Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Post-Church Christianity

I've started reading The Existential Jesus by John Caroll. In the introduction he said something that caught my ear. I don't know if I've never heard this phrase before, or if this is the first time that it has distinctly struck me in this way. He claims that we have entered a "post-chuch era." I like that phrase. It says a lot more than the other "posts" that I've come across, though I admit my personal affection for "postmodern."

For years I have been saying that the sun is setting on the day of the paid pastor. "Post-church" evokes what may be the key element in re-visioning Christianity. As church membership withers, income diminishes. As income diminishes financial stresses increase, especially as buildings grow older and need more care. In order to pay off the seminary bills (which I believe will typically run around $200/month), pastors need a certain level of income. Eventually, there will not be enough in the bank to pay the pastor, then not enough to pay the bills.

Caroll, with his phrase "post-church" has made me rethink my tune. Rather than saying the sun is setting on the day of the paid pastor, what would it sound like if I were to say the sun is setting on the day of institutionalized Christian community? I don't mean "no pastor and no building." I mean "no established community of faith."

Back in the day (let's say pre-1950, before increasing enrollment in higher education and the information age, and before the Information Era), the church served as the primary place to learn about the faith. Pastors were teachers who told you what Christianity meant. If you wanted to learn about Jesus, the church, and the Christian tradition, the place to go was to the church down the road.

This is no longer true. Thanks to Barnes and Noble, Borders, and Amazon, anyone can find such information at their fingertips. And, thanks to various online resources, anyone can find out about nearly anything they want when it comes to religion from conversation with religious adherents. Very simply, the desire to learn about Christianity has been more efficiently met by other sources than by the church. That makes the church largely irrelevant, or at least of secondary importance, when it comes to such personal growth. Couple that with the suspicion that people may need "less" community, not "more" in postmodern culture, and it's easy to come to the conclusion (perhaps like many of the "church alumni") that Christian community is overrated, and perhaps even a waste of time (and not in the positive, make-believe sense that liturgists like to equate with worship).

Oh, no! But what happens to the seminary propaganda that says "Christianity is a communal religion"? Out the window. Instead of an ideology of institutional support, maybe "Christianity" should becomes the act of walk the path cut by Jesus in a messy, case-by-case basis through life.

So what might this new vision of Christianity look like? As I explore this, what I see is a network of people lightly connected through technology. On the internet, we have Facebook, blogs, and forums. These are places for people to encounter one another and discuss things relevant to their agendas, rather than the agenda of the one in a pulpit. Leadership can still pump out their materials through podcast, vodcasts, or streaming video. And it's not to say that groups couldn't form around social activities, such as the occasional (dis)organized worship, charity events, or even lunch. The main point is that this is a Christianity without membership.

Carroll identifies the Jesus in Mark as the existential Jesus "Because the normal identifying markers of the self have been stripped away from him--family, friends, a past, an occupation, and even an anticipated life-path." (p. 2) This is a troubling time for the church. Still, maybe having our form and identity stripped from us, leaving us bare before the world is not such a bad thing. After all, is not "resurrection" the language we use to say that it is the power of the Divine to transform the darkest of nights into the brightest of days...even if it happens in ways unforseen?

I find the idea of a post-church Christianity appealing. So, my thanks go out to John Caroll for helping me to tweak my question. Now that I've gotten this out of my system, I can move on to Part One of his book.

Image Source here. That's a cool site. Check them out.

4 comments:

billmc said...

I, too, believe that the institutional church or institutionalized Christianity is in its last days. IMO, it is based upon an out-dated mode of colonialism that essentially believes in conquering people in order to convert them to its own paradigm. And the overwhelming agenda is "the more people we have, the more validated we feel about our religion." Numbers = success.

I'm currently exploring Celtic spirituality and it is giving much to think about and much which rings true in my heart. It is definately differet from the IC because, as your post references, the focus is actually against creating huge communities of people. Instead, the focus is relational, implying that, perhaps like Jesus, all we really need is just a few close friends in our spiritual walk. Psychologist tell us that we simply cannot handle more than about 7 or 8 close relationships and that become part of a huge collective goes against this.

Celtic spirituality teachings us that we don't need a mediator, such as a pastor or a church, between us and the Divine. We are led from the inside, through the Spirit of God, instead of from the outside. And the quality of our relationships is not measured by the number of them that we have, but by the depth of them. This rings true with me. I have many acquaintenances, but few true friends. The IC says that we find God in large groups of Christians. Perhaps post-church people know that we experience God best where two or three are gathered in the name of love.

irreverance said...

>>Celtic spirituality teachings us that we don't need a mediator, such as a pastor or a church, between us and the Divine. We are led from the inside, through the Spirit of God, instead of from the outside. And the quality of our relationships is not measured by the number of them that we have, but by the depth of them. This rings true with me.<<

Extremely well said. I didn't grow up in the church. Indeed, I wasn't baptized and didn't join one until I was 27 (or was I 28; my but time flies). Before I joined, I learned through my own sense of spiritual experience that divine intimacy does not require others, though they do help. In the church, interestingly enough, the primary teaching was that one couldn't be a Christian outside of church membership. I love the church I was led to, but always had a huge issue with that. And, I obviously have a huge issue with that self-serving, institutional propaganda today.

I think it's awesome that you're exploring the Celtic side of things. From what I've read, it's such a great counter-balance to the Christian norm.

Oddly enough, I just came across a Celtic-Christian community in a book and was getting to go check out their website when I happened upon your moderated comment. It's Ceile De: The Living Celtic Spiritual Tradition. I don't know anything about them as I haven't really looked at the site yet, but the opening blurb sounds cool:

"The path of the Céile Dé is and always has been toward a search for the Ultimate Reality - Union with the Divine. Rooted in an authentic Gaelic Spiritual form, it has a deep reverence for our Mother Earth and all Her children… Branching into Christ-consciousness, it fulfils itself in Unconditional love."

billmc said...

I am the last one to believe in a “magic bullet” that would take care of the world’s or the churches’ or the religions’ problems, but in keeping with the thrust of your article, I do wonder what a “post-church” faith would look and act like. Another thing that I appreciate about Celtic spirituality is that because the Roman Church never conqueror the Western European islands, their faith was decentralized. They didn’t report to Rome and therefore the leaders in their fairly small communities knew the people quite intimately and they allowed for a lot of diversity, especially in allowing women to speak and minister within their groups. It wasn’t about submitting to authority, it was about experiencing oneness within the group of recognizing God and Christ in each other. This is quite appealing to me.

So to ask, “What did these people believe?” is to misunderstand the very thing that they were about. Philip Newell says, in addressing this question, that there are as many different kinds of Christianity as their as Christians. This brings a laugh from his audience, but he is hitting upon a truth that we much each discern our own path and if we find the person of Jesus meaningful to us, we discern what he means and how best to follow him – apart from some institution tells us what must be believed and how the Christian life is to be lived.

To me, this is very freeing. While I certainly listen to what others have to say concerning their faith, I am not bound to blindly accept any of it just because a certain doctrine, denomination, creed, or text says so. My faith, with all of its warts and doubts, is my own. And I still trust that God and Christ are larger than my faith.

Of course, it is one thing to say what 21st century faith based in something of Christ is not or what it won’t be. It is easy to label it “post-church.” But the term itself doesn’t tell us much, does it? It is like “post-modern.” Okay, we are moving past the paradigms of modernity, but into…what? Nevertheless, we trust that what we call God is there. And it is my hope that no matter what we call it, we can recoup something of the connectedness that I believe our Creator has meant to enjoy – with him/her, with each other, and with our planet.

irreverance said...

>>It is like “post-modern.” Okay, we are moving past the paradigms of modernity, but into…what?<<

Into what is Christianity evolving? That is the question that haunts me.

I'm very interested in postmodern thought. I believe we see a certain kind of momentum with the evolution that is happening in progressive forms of Christianity. Although it is eroding the institutional fanbase, I am excited about and intrigued by prospects for the future.