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 they are based are 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. To the extent that this is true, if congregations are to revivify and expand 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, during the time of St. Paul a belief in a divine power was a given. This was true of virtually all cultures. Everyone believed in some sort of higher power. The concept of atheism as a rejection of a god or gods, simply did not exist. In this context, 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 and Romans with their pagan gods. Moreover, the Christian Jews did not require circumcision1)It is a profound mistake to diminish the appeal of this argument — see this overview, but more specifically, Chilton and Neusner’s “Judaism in the New Testament: Practices and Beliefs, pp 58-97.. 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.
Salvation is critically important to Christian theology, to be sure. But times have changed. Today’s impediment to evangelical outreach (and by implication, church membership retention) is an 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 Torah2)The written Torah was important, but largely remained within the province of temple priests and scribes. The Oral Torah, by contrast, was available to anyone who wished to take instruction from a Pharisee like Jesus, which in those days consisted of public debates, synagogue teachings3)In the very early Christian/Jewish congregations a sage (teacher) would be invited to give a reading and a Torah lesson from the “Seat of Moses“)., 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 of Europe. Even more to the point, religious leaders such as Jesus and His fellow sages were highly respected. They were rock stars.
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 half-way intelligent student 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 lay 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, sincerity, and conviction – emotions – 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) congregants4)I do not mean to be overly critical here. The problem is that because congregants have no clear understanding of the deep doctrines upon which their faith is based, it’s easy to find an inoffensive church. Hence, the danger inherent in religious controversy is very real and in the short-term there is little the church can do about it.. 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.
References [ + ]
|1.||↑||It is a profound mistake to diminish the appeal of this argument — see this overview, but more specifically, Chilton and Neusner’s “Judaism in the New Testament: Practices and Beliefs, pp 58-97.|
|2.||↑||The written Torah was important, but largely remained within the province of temple priests and scribes. The Oral Torah, by contrast, was available to anyone who wished to take instruction from a Pharisee like Jesus|
|3.||↑||In the very early Christian/Jewish congregations a sage (teacher) would be invited to give a reading and a Torah lesson from the “Seat of Moses“).|
|4.||↑||I do not mean to be overly critical here. The problem is that because congregants have no clear understanding of the deep doctrines upon which their faith is based, it’s easy to find an inoffensive church. Hence, the danger inherent in religious controversy is very real and in the short-term there is little the church can do about it.|