Rethinking the Church


Here are my thoughts for this Sunday, Pentecost Sunday. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Acts 2: 1 – 21, Romans 8: 14 – 17, and John 14: 8 – 17 (25 – 27).

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Sitting on my desk was a piece entitled “Rethinking the Bible” which I began about two weeks ago because of the reading from Acts for May 9th (Acts 16: 9 – 15). In addition, a second part of this piece came from Allan Bevere’s post this week, “What About Mediocre Churches?”, and his thoughts on the appointment process in the United Methodist Church.

The church today (Pentecost Sunday) is now some two thousand years old. And it is truly showing its age, both figuratively and chronologically. I have always been fascinated by those who are chronologically old but mentally young. Similarly there are those who are chronologically young but mentally old (and sometimes even “dead”).

I think there is nothing wrong with being old in terms of the calendar but I wonder if it is the best excuse to use for not wanting to learn new things or try out new ideas. To be mentally old is to be “dead” before your time.

I don’t mind that the church is, calendar-wise, old. That cannot be helped. But what I do mind is that the church, in form and perhaps function, has become mentally and emotionally dead. What started out as a rebellion against a religious and political establishment is fast becoming the religious establishment within our current political framework (with some trying very, very hard to make it the political establishment as well).

And the problem is, the church knows full well that, unless some radical and revolutionary things are done, real soon, it will be a physically dead entity as well. It should have never gotten to this point.

The church today bears little resemblance to the church of two thousand years ago. We are the people before Pentecost expressing perhaps the same ideas but speaking in thousands of different tongues so that no one understands what we are saying. We are the people who saw Jesus as a threat to the establishment because he took the power away from the establishment and restored a connection between God and His children. We made the building and the structure of the church more important than the mission of the church; in fact, we have made the mission of the church the filling of the building, not the care of the souls of the community.

We have made the physical structure of the church the goal rather than a place to come together. Our inability to think beyond the structure of the church has affected our own society in many, many ways and in a negative way. For the most part, we have failed to do what the early church did, tell the story and preach the Word of Christ. We assume that everyone knows the story so it need not be retold. But the story we live out is not the story that was told two thousand years ago; it is what we think the story was. I think it is time that we rethink what the church is and what its business ought to be.

Rethinking the Church – Part 1

You may or may not be familiar with “The Paper Chase”. For most people, this was a 1973 movie starring Timothy Bottoms, Lindsay Wagner, and John Houseman. For some, it would be the television series that followed the movie in 1978 and 1979. It was the final episode of that television series (“The Scavenger Hunt”) that provided the inspiration for how I give exams in my chemistry classes and also served as the inspiration for the piece, “The Final Exam in Contracts”.

But I don’t think many people were aware that the movie and the television show came from a book by John J. Osborne, Jr. Mr. Osborne has written at least four other novels, including one of my favorites, The Associates.

In The Associates, the hero is struggling with life in a prestigious New York law firm. Through a set of circumstances, he ends up having lunch with the firm’s founder and senior partner. One may say that it was a conversation between the two but it essentially consisted of the partner talking and the young associate listening.

In the conversation, the partner describes his early days as a law clerk for Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes and the frustration that he felt as did what he felt were clerical tasks and not the tasks that he had prepared to do in law school. And as the partner describes his efforts in legal research, he tells of bringing in an original (and historical) document which Justice Holmes begins to write on. When Justice Holmes realizes that he has been given the original document in a long and complicated legal problem, he announces that the clerk is now ready to begin the process of law. The discussion between the partner and the associate doesn’t go much beyond that but it plants the idea in the associate’s mind about what he must do if he is to continue a life in the legal profession.

Now, on this Pentecost Sunday, the birthday of the church, perhaps we should consider such a conversation ourselves and perhaps we should go back to the original documents.

What many people know and understand is often limited, often wrong, and in the end, will cause more harm than good.

Rethinking the Bible

There are some shows on the history channel that pertain to the composition of the Bible and what was acceptable as a text and what was not acceptable, both in the Old and New Testaments.  There was also a series on the writing of the New Testament, from the Gospels through the letters of Paul and others. 

Now, it is well known that there are many contradictions in the Bible and some of them we are never going to resolve. Nor should we expect to resolve them. After all, the Bible is neither a literature book nor is it a history book (and please, don’t tell me that it qualifies as a biology or geology text book). For me, the Bible is one of several stories that attempts to explain to the world who we are and why we are here.  When I read the Old Testament, I sometimes imagine children sitting around the fire asking their grandfather or one of the elders the most asked question of children, “Why?” But this simple question leads to answers that are not always simple, and it always seems to lead to another “why?” Just have a conversation with a three year old sometime and you will understand what this means.

In Acts 16: 9 – 15, Paul teaches Lydia and the information that is provided says that he does so in what would have been considered a culturally inappropriate manner.  That is, he taught the women without their husbands or brothers being present.  Now, we know that Lydia was independent and self-sufficient; I don’t think that she would have tolerated any man telling her what she could and could not do.

For Paul, who knew the law as well as anyone, teaching unaccompanied women was just not done.  But we also know that at this time Paul is taking a more “liberated” view of the world and the old laws aren’t going to cut it.

So how does Paul get stuck with a sexist label later on?  How is it that he begins all of his early writing by proclaiming the good works of all those involved in the church and he specifically names women when he does so but we have this image (which is pushed by many fundamentalists today) that women have no place in the power structure of the church?

It has been noted that Paul never intended for his letters to become theology but the people treat his letters as such. They are more instructional in nature than theological. If we don’t understand the reason for why Paul wrote his letters (or others wrote them in his name), then we are going to have problems understanding what Christianity is and what it is meant to be. We cannot even begin to think about the nature of the church if we don’t understand the nature of Christianity.

And as Christianity struggles with its own identity, we need to seriously consider what it is that is in the Bible and what is in history.

We know that what many people see in the church today is not what the church was some two thousand years ago.  If we do not understand how it is that a movement spread from Jerusalem to cover the world, we are not going to be able to keep it alive in our part of the world.  And the same goes for understanding Paul. 

Is Paul really the writer of the words in his last letters which run so counter to what he wrote in his earlier letters?  Shall we preach a message that runs so counter to a belief of the equality of mankind in the eyes of God?  Or shall we preach a gospel that preaches that some of us are better than others?

The Bible is not the final word in the matter; it is the beginning word. It is the basis upon which we grow and expand the Word. And we have to remember that the early church had no Bible with which to tell the story; it relied on the people to tell the stories and spread the Good News.

The Business of the Church

What is the business of the church? Why did it come into existence in the first place? Now, you will get no argument from me if you say that the business of the church is the saving of souls. But you will get an argument from me if the saving of souls is accomplished by forcing people to accept your notion of salvation and your notion that the only path to salvation passes through the doors of your church. This says to me that you are more interested in putting more bodies in the building than you are seeing that they enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

I am sorry if that upsets you but I have observed many people walk the path of righteousness who do not believe as I do but who believe in God and live a life in accordance with the same precepts that I hold true. Are they to be denied access to heaven because they do not believe as I do? How do I even know that I hold the right answers in my life; perhaps I am the one to be denied and they are the ones who will be allowed entrance?

You see, the problem is that we think it is more important to count the bodies here on earth and proclaim victory than waiting until that time when we will truly know the truth. I think we are sort of afraid of that moment so we focus on the here and now. Then again, we are a society that wants everything right now and we are unwilling to wait until later to find out the true effectiveness of our work (and if this bears a remarkable similarity to some of my thoughts about the present nature of the educational process, so be it because it is the same).

We, as a denomination and as a church, have applied the business model of the bottom line to church development.  The only true way to know if a pastor is successful or if a local church is successful comes a long time after the pastor and the congregation are gone.  We are in the business of saving souls and there is only one way to know if we did our job right.  It cannot be measured with a bottom line mentality. But that is what we do and it is beginning to show.

The problem is that we have applied the Peter Principle to the appointment process. We reward pastors with upward movement, to a bigger church. Some of this can’t be help; after a period of time, a smaller church does not have the resources to pay the pastor the appropriate salary. But successful pastors are successful as much for where they are as for what they do. And unless the new church congregation is willing to undertake the same efforts that the old church congregation undertook, the pastor may not necessarily be successful in his new assignment.

A model which places a pastor in a church because of seniority and time of service can do more harm than good. It is a model that places the beginning pastors (local, student, or otherwise) in situations where an experienced pastor can perhaps do better. I am not saying that a beginning pastor can’t be successful in such settings but there are only 168 hours in a week and the beginning pastor is often faced with other tasks beside running and building a church. (This is also analogous in education where the least experienced teachers are put in the schools with the most problems.)

As we have made the support of the pastor a local issue, we are stuck with a model that puts the beginning pastor at the smaller churches without the resources and support they need and the more experienced pastors in positions where the support is far greater than is needed. There is an imbalance in this system and it is beginning to affect what we do as a church.

There are solutions to this problem but they are not necessarily the ones that people want to implement. It brings into question part of what I said last week at Gardnertown UMC (“Should We Explain This?”).

Faced with their destruction, the people of Athens turned to the Oracle at Delphi for the answer as to how to defeat the Persians threatening the city. The answer was that “the wooden wall would save you and your children.” As history will note, the Athenians took this as a sign to conduct a naval battle rather than a land battle.

We see solutions to the problems but they may not necessarily be the right solutions simply because we are seeing them through traditional approaches and the way we view the world. There are some who see technology as the solution, when in fact it is the mechanism by which the solution will be determined.

Technology and the Church

Someone once said that technology was a two-edged sward. And though I am not quite sure of the analogy other than it can cut coming or going, technology is proving to be both the curse and the solution for many churches.

Recently my church sent out an e-mail announcement about something happening at the church. This was good; it happens to be a quick and efficient way of doing things and perhaps cheaper. But not everyone in the church has e-mail and not everyone who has e-mail is going to read their e-mail on a regular basis (as one person told me, if you spend your entire work day on the computer, the last thing you want to do is spend your home life on the computer as well). As a result, a good portion of the congregation did not receive notice of a very important event in the life of the church.

On a broader note, I am a preparing a list of United Methodist Churches within a particular radius of my home church. This was very easy to do because we have a zip code search function on the “find-a-church” part of the umc.org website. This allows me to get contact information for the various churches I want to contact. What is interesting is the number of churches listed whose contact information is minimal, incomplete, or incorrect.

Now, the “find-a-church” function is an important one, though I am not sure how someone not familiar with the United Methodist page would find it. But if I found it and used it and found a church that only listed its street address (which may or may not be correct) and listed no web page or had an e-mail address, I may not be interested in that church. Personally, I want to go to the church and meet the people before making a decision but it tells me something when the church’s web page information is limited. It may be a sign that they want people to think that the church is “with it (hey, we are on the web)” but they don’t necessarily want people visiting.

But it also says something when a church doesn’t have an e-mail address or if the e-mail address is wrong (like the address for a church which was another church’s address). It also says something if there is a web page for the church but the wrong thing when the web page is not up-to-date.

Our thinking cannot be determined by the technology because not everyone has the capability (or desire) to use the technology. The technology can help the church; however, it is not the solution but a mechanism for achieving the solution. And it requires an effort on the part of those who made the decision to keep the work up to date.

And by the way, church is not an event that can be done on-line. It can be streamed and pod-cast; it can be recorded and re-shown (I hope to have the video of my Palm Sunday and Easter messages posted but I am finding the size limitations daunting) but it cannot be done on-line. Church is something that must be done with others, be in it a building or in a garden or in a forest or on a mountaintop.

Rethinking the Church – Part 2

There are those today who are trying to find the original church and to revitalize Christianity. They are doing so by creating house churches, of bringing back the original meeting places. Some are even going so far as to learn Greek so they can read the Bible in its original language.

For whatever reason, these attempts have been labeled as post-modern and are being met with great resistance from the religious establishment and sometimes from church congregations. I have said, and will continue to say, that I find many parallels between the church establishment of today and it’s counterpart of two thousand years ago.

The establishment likes the way things are done today and many people, while looking around at their church and wondering what is happening, are reluctant to change the way things are being done. But unless we do that, unless we change our thinking, the existence of the church will be like that of the dinosaur, a relic of the past unable to adapt to the changes in its environment.

Some of the resistance comes from poor planning and lack of thought on the part of the reformers. There is clearly a need for the use of technology in the church today but a worship service with Power Point presentations and insipid praise music is not the answer. Find new music, yes! Use all sorts of presentation methodologies, yes! But don’t simply copy something someone else is doing and expect it to work unless the people you are presenting it to are just the people of the church whom you copied the idea from.

The Holy Spirit

Today is about the Holy Spirit and its presence in our lives. I think the state of the church today is due in part to the lack of the Holy Spirit. The people made the church what it is today and they have been going through the motions for so long that the Holy Spirit is no longer present. Each week the people say the words and expect that will be enough. But they say the words without spirit, without enthusiasm and without feeling; it is no wonder that there is no spirit.

If it is possible for the Holy Spirit to come upon a group of people and allow them to speak in such a way that everyone knows what they are saying, it is possible for the Holy Spirit to revitalize the church and renew its spirit. But the people must be prepared for that moment. The people had gathered together that first Pentecost Sunday and they gather together every Sunday; so the possibility exists.

There are some who look around and see no hope; I know many who feel this way and I see countless others who see the church as antiquated and out-of-touch with the realities of the world outside the church walls. But I also know that those who have turned from the church really don’t have the answer, either.

And I know that two thousand years ago, one man asked twelve others to follow Him. And the twelve followed as did others. And they saw the miracles and they heard the lessons and they took to heart all that they had seen and heard. And when that First Easter was over, they had a better understanding of what had happened in their lives.

And on that First Pentecost they received the Holy Spirit into their lives and then they went out into the world, far beyond the boundaries of their normal, everyday routine, and they changed the world.

And I know that John Wesley had a vision for this world and that on that night when he understood and received the Holy Spirit, his vision became alive and it too changed the world.

The vision is there and it is now our call to take the message into the world. We do have to rethink the ways in which we have done things but we do not and will not change the simple fact that Christ is our Savior and that we are to be his disciples, not merely telling people but showing them. It is a challenge but no greater challenge than the church has faced in the past.

If we open our hearts and minds to Christ and then allow the Holy Spirit to be a part of us, then we can revitalize the church and make it what it was and what it is to be.

3 thoughts on “Rethinking the Church

  1. Good article, we’re trying to think of ways to change too. One idea is to skip “church” once/month and go out and serve people, which seems more like real church.

  2. Pingback: Why Don’t We Remember? « Thoughts From The Heart On The Left

  3. Pingback: A New Life for the Church and in the Church « Thoughts From The Heart On The Left

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