Sunday, November 16, 2008

Problems with the Church

I just started reading an interesting book by C. Kirk Hadaway, the current Director of Research at the Episcopal Church Center. It's entitled, Behold I Do A New Thing: Transforming Communities of Faith (The Pilgrim Press, 2001). I've not gotten very far into the book, but already I'm struck by several passages.

For starters, there's Hadaway's understanding of a religious institution (as opposed to a secular institution or a social club):

"What is a religious institution? Although opinions differ greatly on this matter, I accept the definition that religious institutions are those that connect or relate the everyday world (the immanent) to a reality that is behind, beyond, or subsumes our world (the transcendent). Religious institutions allow the individual to experience transcendent reality in the midst of everyday existence" (p. 9).

Hadaway continues by arguing that, in light of this understanding of religious institutions, most churches in North American are more secular than religious:

" ... many churches in the United States, Canada, and the rest of the Western world are not very religious. Western rationalism, in general, and Protestantism, in particular, militates against the experience of the mystery of God. Mainstream Protestant churches often intellectualize the connection between the transcendent and the immanent; conservative evangelical churches tend to replace God's mystery with mechanistic formulae and causal logic. These are extreme examples, of course, but where in North American Christianity does one see much emphasis on mystery, the spirit, religious experience, or communion with God? These are probably most evident among Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Episcopal, Pentecostal Holiness, African American, and some Unitarian Universalist churches. Even the rapidly growing seeker-sensitive megachurches seem to have little that is religious in their worship. Most combine moral lessons and self-help in an entertaining package. Not much mystery there!" (p. 9).

"Many churches in the West are not very religious." Is this a fair charge?

Then there's Hadaway's distinction between the purpose of the church and the purpose of for-profit corporations and social clubs:

"What distinguishes the purpose of a church from that of a for-profit corporation, or even a social club? I prefer straightforward language, so I will turn again to a statement from Peter Drucker: 'The business of the church is to change people; the business of a corporation is to satisfy them.' That is, I believe, a statement that should be taken to heart by every church leader. It forces each of us to ask the question, 'are people being changed (transformed) in my congregation?' If the answer is no, then my church has a different purpose, and that purpose is probably to satisfy people" (p. 11).

I think that Hadaway is on-target here. It is, indeed, all too easy for the church to fall into the trap of "customer satisfaction" rather than transformation. But what exactly constitutes "transformation" and how do we know it's happening? Perhaps Hadaway begins addressing those questions as he continues:

"Of course, to change people or transform them begs the question of what they should be changed into. The obvious answer is that they should be changed into disciples who are open to the spirit of God and live a life of faith, vocation, and reconciliation in God's Realm. Thus, transformation is intentional and directed, rather than haphazard. It is also embodied and incarnational. People change, because all things change, but in most cases the church isn't much of an ingredient for personal change, much less the catalyst. The church can be both a catalyst for transformation, as people experience God through transcendent worship, and a place of formation, as people become part of a community of faith" (p. 11; author's emphasis).

The church can be these things, but Hadaway maintains that "in most cases" the church fails. Is he right? What other catalysts of transformation and places of formation are taking the church's place?


Fr. Reich said...

wow...not very impressed. I would hazard a guess that his idea of transformation is on a socio-political level as well.

I think the charges he lays are misguided and arrogant- to say that most parishes are more secular than religious...

I have to ask the question, is the purpose of the Church tranformation- or is that a byproduct?

In that in prayer and fellowship, in education and study, in repentance and acceptance of communion we are indeed changed- but perhaps not into what this fellow thinks we ought to be changed into...

Bryan Owen said...

Hey Jeff. Thanks for the comments.

Hadaway says that transformation (which, he maintains, is not a byproduct but rather the central purpose of the Church) is that persons in the Church be "changed into disciples." Surely you don't want to say that such an understanding of transformation is a merely socio-political idea!

I'm very sympathetic to Hadaway's contention that most Western churches have become more "secular" than "religious." I could be deeply wrong, but I just don't see the evidence that many people in the Church (and I include the clergy here) orient their lives on the basis of what they've learned as apprentices of Jesus and the New Testament, but rather on the basis of a whole host of other catalysts of transformation and places of formation.

At the risk of falling under the judgment of arrogance, let me ask one question in this regard: how many Episcopalians can find - much less converse about - the differences between Jesus' "Sermon on the Mount" in the Gospel according to Matthew & Jesus' "Sermon on the Plain" in the Gospel according to Luke, and how the similarities and the differences between them should impact their daily lives? And how many of them actually make their key life decisions - as well as everyday, "mundane" decisions - on the basis of what they've learned from what these Gospel writers distill for us as Jesus' core teachings?

I won't even go to the issue of how many in our church are sufficiently familiar with the teaching of the apostle Paul, the historic creeds, or The Book of Common Prayer to summarize them to an inquiring stranger.

It grieves me to say it, but I see very little evidence to suggest widespread familiarity with the teachings of our Lord, the apostle Paul, and the historic creeds among the Episcopalians I know. On the contrary, in my teaching ministry, I am regularly astounded by what our folks don't know (including cradle Episcopalians), and also by how much they are willing to jettison on the basis of private judgment.

But let me also be very clear: that doesn't make them bad persons or false Christians! I know that we both believe that theses are still persons we are called to serve as priests, and I know that we continue to love them and minister to them in all of the changes and chances of this life.

I'm not saying that Hadaway gets it all right, or that I do either. But please show me that I'm wrong and that - contrary to other commentators - most of us mainliners don't have a serious problem with failing Christianity.

While I have questions about these passages (as my original post indicates), I must say that I'm surprised by how hard you're swinging at all of this. What gives, brother?

John Bassett said...

I think that most of what we get out of church comes from what we put into church. When I am faithful to prayer in my own life, when I reflect daily on Scripture or read the Office, I find God profoundly present during Mass. When I am too busy with other things for my own spiritual growth, I tend to find church dry or irritating - or worse. So I am a little reluctant to brand any parish or denomination as "secular" because I think that the Holy Spirit can be present in the most unlikely spots, and the hardness of our hearts can be an impenetrable barrier in the most apparently sacred places.

Bryan Owen said...

I think you're making a good point, John. Each of us needs to take personal responsibility for our own spiritual growth rather than passively expecting that the Church or someone else can do it for us.

Certainly, the Church is indispensable. I don't think we can get very far as Christians without corporate worship and the sacraments, for instance. But I also think you're quite right to note how much richer and more formative worship can be when we've been taking responsibility for our spiritual growth.

Derek the Ænglican said...

But the Church has a duty to cultivate our awareness to the mystery that is the Triune God who lies at the heart of life. I think the Scriptures are quite clear that for everything we understand about God there are a host of things that we don't--but that God is inviting us into himself to learn them.

Transformation is fundamentally about a change in our habits.

Bryan Owen said...

I think you are correct about the Church's duty, Derek. I also think that John's point is correct, and that what each of you is saying is compatible with the other.

BTW, I really like the distinction between doctrine and dogma you make in your blog posting "Maria Mater Ecclesiae." I may cite you in a posting of my own.

Fr. Reich said...

Hey Fr:
I read no more than your review and was in a snarky sort of mood. Sooo I guess I made a review of your review. Anyway
God bless

Bryan Owen said...

And God bless you, too, my friend.