devote their energies and resources into creating a wide variety of congregational offerings. Ecclesial identity will focus less on considerations of function (programs, buildings, etc.) and much more on theological identity, with each group claiming their unique, God-given identity as part of the universal Body of Christ.

This sounds an awful lot to me like a call for the distribution of Do-It-Yourself Home Piety kits. Not only do I believe it in fact poses a trap for denominations by actually marginalizing them further, it also sets off all kinds of alarm bells at a very fundamental level of piety because it seems to me an argument for recasting God in Man's image (CORRECTION: I really mean to say recasting God in the image of the Self), something I believe to be very naughty indeed.

UPDATE: I might add, also, that to the extent what mainline Protestant churches offer is seen as "simple platitudes" these days, this is the result of the perception that the churches themselves don't really believe in them, not their lack of relevance. And somebody explain to me exactly how life is anymore complicated now than it has been for the past five thousand years or so. You want messiness? Try famine, plague and constant warfare with the armed tribe up the valley. People who somehow think history ended in 1969 evidently have never actually read about it.

UPDATE DEUX: Sorry, just thinking out loud here.

UPDATE TROIS: Here's the article, if you care to read it. I also believe on a gut level that Voorhees' comparison of religion with the changing structure of mass media is full of holes, although I haven't parsed that one out all the way yet. I find it hard to swallow that faith can easily be compared with which tune you put in your iPod. If that is indeed the case, then it's about as meaningless.

UPDATE QUATR: Well, I did indeed fire off my opinions this evening about the dangers of iPod God, getting in my point about Unitarianism and opining that any religious author mouthing off aboud the "simplistic platitudes" of his own faith evidently had issues deeper than the changes in communications technology. I even pointed out the fact that I have read numerous Catholic blogs and noted how they were able to enhance the message of their church without compromising it to the point of meaninglessness, suggesting that this would be a better model.

Well, I dunno how the vestry took these observations, except that I didn't seem to get any of those little murmers of agreement typical of the modern progressive meeting, instead getting the fish eye from several people. What the hell. I'm a gadfly. The sooner I come to terms with this, the better off everyone will be.

UPDATE LAST: Incidently, I'm really not trying to take too hard a dig at Unitarians and I apologize if I've offended anybody. It's just that I am emphatically not one and don't want to see my church headed in that direction. (I dated a Unitarian in high school, by the way. She's the one who first referred to it as hippy church.)

In fact, while our discussion started with issues of what the message ought to be, it quickly turned to the channels of communication themselves and how they have changed in a remarkably short period of time.

Posted by Robert at April 24, 2006 03:34 PM | TrackBack

I think the article misrepresents the "emerging church" just as much as it does the proplem in older denominations. Not every post-denoiminational curch carries things to the extreme they describe and you excoriate, and some (though admittedly not all) are quite in line with scripture when it comes to matters of doctine. It's unfair to characterize us all as "Boutique religions" just as it's unfair to accuse all old denominational congregations as dead, dry, and bereft of conviction.

Posted by: Brian B at April 24, 2006 04:13 PM

I am, of course, spouting in big, wide, messy gushes here, mostly because I'm worried about why my rector would want us to read this. The Episcopal church has all manner of troubles these days, but what this guy is suggesting strikes me as just pouring so much more gasoline on the flames.

Posted by: Robbo the LB at April 24, 2006 04:42 PM

I understand your angle on this.

But I read in Saturday's paper that Pentecostalism is the fastest-growing Christian denomination, with an estimated half-billion members worldwide now.

I see your critique not just applicable to UUs (god lite) but also to the fundamentalist Churches of Christ and Pentecostal Holy-Spirit-Temples-on-the-Freeway (say, theology lite). At least the UUs have a theology that extends beyond Fuehrerprinzip, which is about all you get in the nondenominational churches. There, you have quite a bit of Bibliolatry combined with a strong charismatic leader who gives HIS interpretation of the inerrant Word of God (tm), unconstrained by tradition or hierarchy.

I fear the Pentecostalist mindset much more than the UU, or even the country-club catholic Episcopalians like you!

Methodism did a similar Open Minds, Open Hearts, Open Doors (or some combination thereof) ad campaign a few years ago. I am not the world's most religious person by any stretch of the imagination, but I would rather see healthy traditional churches rather than the atomized mess we see these days.

Posted by: JohnL at April 24, 2006 05:10 PM

...So I suppose I'm actually somewhat in agreement with you, when all's said and done! Just didn't appreciate the dig at UUs. Sorry...

Posted by: JohnL at April 24, 2006 05:16 PM

Updated to include my apology.

As a matter of fact, I've thought about the Fundamentalists, too. There's an enormous Bible Church in my town whose charismatic pastor is more or less the bogey man of our parish.

I believe that the explosion in population of these churches is, in fact, directly linked to the sputtering of the mainliners. People are drawn to them because of the sense that they actually stand for something. But you're right about the pitfalls: some of the things that this guy says are a might creepifying.

Posted by: Robbo the LB at April 25, 2006 08:22 AM

Lots of things have changed in the past 5000 years (or maybe in the past 150).

Take "till death do us part," for example. This was relatively easy when the average life expectancy was 35 - and remember that the nobility had much longer life spans, some people died much younger....

Like wives. It wasn't unusual for a man to bury 2 or even 3 wives, as women (5000 or even 150 years ago) tended to die in childbirth quite regularly.

That is only one thing that has changed, but it has fundamentally changed the nature of marriage and family. (The things that conservatives are always going on about being the foundation of society.)

There are more 'issues.'

Posted by: Zendo Deb at April 25, 2006 01:57 PM

Having grown up in a U/U environment (which didn't take), I think I can safely say that you may poke fun at U/Uer's with complete impunity.

Q: What do you get when you cross a U/U with a Jehovah's Witness?
A: Somebody who knocks on doors, but isn't sure why.

Q: How do you harass a U/U?
A: Burn a giant "?" on their front lawn.

Posted by: Blackwing1 at April 27, 2006 10:59 AM

The Unitarian Universalists were big in the New England town I lived in as a teenager. The running joke was that they started their prayers with "To Whom It May Concern".

Posted by: B's Freak at April 28, 2006 05:39 AM

I believe a standard U/U prayer is something like this:

"Lord (if you exist), please save (if that action is within your power) my soul (if I have one)."

Posted by: Blackwing1 at April 28, 2006 02:31 PM