We are gathering again this week for lively Pub Theology dialogue. Come to LTS Brewing Company from 5:30 to 7, and if you’re able to, read the following article ahead of time.
It’s called “Five Beliefs I Continue to Hold About the Church”, written by Eric Alexander (at johnshelbyspong.com/2017/04/06/five-beliefs-i-continue-to-hold-about-the-church/) I think it serves as a great follow-up to the Luther documentary film many saw last week.
In the last article I talked about some of the things I still believe about Jesus, and in this post I want to talk about some of the things that I still believe about the Church. By “Church” I am referring to the institutions, buildings, denominations, and organizations. I am not referring amorphously to the people of Jesus, or body of Christ, as the Church here. I am also not referring to all churches, but rather the majority of them. But before getting into that, let me preface as I did last time in my article “Five beliefs I Continue to Hold About Jesus”, with my current synopsis of the Church.
Five-Hundred years ago Martin Luther hammered his 95 thesis to the door of the Church, formally challenging their teachings and authority. At that time he was representing an upswelling of integrity and free thought of the people. Unfortunately though, whether he actually said this or not, his most famous quote went down in history as “here I stand.” In other words, he took a step, and then committed before God and country to stand firm again. Now, five hundred years later most of the Church still stands in that place that he stood. He was able to help pivot humanity to think more individually, and to read the Bible directly, which was monumental for the time. But it opened a whole new can of worms, which is interesting because his tribunal for heresy was held in a German town called Worms.
Luther’s step forward could have been what the world needed. It could have been that magnificent shift of enlightenment that the Roman Catholic Church institution had been squelching for a thousand years or so, in order to retain power over the people. But whilst it resulted in more freedom from a corrupt institution, it led to further theological folly. To make matters worse, the institution then came back around and found a way to productize that new folly, and that’s what we’re dealing with today.
I think it’s time we say loud and clear that the church of yesteryear, which many who are over age 40 identify with, is not connecting with the younger generations, and it is pushing many of the elders away too. The young are not buying it, and their parent’s generations are not pushing their kids and grandkids to adopt their path, as was once the standard generational cycle that church leaders could take to the bank.
The Church, in my opinion, could be a lovely thing though. It could be, and sometimes is, an essential and critical part of the social and spiritual fabric within a community. But that is the very last thing that most churches have on their “what we believe” mission statements. In an individually empowered generation, where people have infinite expectation of integrity, the majority of churches aren’t going to sell a new generation of awakened souls a continuous path of cognitive dissonance that demands intentional ignorance.
In today’s age of Google and free thought, very few newcomers are going to believe that Jesus was born of a literal virgin. Besides that, scholars have identified the source of that error, and neither Jesus, Paul, Peter, James, or John ever mentioned it in the first place. However, far too many churches still make that belief an intellectual pre-condition to take part in everything they do. If you want to go serve soup at the local homeless kitchen with them, that’s great, you’d just better agree to believe an untenable list of doctrines if you want to be fully accepted by the tribe.
Also in today’s age of knowledge and logic, free thinkers aren’t going to believe that God sent a uniquely incarnate form of God’s self to earth in order to die as a sacrifice to God’s self so we could be saved from God’s self. And furthermore, hardly anyone is going to continue to believe that it was due to an original sin in the Garden of Eden caused by a talking snake. Yet, again, that is the pre-supposition that many churches lead with. It really doesn’t take a genius to figure out why the Church is shrinking. Sure, some churches are now conceding to the Garden of Eden story being figurative, but they continue to stick with it as an inerrant and infallible story about God’s purpose and character.
That is still a major fail in my opinion.
Most churches also use outdated 1700 year old creeds as the basis for their liturgy. They talk about a bunch of criteria that Jesus never once mentioned, and they ignore the actual teachings and examples of his ministry and mission when they recite the tenets of their faith.
If the Church is going to remain relevant into the future, it would be well served to take heed of the following five beliefs that I and many others continue to hold:
1) Many people are still looking for a place to connect spiritually within their community.
2) Many of us still want to engage ourselves and our families in meaningful mission and service.
3) Many of us still want to collectively learn about the art and practices of love, peace, joy, forgiveness, and generosity in the world.
4) Many of us value inclusivity and mystery over rigid sets of prescribed beliefs and biases.
5) Many of us still love the example that Jesus set, but will no longer accept the Bible as literal, inerrant, infallible, or universally authoritative. (More on this in the next installment)
If you ask me, that is a large, caring, and interesting group of people to pivot toward, and more than enough to “save” the Church if we wanted to. Current Church leaders may not have the fortitude or courage to make this shift, so it may be up to those of us on the fringes to guide it as it falls. Or to simply build the new thing.
Now, if you’re over 40 and you are reading what I am saying with disagreement or frustration, I would be willing to give more leeway, because odds are that you were indoctrinated as a young person by every authority figure you ever knew. Particularly your parents, teachers, politicians, and pastors. That stuff got deep in many of our melons and is extremely hard to shake, no matter what evidence comes out to the contrary. But it’s important for even you to realize what is happening, and to also recognize that indoctrination based growth won’t continue on nearly the scale that it used to. Most of today’s youth aren’t taught to learn through indoctrination, but rather by practicing the scientific method. So they are not going to sign up so easily to faith based claims which contradict reality (and oftentimes even contradict common sense).
Sure, most people reading this have gained enough wisdom to know not to limit ourselves in a box of our current scientific understandings. More is always possible, and any enlightened person recognizes that. But to limit oneself in a box of complete contradiction to reality is not going to be the future either.
So there it is. My words on behalf of myself and millions of others who want a Church, but not the current Church in its majority form. And on behalf of those who are growing weary of swimming against the mainstream institution. There are many people who think like me, and a number of churches who are finding a new beneficial path that may represent the future. We love the potential of the Church, and we want to see a Church-like element remain for future generations to enjoy and find peace and hope in. I still believe in the idea of an institution based on love, inclusivity, and service. May it be so.