This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations or presbytery I serve.

Friday, February 12, 2010

1956 Again.

Too often, what church members expect and desire from the church is what I call “1956.” I use that year to stand for a certain way of doing and visioning church. It exemplifies a time when the church saw itself on the upswing. It remains an era that is now deeply mourned by some because it is no more.

Church members who have 1956 in their heads are looking for the church to give them and their children “traditional values,” to foster good citizenship and loyalty towards American institutions, and to provide useful social contacts and perhaps skills.

It is not just church members who have this vision. I suspect it is the standard set of expectations held by the general public. Which means there is frustration both inside and outside the church based on the same obsolete vision.

One group is frustrated that this vision isn’t working anymore in the church. They keep trying to resuscitate the corpse of this model. They imagine it is still so and expect it to be happening. Mostly they expect their pastors to make it happen.

The other group doesn’t relate to the church at all because it assumes this vision is what the church is about. They have little use for traditional values and institutions, so why would they show up at a place that makes maintaining these things its main purpose? They know there are other more effective, more professional, and less annoying places to go for social contacts and skills, personal advice, healing, useful knowledge, and even spiritual growth.

A pastor who comes into the church today must often quickly learn that much of the power in the church is in the hands of people who cherish and cultivate this vision. Frequently, the successful pastors are the ones who learn to tell people what they want to hear, and set the gospel aside to the extent that it cannot be pressed into the service of traditional values and institutions.

It is a losing battle, though, because what the people want to hear is simply not real. It is not 1956. Granted, a small number of churches will find success pretending that it is. We are a nation of 305 million people; there is a market for churches that promote this vision. Some will be successful. These churches and pastors will be held up as shining examples proving that this model really is sustainable.

But for most churches it isn’t sustainable. Once a megachurch moves in (like WalMart) and sucks up the lion’s share of people who want this kind of church, there is not much left for the (ironically) “traditional” churches.

We are left with most churches diligently trying to do the impossible. They struggle along with difficulty, spending down whatever endowments they may have, until they have to close. But apparently this death-spiral is preferable to being open to a new vision which would necessarily require relinquishing the old vision. I despair that any new vision will ever happen with the same old people.

The answer, I think, is to put our efforts into starting new churches with people whose memories are not mired in 1956. That is, churches that explicitly reject the identity of the church as the maintainer of “traditional values and institutions,” and embraces the identity of the church as primarily followers of Jesus Christ.


John Edward Harris said...

If you do not subscribe to the Presbyterian Outlook or visit their website, you probably missed this. I think it fits well with your arguments.

Paul Rack said...

Our buildings are a more than symbolic representation of what we are often saddled with. They are the spirit of 1956 (or 1856, or 1756) in material form.