Originally published Aug. 7, 2014, at “… in the meantime.” Republished with the permission of the author.
Here’s the simple but just a little troubling question I’ve been wrestling with since participating in Luther Seminary’s recent Rethinking Faith Formation conference: Given how many other groups and movements legitimately lay claim to our allegiance today, can the church ever expect to exert the level of influence in our lives that it once did?
Let me explain: In medieval times the church was everything and everywhere – involved in politics, in control of the banks, the arbiter of salvation (or damnation), the final authority on all matters of domestic and public life.
The omnipresence of the church has been declining for several centuries, but even in my grandparents’ day, it remained the center of both their civic and private lives. And as a kid, I still participated in annual Christmas pageants and programs in our public school.
Living in a pluralistic society, that is simply no longer the case. Nor should it be. I can’t imagine the God we know through the vulnerability of manger and cross wanting us to force-feed our faith to everyone who happens to want a public education. Moreover, many, many other groups – civic groups, sporting clubs, political parties, advocacy groups, and all kinds of leagues, clubs, and associations – have some good things to offer and become part of our lives. And most of these aren’t connected with the church. (Remember when softball and volleyball and bowling and more were often composed of church leagues? No longer.)
All of which means we have multiple allegiances and are associated with lots of different groups that lend us part of our identity.
What, then, do we expect of the church? Do we expect it to be “first among equals,” taking priority over every other affiliation (even when we often devote more time, energy and money to other groups)? Do we expect it to help bring our other activities into focus, that we might see these different enterprises in light of our faith? Do we treat it as one of several groups that is important to us?
I lean toward the middle option, hoping that my participation in congregational life deepens me in the faith so that the Christian story provides a lens through which I look at and make sense of the rest of my life.
But if that’s true, then it seems to me that church needs to change, and that includes – actually, that especially includes – worship. Because it’s not just that church is no longer at the center of our culture, it’s that the culture no longer has a vested interest in helping us learn our faith. Politicians from Benjamin Franklin to Dwight D. Eisenhower affirmed church participation because it helped make people good citizens. (The quote attributed to Eisenhower is telling: “I don’t care what church they go to, as long as they go to church!”)
Because that’s no longer the case, we can’t rely on people coming to church already formed in the faith and ready and eager to witness a public performance of the faith by the pastor. Rather, we need to organize church – especially including worship – with the goal of actually forming Christian faith in our people. Which means the good church isn’t the one with the best preacher or organist or music program. The good church is the one where people slowly but surely learn the Christian story and, more importantly, learn how to use the story to make sense of their lives and share their faith with others.
But, again, with all the groups that seek to contribute genuinely and sincerely to our lives, how much are we willing to give over to allow church to do that? This is a real question for me.