This post is in response to Thom Schultz’s post over at his blog, “The Rise of the Dones“. In an earlier book Mr. Schultz offered a solution to the more general problem of declining congregational populations built around a church re-instantiated as a “Lifetree Cafe“. “The Rise Of The Done“, then, is a specific example within the larger challenge of how to deal with declining church membership.
First, let’s understand the Lifetree Cafe because the assumptions upon which it is based is axiomatic of the problems of the larger Church. The idea behind the Lifetree Cafe is to instantiate a community environment characterized by:
1) Radical Hospitality
2) Fearless Conversation
3) Genuine Humility
4) Divine Anticipation
Unfortunately, the Lifetree-style strategy does not (in my opinion) address the problem of retaining Dones specifically or members generally because it does not address what I believe to be the root problem causing declining church memberships. In fact, the problem, as I see it, seems stunningly obvious in what Mr. Schultz omits in his list of cafe pleasantries – an understanding (or at least an acknowledgement) that Christianity (and Judaism) are, and have historically been, an intellectual pursuit and, therefore, attractive to men and women whose lives incorporated intellectual stimulus to a greater or lesser extent. If then (and to the extent that this is true) congregations are to revivify their membership, the inclusion of the intellectual habit as a preeminent value in congregational life must be reconstituted.
Let me backup a bit and provide some context for this thesis. When scholars compare a contemporary Christian’s congregational life with those of the early churches and synagogues two striking differences emerge:
First, for Jews and Christian Jews, especially during the time of St. Paul, a belief in a divine power was a given. Everyone believed in some sort of higher power. The concept of atheism did not exist. The reason why the Gospel was good news was rooted in the claim that the Jewish God offered a way to salvation (through a messiah) heretofore unavailable to the Greeks with their pagan gods. Moreover, the Christian Jews did not require circumcision. Circumcision notwithstanding, to convert the Greek pagan required the exercise of evangelical intellect in the form of Pentateuchal exegesis at which St. Paul was an acknowledged master.
Today’s impediment to evangelical outreach (and by implication, church membership retention) is the over-emphasis on salvation. In contrast to biblical times, in our well-to-do Western culture, salvation is not high on the list of people’s priorities. Many live a comfortable, if not prosperous life and the idea of a better afterlife raises the question – how can it be better than this? Or, if I die it will be as when I had not been born — of no consequence to me in this mortal life.
Second, early Christianity, like Judaism, was rooted in the study of the Oral Torah, which in those days consisted of public debates, synagogue teachings, and lectures in the public square between wandering Pharisees. Given this early emphasis on teaching and learning, it should not surprise us that it was the Christian Church that invented AND first established the great universities.
This evolution of Christian life away from a critical engagement with the doctrines of the faith has been profoundly destructive to the traditions of the Judeo-Christian faith, the sanctity of Holy Scripture, and the ability of Christians to appeal to the unchurched. Consider this: people today acquire knowledge in an environment that rightly demands critical thinking and well-developed analytical skills. Similarly, high achieving adults move in a milieu of peers who do not necessarily take for granted the truth of the opinions of others – superiors or otherwise – without evidence one way or another. In the absence of deep and sustained argument, simply announcing that “Jesus saves” is inconsequential at best.
Any intelligent person today, no matter what age, who studies history, science, literature, or mathematics during the week and then attends Sunday school, confirmation class, or a youth/adult Bible study, cannot but note the contrast in the way religious content is presented. Specifically, the secular disciplines are taught in ways that demand the exercise of intellect and reason. By contrast, the teachings of the biblical texts are not subjected to critical examination in the same way as, for example, English Literature. When the secular, largely unchurched community compares the two approaches, how can they not conclude that religious faith, a faith that largely rejects critical thought at the congregational level, cannot stand against reason.
But, the situation is much worse. Those who question the validity of doctrine, students or otherwise, are often discouraged from doing so by their peers and clergy. From children’s Sunday School, many adult Bible-oriented classes, and congregational meetings, contemporary religious education often elevate piety and sincerity above a reasoned analysis of the assumptions behind the doctrines that define their faith.
So, what does this have to do with the Dones?
Quite simply, much of Christian life today centers around a mushy, “let’s all love each other”, “Jesus is my BFF” kind of environment. Doctrine is seldom taught and never critically examined. Moral clarity has been diminished by the idea that grace is cheap and forgiveness is free. Pastors and priests shy away from controversy for fear of offending (and losing) congregants. Committees, chartered by Bishops and Popes, generate morally obtuse essays that ignore the clear biblical witness and instead ground their conclusions in secular, philosophical precepts that serve to confuse, rather than clarify. In short, the intellectual life of the Church at large has become sclerotic and stultifying.
This is not an environment conducive to the pre-Done, i.e., a highly educated, high achieving, actively involved church member who would live a life ordered to God’s values of which one of the most important is the gaining of wisdom. For the most part, many churches seldom teach what constitutes those values beyond their simple enumeration. Rather, such congregations are often encouraged to live a Christian life based on the pursuit of salvation by faith alone without an understanding of whether one’s faith needs to be rightly ordered, i.e., possessed of the wisdom necessary to fear the LORD? Doctrine matters yet is largely ignored. When was the last time your pastor even discussed what it meant to be of a certain tradition?
When doctrine (in its larger sense) is de-emphasized, ambiguity reigns. The pre-Done, by virtue of his/her habits, avoids ambiguity. S/he seeks clarity and when clarity is not forthcoming or worse, not valued, the natural inclination of such people is to go elsewhere. And if there is no elsewhere, the Done simply and finally stays away.
Here, then are my answers to Mr. Schultz’s questions in his post.
Why are you a part of this church?
(1) The leadership allows me to teach. (2) My congregation is of the Lutheran tradition. (3) It’s close by. (4) I love jello casseroles.
What keeps you here?
See (1) above
(1) Have you ever contemplated stepping away from church? Why or why not?
Yes, often. Because I get frustrated with the broader church’s deemphasis on the critical engagement of the Holy Scriptures — especially at the congregational level.
(2) How would you describe your relationship with God right now?
That’s a subject that is not easily answered. Suffice it to say that it depends on what one means by relationship. To me, God is not a human. He is wholly alien and transcendent. The idea of having a human-like relationship with an entity not of this world is inconceivable to me. God is the creator of the reality in which I live. As such, He is the final authority on how best to live in that reality. Therefore, I spend an inordinate amount of time with Holy Scripture and commentary seeking a better, deeper, more reasoned understanding of God.
(3) How has your relationship with God changed over the past few years?
I’ve become reasonably fluent in biblical Hebrew and have also learned a little Koine Greek. This has opened up a whole new world of biblical study and an understanding of God many Christians would probably find, uh, upsetting.
(4) What effect, if any, has your church had on your relationship with God?
Apart from my pastors who have yet to come to their senses and so continue to allow me to teach, not that much. My relationship with God is identical to my relationship to Holy Scripture (the Word of God is far more real to me that the actual entity). To this end, the discovery of the character of God has become a never-ending, almost all-consuming, and enormously satisfying activity.
(5) What would need to change here to help you grow more toward Jesus’ call to love God and love others?
It’s not about Jesus. Jesus has fulfilled God’s role in history. The idea of a “call to love God” is a good example of the problem with your understanding of the Done! In biblical times, a love of God was expressed by what one did and how one lived one’s life. More specifically, to obey God’s commandments was the highest expression of love for God. In today’s church, we do not teach that obedience to God is an expression of love. Protestants, especially, are repulsed by the idea that obedience to God’s commandments is obligatory.