Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Exiled

So I read this really good book by Michael Frost, called Exiles: Living Missionally in a Post-Christian Culture.
It was really good. Not just in a, "Oh, that was a great book! So thought-provoking!" way, but in a "Holy crap! Now what do I do?" sort of way.
Personally, I would rather books take me out of my troubles and make me forget this world. It's so much more convenient, especially for a stick-in-the-mud like myself.
Frost's thesis is that Christendom is dead, or in its death throes (Christendom being the sort of societal, cultural Christianity where "Christian" values and institutions are the norm, and part of the state, politics, etc.) He does not think this is a bad thing. I'd tend to agree with him: speaking in broad stereotypes, where the state has sponsored Christianity, it has tended to become irrelevant and far from its founder's teachings. Where it has been oppressed and persecuted (the early church, China) it has flourished, and stayed vibrant.
Anyway, Frost argues that institutional Christianity is also dying: ie, institutional churches. Like the one I attend. This is demonstrably true: most of the major denominations are dying off in the US. Again, Frost doesn't have much of a problem with this (here we mostly part ways: me, probably more because I love my church. It is my family. However, I think his arguments are strong; I want to disagree with him, but have a hard time arguing).
He argues that churches are like little social clubs, little country clubs, set up mainly to benefit their members. Sure, churches do good, but much of their time and treasure is spent building themselves up--investing in big buildings, staff, and using the congregation's time in committees and church activities. So much so that if you're involved and committed in a church, you might never meet someone that doesn't attend your church (okay, people you work with--but if you're involved in church, you wouldn't have time to get to know them, anyway).
I wish this were not true, but it is.
If we are to be salt and light to our communities; if we're to engage with the world, and fight against injustice, poverty, environmental degradation, persecution, and the like, Frost argues, what are we doing investing most of our resources in big buildings? In sundry activities? In
ourselves?

He argues that more Christians need to break away from the structures and strictures of traditional churches and establish small, nimble communities that band together around issues of social justice and service. That we need to make "church" a verb, rather than a noun. That we should invest our time and money in the places they are most needed: in our struggling communities, in people that are poor and oppressed, and not in big churches, slick worship services, and hardwood pews. Because, really, who in our communities that did not grow up going to church would ever consider going in to those places? In fifty years, will there be more people that would consider it? Or less? Should we be content with allowing people to believe that Christ's message is irrelevant, rather than, perhaps, that only the institutions are irrelevant? Because Christ is relevant to the poor and oppressed; he always has been.
For example: I heard of a local business owner who has mostly been hostile to Christians he encounters in his business telling a pastor that he gets Christ--he just doesn't get Christians. I can't really blame him. I have a feeling he would nod at a lot of Frost's points, and say, exactly.
I wrote a letter to Myanmar this week as a result of this book, asking for the authorities to free some dissidents they've jailed. I want to start writing a letter a week to different places, for Christians and non-Christians jailed and persecuted around the world. I can't do a lot of volunteer work with a baby, but I can write letters. I'm wondering if anyone else wants to join me. Maybe we could all research this stuff, and help figure out where to write? Sadly, there's not a dearth of causes.
The problem I've been having with this book, is that being me, I have been having a hard time being in my church. I look at all the trappings of my wealthy suburban church, and wonder: is this where God would have us be right now? Is God pleased by this church ? If he were writing us a letter, like in Revelations, what would it say? Again, I don't deny our church does good in our community, that its programs meet a lot of needs and touch a lot of people. I just wonder: is it the best way to organize Christians to be salt and light? Is there a way to unleash the time and money spent on ourselves to truly help those who need helping? Should we lean less on organization and paid clergy and staff and do ministry in an active way?
I don't like feeling uncomfortable, suddenly, in my church. I don't like thinking these things. I would like to just feel happy feelings about my church family.
But good books are like that. They tend to yank the rug out from underneath you.

3 comments:

tODD said...

I haven't read the book, but here are my thoughts, anyhow.

First of all, this all seems focused on North America. I see things here going the way they went in Europe a while back. But it's not that the gospel has, as such, died off entirely -- it's being fervently embraced in Africa and Latin America. Also, is that definition of "Christendom" his or yours? That's not the typical definition of the word, to my knowledge. Still, I agree that where the church and the state have gotten too comfy (it runs both ways, of course), both have been the worse for it.

You then note that major Christian denominations are in decline (true enough), while noting that you think churches should "fight against injustice, poverty, environmental degradation". I find this odd -- those are the things I hear the major denominations focusing on these days. In fact, I once heard a local major-denomination pastor quoted as saying in a sermon how Easter was, in a way, about nuclear disarmament -- the whole resurrection thing did not appear to be a major focus. An anecdote, sure, but my point is that focusing on social issues does not appear to contrary to big buildings, nor a solution for declining membership, since most major denominations downtown share all these things in common.

And while I agree that our churches can be too inwardly focused, I wouldn't say that the outward focus they need is merely one of a social nature. If we help those outside the church gain the whole world, but still lose their souls, how have we helped them? I think the ideal church would neither look only inward nor outward, but, if you will, upward, focusing on God, and in the process caring for those inside and outside the church -- they both equally need to hear about sin and forgiveness.

But to the question of whether we should actually have churches or not, I'm wary of any advice that says we should do one thing when God himself is silent on the matter. Why not instead be all things to all people? Some folks like churches, some don't. As someone whose church is a warehouse in an industrial park, I can vouch for the usefulness of a proper church building. And yet I think not having a building right now is great -- but most of my fellow members do not. It's a cultural thing. Anyhow, it's hard to build a case that church buildings -- even big, fancy ones -- are necessarily wrong, given that when Israel was a theocracy, God commanded them to build a lavish temple. It's about intent and how a church uses its building.

I don't worry that Christ will seem irrelevant because of various cultural issues. I worry that churches will make Christ seem irrelevant regardless of their cultural germaneness. Jesus is relevant because we're all utterly sinful and he forgave us completely. Everything else flows from an understanding of that.

Rob said...

I think the biggest issue with churches today isn't really solved by removing the buildings from the issue. Your author is spot in when he says that churches are similar to social groups. There is a very strong reason why they where built to be the center of most European towns.. they were where the town gathered. In our disconnected culture we need places like that. The folly is our belief that the church exists "for God". God doesn't need a building or staff or alter boys or communion or any of it. It is all for us. God knows we need community, God knows we need each other and to spend time thinking about Him. We seem to think the churches existence is self justifying. It is not. Has a role in the community or it fades away (like so many are).

Here is an example: Homeless people come into the church office all the time asking for help. They do this because the church will help them. If there isn't a church around they would either beg on the corner or maybe even knock on your door. I work hard as a member of this society to fill my role. In order for me to do that effectively I can't answer the door 8 times a week to give out fast food gift cards. But the receptionist at the church can. Why? Because I and every other tithing church member pay her to. Not because we're lazy or bad people, but because if someone specializes in certain tasks they get more done. This act doesn't make me any worse of a person than the fact that I don't purify my own water, generate my own electricity or make my own computer chips.

In my opinion the reason for church memberships decline is displayed in another example. We wanted to have a Halloween get together. Your welcome to think that Halloween isn't a Christian holiday (it's not), but neither is the 4th of July or Thanksgiving. It fell on our small group night this year and we had been looking for an excuse to have a game night, seemed like a ready made party. However the church staff takes a strong stand against Halloween. I'm not sure why, and I bet you that they're not really sure either, they just think they should. So we couldn't use any of the church resources that you'd normally use to get that group together. And if the gathering had been to big for a single house? Well we all help pay the bills on a nice, big facility, but we certainly wouldn't be able to use it for this. Why should we care about improving and maintaining the church's database and facilities if we don't actually get to use them?

The letter writing campaign is brilliant. I think its awesome and if I ever find an extra hour in my week I'm all for it. Want to organize a group to do it with you? There is a ready made list of people who are interested in being kind and giving. Where? well they meet every Sunday... at the church.

Heather said...

His book is focused on N. Am--he actually talks about the vibrancy of the church in the s. hemisphere. And I can't remember how he defined Christendom--it was probably my own tweaking of his use of it. But when I looked it up, I think the meaning still holds--the place where people are Christians, generally. I think that Europe and N. Am can no longer be called that--Christianity is no longer the defacto faith (and good riddance, Frost would say).
The book is also focused on large, mainly evangelical, generally non-denominational churches. My own church kind of fits that mold (probably some of our theology, and culture is more evangelical than a lot of main-line churches) but really, we're pretty presbyterian. I think Frost's beef (and my own, really) is that evangelical churches are so focused on saving souls that they forget that there's hunger, poverty, etc. in the world. Which when you think about it, is a pretty terrible witness. It's something I've thought about and disliked about the evangelical church in N. Am. And I think you can focus on social problems too much, as you said, Todd, but there is a balance in there--and I'm not sure that I'm comfortable with how I've struck that balance in my own community.
I think the idea of buildings is maybe a bit of a red herring. Perhaps the real issue is: is a bigger church better? More helpful to people? Creating Christian leaders who are fully plugged in to their communities, engaged with our culture? Free to move rapidly to serve others and focus on common goals? Frost is all about church--his definition is just a lot smaller than what most people would recognize. And sure, Rob, having a physical location could be helpful--but if the church buildings sit empty and unused most of the week, so that they can be clean and neat for services on Sunday, is that the best use of our resources?
I don't know. I think there is a place for buildings, for large communities--I ahve gotten a lot of joy and fellowship out of them. I think we do good things--and I think some people need the structure and services that a larger church can offer. And yet.
And yet.
You should both read the book.