Friday, June 05, 2015

Once again, the Church is dying! Who's to blame?

We are living in the worst generation. Ever.
Never have people been more unfaithful. Never has society seen as much sin as we see now.
The Church is dying…no one goes to worship. And the ones who do…well, they are bored, disengaged, in search of spiritual junk food, and chase after whatever the preacher or society will tell them. No wonder Jesus called us “sheep!”
It’s true. We must be living in The Worst Generation. Ever. I read right here. On the Internet. So it has to be true.
If all this hand-wringing, mud-slinging, and schadenfreude sounds familiar, it should. Everyone has always lived in “The Worst Generation. Ever.” Let’s step into our Wayback Machine and take a look. 
Church attendance in the US peaked in the middle to late 1960’s, and yet even then The Church was doomed to laziness, shallow faith, apathy, and irrelevance. Theologians like Harvey Cox were telling us to engage the secular world. Sociologist Will Herberg discovered that the vibrant Abrahamic faiths of Protestants, Catholics, and Jews, was being watered down into the thin gruel of “civil religion.” John XIII told the church to modernize or die. He reminded the Bishops at Vatican II that the Church was a garden to be cultivated not a museum to be curated.
On the one hand, we struggled with the big issues of the day: war, civil rights, poverty, equal rights for women; while on the other hand, preachers like Billy Graham held massive televised revivals in stadia to revive the Church, and the Jesus Movement became the spiritual version of getting high and checking out. The Church was going to hell in a rocket ship (and for some, The Source of All Our Problems Today). Clearly, it was The Worst Generation. Ever.
Let’s jump back to a place and time when the Church really ran everything. Thomas Hooker, the Puritan minister who founded the Connecticut Colony, left Massachusetts because the Puritans there were too lax (!) in spiritual matters yet too authoritarian in things civil. He routinely preached about the laziness, drunkenness, and spiritual dryness of the people all around him. One sign of how bad things were? The poor state of Church attendance. And this in a Colony with a population in the hundreds and where avoiding church was a crime punishable by the pillory. Clearly, this was The Worst Generation. Ever.
You want to know what triggered the Reformation? It was the lazy faith of that impatient, quick-fix generation called the 16th Century. The Worst Generation. Ever. A guy named Tetzel was going around Germany selling indulgences…effectively free tickets into heaven…to pay for the seriously over-budget Sistine Chapel in Rome. Not only did the idea of selling seats in heaven make Martin Luther mad, but he was upset that people might latch on to the idea that they could exempt themselves from receiving the Sacrament or going to confession by the mere purchase of a “get out of hell free” pass.
Jump forward. After few hundred years of religious wars over which form of Christianity really ought to run things, Protestantism would elevate freedom of conscience to such a high level that Western religion would see the dual (and often conflicting) phenomena arise at once. First, there was the revolution in science, philosophy, and technology called the Enlightenment, which unhooked both science and economics from religious dogma. At the same time Protestantism would invent revivalism which would evolve into mass-market religion based on private conversion. Both tracks, while in many ways opposite, would forever detach Christianity from the Church as a “holy gathering” of God’s people, essential to ground our ethics and form us in our faith. Over time, we have gradually bought into notion, which we take for granted today, that says that each and every one of us alone has what we need, spiritually and intellectually, to live however we please.
In the face of troubling statistics, we point fingers and lay blame. Evangelicals point to the laziness and squishiness of the mainline, and mainline Christians say that they are the antidote to the cultural corruption and materialism of the Evangelicals (into which we lump in all Pentecostals and Fundamentalists). 
We act like trash-talking poker players. “I’ll call your Jack Spong, and raise you a Joel Ohlsteen.”
Those on the conservative side of the church accuse the “liberal” mainline of being too caught up in sexuality and the issues of the day. Those in the mainline point to Evangelicals who parrot and bless the material values of the culture. Everyone says the other side is a mile wide and an inch deep.
To this bickering, I ask “So what?”
But we are not the first to engage in this kind of theological mud-wrestling. Let’s step back into the way-back machine.
If you set the dial to end of the first century of the Church, you will be astounded to discover how fast the Church fell into rack and ruin. St. John the Divine paints a pretty bleak picture of the state of the church in his seven letters to the seven churches in Asia Minor in the Book of Revelation. From Patmos John saw that only 50 or 75 years after Jesus’ Ascension the Church was already on life support. Laodecia was a “lukewarm” congregation that God was going spew out like so much day old Starbucks. The Christians in Ephesus, Pergamum, and Thyatira had gone to the dogs by eating meat that had been butchered and dedicated (that is, sacrificed) to idols.
Apparently, he saw other Christians as part of the problem. The movement of Christianity away from its Jewish roots into an increasingly Gentile religion was not, for him, the God-given mission of the Church, as we see in Acts and the Letters of Paul, but apostasy and ruin. For John the Divine, any Christian who gives into the prevailing culture will not make it to the Throne of the Lamb. Only a few, 144,000 by his estimate, would hold out in what he saw as The Worst Generation. Ever.
Jesus himself railed against a religious establishment that laid heavy burdens on ordinary people that they themselves would not carry. John the Baptist was in the same tradition. The Prophets routinely witnessed to the power of God, exhorting the faithful to live their faith intentionally, while rounding on prophets on the payroll of the powers that be.
Starting with Psalm 1, the psalter is filled with those who scorn the faithful, persecute believers, and ignore the majesty of God. The various Psalmists are apparently the only faithful ones left anywhere, praying to be upheld in their misery. The Psalms were written during (say it with me) The Worst Generation. Ever.
As long as there have been people struggling to be faithful, there have been people who have been looking around surveying the human condition and have seen “The Worst Generation. Ever.”
It’s true that people have always been pretty creative in finding new ways to hate each other, kill each other, violate each other’s trust, and wreck creation. We steal. We cheat. We lie. We are cruel. We are indifferent. We bob and weave from our responsibilities like the last kid standing in a cosmic dodge ball game. We are human and it’s called sin.
Yet we are also capable of great love, great beauty, and astounding creativity. When we come together in common cause, there’s nothing like it. Over and over again, people turn and help one another in the midst of catastrophe. We wax poetic about the beauty of creation and are always writing and singing silly love songs. We make jokes, cook great food, compose beautiful music, and create works of art. We harness our skill to bridge rivers, fight disease, and put people in orbit. We send robots to the cosmos and into the depth of the oceans just so we can satisfy our curiosity. We are human and we are the imago dei.
And this is why, despite the fact that we are always living in “The Worst Generation Ever,” God goes through all the effort to draw us to God’s self. This is why God sent us the prophets and the preachers…and the poets and the satirists, for that matter…to get us to look around and to see at once how bad we can be and good we can be. There have been people in every age who have exhorted us to choose not only the good but to live as faithfully as we can possibly live. To live faithfully means that we look to God as both our source and as our goal, caring at once for our own souls and being attentive to welfare the people around us.
When Jesus came among us, he went where we went and did what we did to show where that God is with us where we go and in what we do. He held up what was wondrous, confronted what was evil, and healed what was diseased or broken.  He reconciled those who were cast off, brought into the community those who were far away, and challenged those who misused (or under-used) their faith.
And for that, the people in his generation killed him on the cross. Partly because his message of reconciliation was so audacious. Partly because his demand that we live faithfully was more than we could bear. But mainly we could not stand the idea that God could be walking among us.
God did not stop. In breaking the power of death, he rose from death and now, ascended and returned to God’s glory, he has drawn us—all of us—even the members of whatever Worst Generation we happen to live in, to himself.
God has always known that we all live in The Worst Generation Ever…that times are truly hard and challenges are truly great…and he has given us the solution in Jesus Christ. The Ascension reminds us that in Christ, we live in The Most Hopeful Generation. Ever. Earth and heaven are joined and God is drawing all of us home.
There are still great challenges ahead. We have all around the continuing consequences of human sin. Poverty, sickness, and injustice all around us. But, as with every generation, we have a choice. We can join in the selfish fray. We can choose to hang back, in God’s name, shake our heads and yell at unruly people who tromp across our spiritual lawn. Or we can join in God’s hopeful work of drawing all people to God, and to renewed faithful living by doing what Jesus did: caring for the poor, welcoming the outcast, comforting the sorrowful, teaching the eager, and confronting evil. 
To every generation that ever was, God has always responded to our sin and despair with hope, faithfulness and above all renewal. Every generation has seen people who work for the renewing of God’s people. And that in itself is a sign of hope fulfilled.
Maybe they are right. Maybe this is “The Worst Generation. Ever.” If so, then we followers of Jesus are “The Most Hope-filled People That There Ever Was.” 

No comments: