Nov  2016 29
Practicing Church

Here are a few facts:

  • The churches that comprise the Protestant Mainline have suffered numerical decline for half a century. And the so-called Death Tsunami—the time period during which we Baby Boomers will die in such numbers that the death rate in the U.S. will exceed any period since the Civil War—is just beginning.
  • Millennials are attending churches but in lesser numbers than prior generations when those generations were in their 20s and 30s.
  • Millenials, and there is some evidence that many Xer’s and not a few Boomers, who don’t attend church say they don’t have any hostility toward the church but they also don’t see its relevance. Such persons feel satisfied with their lives without church; they have no interest in anything the church has to offer, or at least that typical churches have to offer.
  • There are some weeks when I am right with the persons who want to stay home, or with those who attended and asked “Why did I do that?” This perception probably more because of me, my own spiritual journey, than it is about anything church leadership did or did not do.

So, I’ve been thinking: What kind of church would I like to attend? Different question: What kind of church might attract persons who don’t find anything relevant at church as traditionally done?

These questions lead me to the matter of value. What is the value proposition of “church”? What is unique about what a Christian community might have to offer its members? What if I juxtapose a desired practice or virtue that is being taught no where else, or almost no where else, with what our society desperately needs, and with what is at the heart of Christian practice?

What if church provided the setting, the experiences, the teaching, the practices through which members were formed, re-formed, and transformed—and members could be signs, instruments, and embodiments of that transformation in other communities?

This kind of thinking should not be revolutionary, for persons who call themselves Christians, which connects us with following the way of Jesus. I think the following “how to’s” constitute a large part of what it means to follow Jesus. Compare the practices with what you’ve learned to be and do in church. How does your experience match up with these practices?

  • How to worship God. Good worship is absolutely central to developing and maintaining a relationship centered on God and with each other, and keeping those relationships properly aligned.
  • How to use worship, prayer, scripture, and theology to interpret: What is going on? What time is it? and What should I/we do? Sure, in many congregations, there are oodles of educational opportunities. But one of the mistakes we educators have made in recent decades is to think of church curriculum akin to the university model, divided by subjects: a class in history, a class in theology, a class in Bible. That kind of division of labor in graduate schools has resulted in a fabulous amount of research. But the division by subject is not helpful in forming practices of Christian living in persons and communities.
  • How to prepare for one’s own death. In earlier centuries, and up through the early 20th, churches spent a lot of time preparing people to die. While we don’t talk as much about avoiding eternal damnation today as we did then, the fact is we all will die! There is much about fear, the so-called “politics of glory” or “making a name for myself,” putting one’s name on buildings and the like that are related to a fear of death. Everyone needs help to prepare for their own death in a way that diminishes our fears and profoundly, positively affects how we live.
  • How to love yourself and be a mensch. “Mensch” is a Yiddish word referring to a person of honor and integrity. A feeling of contentment is the result of a life lived according to a set of excellences (I agree with Aristotle here). Grace is the other necessary ingredient in self-love, in seeing yourself as neither more or less than who we were created to be.
  • How to love your neighbor as yourself and be a neighbor. Where in society do we teach the ethics of speech, to speak honestly and truthfully? Which organization could teach what it means to “speak the truth in love”? Who outside of religious communities can ground human dignity in the Imago Dei (Image of God)? Who is teaching how to speak with persons with whom we differ, but who we cannot dismiss because they, too, are children of God (distorted as the Image of God may be in some of us)? Who else can hold issues of race, sexuality, gender identity, disability, economic capacity and the like in a spiritual context derived from the story that we are all created by God and are essentially related and intertwined, for good and for ill?
  • How to resist evil and injustice. The baptismal liturgy of many churches uses pointed words that should cause the candidate for baptism or the family presenting the candidate to gasp or gulp. From the United Methodist baptism covenant: Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin? Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?” Listen to those verbs: renounce, reject, repent, accept, resist. After baptism, where are we taught to live the promise we make? The Constantinian Captivity of much of the Protestantism I’ve known throughout my life is no where more evident than in the dearth of discussion and teaching in how to resist evil, especially the kind perpetuated by our democratically elected government, in our names.
  • How to live in the tension between conflict and peace. There is the old saying, if you want peace, go to a cemetary. Living communities have conflict. Churches have not done a good job of forming us into people who know how to engage conflict civilly, to hold anger and love together, to yoke forgiveness and repentance and justice and reconciliation and peace in way that won’t let go of the tensions.
  • How to live with gratitude and grace. These words should require no further commentary.

So, how about this. Imagine an ad for a church:

We, the people of the Way of Jesus Community, are here to help each other and you practice how to:

  • Worship
  • Interpret life theologically
  • Die, and therefore to live
  • Love ourselves and strive to live virtuously
  • Love our neighbors as ourselves and be neighbors
  • Resist evil and injustice
  • Live in tension between conflict and peace
  • Live with gratitude and grace.

Is such a church only wishful thinking? I hope not.

Browse more posts by: Gary Peluso-Verdend, Phillips President
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