In many ways the current age is tending toward a post-Christian era. One indicator of this turn of affairs is the large number of those who have joined the Church Alumni Association (CAA). People who are part of the CAA have either quit the church or their participation in formal religious activities has taken a far backseat in their lives. This is not something new. Even at the dawn of the Christian era there were those who, for one reason or another, abandoned what we know historically as the traditional Christian community.1 Church leaders labeled such people apostates (Heb 6:4-6), but we do not know how these folk thought of themselves or what they thought of the traditional Christian communities they left behind, because they left no records. A few are even named; for example, Demas is mentioned positively as a companion of Paul (Col 4:14; Philemon 24), but he is also remembered negatively as having “forsaken” Paul and the Pauline church (2 Tim 4:16).2
The situation of the CAA raises the question: how does one maintain a connection to the Christian tradition when one no longer considers oneself a traditional Christian in terms of the fourth century confessions and creeds of the church, which are still universally used to define mainstream Christianity? Naturally, there is a prior question: why would one even want to stay connected to the traditional Christian community, when one acknowledges that one is no longer traditionally Christian in terms of the church’s confessions and creeds?
Pondering an answer to the “why” question leads me to three personal observations in defense of staying connected to the church. In my case the church is my heritage. I grew up in the church; it has played a major part in my adult life and forms the basis of who I am today. No one can completely escape their own history. I can no more shake the church out of my system than I can shake off my southern accent and Mississippi upbringing. Church, southern accent, and the Mississippi Delta in part define who I have become. For good or ill I will always be a Baptist “Delta boy,” although I have been exposed to strange and novel ideas, traveled a bit in the Western world, and lived for a spell in some exotic places.3 Even “progressive Christians” who, in their more extreme forms have abandoned traditional Christology and Theology, have remained traditional in terms of their ecclesiology—that is, they still hold on to the idea of the church as a positive social institution for housing their activities; however, they reorient the significance and meaning of the ordinances (baptism and Eucharist). In a sense progressive Christians are still a part of the ecclesiastical scene in society as churches that compete with traditional Christian forms of the church.
As a responsible citizen of these United States, I have an interest in seeing the traditional church succeed. For all its ills and imperfections, warts and blemishes it aims to be a positive force in human society. The Gospel of Matthew (5:13-14) cites Jesus as telling his followers “You are the salt of the earth and the light of the world” (Gospel of the Savior 1:4; compare Matt 5:13-14). Salt is a well-known preservative that enhances the flavors of the ingredients of food—it helps food taste more like itself. And light is essentially necessary for life in a world that becomes dark every 12 hours. This directive of Jesus is frequently translated into humanitarian service that is quite apart from their primary religious function. Who would not want to be associated in some way with an institution that aims for the betterment of human life, society, and culture, even if it often misses the mark? A major focus of many progressive churches is “justice in the social order”—something progressive Christians learned from the traditional Christianity from which they have emerged.
As an educator, what I find best about the church, however, is that as an institution it sets aside one day a week to ponder human values, ethics, and life’s eternal verities (if such there be).4 It encourages church members to reflect on societal issues and on what one might consider life’s “enduring mysteries” (that is to say: things beyond the material aspects of life). There is no other institution in society that makes such a focus a weekly event. To be sure, one can also find a similar focus in university classes in philosophy and religious studies but such classes end every quarter or semester—and not everyone is able to go to the university. The church, however, is open every week. Because of the iconic role of the Bible in Western culture, weekly Bible study provides the focus for reflecting on such issues.
What in your view is good about the church that you can express in non-confessional “secular” language?
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University
1By this I mean to say the communities of those authors whose writings have found their way into the New Testament. There were nontraditional communities in the earliest period who claimed the term “Christian” for themselves, although they were very different in thought from the traditional communities—like the author of the Gospel of Philip for example.
2Three others are Hymenaus, Alexander, and Philetus (1 Tim 1:20; 2 Tim 4:16).
3The term “Delta boy” was coined (so far as I know) by the Rev. Dr. Buddy Shurden, another Delta boy.
I like your emphasis on the benefit of a weekly pondering of "values, ethics, and eternal verities." But, oh, the shapes and sizes in which they come.
At my wife's prompting, I attended mass this morning for the first time probably in 2-3 years. In addition to possibly 50 adults in attendance all of the children in grades 1-6 attended.
The mass of course focused on faith in Jesus' sacrifice to eradicate the sins of the world as we await his second coming. The homily further advocated for the value of faith by drawing a contrast between belief and skepticism. Mary believed what the angel told her but Zechariah was punished for doubting his angel. No mention was made of Zechariah eventually seeing the light and giving a wonderful oration.
We finally got to values after the mass was completed. The local Knights of Columbus held an essay contest with the subject being "What is virtue and what do virtuous people do? The winners were called to the front of the church for recognition.
One take away I had was feeling sorry for the under-valued skeptic.
Good post, Charles, thank-you. Two things I think are good about the Church: 1) preserving belief in Jesus and his teaching, 2) good deeds for people in need.
I agree, Gene. We need skeptics. If for no other reason to keep true believers in whatever truth honest!
Good Morning PaulyR,
I agree that preserving our human history (warts and all) is a good thing. And the church has done that with regard to the history of Jesus. In a sense the church rescued Jesus from oblivion. However, the church has so obscured Jesus' personal human history by turning him into a God that what the church still does is a mixed blessing.
Church Value? Here are two potential values, though today there are many secular avenues for these.
Church is primarily a social gathering. That can be positive. As such, like-minded people come together and personal friendships and business connections are formed. (One doesn’t generally first affiliate with a church for the theology but because of who attends. The theology, if it develops, comes later.)
As a social gathering, a few churches where I live sponsor ESOL classes for immigrants, food banks, fundraisers which support abused spouses and children, the poor, the disabled, supporting Habitat for Humanity and other organizations that help the disenfranchised. That’s good, but it can sometimes imply a desire to proselytize. There are secular channels that don’t have such “strings” attached.
Dennis Dean Carpenter
A couple of observations. You are correct I think that in general people join a particular church community for social reasons. But there are those for whom theology is the reason for attending or not attending a particular religious community.
And second: Churches will engage in social service activities in order to evangelize those who attend their activities. So their "charitable acts" are not really disinterested activities.
My experience was that perhaps the majority of folks join a church that is consistent with their parent's membership, and in a marriage the church of the spouse with the strongest church ties wins out. A lot of times it happens that folks will attend a particular church because they have already made friends with church members in other settings.
For some churches, in this country, I think evangelism built on social action may be overstated. I've been affiliated with United Methodist, United Church of Chirst, Roman Catholic, and Presbyterian churches, and I'm not aware of any of them locally building evangelism on a social action base, except if one thinks that the natural inclination to invite someone to worship qualifies. I can say that in the United Methodist Church at large, Evangelism and Social Action were separate committees in the church structure.
Earlier in my career I was director of a 24-Hour helpline referred to as a "teleministry," sponsored by the council of churches of a two county area, which required 40 hours of training in listening, interpersonal, and resource awareness skills. This program was never used for evangelistic purposes. I must say also, that the people interested in the training came largely from the main stream Protestant and Roman Catholic backgrounds, or even very weak church affiliations. The final requirement before going on phone duty was attendance at a worship service where each volunteer was "commissioned" to the task at hand.
A helpful observation.
Have other had a different experience?
On visiting church primarily because of who goes there and not the theology, that is what research has shown (Stark, “Cities of God” and “The Triumph of Christianity”). There are other reasons I have observed.
1. “Inherited” faith – That’s where the family has gone since time began.
2. “Business” faith – That’s where the “important” business folk go. (There were even jokes made about that where I worked.)
3. “Political” faith – I have an old friend who is an elected official who says he attends two services each Sunday. (Both are the same denomination, one in the town, the other in the hinterlands.)
4. “Mixed” marriages – One goes to the church of the spouse that is the most religious. I’ve seen Baptists become Catholics and Catholics become Baptists.
5. “Extra-curricular” faith – Some choose their faith because the church has many activities for kids.
Relating to that and to the “inherited” faith, “kid-centric” faith has some choosing a church that will give their children a “moral mooring,” though that is less common, since the majority of America realizes that religion isn’t necessary for one to live and act morally. (https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/10/16/a-growing-share-of-americans-say-its-not-necessary-to-believe-in-god-to-be-moral/
Dennis Dean Carpenter
Found myself at Mass again this morning. Twenty three in attendance with six officiating: two priests (1 White, 1 Hispanic), four lay persons, all men (3 White, 1 Black). Of the attendees, all were white and say 50-60+, except for two young Hispanic mothers, one with two school age children and one with a pre-school child. Overall, in this area of the woods (south central Pa.) the Catholics have done a much better job than the Protestants of reaching out to persons of color. This particular parish has a weekly service in Spanish. The Black community pretty much has its own churches.
I learned from the homily the absurd (to some of us) conclusion that the same guy wrote the Gospel of John, the three letters of John, and the Revelation to John.
I further learned that the Gospel was written to Jews to teach them that God was incarnate in Jesus who gives everyone the opportunity to experience incarnate living. (Silence about anyone who doesn't take advantage of this winning lottery ticket). Reading it, there's not much compassionate teaching in sight; the gospel has a rather condemning approach to the Jews.
Lots of eternal verities but not much about values and ethics, except the multi-racial visual, which of course is very important.
Thank you for the report, Gene. Interesting observations!
My experience was totally different, Gene and Charlie. I attended the Moravian Love Feast Dec. 24, as I have done for decades with my wife. The pews were close to full, though this was the 4:00, the second of three services. The audience ranged from quite a few children (who were involved as a group “up front” during part of the music) and young adults to people in their eighties. It was a fairly heterogeneous group of people, with about a third Caribbean, a third Latina or Latino and a third European or African ancestry. There were different kinds of buns from each cultural group, and the coffee was rather tasty. Hymns were sung. The message was very short and centered on Isaiah 2.1-5. It was the first time I can remember that one of the nativity stories wasn’t part of the service. At first I was puzzled, but it made sense. The message related to verse 5, because candles play a big part in the Christmas Love Feast. (The pastor extolled congregants to be “lights in the world.”) When I was researching second century Christian services (after reading your blog on contemporary church services, Charlie), this one reminded me most of those described by Tertullian in “Apology,” ch. 39.
Dennis Dean Carpenter
Gene: The same guy supposedly wrote all the John material? Geesh! Eusebius even doubted that!
Good morning Dennis,
Your Christmas Eve experience raises for me a rather serious question. Why is a confirmed skeptic, such as yourself, spending "decades" at Christmas Eve services in the pietistic tradition? I suspect there is a story there. Care to share?
No story. My wife & I do things which have different significance to each of us together. For instance, when I perform my music she usually attends the concert or show, though it is not the music she tends to listen to.
Dennis Dean Carpenter
I'm sorry but your last statement begs the following question: what does she listen to?
What can one say about what kind or genre of music anyone listens to? I couldn’t answer the question for my choice(s). It is like those who enjoy broccoli. Depending upon one’s thoughts at the time, some like it raw, others steamed or stir fried, some with a tasty sauce, others in a broccoli salad. Some like to munch the sprouts while others enjoy watching the strongest plants grow into a mass of tiny golden blooms, collecting seeds for next season.
That was my last parable for the year. Happy New Year!
Dennis Dean Carpenter
Happy New Year Charlie!!
I've been in Texas visiting my family and have given thought to your question while I was down there- I'm surprised at how difficult it is for me to answer. I suppose that may be because I haven't attended church in quite a while. My beliefs are so different now, it's hard to know what I wish to gain from a church experience, or what I wish to contribute to it either. I very much enjoyed reading about Gene and Dennis's experiences recently, that was extremely interesting.
1) I suppose first and foremost, the important thing about belonging to a church is that you a part of a community where you can give and receive support and encouragement to one another... And also be there for people in a time of need. As humans, we need to belong somewhere. Do you agree?
2) Belonging to a church gives one a sense of identity, and that is also important. However, one must figure that out for him or herself first and there's the rub. It's not easy to know what one's identity is in a world of confusing spiritual teachings that are thrown at us from judgmental persons and pastors- whose job it is to tell us what we're doing wrong on a constant basis.
3) Personal freedom is very important to me, and to most people I know. So finding the right church is a balance between belonging to a group of like minded individuals while retaining one's personal freedom to think and act for oneself free of encumbrances. I don't like being told what to believe about God or scripture.
4) Why do you think human beings today need an outside authority to tell them what to believe about religion and spirituality? Why do you think Christians need an outside measuring rod to tell us what the Bible says we should be doing?
5) There are other spiritual centers besides churches that encourage inner growth and transformation and involvement in our local communities. But they are not as well organized and affiliated as the traditional church- Eckhart Tolle, Esther Hicks, Byron Katie, and Sadhguru all have centers and conferences that meet periodically to help with inner transformation of consciousness and service to the community at large... It's not traditional and you would most likely feel out of place. People today are finding other avenues to express their spirituality than a pew or a pulpit.
6) Speaking of Catholic and Protestant church experiences- Alan Watts noted the similarity of the traditional Catholic sanctuary to the royal court of a king or queen in ancient times... The priest stands high up on before the altar like a king and looks out at the congregation with his back to the wall... The accoutrements resemble a royal ritual with sepulcher, scepters, priestly robes, high ceilings, stained glass windows etc. However the traditional Protestant church resembles a court of law with the preacher dressed in a black judges robe and the pews are evenly divided down a straight aisle like two sides in court of law... The pastor sits up high like a judge and looks down upon the congregation in a stark utilitarian atmosphere with little to know ornamentation other than crosses and candles. I thought it was an interesting contrast.
7) Why do you think of attending church in such positive and glowing terms when they use fear to scare people into accepting Jesus and tell us that we are irredeemable with out the shedding of an innocent man's blood? Human sacrifice? Does it ever bother you that churches play upon people's fears to scare them into "salvation" from sin? How is scaring people with talk of burning eternal hell- how is that productive or good or lifegiving to your inner psyche? It surprises me that you are immune to the fear-mongering.
Many thanks!! Elizabeth
Good afternoon Elizabeth,
I agree with your comment in paragraph 1. I also look for a little humility and honest reflection as the church ponders the eternal verities (if such there be).
paragraph 4: We enter life a blank slate and in our childhood we do need authority figures leading us in hopefully the right paths--parents, teachers, church, government, etc. At some point we should be deciding things for ourselves. But we will always need those who have studied issues intently to give us their findings. We, however, in our adulthood should decide the meaning and significance of the information they provide us.
paragraph 6: it was an interesting contrast, although not all protestant churches use clerical garb.
Paragraph 7: There are concepts much worse than threatening people with physical suffering in what is obviously a non physical future (if future there be).
"We, however, in our adulthood should decide the meaning and significance of the information they provide us." Thank you Charlie... that was well stated and I agree wholeheartedly.
You are correct about not all Protestant churches using clerical garb! In fact nowadays, I'm sure very few do... I should have clarified that. I just had never noticed the difference before and how it related to a court room.
With regard to concepts worse than threatening people with physical suffering- which concepts are you referring to in your last sentence? Are you referring to certain negative concepts being communicated by church leaders? If so, which ones and why are they worse? In other words- were you subjected to negative concepts as a young man and did they make an impression upon you?
There isn't room enough here for me to go into detail, but I've heard certain concepts about the "End Times" communicated to my family and friends when we were younger and the repercussions of those "prophecies" affected my parents in irreparable ways. So- that explains why the first sentence of this post (which I quoted from your reply) was so meaningful and appreciated by me. I can't tell you how much it would have helped my family years ago. Many thanks as usual, Elizabeth
In response to your second paragraph, there are a number of things more frightening to me that have nothing to do with religion. None of these as far as I remember were hurled at me from the church:
Here are a few, stream of consciousness style: oblivion, loss of consciousness, ceasing to exist as an individual, never to feel comforted by the love of another, being conscious and knowing that I was totally alone for eternity, etc. Compared to these fears burning in hell might not be so bad.
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