We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Friday, February 10, 2012

FPC Log: Tepid Revolution (viii)

The windmills of Lewis County, NY
It's been awhile since we have had an "FPC Log" entry, which series examines issues in church decline and renewal.  The last one (number 7) looked at some of the characteristics of a "high vitality church.  The question is, of course, how does a church become or continue to be a vital, lively community of faith esp. in the face of so many countervailing cultural crosscurrents?  David Brooks in a recent op-ed piece in the New York Times entitled, "How to Fight the Man," offers some interesting insights.

Brooks starts with a video posted on YouTube by Jefferson Bethke called “Why I Hate Religion," which has "gone viral" as they say with over 18 million viewings. In the video, Bethke criticizes Christianity as a religion for being a facade that does not reflect the true meaning of the Christian faith. Brooks observes that Bethke subsequently backed off of his critique after receiving counter-criticism from several quarters including theologians. All of this reflects, according to Brooks, deeper issues about why our institutions seem to never change and what might constitute a better approach.  His advice is that before someone wants to engage in reform, they had better do their homework, namely read up on the issues involved and draw on the work of great thinkers in the field in order to gain a vision for change. He observes, "rebellion without a rigorous alternative vision is just a feeble spasm."

Brooks makes a valid point.  Whether it be revolution or reform, one does have to have a sense of direction and an ultimate destination.  But what if the ultimate destination is not that clear because it draws its inspiration from an ancient religious movement that cannot possibly be duplicated in its original form?  That is the situation the historic churches face today.  In their decline, they do not adequately reflect the spirit, drive, motivation, dynamic, and faith of the early church, which they take as their model for what it means to be "the church."  They have to be something like that church but in the 21st century and in a myriad of particular settings no two of which are exactly the same.  That is not to say that contemporary mainline churches can't discover (or rediscover) a dynamic congregational life.  In fact, it is not to say that even in the declining churches there remains much vitality.  It is to say that vision isn't enough and study isn't enough if they lack another vital ingredient, namely they need to be a shared vision and a shared study.  One key to change is that it is best done in dialogue.