Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Redirecting the Institutional Church

Most churches just keep doing the first half of life over and over again. Young people are made to think that the container is all there is and all they should expect; or that they are mature and home free because they believe a few right things or perform some correct rituals. The would-be maturing believer is not challenged to any adult faith or service to the world, much less mystical union. Everyone ends up in a muddled middle, where "the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity," as William Butler Yeats put it. [2] I am convinced that much of this pastoral and practical confusion has emerged because we need to clarify the real differences, the needs, and the somewhat conflicting challenges of the two halves of our own lives. 
Richard Rohr, Daily Email Meditations.

Note:  You can go to The Center for Action and Contemplation and sign up to get Richard's daily meditation via email.  It makes for a lovely way to start the day.

Emerging Christianity, one of the names for a broad-based movement occurring in all denominations of the faith, points us to an understanding of the Jesus message that transcends the institution.  Too often the people who support the institutional church are those whose livelihoods and incomes will be most affected by their absence, so it is misleading to let that set of folks evaluate the necessity for such organizations any more. 

No matter what stage of life you find yourself in, this question of the institutional church is an important one to answer for yourself. That is what I am trying to do here.

The logic against institutional churches goes something like this:
Once upon a time, the institutional church had a role to play.  It was the social services, educational and recreational center of a community.  Yet today, for better or worse, our government has taken on most of the elements once carried (sometime inadequately) by the local church.  Once upon a time, the average American knew nothing of other faiths, and were taught by clergy that, despite what they learned in theological school about the historical development of the church, the person of Jesus and other topics, dumbed down the message of Christianity into a more easily digested set of dogmas and consolations.  Once upon a time, women served as the custodians of children and buildings, casserole brigades and musicians.  Once upon a time, the ability of a family to work in a given community was dependent upon belonging to the "right" church.  Once upon a time, nationality and Christianity were terribly conflated and faith used to manipulate national policy as well as legislate against other nationalities,  faiths and sexual orientations.

But that time is passing for the average American because we are better educated, connected with the resources of the internet and other media, and accepting more and more that we are part of a global village rather than an isolated tribe.  I commented to a friend that we actually face two distinct choices--change the institution from the inside so that it is relevant again, accepts the challenge to teach to an educated population that is acquainted with many faiths, support the changing role of both the church professional and women, and who actively fights the connection of church with any nationality or political agenda OR learn new ways to follow the faith in a small group setting outside of any institutional structure that will also honor the changes happening in our society. This is true whether you are a "first half of lifer" or a "second half of lifer". The only way for most folks to move to a richer spiritual life is to know the path exists in the first place and to bravely and with forthright enthusiasm explore and challenge the status quo.

If we look at the founders of all the great religions--Buddha, Jesus, Mohammad for instance--all of them left the religion of their childhood and opted for an encounter with Mystery.  For their first students, they were fingers pointing to the Divine.  Sadly, later generations would see only the finger, and create a transcendent God-concept that is static and unreachable.  If we are to either change the institution or start to worship in a new and creative way, we must take on the courage, sense of adventure and deep faith shown by these founders of faith.  We must be based in experience, not law and dogma; in relationship not exclusivity; in love and not with hatred and violence directed at those who do not share our particular understanding of the Mystery.

In the end, either vehicle (institution or home-based church), is adequate to the task and perhaps it is even necessary that both options grow and thrive side by side and inform and enrich each other.  I know my friend, because of her distinct gifts, will be able to convey a new way of "doing" church and theology to her institution because she has done the work of meditation and prayer, creative expression, study, dialogue and relationship with more than just the members of her congregation.  I know that I will choose a different path, one that cuts right to the very heart of scholarship and meditation, language study and poetry, as well deep relationship with a small group drawn from many faiths and walks of life.  Yet, I also am convinced we walk the same path, true to our tradition and to our own unique gifts.